I really appreciate the things that Peter Kreeft writes. In fact, he’s in the top five of my life’s greatest spiritual influencers together with Thomas Campbell, A.W. Tozer, Francis Schaeffer and Bill Richardson (one of my professors in ChristianCollege). Peter’s an “Evangelical Catholic” – someone who was raised Protestant and who later converted to Roman Catholicism, and who explains what this means to him like this –
Jews who become Christians today almost always say they have become better Jews, completed Jews. I think I’m more, not less, Evangelical as a Catholic than I was when I was an Evangelical Protestant.
As an Evangelical Protestant who also happens to be a Benedictine oblate of a Roman Catholic monastery in New Mexico (sort of like being an external “member” of that family), I understand perfectly what he is saying. It’s becoming increasingly hard for me to be “either/or” when my soul is very much “both/and.”
Anyway, Peter is a philosopher – he teaches the subject atBostonCollegeand has done so for the last 38 years. And while he writes on a rich variety of theological and spiritual topics (over 40 books at last count), it’s his work on Islam that I find to be especially relevant right now in the aftermath of the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
On 9/11 I preached on what I think is involved in loving our Muslim neighbors (you can read and/or listen to it in the “sermons” section of the church web page under “worship” – “The Mark of a Christian” at http://www.northwaychristianchurch.org/. Part of my preparation for preaching this sermon was reading Peter’s book Between Allah & Jesus (IVP – 2010), and as usual, it has stirred me to think long and hard.
In an earlier book that Peter wrote there was a chapter on “Christianity and Islam” (Fundamentals of the Faith – Ignatius – 1988), and there he named the “two disturbing aspects” of the relationship between Christianity and Islam –
- Dialogue between the two is virtually non-existent; and
- Islam once nearly conquered the world, “and it looks as if it’s on that road again.” (85)
If this doesn’t set off some warning buzzers and bells in your soul, if this doesn’t trip some alarms in your head or your heart, then maybe you need to read these “two disturbing aspects” again. If the great spiritual fact of the 20th century was our reawakening to the person and work of God the Holy Spirit, then the great spiritual fact of the 21st century is going to be the complicated and contentious relationship between Islam and Christianity.
In another book he wrote on Islam and Christianity with the unfortunate title Ecumenical Jihad (Ignatius 1996) [In the Introduction Peter explained the choice of the title, a deliberate juxtaposition of two ideas that don’t usually go together – “ecumenism” that speaks of cooperation and unity, and “jihad” that speaks of separation and conflict – that when put together create a brand new category of association], Peter broached the subject of what he called “Christian-Muslim ecumenism.” The word “Ecumenism” comes from the Greek word οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), which means “the whole inhabited world.” It conveys the same spiritual sense as the word “catholic,” a word which means “universal.” In Christian circles we have used the word “ecumenism” to talk about the essential spiritual unity of the church despite geographic, ethnic, denominational and doctrinal differences, and to describe the work of making more visible and concrete that spiritual unity. This has always been a high priority for we who are big “D” Disciples, members of the Christian Church. Historically we have claimed “as our particular witness the quest for Christian unity as a sign of God’s unity for the human community,” and our most recent identity statement describes us as “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” And so, our ecumenical vision and mission as a church, while beginning solidly within the family of Christianity, what Peter describes as the “squabbling siblings,” it is also going to move us out to find connections and create or restore bonds with the other great religions of the world. And in this process, we are going to have to come to terms with Islam. This is what Peter means by “Christian-Muslim Ecumenism.”
Peter is not theologically mushy. He does not suffer from the kind of “Christological heart-failure” that I wrote about last week. The divides between Christianity and Islam are quite real – the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection. These are not small ideas without consequence, and we should not minimize the problem that their rejection by Islam creates for us as Christians. But Peter is insistent that despite the steepness of the divide in these defining areas, that there is nevertheless a real basis for Christianity and Islam to connect. He warns that it will be difficult because unlike our relationship as Christians with Jews where there is nothing in Judaism that contradicts what we believe as Christians – the Old Testament is part of our Bible too; the salvation history of the Jews is part of our salvation history as Christians as well – that there are things in Islam, substantial things, that are simply irreconcilable with historic Christianity.
Yet even here, an “ecumenical jihad” is possible and is called for, for the simple and strong reason that Muslims and Christians preach and practice the same First Commandment: islam, total surrender, submission of the human will to the divine will. We fight side by side not only because we face a common enemy (indifferentists, moral pragmatists, hedonists, utilitarians, materialists, subjectivists, relativists and libertines) but above all because we serve and worship the same divine commander. (Ecumenical Jihad 30)
This is where Peter makes his most provocative and debatable observation –
Many Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, do not believe what the Church says about Islam (for example, in the documents of Vatican II and in the new Catechism): that Allah is not another God, that we worship the same God. Once, after debating the existence of God with an atheist and having spent a good deal of time explicating and defending the divine attributes, I was approached by a Muslim form the audience, who said to me, “It does my heart good to hear such good Islamic orthodoxy. You are a Muslim, aren’t you?” He could not believe I was a Christian, because, he said, “You truly know Allah.” Apparently he had thought (contrary to the Qur’an) that Christians worshipped a different God. These misunderstandings had better be cleared up, or great battlefield confusion between friend and foe will result. (Ecumenical Jihad 30)
In Between Allah and Jesus (10-11), Peter identifies the things that Christians should not learn from Muslims –
- Anger or jealousy at Western civilization
- Proneness or addiction to violence
- Politicizing religion (that always messed us up whenever we tried it!)
- Preventing apostasy by murdering apostates
- Treating women like slaves
- Prioritizing justice over mercy and forgiveness
- The continued chewing of centuries-old grudges
- Fear of freedom
- Fear of reasoning and dialogue
- Theological voluntarism (the doctrine that God’s will has no reason)
- Unitarianism (the theology that insists that the one God is only one Person, not three, and that Christ is only human, not divine)
Then he explains –
With the exception of the last item, however, these are not essential parts of Islamic orthodoxy. If these ideas appear in the Qur’an at all, they are disapproved rather than approved. And they are not typical of all or even most serious Muslims in the world today, especially in the West, though they are typical of the ones we usually hear about in the news. For quiet piety does not make headlines; loud terrorist explosions do.
Please ask yourself whether you would like others to judge Christianity based on the picture of it now being presented in the modern Western media. Then please remember the Golden Rule, and apply this to the picture of Islam presented by the same source.
And then he adds, there are nevertheless some things that “Christians should obviously learn from Muslims.”
There are also many things we Christians already know we can and should learn from Muslims, or be reminded of by Muslims. These are things which we already believe, though we do not practice them very well; for instance:
- Faithfulness in prayer, fasting and almsgiving
- The sacredness of the family and children and hospitality
- The absoluteness of moral laws and of the demand to be just and charitable
- The absoluteness of God and the need for absolute submission, surrender and obedience (“islam”) to him. (12)
And this opens up new ways of thinking, and new ways of relating to the Muslim who is our neighbor, and this, after all, is the bottom line. As I said in my 9/11 sermon –
Jesus Christ commands us to love the Muslim who is our neighbor. Northway has not just been involved in the Dallas Interfaith Community through Thanksgiving Square since 9/11; we’ve actively been leaders in it. We’ve had the Muslim community here on our campus on multiple occasions over the past decade, and they will no doubt be back in the near future. And we’ve done this so that you might become the face of Christianity to them. We’ve done this so that you might be the person who determines what a Muslim thinks of not just Christianity, but of Jesus Christ Himself! But if you can’t personally name a Muslim who is now a friend as a result of these efforts, then what does that that say about the seriousness with which you are taking Christ’s command to love your neighbor?