Friday, May 29, 2009

The Trinity: a Primer for Muslims

A recurring criticism that Muslims use to differentiate themselves from Christians is the concept of the Holy Trinity. The first part of the fundamental proclamation of faith to a Muslim is that “There is no God but Allah.” Muslims are quick to observe that the concept of the trinity violates this concept. Indeed, Muhammad himself condemns it twice in his Quran:“Say not ‘Trinity’: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah: glory be to Him: (for Exalted is He) above having a son.”  Surah 4:171. “They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them.”  Surah 5:73.

The debate about the Trinity and the unity of God is not unique between Muslims and Christians. Many early Christians sects grappled with this concept in the early days of Christianity. In the time of Muhammad, the debate was mostly centered around the divine nature of Christ. Nestorians and Monophysites hotly debated the nature of Christ - how his divinity reconciled itself with his obvious humanity.

Christianity of the sixth century – like Catholicism today – was founded on two pillars: Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Holy scripture is obvious, this is the recorded words and actions of Christ and his apostles. This is the starting point for understanding Christianity. But the Apostles and early church leaders recognized that the relatively limited record in the Gospels could not possibly convey every action, every nuance of teaching that Christ delivered during his ministry. Christ not only taught with words, but with actions. He led by example. Many of his words are subject to interpretation due to context, tone of voice, a turn of phrase that might not survive translation. The early church was fully aware of this, and relied on the traditions established by those who knew Jesus personally to flesh out the skeleton of the Gospels, to fill in the gaps in understanding with personal interpretation. In the Acts of the Apostles – a most important book of the New Testament which is frequently overlooked by Muslims - it's very clear that the early church leaders were guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit. The church knew that the gospels without the traditions to provide the frame of reference would be subject to interpretation that is contrary to the spirit which originally inspired them. This is the flaw in most Protestant churches today. The Protestant movement has offered a rich legacy of fresh interpretation of scripture, but lacks the theological Rosetta Stone of tradition to ensure that the interpretations are consistent with what the early church fathers believed and taught. In contrast, the Catholic church could reasonably be criticized for being too conservative and reluctant to embrace fresh insights. The Catholic position is err on the side of safety.

To explore the concept and confusion of the trinity, we have to examine the theological landscape of the sixth century. Christianity had become the de facto religion of the Roman Empire, from which the Byzantine empire inherited it. The church was not a homogenous monolith of belief, however. The problem was that the written word of Christianity traveled far more easily than the traditions that accompany it. Pagans throughout southwest Asia and the Mediterranean basin were eager and hungry for the promise of salvation that Christianity offered. Religious scripture was in high demand, so much so that a cottage industry arose that produced “scripture” in copious amounts, often fictitious writings by religious free thinkers that reflected their wishful thinking about how Christ’s life should have been. This is the source of many of the apocryphal works, such as the “Gospels” of Thomas and Judas Iscariot and the Apocalypse of Peter. These works were rejected by the council of Nicea as not being authentic, either because their pedigree was unsubstantiated or because their teachings were not in line with the traditions practiced by the church since the first days of Christianity.

So there was a core of Christian thinking and teachings surrounding the original churches that had been established by the Apostles. These churches understood the Gospels, and practiced their beliefs and their theology in a fashion consistent with the Apostles’ understanding of the teachings of Christ. Surrounding this was a periphery of Christian beliefs that had little or no direct experience with the traditions, and had become so large that the core of the church could not adequately catechize them. This periphery was left to try to interpret and understand the holy scripture as best as they could without direction from the “traditional” church. Debates arose, and competing ideas were hotly discussed. This was the Christian world that Muhammad was born into.

Christianity was not unheard of in sixth century Mecca. Indeed, there were icons of Jesus and Mary in the Kaaba. But the word of Jesus had arrived without the teachings and traditions of the church. The apocryphal works were as readily available as bona fide scripture, and the Arabians had no way to tell one from the other. The Christian movement attracted a certain amount of curiosity from the relatively open minded and tolerant Arabs. Most still worshipped their pantheon of desert gods of old. Jewish settlers to Arabia were tolerated. The Jews did not proselytize their religion, and where they settled prosperity often followed. The ever curious Arabs learned of the single God of the Jews, but were put off by the idea that the Jews had a proprietary claim to their God and seemed indifferent to share him. When the idea of Christianity reached Arabia, the metropolitan Bedouins accepted it as a more welcoming version of the staid Judaism of their neighbors.

Those arabs which embraced Christianity were attracted to the relative simplicity of a Unitarian God. They rejected the pantheons of weaker Gods that their ancestors worshipped for the concept of a single, all powerful God. This made sense to them.

This is the religious climate that Muhammad was raised in. Most Meccans worshipped the pantheon of Gods of Qusay, Muhammad’s ancestor who had wrested control of the Kaaba for the Quraish tribe. The Arabic language was just beginning to be organized into a written form. The main source of news and history was verbal, often in poetic meter to better preserve ideas. The main industry of Mecca was the Kaaba, a small, relatively nondescript religious shrine that served as a focus point for the local Bedouins. The surrounding tribes would make an annual hajj to this shrine. When they did there was much barter and trade in a festive, market atmosphere. The Meccan keepers of the shrine would capitalize on this through sacrificial offerings to the shrine, and through providing goods which were caravanned in from Syria which were hard to come by in Arabia. The trade goods acquired from the Bedouins at the Hajj were then shipped north for sale in Syria, and the next year’s inventory was brought back.

As a citizen of Mecca, and the young husband of a very prosperous trading business woman, Muhammad had plenty of time and inclination for religious pursuits. Without going into motivations in this article, he accepted monotheism as the superior theology, and began his church based on that.

The problem of the Christian trinity was a thorny one for Muhammad. How could he reject polytheism and accept that God is one, and then seem to do an about face and admit that God was indeed three? This question still echoes now after 1400 years.

The problem with the Muslim understanding – or lack thereof – of the Trinity is their seemingly deliberate insistence that the three aspects of the Trinity are unique beings, separate from one another.

Muslims proudly point out that the Trinity is never mentioned in the Bible – a disingenuous argument when they will insist that the Bible is corrupt in the same breath, a topic I discussed in a separate article. This is partly true – the word “trinity” itself is not in the Bible. But the concept is there, and spelled out very clearly in Matthew 28:19-20 (Jesus' direct words): "Go, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." The further letters of the apostles frequently refer to each of these parts of the Trinity, either individually or in company with one another. Instead of gleaning the Bible for sound bites, Muslims would do well to read the New Testament as a whole for an appreciation of what the Apostles understood to be the truth that Christ brought to us.

The Father is God in heaven, creator of all that is. From the Greek, "Logos". This is existence itself, for without God there is no existence. The root of all that is logical, Logos also translates to “The Word”. This is the basic understanding of God. This understanding describes God as we envision him when he said “Let there be Light.” The understanding of the early Jews was that to experience God in this form could be a death sentence. Muhammad accepted that this was a reasonable way to envision his Allah.

The son is God as man. From the opening of John; "The Word (Logos) became flesh." God descends to earth and walks among us as a man. Same God, different raiment. seven hundred years before Christ, Isaiah foretold the coming of God as Man: Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. “But,” Muslims cry out with glee, “His name was Jesus, not Immanuel!” Hold on just a second, Matthew teaches us non-speakers of Hebrew that “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel," which translated means, "God with us." It’s not a proper name, but a Title. Matthew is very clear that Jesus represents “God with us.” John is even more direct, unabashedly stating that Jesus was God. John was one of the twelve, often described as the “most beloved” apostle of Christ. Who would know better than John? An illiterate seventh century poet from a thousand miles away who converts from polytheistic paganism says Jesus could not be God. The man who was closest to him throughout his ministry, who took his mother as his own and cared for her for the rest of her life says Jesus was God. This is not even a close call.

Muslims are quick to trot out a number of scriptural references – from the supposedly corrupted bible that magically becomes authoritative when it supports their position – that seem to demonstrate that Jesus was not God. Never mind that there are just as many to demonstrate that he was God. They miss that many times Jesus is making a statement in order to force his listeners to follow the logic and derive their own conclusions about who he really is (Allah doesn’t expect or force his followers to think. The God of Abraham requires it). In many other cases, Jesus is leading by example: i.e. “When you pray to God (me), do it like so.”

God as Spirit. God's spirit resides in the hearts of man. Does Allah have a spirit? God is omnipresent, he is everywhere. When we sense his presence, when we feel his guiding hand, we identify that as his spirit: the Holy Spirit. Not a separate entity, but God himself, manifest in action. The Holy Spirit played a central role in the Acts of the Apostles – a book which I’ve not found many Muslims who even admit to have heard of.
But wait, Muhammad seems to be of two minds with regard to the Holy Spirit, because he does acknowledge him:

Surah   2:87. We gave Moses the Book and followed him up with a succession of Messengers; We gave Jesus the son of Mary clear (Signs) and strengthened him with the holy spirit.

Surah   2:253. Those apostles We endowed with gifts, some above others: to one of them Allah spoke; others He raised to degrees (of honor); to Jesus the son of Mary, We gave clear (Signs), and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit.

Surah   5:110. Then will Allah say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! recount My favor to thee and to thy mother. Behold! I strengthened thee with the holy spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity.

Surah 16:102. Say, the Holy Spirit has brought the revelation from thy Lord in truth, in order to strengthen those who believe, and as a guide and Glad Tidings to Muslims.

It’s clear from the context that the concept of the Holy Spirit that Muhammad refers to here is not at odds with the Christian concept. So what is it, Muhammad? Is the Holy Spirit an angel? A djinn?    It certainly doesn’t seem so from the way it’s used in these surahs. I don’t know, perhaps it’s my prejudice, but I have to assume that Muhammad is referring to the same thing we Christians do in these Surahs – the spirit of God himself, moving and making his will manifest here on earth. Is it part of the one God or a separate being?  Obviously it’s part of the one God, not separate, or Muhammad would have admit that God is at least two. This is not different from Christian theology, regardless of what Muslims insist. In their insistence to resist the Trinity, they need to create a straw man argument of what the Trinity is before they can logically deconstruct it. Unfortunately for their argument their understanding of the Trinity has nothing to do with Christian understanding, which is more in line with what Muhammad obviously understood about the Holy Spirit, even though he was unable to follow the logic or appreciate the ramifications of what he was saying.

One God, not separate beings. The only difference is in how he is experienced by men who are not equipped to do so.

Would God walk among us as a man? CAN God walk among us as a man? Muslims say no, to which I reply God can do ANYTHING he bloody well pleases! Who are you to tell God what he is not capable of? I always laugh when Muslims say Allah can’t have a son, Allah can’t become a man, Allah can’t do this or that. Allah seems like a pretty limited God, who has limits to his omnipotence. Allah might live under such restrictions, but the God of Abraham does not. Allah is wrapped up in his own majesty, and would not deign to lead by example, but instead leads by the whip of a slave-master. Our God is Love, and in love he came to set the example, and to demonstrate - as Abraham was prepared to do - that nothing is more important to him than his love for us. In this love he is among us today, as his spirit guides us.