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Confessional Theology: A Way to Dialogue Between Christianity and Islam

Dr. George N. Malek
The Muslim Sunrise, Special Centenary Issue: March 23 (1889-1989)

Note:
*text* means underline text.

[Dr. Malek, an American citizen, was born a Coptic Christian in his native Alexandria, Egypt. He has practiced clinical psychology in the United States and in the Middle East, and today is a United Methodist minister in Dallas. He earned his undergraduate degree from Middle East College, Lebanon; M.A. from Andrews University; Ph.D., Sussex Institute of Technology; M.Th., D.Min., Southern Methodist University.]

The Christian West has traditionally seen Islam through Dante's eye: "The Inferno." Dante placed Muslim philosophers alongside Greek ones in the moderate punishment quarters of Hell. But to Muhammed, the Muslim prophet, he assigned the ninth of the tenth ditches in Hell, leaving the heart of Hell--the tenth ditch--to Satan himself. But it was upon Muhammed that the most sadistic punishment was to be inflicted, not Satan. Dante, as Christian history shows, advocated a more fierce struggle against Islam than against the "Christian" devil himself. Dante, then, and we, now, in the West, saw Islam not as a religion, but a life of licentiousness; Muslims, it was thought, were allowed the enjoyment of this (sexual) life as well as the joy, too, of the next life (heaven).

It is in this context that Islam is still viewed by European attitudes, subversed by American (mis)concepts, to be a heresy derived from Christian teachings, borrowed by Muhammed from the Monk Bahira. In the West, Muhammed's religious success is seldom ascribed to his divine revelation; it is more so to his approval of "licentious living." And even the translation of the Qura-an in 1143 AD by the English scholar, Robert Keffon, instead of clearing some of this bizarre thought, was used, instead, to rectify (our) hostility towards Islam. Accordingly, for much of the past history, and up to the middle of the twentieth century, we, in the West, regarded Islam as a menace. But today Christians are challenged by Islam as a religion that also acknowledges the one true God; in fact, the same (Christian) God, Creator of the Universe. But Islam distinguished itself by its denial of the Christian doctrine of the trinity. In any case, Islam stands now, finally, acknowledged as a valid religion by Christians; in fact, Islam today challenges Christianity itself as a valid religion for the coming centuries.

But it is of interest that the center of gravity of this hostile attitude towards Islam, by the West, did not spring from the historical political struggle, but from the religious one. It was the Christian religious writings directed against Islam that were to make the lasting influence in the mind of the Christian West. Even though this hostility did not have its origin in medieval religious thought, it was the great mass of the medieval polemics, however, that continued to be deployed throughout the Renaissance and the Reformation, all the way throughout the eighteenth century, that made its religious barment of Islam, keeping it from being accepted as a valid religion until the present day. Unfortunately, the Renaissance's historical scholarship did not aid the matter; it merely repeated medieval accusations. Today, Muhammed is still thought, by many, as a false prophet--a magician, whose heresy had been spread by violence and the promise of divine approval for sexual indulgence.

Hence, Western thought today, and its historical recordings of Islam, are marked by provincialism; they accord, at best, a meager and grudging acknowledgment of Islam's vast history, which was maintained for longer time and over more extensive geography, even more than the Roman Empire itself. The core of the problem in religious dialogue, therefore, is the Western Christian thought assigns to Islam a validity (or invalidity) not due to Islam's religion, but to Islam's territorial conquest. That is, whenever Islam is thought of by Western scholars, their minds shift to a geographical mentality and they assign the "Inferior" role to Islam as a religion. They forget that Christianity and Islam have a common origin. Western thought and philosophical speculations, therefore, are often the inheritors of colonial mentality and its hostility that "looked down" upon Arab mentality and culture. This hostility that is often reflected in scholarly bias about Islam, can be seen disguised in political pluralities and influences, both in territorial occupation and/or divisions. But this hostility, in its essence, is not a political one; it was, and continues to be, a religious one, which is of a comparative mentality in religion(s). Today, it is mandated upon us to diagnose whether religious dialogues do indeed aim, in their motives, to acceptance of peoples, or are they simply other means by which colonial mentality is back into play. That is, do scholars of the Christian and Western thought dialogue Islam as an "*equal*" religion to Christianity? This is of utmost importance, because to subject a people territorially is to still allow them the struggle of the sword for liberation. But to subjugate people religiously is potentially deadly--to both sides. This is of particular impact as one learns (from history) that "religion" can be the most effective way to rule man as well as his civilization.

Western Christian scholars need to know, therefore, and quickly, that they should not forget, nor deny, that the origin of Christianity is not a Euro-medieval or a Romish one; the origin of Christianity is the same lands from which Islam, too, comes. The conflict does not stem, therefore, from geography, but from our concepts, in the West, that "religion is race." So much so has Western thought assigned Christianity to European culture that that care little today about what happens to Christianity in the Middle East--Christianity's birthplace-- except, maybe, as a place of tourism, not of (Christian) faith. Western scholars write of their religion (Christianity) both objectively and without a personal identification. Islam scholars cannot and do not. The West does not invest its soul in religion, but in race and economics. Islam cannot do that. To Islam, both race and geography are for religion (to descend). To Western scholars, it is in reverse: religion is for man, not man for religion. Unlike Islam, therefore, Western scholars value a religious orientation by who adopts it; Islam values a race by the effect (its) religion has on it.

To begin with, therefore, we can say that Islam, in religious dialogues, see themselves as oriented to religion, but see Western scholars as politico-culturally oriented. That is, Islam continues to distrust Western motives for religious dialogues precisely because they see (our) religion as neither primary nor effective in our culture. To illustrate this, let us examine two Islamic religious doctrines: the doctrine of death and the doctrine of God. Both doctrines are similar to those of Christianity. However, in the case of Christianity our society is seen, by Muslims, not to be abiding by (our) religious mandates and customs. And when we Christians do, our religion and religious customs are not binding to (our) faith or culture.

THE DOCTRINE OF DEATH

When a Muslim nears death, he is encouraged, on his bed, to say the confession of (his) faith: "God is chief, universally encompassing." (The translation of "God is great" is poor and misleading.) These are the first words a Muslim hears, also when he is delivered from the womb, at birth; these are the words whispered in his ears by the midwife. In Christian religious customs, there is nothing similar to this, unless one wants to make a case here for infant baptism. But Christians do not baptize infants upon their arrival from the womb, and the word of God is not preached to them at death. Islam does both. Islam mandates that its faith be preached to the newborn and confessed at (near) death. I recall, when in Lebanon, a Lebanese Druze Muslim, who was "converted" to Christianity by evangelical fundamentalist missionaries. He had much to gain materially by this "conversion." But at his death bed, he denied the Christian faith, said his last Muslim confession, and thus died a Muslim!

After death, the body is immediately washed, shrouded, carried to a mosque where services of burial is said, after which the bier is quickly borne to the grave. And all this is in obedience to the prophet who said that it was good thing that the righteous should arrive soon to "happiness." The body is buried facing Mecca with the words: "We commit thee to the earth in the name of God and in the religion of the prophet"; and: "From it we created you, and unto it we shall return you, and from it raise you a second time." (Qura-an 20:55)

Here one can see that while Islamic theological doctrines are similar to those of Christianity in their belief of life (in faith), death (in faith), and the resurrection, their theological doctrines are the practice and mandates of life. This is not so, necessarily, in Christianity. This is why when Muslim scholars dialogue with Christians, they (Muslims) find it difficult to trust the Christian motive for dialogue; they sense a basic contradiction between word and deed. And, of course, ant astute scholar can depict this double-bind factor in the theological thinking of the West in relation to its way of life. And double-bind factors have been ascribed, in the field of mental illness, to be a cause for schizophrenia: double message giving. Our culture in the West has been described, by our own critics, as a schizophrenic culture. Islam see this in us, and has no intention of becoming involved with our religious schizophrenia--or is it a schizophrenic religiosity? To Islam it is not Christianity but Christians that are not real. The Qura-an accepts the Christian faith, whereas we have nothing of this sort of acceptance towards them. We misconstrue ourselves as having the superior religion. In reality, it is deficiency in our perception that God is only here and not there.

THE DOCTRINE OF BELIEF AND PRACTICE

This brings up a most basic philosophical principle upon which Christianity is based: that of the *paradox*. Christianity attempts to deal, in its most basic doctrinal statements, with the nature of the paradox. Islam sees life as a continuum. Islam's tenets and propositions cannot be contrary to implied opinions; statements and/or religious sentiments that are *seemingly* contradictory or opposed to common sense, yet are, in fact, true, throw Islamic mentality off balance and are not acceptable to them. They have not developed lines of thinking as those of the Christian gospel that sees religion as trying to satisfy man by essentially making him dissatisfied. In this (Islamic) philosophical mental disposition is a most dangerous element in dialogic arenas. Christians need to be aware that Islam does not tolerate contradictions. Their mental reaction becomes one of attempts of opposition and elimination. But we need also to know that we are not too different in the Christian West when it comes to the economic and the social life where elimination and opposition are the rule. Unlike Islam, therefore, the West welcomes the multiplicity of (religious) opinions and religions. To Islam this is the mark of unfaith itself. Islam has not been able yet to mentally look *into* a religion without (necessarily) adopting it as faith in which to believe. Islam always, therefore, is standing *out* of other religions. Their (under)-standing is only *in* Islam, not *under* any other religion. To Islam, to understand a religion is to be within that religion--subject and subjected to it. This is psychologically correct. Psychological *understanding* is possible only from *within* a structure of knowledge, never from without that structure. One is unable to understand a statement (of belief) unless one believes *in* that statement. But psychological understanding is to be distinguished from religious and spiritual standings and understandings; the latter requires the inner experience with the meaning of the paradox. Islam, because it has not developed an adequate philosophy to deal with the paradox, continues therefore to be frustrated by religious dialogues as we know these dialogues to be--an exchange of knowledge, not faith. Islam reacts to paradox by becoming "dizzy." Their understanding of the Christian faith is still psychologic. On the other hand, Christians deal conceptually with the paradox, but deny it in their practice of life. And unless Christians are able, in front of Islam, to produce witness, not argument, Islam will continue to stand unconvinced. On the other hand, unless Islam is able, from its Holy writings, to find avenues in their minds to the nature of paradox, they will continue to have a stand-offish attitude towards Christians, and towards participation in dialogues.

While the above seems to picture an impassable road (of theology and philosophy) between the two minds, it is my opinion that the passable road are the roads that use direct contact with Islam, and that these will be the ones to bring understandings between Christianity and Islam. The Thanksgiving Square of Dallas experienced that, and found that it was the human encounter in the midst of dialogues (not theological speculations) that caused understandings to rise, as was elicited from Dr. El Najaar, former president of El Azhar University, when he said that even what seems evil comes from God, and is used by God for (our) good. Statements of this sort, that dialogue the nature of the paradox, do not come from theological debates with Islam, but from (ex)changes of minds and extensions of hands. The necessity for dialogue with Islam, therefore, is because there is no systematic exposition in the Qura-an of a differentiation between that which Muslims (should) do and that which they should believe. Taken as a whole, the Qura-an constitutes a body of mandates of *duties* man must do. That is, to Islam, belief comes from the practices of faith. Christianity reverses it: man is saved by faith, not works. To Islam, there is no conceptual differentiation between faith and works. Better yet, faith is never conceived until it is evident works. Christians scholars find this difficult to deal with because they are more oriented to abstract philosophy in their theological expositions and not to concrete living, as Islam does. This can be most observed in the Five Pillars of Islam: 1) the observance of the Creed (demanding a belief in God, his angels, his books, his prophets, and the last day in which man will be judged); 2) the performance of prayer; 3) the giving of alms; 4) the observance of fasting; 5) the performance of pilgrimage. All five mandates are mandates of *performances* from which belief arises. Even in the first pillar, it is the observance of the belief that is the pillar of belief in God, not the belief itself. The point Christian scholars must understand, therefore, is that Christianity should start, in dialoguing with Islam, from the point of Christian practice (as witness to Islam) and not from their abstract theology. Islam can never be convinced of the other way around. This was proved by how Christianity, in the face of Islam, has largely eroded--first in the Middle East, and now in other parts of the world.

GOD AND THE CREED

In Christian theology, a belief in God can stand upon philosophical and/or other expositional means and that are, in turn, not necessarily dependent upon or derived from inspired book(s)--the Scriptures, or other writings. To Islam, this is offensive and is (psychologically) splitting. Man is not in a (supreme) position to be able to believe without *concrete* evidence of God: "Oh you who believe, believe in God *and* his messenger *and* the book which has revealed to his messenger and the book (possibly the Christian and Jewish scriptures) he revealed before. And whoever disbelieves in God *and* his angels *and* his books (notice the plural inclusion of other faiths) and his messengers *and* the last day, he indeed strays far away." (Qura-an 4:136)

Three basic concepts to which a dialoguing Christian must adhere are:

1) Christians, to Islam, are not strayers because they are strayers from Islam, but are strayers because they stray from their own (Christian) book. This is based, as earlier said, on the fact that a Christian theologian can ascribe to (a) belief in God, but not necessarily by accepting (inspired) books or messengers. To Islam this is the essence of the heretical independence of the human mind that it can, so it thinks, know God without (his) messengers and (his) book(s) --concrete evidences of inner inconcrete revelations.

2) Even though God, to Islam, is utterly transcendent, existence from eternity to eternity, beyond the reach of men's mind, and to whom Muslims give (their) total allegiance (not Muhammad), Christian theologians must understand that Islamic *belief* in this God is *not* through transcending minds, but because these minds are dependent ones; dependent upon messengers, books, revelations. That is, Islam depends upon descending revelations (for belief), not upon transcending minds (as can be thought of in doing Christian theology); man, for his belief in Islam, is dependent upon *concrete* evidence. Again: Faith is dependent upon evidence and not the other way around. This has often been an impeditive point that stood between dialoguing Christians and Muslims.

3) To Islam, God, because of this transcendence, is an impersonal God --who comes down (through his messenger and revelations) to man. When Muslims do theology, therefore, they do so from an inspirational point of view. And this can be very frustrating to Christian scholars who think that Muslim believers are "moody," rigid, don't want to see, etc. But if Christian scholars, through their confessional theology, are able to see how it is that Islam does not see man as capable of transcendence, hence doing theology to them is possible only when "inspired" (to do so) and not at any given moment, schedule, or time, Christians would be able to understand how it is that theology to Islam is not an occupation but a way of life, and that the best theology made in Muslim countries is made at cafes and street corners, not in high power committees and world class gatherings. To Muslims, this kills the (their) spirit of theology, even though it excites the human expectations in theology.

What, then, is the way for dialogue with Islam? Being a Christian theologian, with only expertise on Islam, I can only speak of the way with which Christian theology must dialogue. To do this, it is my distinct belief, having encountered world-wide numerous dialogues and contracts between the two, while standing on Christian grounds, that the purpose of dialogue cannot and should not have as its goal "conversion", but *witness*; witness to and from one to the other.

For better or for worse, Christian theologians are not in the position of dialoguing with Islam from a point of choice but of necessity. This is for several reasons, but chief among these reasons is that in the face of a world-wide advancing of Islam, Christian culture finds itself at the erosion of its syndromes from which it had once denied itself, that came from European Renaissance, Enlightenment, Protestant and Catholic Reformation's insistence upon *sola fide* or its alternative, the authoritarian church culture, or the idea of an ex officio authority. European and North American dominance is fading, and with it is Christian theology, but not Christianity itself as a faith, since it is the opinion of this writer that Christianity does not depend upon theology for its advancement, nor upon a Euro-American dominance. What is happening, because of Islam's advancement, is perhaps a third Reformation in Christianity. Christian theologians are, therefore, in a position of need to dialogue. This is because at the heart of the matter *is* (Christian theology's) *survival*. But the mistake of Christian theologians, in this writer's opinion, is that we think that by advancing our (Christian) ideas, in the face of advancing Islam, we perpetuate Christianity. No! And this must be understood both psychologically and theologically by Christian theologians. The reason for the historical advancement of Islam was not, and is not today, that Islam defended their faith. Islam does not defend a faith; Islam proclaims (the Muslim) faith. If anything, it is that Islam is psycho-theologically converted by its faith, and it is that (Islamic) faith that defends and advances them. And if we Christians are honest, we would find ample examples in our history that psycho-historically reversed the matter. We used to even call "them" "defenders of the faith." This mentality of "us defending Christianity" is defeating us in the face of those who believe that it is (their) faith that defends them. What then is the key for dialogue with Islam? Confession! The Christian gospel must stand, in our theology, as still offering eternal truth and hope for both heaven and this age. The matter in our court is, I believe, as Professor Albert C. Outler has put it, to be the "crisis between (our) theology and (our) culture."(1) Professor Outler is astute enough not to term the crisis as a crisis of Christian faith, *but of (our) theology*.

I believe the key question, therefore, which Christian theologians must ask themselves, in dialoguing with Muslim scholars, is whether our purpose is to dialogue theology or to proclaim (Christian) faith.

A DEFINITION

But where does all this lead us? It leads us to confessional theology as the key for dialogue and by which (our) faith is sensed by others (in dialogue) as valid by virtue of this sensed trust (in us), hence we, too, become recognized as trustworthily entrusted to dialogue that faith. I venture, therefore, to introduce a definition here for both, and in hopes the definition is acceptable to both sides. I would like to introduce the term "confessional dialogue," in place of religious dialogue--in world religious conferences. These dialogues should not have argument at their basic motive, not comparative religious analysis, not even unconscious attitudinal supremacies, but a proclamation of the one God, his majesty, actions of salvation by public and official acknowledgement. Religious dialogues should not concentrate, as they do, on distilling (comparative) knowledge but on (the) *practical* attitudes of openness and readiness to welcome dialogues as divine initiatives, and this is the better definition for confessions and for dialogues in religion. That is, those in dialogue should aim at exposing their own faith for the purpose of changing their attitudes: from (giving and receiving) knowledge to giving (and receiving) thanks as the subsequent reaction to this divine initiative that leads them and us to dialogues (forms or forums of confessions). Thus, thanksgiving, also, is defined by openness to God, as the reason for public expression. In contrast to "works," therefore, our dialogues should be for the *witness* that deals with God's deeds, not man's, but that are only addressed to man--dialogue.

  1. Albert C. Outler. Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition. Abingdon, Nashville: 1954, p. 6.