Sunday, September 24, 2006

An Open Letter on Faith (Part I of a series)

This post comprises my response to a series of questions raised by Mohamed, a young Egyptian Muslim, in the combox to a recent post by Neferteeti. Normally combox discussions have a tendency to wander in all directions and nobody minds much, but this post's topic was the brutal murder of a young Christian for religious motives. When discussion began to turn to more trivial matters, one of the regular readers advised restraint out of respect for the victim and his family. I decided to end my part of the discussion there, posting it here instead.

Mohamed had a broad range of questions and comments; for the purpose of brevity I am limiting this post to matters of faith and religion only. I will attempt to deal with other matters on separate posts as time allows.

I cannot say for sure that he will come to read this, but even if he does not it will serve as a catechetical and dialectic exercise from me, and hopefully will be of some use to me or others.

I have solicited remarks from D, my spouse and blogging partner, as he has insights which I do not (and is vastly more diplomatic than I,) and have marked comments according to the writer.

An excerpt follows from the text of Mohamed' s last set of remarks to me, in the interest of clarity. (For the full text, go here.)

As for your first point I didn't got what you are talking about,but sure you see your faith the right path,and I see my religion the right path,but I think that there is a basic difference,I gave myself the opportunity to understand your faith from your mouths not through sayings of Muslim scholars,and tried as I could to be neutral and I reached after that the truth by myself and through my own thinking that Christianity is in its origin is right but its followers corrupted some things of it,and let me ask you here some things not to reply but to try to ask yourself neutrally,Is this a protocol from God?!!!!!
*Is a God have God?!!!!Sure not,but Jesus had God.
*Is a God be limited in a place?!!Sure not,but Jesus have been limited in a body which is clearly a limitation for God.
*Can God be seen on earth?!!!Sure not,but many saw and heared Jesus.
*Can God eat,drink,go to bathroom?!!!Sure God don't need these things,but Jesus was doing all these things.
*Is it out of justice & mercy to punish an innocent for a thing he didn't commit?!!!!Sure not,but you believe that God punished Jesus for sins of men.
*Is it logical that God narrate a sexy story in His Holy book to order men not to harlot,however He could order them not to do without irritating them?!!!Sure not logical,but in Old Teastement there is a sexy story of a man describing a nacked woman.
*Is out of logic that God know that a thing is harmful and don't order man not to get close to it?!!!!Sure not,but science proved that beers and pig are harmful for a man,but I didn't see a verse in Bible ordering not to eat or drink them.
And so on,
All these are questions in my mind,if you're biased towards Christianity,sure you'll see that they are fakes and have no fact,but if you though neutrally in them,you'll see the truth.

D: First of all, we must acknowledge that belief in God is a matter of faith, and our beliefs differ in ways that will not be satisfactorily explained by an internet exchange. If you are interested in learning about Christianity, the following will be of use. If you aren't interested, it will be worthless, and perhaps irritating.

C: In the interest of providing information in an orderly, understandable way, we have attempted to clarify and group your questions according to our best understanding of what you meant. It is possible that we have missed some nuance you deeply wanted dealt with, but we are not mind-readers and have to work with what you actually posted, not what you may have been thinking. Please recognize this, and accept our responses as what they are.

As D said, no internet exchange can ever adequately cover all the questions of faith. We are not and do not pretend to be anything more than ordinary Christians with ordinary religious backgrounds. We do not deal with complex theological matters here; only with what we believe based on what we do know. Someone else out there may have more knowledge than we do, and is welcome to jump in. If you are seriously interested in complex answers to complex questions, we can suggest some possible resources.

We have headed each response under the general topic it addresses.

The mystery of the Trinity
Can a God have a (pray to a) God?
Can God be limited in a place?
Can God have bodily functions?

D: On its face, it may seem illogical that a being could be in two places at once, but Christians believe that God is in all places at all times. A certain place and a certain time can be sanctified, such as the time of prayer or an church or a mosque, but God is not limited by the time or the space. When, in a miracle that we can not and could never explain, He was made man, it did not preclude Him being with others in other places in the world. He is God.

More to the heart of Christianity is why he became man, and less how He did it.
C.S. Lewis attempted to explain the why by saying that we can appreciate a God that much more who endured our mundane sufferings

C: What I see at the root of these questions is a tendency to 'put God in a box;' that is, to try to limit Him to something in our own understanding--something we can conceptualize. I'm not singling you out for special punishment here; putting God in a box is a very human tendency. Christians do it; everybody does it.

By this logic if God is unlimited, he is not capable of fitting into our time and space. Well, why not? What we don't know about God vastly exceeds what we do know. We cannot limit God; nor can anything else He has created. But why can God the omnipotent not 'limit' Himself, if He chooses?

So can God have a God? Christian theology holds that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. That is a complex concept. How did He manage it? I don't know. I just know that a particular set of facts indicates that Jesus was much more than your ordinary Jewish Rabbi. He spoke with uncommon authority. He healed the sick. His life on this earth followed the parameters of certain prophecies. His closest disciples, who spread his story around the known world, endured torture and horrible death but maintained the truth of that story. And some inexplicable things have been happening ever since.
If Jesus was fully divine, then he was God. But if Jesus, for a prescribed time, existed on earth in fully human form, then certainly he could pray to God--and set us the example for what the human relationship with God ought to be. Certainly He could be 'in a place' even as He was everywhere. Certainly he could have bodily functions--that's part of what being fully human is. God is not limited by your preconceptions or mine. He can 'be' whatever it is His will to be.

Manifestations of God

Can God be seen on earth?

C: As you and I have already said, God is not limited. We cannot see God on our own initiative, but there is no reason to assume that he cannot manifest to us in many ways if it pleases Him to do so. If He wishes to become human and be "limited" in some way, what is to stop Him? He is all-powerful.

D: Something that comes to my mind on this topic is a story in Genesis that comes just before the destruction of Sodom. Yahweh (God) and two angels appear to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah show them hospitality, and Yahweh (God) tells Sarah that she will soon have a son, despite her old age. (Genesis 18: 1-15) The almighty God appears to Abraham, yet He is still the Almighty God. "Is anything too wonderful for Yahweh (God)?"

Sacrifice as a payment for Sin

Is it out of justice & mercy to punish an innocent for a thing he didn't commit?
(Why was the innocent Jesus killed?)

C: One of the ugly facts of life on this earth is that, just or not, the innocent frequently end up being 'punished' for the actions of others. You have your favorite examples of this; I have mine. So the fact that this is not what would happen in an ideal world is irrelevant to this one. Christians believe that Christ willingly took our sin upon himself and gave his human life as a sacrifice for that sin. The voluntary nature of this act makes it a little different than someone being punished for someone else's crimes. It has been compared to the idea of one person defraying a debt for another--something we all do all the time. If a friend of yours owed someone money and you could make good on his debt, wouldn't you? Even if you knew he couldn't pay you back?

I think a better example of what we believe goes back to a much older tradition--one that is practiced by Muslims as well: the blood sacrifice. The calf, lamb or kid that is sacrificed to God, whether in celebration or in atonement, is innocent. It hasn't done anything to offend you or me. It hasn't committed the crime for which it is slaughtered, if it is an atonement sacrifice. Christians call Christ the Lamb of God in recognition that He is the perfect sacrifice. Blood sacrifices have largely fallen out of Christian tradition, although some Christians still have practices (like having lamb for the Easter meal) that harken back to it. We believe we have been redeemed by the ultimate blood sacrifice, to which no other can compare and in return for which no mere gesture would suffice.

Theology of the Body

Is it logical that God narrate a sexy story in His Holy book to order men not to harlot, however He could order them not to do without irritating them?!!!

C: I have commented on this before. A few points below I have made already:

While God exists through all time, and while we believe that the Bible is His word and was written for all people throughout time, it remains a fact that the books of the Bible were written in chronological time and presented to an original audience. That audience had different standards than you or me. They were earthier. They tended to be more direct in their speech about certain things, and perhaps less so about others. Moreover, the things that cause you problems are not necessarily the things that cause others problems. Not everything that leads you to lust leads me, or Bent, or David, Peter, Red or Xavier to lust. People heavily exposed to evil, as were the Jews in captivity, probably needed the prodding of a graphic description--they saw it every day. They needed to be desensitized to the evil so that it wouldn't overwhelm them. They needed the evil held up before them for what it was.

Perhaps you are accustomed to others going out of their way to avoid "irritating" you in this way, and have come to expect it. It is no one's job to keep you from lust but yours.

As for the Song of Solomon, it is necessary to understand that the book was written in the style of love and wedding poetry of its time, in order to draw a comparison between the love of God for each soul and the love of a bridegroom for his bride. The chapter you have already cited is a bridal anthem (there is also no reason to assume it describes a nude woman--the first line is 'How beautiful are your slippered feet, O prince's daughter!') of a type that would have been sung by the wedding guests as they carried the bride to her new husband's house. Despite the graphic description of the bride's charms, those charms would have been fully dressed and heavily veiled. Again, the Word was translated into a literary convention that the original recipients knew and understood. I might add that David, whom you have frequently praised, has posted a very good chapter-by-chapter series on understanding the Song of Solomon. I recommend it.

As I have already pointed out, everything that is a stumbling block for you is not one for everyone. Likewise, not everything that sends you into raptures delights everyone else. I have read most of the Qu'ran (not books about it written by people with an agenda to discredit it) and there is quite a lot there which even in context, is a major stumbling block for me--I am unable to read it and envision from it a truly just and merciful God who cares for all souls equally. In the interest of brevity and because, as you know, I've been reading Bent's blog now for several months and some of these verses have been brought up before, I'm not going to start quoting on this post. But realize that not everyone who reads the Qu'ran is going to see it through your eyes.

Dietary issues

*Is out of logic that God know that a thing is harmful and don't order man not to get close to it?!!!!Sure not,but science proved that beers and pig are harmful for a man,but I didn't see a verse in Bible ordering not to eat or drink them.

C: I have already explained this in plain language and citing Biblical references. In the interest of clarification for anyone reading this who was not in on the original discussion, I will repost it tomorrow, separately.

You claim to have studied Christianity with an open mind and 'from our mouths,' yet you consistently repeat the same handful of Biblical verses, never accepting any explanation we give. Do you really expect us to think you neutral? Do you expect us to assume you have the advantage of us in study, when someone like Bent is there who received the same education growing up that you did, plus Christian catechesis? You claim the belief that Christianity is right in its origin, then you dismiss the fundamental belief that unites all Christians: that Christ is the Son of God. If the divinity of Christ is a corrupt belief, how can Christianity be right in its origin? If Christianity is right in its origin, where exactly did it go wrong?

You say that I am biased towards Christianity, and that is correct--up to a point. What you don't seem to understand is that I don't live in a Christian society; I live in a secular society. I did not have compulsory religious education of any kind in school. I am not required to support any church financially. My country is home to faiths of all kinds, and all faiths are allowed free exercise of their beliefs (provided those beliefs don't extend to harming someone else.) Within ten miles of my house are several score of Christian churches of dozens of denominations, one or two synagogues, a mosque, Hindu and Sikh temples, and probably some other groups as well. Visiting places of worship other than our own is not unusual. Furthermore, we don't have 'crashes' resulting in bloodshed that you want to persuade me are 'normal' and 'natural.' Any crime against a place of worship or person because of his faith is dealt with very seriously under the law. Most people of faith have no interest in enforcing their beliefs through violence, and any that are know that this will not be tolerated. If I were in Egypt, would I have the unqualified right to speak freely about my Christian belief to anyone, anytime, anywhere, as long as they were willing to listen?

If I am biased toward the faith I follow, it is only after I have had the opportunity to scrutinize it thoroughly, question it, doubt it, be exposed to a variety of other faiths, and be required--often--to defend it as I have here.

I think this is quite enough for one post, so I am concluding--at least for now--here. You brought up some other matters that I will address in a subsequent post, as I am able.

Mohamed, consider yourself welcome to answer any questions I have asked. Be prepared to cite source and defend your answers,however, especially regarding the Bible and Christianity. All comments are of course welcome, but please keep them brief and to the point: no long harangues, no repeating the same question over and over after I've answered it, no going off on tangents. Bent-el-Neel is both gracious and patient, but I have raised teenagers and consequently am neither.



Blogger The unconventional mother said...

"What I see at the root of these questions is a tendency to 'put God in a box;' that is, to try to limit Him to something in our own understanding--something we can conceptualize"

Yes this is the "battle" of the agnostic as well. I am enjoying your theological discussions. They are well thought out and thought provocating even though I do not follow the blog of the original post.

5:21 PM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Personally, I've always thought atheists were some of the 'boxiest' folks--at least agnostics leave the lid open!

We've been reading Francis Collins' The Language of God here--thus far it's very good. Collins heads up the Human Genome Project, and is a Christian (though he wasn't raised one.)

We can loan it when we finish, if you're interested.

5:11 AM  
Blogger The unconventional mother said...

Sure...keep meaning to put that Fundamentalist Mormon book in the mail to you as well. Maybe I will do that as well. It has some striking similaritues to Islam.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Bent El Neel said...

Hey there C
I absolutely loved this!!!
Thank you so much for all your efforts.

However i believe when Mohammed said can God have a God? I think he may mean God teh father had God the son...i think! I'm just going by a literal translation from Arabic. Who knows!
We do know that Mohammed, and I guess majority of Muslims have great difficulty in understanding the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

God bless you and has been a pleasure visiting :)

6:17 AM  
Blogger CMinor said...

Ah--now that you mention it, I recall all those "can God have sons?" and "can God have daughters?" in the Qu'ran. Oh, well, as I wrote in the post, absent clarification I can only address my best interpretaions of his questions.

Anyway, I think the point (held by both Christians and Muslims) that God is omnipotent and cannot be limited by our constructs of Him would apply in that case as well.

9:12 AM  

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