Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The God Delusion #26: W. L. Craig Responds

William Lane Craig has a good response to Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. I think it's worth posting Craig's response in its entirety, with a few parenthetical comments by me.

Craig is asked, "What do you think of Richard Dawkins' argument for atheism in The God Delusion?"

Dr. Craig responds:

On pages 157-8 of his book, Dawkins summarizes what he calls "the central argument of my book." It goes as follows:
1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.

3. The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.

4. The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

5. We don't have an equivalent explanation for physics.

6. We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.

Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

This argument is jarring because the atheistic conclusion that "Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist" seems to come suddenly out of left field. You don't need to be a philosopher to realize that that conclusion doesn't follow from the six previous statements.

Indeed, if we take these six statements as premises of an argument implying the conclusion "Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist," then the argument is patently invalid. No logical rules of inference would permit you to draw this conclusion from the six premises.
A more charitable interpretation would be to take these six statements, not as premises, but as summary statements of six steps in Dawkins' cumulative argument for his conclusion that God does not exist. But even on this charitable construal, the conclusion "Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist" does not follow from these six steps, even if we concede that each of them is true and justified.

What does follow from the six steps of Dawkins' argument? At most, all that follows is that we should not infer God's existence on the basis of the appearance of design in the universe. But that conclusion is quite compatible with God's existence and even with our justifiably believing in God's existence. Maybe we should believe in God on the basis of the cosmological argument or the ontological argument or the moral argument. Maybe our belief in God isn't based on arguments at all but is grounded in religious experience or in divine revelation. Maybe God wants us to believe in Him simply by faith. The point is that rejecting design arguments for God's existence does nothing to prove that God does not exist or even that belief in God is unjustified. Indeed, many Christian theologians have rejected arguments for the existence of God without thereby committing themselves to atheism. (NOTE: Even if it is true that we should not infer that God exists on the basis of the appearance of design in the universe, it does not logically follow that God does not exist.)

So Dawkins' argument for atheism is a failure even if we concede, for the sake of argument, all its steps.

But, in fact, several of these steps are plausibly false. Take just step (3), for example. Dawkins' claim here is that one is not justified in inferring design as the best explanation of the complex order of the universe because then a new problem arises: who designed the designer?

This rejoinder is flawed on at least two counts. (Note: See what Craig is doing here. A common atheist come-back to cosmological arguments for God's existence is: "But if God is the cause of the unbiverse, we have created yet another question; viz., who or what caused God? This will lead us to an infinite regress of explanations, which is absurd.)

First, in order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn't have an explanation of the explanation. This is an elementary point concerning inference to the best explanation as practiced in the philosophy of science. If archaeologists digging in the earth were to discover things looking like arrowheads and hatchet heads and pottery shards, they would be justified in inferring that these artifacts are not the chance result of sedimentation and metamorphosis, but products of some unknown group of people, even though they had no explanation of who these people were or where they came from. Similarly, if astronauts were to come upon a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that it was the product of intelligent, extra-terrestrial agents, even if they had no idea whatsoever who these extra-terrestrial agents were or how they got there. In order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn't be able to explain the explanation. In fact, so requiring would lead to an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed. So in the case at hand, in order to recognize that intelligent design is the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe, one needn't be able to explain the designer. (See also Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of God. In that argument God is understood as a being that did not begin to exist. Only that which begins to exist can be said to have a cause. If God did not begin to exist then the question of what caused God is fundamentally misguided.)

Secondly, Dawkins thinks that in the case of a divine designer of the universe, the designer is just as complex as the thing to be explained, so that no explanatory advance is made. This objection raises all sorts of questions about the role played by simplicity in assessing competing explanations; for example, how simplicity is to be weighted in comparison with other criteria like explanatory power, explanatory scope, and so forth. But leave those questions aside. Dawkins' fundamental mistake lies in his assumption that a divine designer is an entity comparable in complexity to the universe. As an unembodied mind, God is a remarkably simple entity. As a non-physical entity, a mind is not composed of parts, and its salient properties, like self-consciousness, rationality, and volition, are essential to it. In contrast to the contingent and variegated universe with all its inexplicable quantities and constants, a divine mind is startlingly simple. Certainly such a mind may have complex ideas—it may be thinking, for example, of the infinitesimal calculus—, but the mind itself is a remarkably simple entity. Dawkins has evidently confused a mind's ideas, which may, indeed, be complex, with a mind itself, which is an incredibly simple entity. Therefore, postulating a divine mind behind the universe most definitely does represent an advance in simplicity, for whatever that is worth.

Other steps in Dawkins' argument are also problematic; but I think enough has been said to show that his argument does nothing to undermine a design inference based on the universe's complexity, not to speak of its serving as a justification of atheism.

The Real Jesus's Full Humanity

In my Ph.D program at Northwestern University I had to do what all Ph.D students do; namely, pass what are called “comprehensive exams.” If a student passes these exams they become a “Ph.D candidate.” This allows them to begin working on their doctoral dissertation. One of my exams was in the area called “Christology,” which means “the doctrine or study of Christ.” This particular exam focused on what the early church (1st – 4th century) had to say about Christ. This period of church history dealt with the question “Who is Christ, and what is Christ’s true nature?” Out of these questions came the great church creeds, like the Nicene Creed.

A more modern version of these creeds is the Westminster Confession. Here’s what the WC has to say about the nature of Christ:

-"The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man's nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; …So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man."

The orthodox, evangelical understanding of the Scriptures is that, when it comes to the nature of the Jesus of the Gospels, He is “fully God and “fully man.” To emphasize one of these natures over the other is to head down the road to biblical heresy.

When, in Matthew 14 and Mark 6, Jesus walks on the water, we get a revelation of the full divinity and the full humanity of the Real Jesus. In Matthew 14 the 12 disciples are beginning to understand that Jesus is God when they say, after the water-walking episode, “Truly this is the Son of God.” But in Mark 6 the disciples were confused because they did “not understand about the bread.” What does that mean?

When Jesus fed the 5,000, we read that He took bread, broke it, gave thanks, and gave it to His disciples to pass out to the people. In Mark 14 the same words are used at the Last Supper: Jesus takes, breaks, gives thanks, and gives to his disciples. But there He adds, when breaking the bread, the words “This is my body.” The “bread” is really about Himself as the Messiah who has come and whose physical body will be broken, and by whose physical “stripes” we will be healed. This is about the “bread,” the humanity of Jesus. That’s the thing the disciples did not understand, but which is now essential for us to understand when it comes to knowing the Real Jesus.

When it comes to you and me, it’s obvious we are not God. But are we “human?” I believe the biblical answer is “not completely.” Jesus was “fully human,” we are not. Adam, in the pre-Fall Garden, was more human than we are. He had not yet sinned. Adam’s humanity included ruling over all the creation. Further, in heaven, in eternity, “we will be like Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:49 says, "just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven." In heaven nature won't us problems like such as wind-storms on the sea. We won’t need flood insurance when we are fully redeemed.

As Jesus strides across the Sea of Galilee about to pass by the oar-straining disciples, we have a picture of the rightful, exiled King returning not only in full God-ness but also full humanity, the elements of nature subdued. When Peter gets out of the boat and water-walks he is experiencing not only the power of God but getting a glimpse of true humanity, of what we were created to be and are destined to be.

If you want more explanation, please get a tape of my May 27, 2007 sermon. See also N. T. Wright's comments re. such things in his Mark for Everyone.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

God Shows Up at Palmer Theological Seminary Graduation

Last Saturday I was in Philadelphia to be a part of Palmer Theological Seminary's graduation ceremony. It was my great privilege to "hood" the doctoral students whom I have been working with as Palmer's doctoral Project Director.

The speaker was Dr. Robin Smith. Robin has a Ph.D in psychology from Temple University. She's the "Dr. Robin" who regularly appears on "Oprah."

She began her message by telling all that God had given her a message for the day, and that it was not a typical graduation challenge. God told Robin to confront us all with our idolatry that would put anything ahead of God, to include a graduation "festival" like the one we were at. God doesn't care about our graduation robes and the amount of doctoral bars on our sleeves.

I think she preached for at least 45 minutes, maybe longer. I lost track of time, because, for me, when God shows up, it's an event-oriented thing rather than a time-oritented thing.

Robin asked for people to give their lives over to Jesus. She said, "Even if you are graduating today from seminary, if you have not given your life fully over to Jesus today is your day."

I estimate that 200 people came forward (out of, say, 1500 that were there). Many were touched. I and other had tears in our eyes. The pastor of Edon Tabernacle Church prayed "God, thank You for revealing our hypocrisy to us today."

I loved what God was doing in that place! After the "ceremony" one faculty member told me, "I thought it went on a little too long." I didn't say anything, but inwardly I was thinking "You have got to be kidding me! God was making a statement!"

I believe God was communicating something to Palmer Seminary, about what the whole "seminary" thing is supposed to be in the first place. Indeed, God was speaking to all American theological seminaries through Palmer that they must set aside any idolatry and return to God, who is a jealous God.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Nussbaum on India and the Threat to Democracy

Eight years ago I went to India to teach and speak for 10 days. I flew to Mumbai, then to Hyderabad, where I was picked up by my host Pastor Israel Supogu. From Hyderabad we rode in a car 5 hours south through central India to the city of Kurnool. Using Kurnool as a home base, I spoke there and also traveled by all-terrain vehicle to various villages on the Deccan Plateau. All in all it was an eye-opening trip for me. I saw real Hinduism first hand. And I gained a heart for India.

In today's Chronicles of Higher Education the brilliant University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum has an excellent article on what's now happening in India. It's entitled "Fears for Democracy in India."

Nussbaum writes: "What has been happening in India is a serious threat to the future of democracy in the world. The fact that it has yet to make it onto the radar screen of most Americans is evidence of the way in which terrorism and the war on Iraq have distracted us from events and issues of fundamental significance. If we really want to understand the impact of religious nationalism on democratic values, India currently provides a deeply troubling example, and one without which any understanding of the more general phenomenon is dangerously incomplete. It also provides an example of how democracy can survive the assault of religious extremism."

Especially interesting is Nussbaum's idea that Samuel Huntington's famous "clash of civilizations" thesis does not apply to violence in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Nussbaum: "It is comforting for Americans to talk about a clash of civilizations. That thesis tells us that evil is outside, distant, other, and that we are perfectly all right as we are. All we need do is to remain ourselves and fight the good fight. But the case of Gujarat shows us that the world is very different. The forces that assail democracy are internal to many, if not most, democratic nations, and they are not foreign: They are our own ideas and voices, meaning the voices of aggressive European nationalism, refracted back against the original aggressor with the extra bile of resentment born of a long experience of domination and humiliation.
The implication is that all nations, Western and non-Western, need to examine themselves with the most fearless exercise of critical capacities, looking for the roots of domination within and devising effective institutional and educational countermeasures. At a deeper level, the case of Gujarat shows us what Gandhi and Tagore, in their different ways, knew: that the real root of domination lies deep in the human personality. It would be so convenient if Americans were pure and free from flaw, but that fantasy is yet another form that the resourceful narcissism of the human personality takes on the way to bad behavior."

Look at that point: "The real root of domination lies deep in the human personality." Thus "sin" and "evil" are human, not cultural, properties. Put in a Christian sense, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

It's a long, scholarly-analytical essay. But one more Nussbaum quote: "Today's young people in India... tend to think of religion, and the creation of symbolic culture in general, as forces that are in their very nature fascist and reactionary because that is what they have seen in their experience."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Atheists - Now the "Big 4"

The new New Yorker has yet another article written by Anthony Gottlieb - a long one - on the "Big 4" of contemporary atheism (formerly known as the Big 3): Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and now Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens has been on a lot of TV talk shows recently. He's colorful, and maybe a misanthrope.
The Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens idea that persons who are "moderately" religious in fact help radical terrorist religious fundamentalist to survive is "dreamily incoherent."
The essay, "Atheists With Attitude," has a nice little summary of the history of atheism beginning with Celsus' “On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians” (written in 178 A.D).
Gottlieb thinks there are at least five hundred million atheists in the world, placing atheism fourth behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.
Gottlieb concludes, atheism "is also by far the youngest, with no significant presence in the West before the eighteenth century. Who can say what the landscape will look like once unbelief has enjoyed a past as long as Islam’s—let alone as long as Christianity’s? God is assuredly not on the side of the unbelievers, but history may yet be."
- religion is on the rise globally (Philip Jenkins's work)
- belief in God may be "hard-wired" in persons (see Plantinga's and Calvin's sensus divinitatis)
- Just as it's hard to tell what "belief in God means," it's also hard to tell what atheism means to individual people. Armand Nicholi of Harvard, in his brilliant The Question of God, wonders whether Freud really believed in God in spite of what he wrote in The Future of an Illusion.
- And "numbers" of adherents mean... what? The early followers of Jesus in the Gospels were massively outnumbered. When it comes to truth, at least in the sense of logic, "numbers" (ad populum arguments) are fallacious.
All this is now being closely watched...

Friday, May 11, 2007

The World Changes, Religious Impulses Remain

The Weekly Standard has an excellent article by John Delulio called "Spiritualpolitique," on the place of religion in understanding global politics.

Here are some of the high points for me:

  • As previous posts indicate I have been much taken by the "Islamification of the West" and the "Westernization of Islam." Also, by the "death" of Chrsitianity in Europe, and this death as a prophetic pre-echo of Christianity in America. But Philip Jenkins of Penn State (author of the modern classic analysis of global Christianity The Next Christendom) is a voice speaking against these ideas. So, personally, I am re-evaluating "religion" in Europe and North America.

  • The current "decades-in-the-making European vacation from Christianity is not a permanent vacation from religion itself. From Scotland to France, Christianity's slide has been accompanied by growth in other faith traditions including Islam. And it is not entirely clear that Europe's Catholics have fallen so far from the cradle that their children or grandchildren (if they start having some) will never return."

  • The "religious impulse," I think, will never go away. If persons are "hard-wired for religion" the atheists are fighting a losing battle. I am now thinking of this kind of research in light of Plantinga's work on noetic structures and, if the Christian theistic noetic structure is true, then we are made in God's image, God wants us to know him, and has placed in us a "sensus divinitatis" from which we cannot get away. For me this interprets the recent post I made on the rise of religion in American universities.

  • My work on what I call "ontological dualities" is supportive of this Plantingian direction. In my teaching and spiritual coaching of 500 Christian pastors and leaders over the past 30 years, plus my own prayer life and journaling and my study of Christian spirituality and religious spiritualities in general, I have discovered seven ontological dualities that lie at the base of all persons. For example, every person struggles with Trust vs. Control. My own belief is that atheistic protests will not calm down the surging in what Proverbs 20:5 calls "the deep waters of the heart." (See my post below on Metallica and Ontological Dualities.)

  • "Totalitarians, secular or religious, who know what they are about have always gone beyond merely banning this or that religion or establishing a state religion (Mao's little red book and cult come quickly to mind) to killing religious leaders, gulag-ticketing or terrorizing religious followers, and destroying (physically in many cases) religion's last traces (books, buildings). Religion, however, almost always proves resilient, often reasserting itself in its very pre-revolutionary or dictator-forbidden forms."

  • This is a long article, well-written, and gives one much to think about and avenues to pursue.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

My Great Prayer Experiment and "Unanswered Prayers"

I have had a serious prayer life for 26 years. Every week, every year, for 26 years, I take several hours to go in solitude to pray. Have I ever felt that God has not heard my prayers? It strikes me that I have rarely felt like crying out "God, why are you not listening to me!"

I have met people who tell me "I prayed, but God did not answer my prayer." Or, more strongly, I have heard the atheistic statement "Prayer does nothing, accomplishes nothing. Prayer does not "work"." I understand what is being said. I believe I can feel compassion towards such things. But, honestly, they do not move me very much. I think I never feel or have felt that prayer accomplishes nothing. If I did seriously entertain such a possibility I feel certain that I would stop praying.

I heard an "ex-Christian-become-atheist" once say, "I was in deep trouble. I prayed to God. I received no answer." The end result for this person was that they renounced Christianity and now spend a portion of their life trying to make their atheistic point against Christianity. (Which, I confess, still strikes me as an odd thing to do. At least I feel that if I became an atheist I would not waste my time arguing against Christians and theists, since I would find such activity, like all activity, ultimately meaningless. Surely there would be far better things to do in life? Unless I had some unconscious psychological need to defend my new noetic framework... )

Only a person who has a serious, committed, long-term prayer life has an authentic right to declare that "God does not answer prayers." The "Christian" who throws up occasional prayers and "is too busy to pray" is like a guitarist who never practices yet declares "Practicing does no good." How would he know?

Personally, for 26 years I have been and am involved in a great prayer experiment. I rarely think that God is not responding to my prayers, and often think that He is responding. Only someone who really, actually prays over a lifetime can discover such a thing. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis when he writes of the logic of personal relationships which creates "obstinacy in belief."

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Naturalistic Ethics & Boiling Babies for Fun

If you are a philosophical naturalist (="nature" is all that there is), then what sense do you make of ethics? The Boston Review has a nice, well-written article called "Knowing Right and Wrong," written by MIT philosopher Alex Byrne.

Byrne asks, is boiling babies for fun wrong? It's not an easy question to answer if one is an atheist. This is because "Everything, in short, is a natural phenomenon, an aspect of the universe as revealed by the natural sciences. In particular, morality is a natural phenomenon. [Therefore] Moral facts or truths—that boiling babies is wrong, say—are not additions to the natural world, they are already there in the natural world, even if they are not explicitly mentioned in scientific theories."

On philosophical naturalism there is no "ought." Thus, the statement "We ought not to boil babies" is cogitively meaningless. This idea is rooted in Hume, who showed us that via the senses one cannot "see" metaphysical things such as causality. It seems empirically true that babies suffer in boiling water, but one cannot see an "ought not" in their pain. So on the face of it it seems that philosophical naturalism cannot say that we ought not to boil babies in water for fun. If "ought" is a fact, it is an "entirely different" sort of fact from facts of nature. "As the philosopher Simon Blackburn puts it in his Ruling Passions, “the problem is one of finding room for ethics, or of placing ethics within the disenchanted, non-ethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part.”"

Byrne then turns to meta-ethical issues; viz., issues concerning the foundation of ethics (how is ethics possible?). "The task before us is to try to squeeze morality into the “disenchanted” natural world; as Blackburn says, this “is above all to refuse appeal to a supernatural order.” "

Byrne mentions divine command theory. But it is noteworthy that he does not deal Yale philosopher Robert Adams's "modified divine command theory."

Byrne takes us on a philosophical tour through Moorean non-naturalistic ethics to emotivism to Mackie's meta-ethical nihilism to evolutionary ethics. Byrne concludes that "if there’s no room for ethics in a disenchanted nature, most of our distinctively human form of life is also excluded."

I agree. But I do not see that Byrne has made room for ethics in his philosophical naturalism.

Byrne's nicely-written essay, in the end, does not satisfy in its attempt to affirm that moral facts are really natural facts "in disguise." Byrne says that a "moral 'ought'" does not follow from a "natural 'is'." But he thinks a naturalistic 'ought' does follow from 'is' (i.e., nature). This is because, according to Byrne, 'ought' is a kind of fact of nature. Boiling babies IS "wrong," just not in any "moral" way.

[NOTE: Adams's modified divine command theory states that: "God is the source of morality, because morality is grounded in the character of God. Moreover, God is not subject to a moral law that exists external to him. On the Modified Divine Command Theory, the moral law is a feature of God’s nature. Given that the moral law exists internal to God, in this sense, God is not subject to an external moral law, but rather is that moral law. God therefore retains his supreme moral and metaphysical status. Morality, for the modified divine command theorist, is ultimately grounded in the perfect nature of God."

Thus Adams believes the two horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma are avoided.]

Friday, May 04, 2007

Religion Increasing At Harvard, Berkeley, Wisconsin...

Wednesday's nytimes.com had an article on the rise of religious faith at Harvard University.

Prof. Peter Gomes says “There is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years.”

"Across the country, on secular campuses as varied as Colgate University, the University of Wisconsin, adn the University of California, Berkeley. chaplains, professors and administrators say students are drawn to religion and spirituality with more fervor than at any time they can remember."

"A survey on the spiritual lives of college students, the first of its kind, showed in 2004 that more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles."

"Some sociologists who study religion are skeptical that students’ attitudes have changed significantly, citing a lack of data to compare current students with those of previous generations. But even some of those concerned about the data say something has shifted.
“All I hear from everybody is yes, there is growing interest in religion and spirituality and an openness on college campuses,” said Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. “Everybody who is talking about it says something seems to be going on.”"

"Lesleigh Cushing, an assistant professor of religion and Jewish studies at Colgate, said: “I can fill basically any class on the Bible. I wasn’t expecting that.”"

I can confirm this in my Philosophy of Religion courses at Monroe County Community College. I taught two sections this semester, and both were maxed out, with very few dropping throughout the semester.

Now I am feeling sorry for Sam Harris, who wrote the out-dated The End of Faith, which looks like it will soon be selling at Big Lots next to Y2K books.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Islamic Caricatures of Christianity

My dialogue at the University of Toledo last Thursday evening was with Imam Farooq of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. In that dialogue (which included an Episcopalian priest) I felt I was trying to emphasize differences between Christianity and Islam. (The picture is of the Islamic Center of Toledo.)

If you go to the Islamic Center's website you can see archived sermons. In these sermons a former Imam sometimes highlights the differences and coaches his people as to how to respond to we Christians. Here's an example.

Former Imam Khattab told his people this in a sermon given in February 2002:

"I'm sure many of us will sit with some Christians and the first thing they will ask you is: do you believe in Jesus? We say yes, we believe in Jesus and we believe in the Bible. Do you believe in him as the Son of God? And we say: no. We believe in him as a Messenger of God, not as a Son of God. Because, we say, the example of Jesus is as the example of Adam: Adam had no father and no mother and in spite of that we don't call him Son of God. We believe in Jesus, as the Qur'an says of him, as being human, a Messenger of God and we refer to him as Jesus the son of Mary. Then he will proceed with another question: do you believe that he died on the cross to forgive your sins? And immediately your answer will be: no, I don't even believe that he was ever crucified. Then his answer to you is: then you are not saved because you don't believe that Jesus died on the cross.

You argue this retort as follows: if Jesus died for your sake it means that you have a blank card to do anything you want, right or wrong. So here you have a credit card, which will take you to heaven automatically. You need not pray or fast, you can kill, you can steal or do anything because Jesus already died for your sake. He says to you: no, you have to be a good and righteous person. Then you say to him: then it is one of two: either Jesus will take me to heaven or my deeds will take me to heaven. The first two verses of Surah Mulk address this argument: they read as follows: the criterion of punishment and reward is your actions. Your father will not be of benefit for you, nor your son, nor your Prophet Muhammad will be of any benefit for you: no human being will be of any benefit to any other human being on the Day of Judgment."


  • Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God; Muslims do not believe this. So we Christians will not feel embraced by Muslims who say they value Jesus as a "prophet."

  • The reason we call Jesus the Son of God has nothing to do with an Adamic analogy re. having no earthly father.

  • We believe Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins; Muslims do not believe this because the Koran says Jesus did not die on a cross. This is simply false, and historically unsupportable. Christian scholarship can make a historical case for the crucifixion of Jesus.

  • The misunderstanding of this is simply astounding when the Imam says the cross of Christ gives us a "blank card" to do anything, even kill. The idea that it's either this "blank card" to kill etc. or the need to do good deeds is simply, in logic, a false dichotomy.

  • The Christian idea is that righteousness follows from being born again and transformed into Christlikeness. One does good deeds (Christlike deeds) out of love for Christ, rather than as a means to gain heaven. Combine this with the classic Christian idea of the nature of God as holy, and one will see why "deeds" are not enough.

  • I am sure I do not understand Islam as well as the Imam does. I am equally sure that the Imam does not understand Christianity. So, he attacks a straw man.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

My Dialogue With a Muslim Imam

Last Thursday I spoke as part of a panel of religious leaders to a Monotheistic Religions class at the University of Toledo. There was an Episcopalian priest, myself, and the Imam of Greater Toledo.

The Imam, who struck me as a very nice man, was - in my opinion - trying to put an unreal positive spin on Islam. After listening to his answers to the students' questions one could get the impression that there has never been a kinder, gentler religion than Islam.

He is from Egypt, and told the class that in Egypt Coptic Christians live side by side with Muslims. I made the point that Coptic Christians are persecuted in Egypt. He shook his head "No," and I told him and the class that I am friends with a high Coptic leader in Egypt who was in my doctoral class at Palmer Theological Seminary. In addition I had two pastors from Cairo in another class. All three of these Egyptian Christians told us personally about the persecution and oppression they face in Egypt. Two of them even said that it would be better to be a Christian in Saddam's Iraq than in Egypt.

The Imam disagreed with me, but he is wrong. The persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt is and has long been international news. (For example, see here.) My feeling is that the Imam has to know about the very public persecution of Christians happening in Egypt.

Why did he deny this? My guess is that he is concerned about the negative image Muslims have in America, and was trying to counter this to the U-Toledo students. (See, as an example of Islamic counterpoint, this from today's Washington Post.) To many in Europe and North America Muslims are viewed as violent. There is now a great debate as to whether real Islam is intrinsically violent. The Koran has troubling statements in this regard, and Muhammed himself was engaged in acts of violence. Some of the pre-questions we received included questions re. Islam, jihad, and violence. No student asked the Imam these especially relevant questions.

In addition, the Imam told the class that Islam embraces all religions, including Christianity, since Islam sees Jesus as a prophet. I responded that Christians themselves see Jesus as far more than a prophet. Indeed, we believe Jesus is God the Son. Such a view is scandalous to a Muslim. But to reduce Jesus to a mere prophet because the Koran says so, and then to claim that Islam embraces Christianity, is insulting to Christians and prevents real dialogue because it fails to understand and misrepresents its dialogical partner.

We were all asked what was distinctive about our particular religion. I told that class that C.S. Lewis was once asked this and he responded, "That's easy, it's grace." Throughout the evening the Imam talked about "deeds," and I responded by explaining the Christian idea of salvation by the grace of God and not by deeds. "Grace" is the Christian distinctive, and is a basic reason why Christianity is the only true global religion.

The Imam made the point that, if you want to learn about Islam, invite a Muslim to speak to you. I agree. I'd say the same to him re. Christianity. To think that Christians like myself will feel good about Islam's inaccurate portrait of Jesus shows that we are not being listened to.

Real, fruitful dialogue requires clear understanding of essential differences. Only then can "tolerance" kick in, since to "tolerate" something means precisely to love the other in spite of thinking them wrong.