In Parts 8-24 of this series, we have dug into the history of how the Church has become inextricably entangled with degrading their understanding of the One God, how they fell into shirk through being forced to explain the supposed ‘divinity’ of Jesus— if they were indeed to be in harmony with the teachings of Paul, who had become the Church’s recognized chief interpreter of Jesus.
Now the question before us is: What we Muslims have to offer Christians, in our personal contacts or in interfaith group settings.
Are Christians, then, not monotheists at all?
Of course, only Allah knows the heart and mind of the individual ‘Christian.’ But we can conclude that those Christian authorities who have imbibed the Pauline interpretation of ‘Jesus Christ’ as the ‘begotten’ ‘Son’ of a Trinitarian ‘Father’ God—following the Church’s Hellenized mis-conceptualization of those terms—have readjusted a simple and straightforward understanding of the One absolute God so as to make Christians believe that the One God shares His divine essence with a ‘Son’ (identified with His ‘Word‘). In this scenario, that divine essence is further shared with a ‘Holy Spirit,’ (previously identified with an agent of Wisdom). Thus the One God is ‘distributed’ among three divine roles or ‘persons’ in Christian theology.
A metaphorical unity of PURPOSE with God on the part of Prophet Jesus, and a metaphorical unity of PURPOSE of Jesus with his twelve Disciples (Gospel according to John 17:21-23), is not a difficulty for straightforward monotheism; however, a literal or theological oneness of Jesus with the essence—or with the being—of God is a grave violation of monotheism. Allah, in the Quran, has unremittingly condemned such assertions—and has offered a correction:
And, behold, there are indeed some among them who distort the Bible with their tongues, so as to make you think that [what they say] is from the Bible, the while it is not from the Bible; and who say, ‘This is from God,’ the while it is not from God: and thus do they tell a lie about God, being well aware [that it is a lie]. [Sûrat Âl-cImrân, 3:78]
… there is no deity whatever save the One God. … Will they not, then, turn towards God in repentance, and ask His forgiveness? For God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.’ [Sûrat Al-Mâa’ida, 5:74 ]
Now when Jesus came [to his people] with all evidence of the truth, he said: ‘I have now come unto you with wisdom, and to make clear unto you some of that on which you are at variance: hence, be conscious of God (literally, ‘fear God’), and pay heed unto me. Verily, God is my Sustainer as well as your Sustainer; so worship [none but] Him: this [alone] is a straight way!’ [Sûrah Al-Zukhruf, 43:63-64]
Are Christians, then, to be considered ‘monotheists’?
As Muslims we assume the best about anyone we meet. Encouraging a correct attitude to monotheism can be as easy as quoting to Christians the words of Jesus himself from their own scripture, the Gospel books of the New Testament regarding Jesus’ understanding of monotheism. See, for example, the Gospel according to Mark 12:28-29, 32; the Gospel according to Matthew 4:10; the Gospel according to Mark 10:17-18.
How could a Christian believe that the basic truth of God’s absolute supremacy would be reversed by a Johnny-come-lately like Paul, who claimed to interpret Jesus but had never even met him, much less imbibed his teaching? Christians must also be encouraged, and this will be a totally new idea to them, to scrutinize the writings of Paul in the light of Jesus’ own plainly understood words, ignoring later theological embellishment, and interpreting Jesus in terms of his very own context, within his own 1st century Palestinian, Bânî Isrâ’îl/ Jewish setting.
Seeing Paul for What He Was
Paul’s subversive entrance onto the scene of the Jesus movement is chronicled within the documents which the Church has gathered to form the NT. It is not difficult to recognize—again, within the four Gospel books themselves—the specific message of Jesus, as he himself taught it, rather than as mis-interpreted by others later on.
The message of Jesus is called repeatedly by Jesus himself “the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.” As we have been emphasizing throughout this series of articles, the teaching of Jesus differs from the doctrine of Paul. Paul pushed aside the teaching of the Banî Isrâ’îl prophet Jesus to substitute his own pagan Greek-friendly message, which Paul referred to as the ‘Gospel of Jesus Christ).
This practice of using a look-alike name, and look-alike packaging, is an effective marketing technique, designed ‘to pull the wool over the eyes’ of a casual pagan shopper. Based on the existence of groups like the Ebionites, who vigorously rejected Paul, we can say that religiously-informed Jewish ‘shoppers’ of the first century CE, would have seen through the scam of Paul’s version of the ‘Christian’ movement.
Paul (‘Saul’) avoided contact with the leadership of Jesus’ mentored Disciples (Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, chapters 1-2) to assert his own leadership of the ‘Christian’ splinter group, beginning at Antioch in Syria (See Acts of the Apostles 11:25-26). Through astute market analysis and sales strategy, he became highly successful in nurturing his ‘gospel’ so as to attain dominance in the Roman sphere of influence.
Thus, any modern-day persons committed to following Jesus—if they are going to hold to the plain and simple teaching of Jesus, a beloved prophet of God, whom Muslims honor and love —must be open to recognizing Paul as an outsider who intruded himself into the Jesus movement—yes, a spoiler when measured against Jesus’ own sayings! Any such investigations —to see Paul for who he was— are actually helped by the fact that the historical Church has included Paul’s writings in their scripture, alongside the four Hadith-like, continuous narrative ‘books’ called ‘Gospels.’
As an appendage to the accepted Gospel record of Jesus, Paul had been promoted— securely so by the 4th century—to the status of the definitively interpreting theologian par excellence! In fact, we are all but completely lacking in accounts of the activities of the Twelve Disciples of Jesus after his dramatic departure from them, and thus Paul has conveniently filled that void.
Highlighting ‘Judeo-Islamic’ Monotheism
We Muslims should remember that in interfaith events, our major natural partners are our Jewish colleagues: We share with them our concept of the One God, without partner and without likeness to anything in creation. A number of rabbis and Jewish laymen welcome an interfaith partnership with Muslims.
Regarding our Jewish partners, we must appreciate the road travelled by them in Christian society through the centuries. If we Muslims today are under suspicion or attack in a Christian majority environment, let us be aware that the Jewish community has gone there before us and that they are still often a shunned minority not well understood and still not completely trusted. At the opposite extreme, the Jewish people are sometimes even over-glorified as ‘God’s people’ by certain well-meaning Christians who ignorantly violate Jewish monotheism due to following Paul as interpreter of Jesus —Christians whose main mission is to convert Jews to their partisan Christian viewpoint!
While monotheism may not be the only issue addressed in interfaith gatherings, it is the one on which all other questions depend for their orthodoxy; without a clear understanding of tawHîd, Christians will continue to argue in a hermetically-sealed echo chamber, without any chance of a quantum leap out of their hopeless quandary.
The Quran has many references to violations of simple monotheism; no doubt our first duty in interfaith conversations about Islam is to be straight about the meaning of monotheism—since this is number one in our creedal statement and determines the true orthodoxy of any belief about mankind’s Creator:
LAA ILAHA ILLA ALLAH – waHdahu – wa laa sharika lahu:
“There exists no deity other than the One God—Him alone—and without Partner.”
This job is much easier for us—in our deliberations with Christians—if we understand some basics of the convoluted writings of Paul and how the Church’s acceptance of them brought about their essential abandonment of the teaching of Jesus himself. The 4th century Arian controversy is an ideal window for us to peer into the journey of Christians in their development of ‘Christology’ (See Parts 8-24), which still pervades their belief system and defines them as ‘Christians’—rather than simply as followers of the genuine Jewish Jesus ! Self-designated Christians should be encouraged to follow Jesus one hundred percent–in 100% rejection of Paul’s theologization of ‘Jesus Christ.’
Was Paul the Spoiler?!
In contradiction to all the hullaballoo made by a certain segment of Christians who claim that the ‘vindictive’ ‘Moslem god’ [May Allah forgive them!] is not the same as ‘their’ ‘loving’ Christian God, Rubenstein has well chronicled—through Jewish eyes—a crucial part of Church history, helping to depict the ways in which it is [Pauline] Christians who have departed from the monotheistic ‘Jehovah’ and Elohim of the Hebrew Bible to which Jesus was clearly committed.
If Christians see ‘their’ God as the ‘loving’ God that sent Jesus, well—so do we Muslims. But what can they say about the God of the vindictive ‘Christian’ Paul—after reading Paul’s own words, recorded in black and white and available to readers of the New Testament for nearly twenty centuries— angry, self-serving statements. In his frenzied screed, he counts the teaching of James, Peter and John —those personally mentored by Jesus— as no longer representing the ‘Gospel truth.’ Instead, it was his own ‘gospel‘ which he demanded was to be believed.
We Muslims and Jews reject Paul’s mean-spirited behavior and his Christological innovations, upon which the Church built her theological ‘orthodoxy.’ So, in a way, this Christian accusation that we Muslims don’t share the same [concept of] ‘God’ is actually correct—though not in the way that they have imagined! It is actually Muslims—together with Jews and the original followers of Jesus–who share with each other the same pure and simple, unembellished, monotheistic concept of God taught by Jesus! It is unfortunately true: The followers of Paul DO differ, in their concept of God, from Muslims, Jews, and the followers of the teaching of Jesus.
Of course, this insight must be offered to Christians within the proper conversational context, not ‘out of the blue.’ It is the ‘Christian’ Paul—followed by the ‘orthodox’ Christian church—who have corrupted monotheism for the would-be followers of Prophet Jesus. I am not aware of any modern Christian denominations who talk about this phenomenon of Paul having ‘hi-jacked’ the Jesus movement, but many individuals would be open to this point of view—once they have examined Paul in comparison to Jesus.
Among Church historians, it is widely acknowledged that Paul is the “Second Founder of Christianity.” The truth is, it is Paul, not Jesus, who was the first founder, in that Christianity does not reflect the teaching of Jesus.
Indeed, the truth deny they who say, “Behold, God is the third of a trinity” —seeing that there is no deity whatever save the One God. And unless they desist from this their assertion, grievous suffering is bound to befall such of them as are bent on denying the truth. [Surah Al-Mâ’idah, 5:73]
Another Milestone Passed
In Parts 1-7, we saw how Paul contradicted Jesus in deifying him and thus brought about a movement of ‘Gentile’ (non-Jewish) ‘Christians’ who worshipped God in, by and through Jesus Christ—exclusively!
In Parts 8-24 we trailed along with Richard E. Rubenstein as he guided us through a major paradox, the ‘Christian’ understanding of the relationship of Jesus to God, with which the Church has been burdened—for centuries—to continue to grapple. Within the Church, this ‘Christology‘ is an on-going paradox and mystery, a paradox which asks individual Christians to suspend normal reasoning processes and to accept logical impossibilities and contradictions to everyday experience of the world.
In Part 26, insha Allah, we begin an auxiliary discussion extending tawhîd to a look at how the modern concept of ‘religion’ has facilitated Christian hegemony on the world stage, thereby commandeering and controlling the standard by which any system of belief in an Ultimate Power is both restricted —and, at the same time, compelled to measure up.
To be continued, insha’Allah, in Part 26…