Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jesus: Son or Servant?

“Certainly you brought about a disastrous thing whereby the heavens are almost split asunder and the earth is split and the mountains fall crashing down that they attributed a son to The Merciful. It is not fit and proper for The Merciful that He should take a son to Himself! There is none at all in the heavens and the earth but he be one who arrives to The Merciful as a servant.”
(19:89-93, Maryam)

Yasmina, I was intrigued by your remark last week that both Jesus and his mother, Mary, are considered examples of righteousness and uprightness in Islam. Chapter 19 of the Quran begins with the birth of John the Baptist and goes on to describe Jesus' birth, and to praise Mary, Abraham, Moses and a host of other prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  The chapter concludes, however, with explicit descriptions of the punishment that awaits those who do not believe in The Merciful.  I stumbled when I read these verses, which strike me as especially anti-Christian and seem to contradict the universalism of Islam. Since I cannot read classical Arabic—and because the Quran is written in poetic and homiletic form—I realize that I cannot fully appreciate its meaning.  I was hoping that you could help me by elaborating on this passage.

Earlier in this same chapter, Jesus [Peace and Blessings be upon him] is quoted as saying: “I am a servant of God; He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet.” (19:30). Another chapter describes a conversation that will take place between God and Jesus [Peace and Blessings be upon him] on the Day of Judgment, when God will say, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides God?’ He will say, Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right.”(5:116) We learn from these verses that Muslims believe that Jesus [Peace and Blessings be upon him] was a prophet who served God and embodied honorable values that all humans should follow, including the worship of God alone. Since Jesus [Peace and Blessings be upon him] is held in such high regard and altering his message is considered especially egregious, the end of Chapter 19 warns future generations from straying from the path prescribed to them by His messengers.  This universal warning is directed toward all those who deny God’s One-ness and ignore His command to worship Him alone, as well as toward those who attribute to Him that which is not befitting His Glory and Majesty. Therefore, God’s message here is not anti-Christian but anti-Trinitarian, aimed at reminding us that He transcends all His creation.

You’ve made a good distinction, Yasmina. However, the passages from the Quran that you cited seem to imply that Christians worship Jesus as a second deity.  I suspect that a strictly literal interpretation of the phrase “Son of God” in Christian scriptures gives rise to this misconception—an understandable misconception, I might add, as Trinitarian doctrine has provoked convoluted arguments even within Christianity!  In The Gospel of John, Jesus is quoted as saying, “The Father and I are one….Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (10:30, 14:9b)  These statements, taken out of scriptural and historical context, will surely sound blasphemous or heretical. Yet I hear these words as revelatory of Divine Mystery; they point to God’s humility, through which God becomes exalted.  Through my understanding of them, I believe that God is approachable and accessible; and that God’s love is so great—even for a terribly imperfect me and for all of human-unkind—that God will give God’s very self to us.  In Jesus, Christians attempt to understand the unfathomable: Immanuel—God is with us, here, now.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In the Name of…

Theologically speaking, is there any problem for a Christian not to pray in Jesus’ name? In other words, cannot a Christian—like a Jew or a Muslim—pray authentically in the name of God? 

The short answer to that question is “Yes, absolutely!” That is why I have no hesitation when praying in interfaith settings by saying, “In Your Most Holy Name we pray.” Christians, like Jews and Muslims, believe in One God and that God is One.  Trinitarian Christians believe that God is expressed in three “persons”—or in three ways—as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We believe that the nature of God is most fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ—that is, in Jesus, human and divine are completely united.  Because we look to Jesus as “the Way” for humans to know the fullness of God, we often conclude our prayers in Jesus’ name.  The phrasing is not intended to be exclusionary, but how can it sound otherwise to a non-Christian? When I pray publicly in God’s name and omit Jesus’ name, I do so not because I fear offending others, but because I wish to express my belief that we are all children of God and that God’s great love extends to all—without limit, without condition and without exception.

Grace, I thank you for your heartfelt explanation. I appreciate sensitive people like you who are aware of the beliefs of their audience. The reason why Muslims would feel uncomfortable if prayers are concluded in Jesus’ name is not because they do not believe in him, but because they do not consider him as divine. That word is reserved for God alone. It might surprise some Christians to know that Jesus [Peace and Blessings be upon him] is an honored prophet in Islam. Both his birth and the birth of his mother Mary [Peace and Blessings be upon her] are beautifully captured in the Quran. Beloved to Muslims, both are considered examples of righteousness and uprightness.  Having said that, they are considered human, and praying to them is therefore not appropriate in Islam.

While I was eavesdropping on your conversation, my thoughts wandered to a volunteer luncheon I attended some years ago at an interfaith-based charity. We all bent our heads as the Pastor led us in the grace before the meal.  He quoted from psalms and blessed the work of the volunteers’ hands, and then he concluded by saying, “in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.” I felt unable to respond “Amen,” because the word “amen” comes from the Hebrew root “believe,” and Jews do not believe Jesus to be the Christ (messiah). I remember feeling frustrated, since I agreed with the sentiment of his prayer and wished to respond.  I don’t think that he intended to exclude anyone from his prayers—he must have been unaware of the presence of those who do not accept Jesus’ divinity.  I wish I had been in possession then of Grace’s lucid explanation of why Christians pray in this manner.  The Pastor’s words authentically expressed the prayer from his heart. Distracted by my own emotions, I may have missed the depth of emotion he was sharing with us.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Song & In Silence

“Shout praise to God, all the earth. Serve God with joy; come before Him with singing….Enter His gates with thanksgiving, His courtyards with praise.”
(Psalms 100:1-2, 4)

I have been reading this psalm regularly because one of my resolutions for the New Year was to express my gratitude daily.  I even set my phone’s alarm to alert me—with the soothing strains of the harp—to draw my mind away from the tasks before me and toward God.  Although I have been pretty successful at establishing prayerful moments, I still lack the motivation to attend synagogue services.  I love the idea of entering God’s gates with song, but find myself craving solitude and silence.  For Jews, the ideal is to worship God together with at least 9 other Jews. And Jews pray loudly—with plenty of communal singing—from a prayer book that contains many words.  Praying alone is permissible, but even then the ideal is to say the words aloud, if only in a whisper.  As a result, the opportunity for silence in synagogue is scarce. Recently, I reluctantly admitted to Yasmina that I suffer from spiritual envy: her mosque is such a peaceful environment and so conducive to prayer. At the same time, I long to hear the familiar melodies; to sing boldly and joyously in God’s courtyard. My soul yearns to shout praise to God but, for the moment, my mouth won’t cooperate. 

Tziporah, I love your New Year’s resolution, especially your "call to prayer" with the harp! During times of Christian celebration, as in the recent season of Christmas, I am eager to sing, and to do so boldly and joyously in communal worship.  In times of sorrow or penance, however, I may enter God’s courtyard with thanksgiving but without song. For example, during the penitential season of Lent we deliberately omit the singing of “Alleluias.” But I, too, feel the craving for deeper solitude and peace, apart from community.  In those times, I love taking private retreat, usually in total silence, for the renewal of my spirit.  Silence often opens my heart to the many ways I can serve God with joy and allows me to enter God’s gates—whether in a house of worship or elsewhere—with singing and praise from the soul, even as my voice is silent! 

I regularly listen to my favorite Quran reciter and love the opportunity to feel the resonance of the words; the meaning, the sounds, the rhythm and the melody. My appreciation of each recitation is a little different, depending on where I am physically, emotionally and spiritually. Like both of you, I enjoy solitary prayer time, as well as prayer in community. Some communal prayers are said aloud by the prayer leader, while others are offered in complete silence. For this reason, I get a taste of different prayerful moments every day, as the echo of the sounds of the Quranic recitations, the calls to prayer, and the silent praise of worshipers is preserved in time and space. As a Muslim, I believe that the sense of peace at the mosque that you alluded to, Tziporah, is a result of these daily occurrences, which have no ultimate goal other than to grant those taking part in them entry into the gates of the All Merciful.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Good Posture

We begin the year with a post that reflects what we have learned from our survey: You are interested in the personal conversations we have as we develop our responses to the sacred texts. This conversation began when Tziporah emailed Yasmina to ask about attending Friday prayers at the mosque.  Grace joined in, agreeing that the email exchanges formed the backbone of a blog post.  While we continue to add new texts on Wednesdays, we invite you to join our conversation by commenting below or responding to the survey
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Whatever beings there are in the heavens and the earth prostrate themselves to God, with good will or in spite of themselves; so do their shadows in the morning and evenings.”
(al-Ra’d 13:15)

When I visit the mosque, I always feel a little awkward during the prostrations because this is not a typical posture of Jewish prayer.  Jews used to prostrate—known in the literature as “falling on one’s face”—as a sign of devotion and humility.  Most notably, when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he used to prostrate and ask forgiveness on behalf of the people.  Nowadays, some Jews perform full prostrations on the High Holidays in remembrance of this custom, but usually only the leader of the congregation prostrates.  As I understand the evolution of liturgical practice, we gave up prostration after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), because the Holy of Holies no longer existed and the rabbis who re-envisioned Judaism pretty much put the Temple functionaries out of work. We still bow at the knee and waist in key sections of the liturgy, but these bows are carefully choreographed NOT to be full prostration or kneeling. The rules against bowing reflect the tendency of the rabbis to forbid “worshiping like our neighbors,” and likely arose as these postures became common in Christian and Muslim prayer.

I understand your feelings about prostration because it is unusual to you—and I am not saying that you should do it—but I wanted to offer some insight as to its meaning in Islam. Muslims are taught that prostration is the position in which they are closest to God because of the humility it represents; it is the physical expression of the submission of the heart. What we say in this position is "Praise be to My Lord, Most-High," three times at minimum. Then we may prolong our prostration to include supplications to God for good health, guidance, etc. The Quran mentions that many prophets prostrated before God. Even the magicians that challenged Moses [Peace and Blessings be upon him] finally relented and bowed low: “So the magicians were thrown down to prostration; they said, ‘We believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses.’” (Ta Ha 20:70) In fact, the Quran says that all creatures prostrate to God (see above). I included the verses because I knew you would ask me for them! Checking references is a great habit to cultivate, especially in our days when so many things are taken out of context.

I am inspired by your conversation and happy to add some information about physical expressions of prayer in various Christian practices.  Prayer postures vary among Christians of different denominations. However, full prostration is not customary in Christianity except when a monk or nun takes Solemn Vows to lead a monastic life.  Catholics traditionally show reverence at the church altar by bowing or genuflecting, and stand or kneel for prayer.  Protestant Christians are typically more restrained, sitting quietly and reverentially with bowed heads. Pentecostal Christians often raise their arms and hands, sometimes swaying their bodies to welcome God’s Holy Spirit. All of these postures convey the supplicant’s humility and adoration towards God. Some Christians, during and following prayer, make the sign of the Cross over the upper torso, sometimes also signing the Cross three times in miniature on forehead, lips, and heart: “God in my thinking, in my speaking, in my being.”  Because prayer is both corporate and personal, the movements during prayer—like the words of prayer itself—can be highly prescribed or completely spontaneous.