Showing posts with label God. Show all posts
Showing posts with label God. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Giver of the Torah

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has chosen us from all peoples and given us Your Torah. Blessed are You, Giver of the Torah.” 
(blessing recited before studying/reading Torah, from the liturgy)

Since I began studying the 99 Names of God with Yasmina and discovering the similarities in how we address God, I’ve been wondering about what this blessing means to me. While I recite it every morning and hear it recited often during the morning services when the Torah is read publicly, I am not certain that I fully embrace its message. First, the idea that God chose the Jewish people—even if I understand or interpret this to mean that God chose to give the Torah to the Jewish people—rings hollow. Other religions espouse beliefs and laws similar to those found in the Torah, especially those that fall into the category of "natural law," such as laws against murder and incest, as well as laws pertaining to social justice. In addition, I don’t believe that God actually gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai; rather I understand the emergence of Torah as a progressive revelation of God’s will, written by human beings in the language of their day. 

How then, can I praise God as “Giver of the Torah?” Do Christians and Muslims believe that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people? If so, do Muslims include this appellation among the 99 names of God?  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

God's Outstretched Arm (continued)

The outstretched arm of God is a powerful image in Christianity, too. Witness Michelangelo’s beautiful “Creation of Adam” painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel!  Unlike our Jewish and Muslim cousins, Christians are comfortable imaging/imagining God, yet without worshiping the image itself or losing sight of the reality that God cannot ever be imaged/imagined in all God’s fullness and glory.  We believe that God has created every human being in God’s image, and that, in the person of Jesus Christ, we can see that divine image fully revealed. For this reason, we seek to conform our lives to the life of Christ—not just to the prophetic teaching of Jesus, but to the very being of Christ—by loving wholly, unconditionally and limitlessly.  The term “Son of God” is not understood by Christians as a reference to Joseph’s or Mary’s son; like other monotheists we believe that God is One and undivided. “Son of God” is simply a way for our finite brains to conceive an eternal relationship through which God gave and gives to us God’s very self to be with us in our joys and in our suffering, and to offer us the redemptive Grace of an ever-deepening awareness and experience of God. That is why the historical Jesus, a Jewish man situated in time and place, can be understood as the eternal Christ—of one being with God—who can be seen and embodied in every person. Depictions of Jesus Christ, the Icon of God, can thus be windows for us through which God’s presence, and God’s forever outstretched arm, may be revealed.

This is a response to Tziporah's post of March 20th. Please share your thoughts about using anthropomorphic terms to talk about God in the comments section. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

God's Outstreteched Arm

“And God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with great awe, and with signs and wonders.” (Deuteronomy 26:8)

This verse was made famous by the rabbis who compiled the Haggadah, the book that Jews use to recount the story of the Exodus at the Passover Seder, and who expounded upon it as follows: “Not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger, rather The Holy One Blessed be He did it in His glory by Himself.” The traditional text of the Haggadah focuses entirely on God as the Redeemer of the people of Israel. While Moses is the conduit for God’s signs and wonders in the biblical account, the rabbis removed him from the Passover narrative so that future generations would understand that Moses was merely a messenger or prophet of God.  Both texts—the Hebrew Bible and the Haggadah—contain numerous references to God’s strength, using anthropomorphic language to describe God. But these descriptions are not intended to be taken literally, as Jews believe that God has no corporeal being. Nor are we permitted to create graven images of God; we are, however, comfortable speaking metaphorically about God’s physical attributes. 

My understanding is that Christians regard Jesus as the son of God—some believe Jesus to be a physical embodiment of God—whereas Muslims do not speak, even metaphorically, of God’s physical attributes.  Although Jews appear to fall somewhere between these opposing views, Maimonides (1135-1204) cautioned against describing what God is because, by doing so, one might inadvertently imply what God is not.

Is there anything that you believe your tradition forbids you to say about God?

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, September 14, 2011

God is Love

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God...for God is love.” 
(I John 4:7-8)

A familiar children’s song in Christian Sunday School repeats “God is Love; God is Love,” echoing a verse from the first of three Johannine letters in the Christian Bible. In this text, an elder addresses both youth and adults of the community with the affectionate greeting “my little children.” Yet the writer uses a Greek word for love that goes far beyond affection: not eros (sensate love), nor even filios (love of friend or kin), but agape, sacrificial love grounded in action rather than feeling. Agape extends compassion, forgiveness, and mercy even towards an enemy. It is the divine love that Christians see manifest in Jesus, and that, in my mind, enables human beings to see God in one another.

In Islam, loving God is incomplete if it is not coupled with doing what pleases Him. All the prophets displayed examples of how to put this love into action. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him], whose life was recorded in extensive detail, once said: “The most beloved of you to God are the ones who are best to His creatures.” Honorable qualities such as compassion, forgiveness, generosity, caring and mercy are to be applied towards all God’s creatures as clear signs of our love for Him. Individuals who possess these qualities can lead others to remember, praise and glorify God. The prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon him], offered the following supplication,[1] which was attributed to David [Peace and Blessings be upon Him]: “O Lord, grant me the love of Thee; grant me the love of those that love Thee; grant that I may do the deed that wins Thy love; make Thy love dearer to me than self, family and cold water.”

Reading Grace’s words and Yasmina’s response, I am immediately struck by the extent to which all three of us feel connected to God’s love.  It is this shared belief that serves as a foundation for our friendship, as well as for our faith.  Jews teach that God’s love for all of creation is at the core of God’s compassion for all creatures.  This love is best expressed in the Jewish liturgy in a prayer known as “Ashrei,” which is often led by school children and is also attributed to King David: “God is good to all; God’s compassion extends over all creatures.”[2] When I hear the psalmist’s words sung aloud, I am filled with a yearning to embody such pure generosity of spirit.  I am inspired to imitate God’s love—to find a way to be good by behaving toward others with compassion and kindness.

[1] From the Hadith, in the book Sunan at-Tirmidhi.
[2] Psalms 145:9