2016-06-03

Isa did not leave Evan much time to think about it. He pressed on: “And if you say that we worship a false God because we deny that Jesus is God’s Son, then you must say the same thing about the Jews. They must be worshiping a different God than you worship for the same reason: they too deny that Jesus is the Son of God. Is that what you say about them too, then?”

“I don’t know. I think that that must logically follow, and yet I do not want to say that.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not sure.”

At this point, Evan turned to Fr. Heerema, who had sat down with them and had been listening to the last few minutes of their conversation. Most of the Jesuits ate with each other, but Fr. Heerema preferred to eat with the students.

“What do you think, Father?” Evan asked. “Can you tell me why I don’t want to say that about the Jews?”

“I think I can,” Fr. Heerema answered. “It is because Jesus was a Jew! Jesus didn’t say that the Jewish leaders worshiped the wrong God. When he argued with the Jews who refused to believe in him, he appealed to their knowledge of the one true God. So according to Jesus, Jews worship the true God.”

Evan was not satisfied. “But Jesus and the Jews contradicted each other about God, about whether God had a Son. And Christians and Jews still contradict each other today about that.” “Yes, they do. But that doesn’t mean that they worship two different Gods. In fact, it means exactly the opposite: that they worship the same God. Because if the two of them didn’t mean the same God when they used the word, then they weren’t really contradicting each other at all, just talking past each other.”

“Logically, that seems to follow,” Evan admitted.

‘Isa then intervened: “But if the God of the Christians is the God of the Jews, then the God of Muslims is the God of the Christians because he is also the God of the Jews. If two things are both equal to a common third thing, they are equal to each other. That is a basic rule of logic.”

“And not just abstract logic but concrete history,” added Fr. Heerema. “Because both Christians and Muslims learned who God was from the Jews, from the people of Abraham. Both received the truth about God from the same source. Even though they disagreed about many things later, they still have that common source. If a river forks into two or three streams downstream, it’s still the same water.”

Evan was now confused. He was better at attacking ‘Isa’s beliefs than he was at defending his own, even though he knew his own better than he knew ‘Isa’s. So he went on the attack, with Fr. Heerema listening. “ ‘Isa, I have to admit your logic. Now I ask you to admit mine. You say that God never contradicts himself, do you not?”

“I do.”

“And the Qur’an says that the one God sent all three scriptures.”

“Yes.”

“But that cannot be, because the Qur’an and the New Testament contradict each other about Jesus.”

“I’ve answered that argument already, Evan. That’s because you do not have the Gospel that Allah sent. You have the one that has been changed and corrupted by heretics, by the people the Qur’an calls ‘associators’ because they associate Jesus with Allah as his Son.” “But doesn’t the Qur’an say that no man can change the words of God?”

“Yes, that is exactly what it says (6:34).”

“Then how could God have allowed the associators to change his words?”

Now it was ‘Isa’s turn to say, “I will have to think about that.”

Evan pressed his attack. “Doesn’t the Qur’an call Jesus ‘God’s Word’? ”

“Yes, that is in the Qur’an (4:168). But not ‘God’s Son.’ ”

“So tell me, is God eternal, or does he have a beginning?”

“God is eternal, as we both well know.”

“And did God ever exist without his Word? Was God ever wordless? Was God ever dumb?”

“No. God is not imperfect. God always has his Word with him. But God is only one.”

“Then God and God’s Word are one, not two.”

“That is what we believe. There is only one God. ‘There is no God but God.’ ”

“That is what we believe too. So why do you call us associators?”



“Because you say God’s Word is God’s Son, and you say that that is Jesus. But Jesus is the prophet of God’s Word, not God’s Word. If he is on earth, and human, he cannot be also in heaven and divine. And if he is in heaven and divine, if he is God’s eternal Word in heaven, as you say he is, then he cannot be also a human prophet on earth. That is illogical and contradictory. We believe no such contradictions.”

“It is not a contradiction. It is only a paradox, an apparent contradiction.”

“Well, it certainly seems to be a contradiction. We are more logical than you. We do not believe in paradoxes like that.”

“But I think you do. I think that you believe something just as paradoxical,” Fr. Heerema interjected.

“No, we do not,” ‘Isa answered. “Our Prophet is human and not divine, and our God is divine and not human.”

“But what of your holy book, ‘Isa, your Qur’an? You believe that it is the eternal unchangeable truth and the eternal Word of God, do you not?”

“Yes.”

“So there is a heavenly Qur’an, an eternal Qur’an, in God’s mind eternally?”

“Yes.”

“But there is also an earthly Qur’an, which you read and recite.”

“Yes . . .”

“So how is the earthly Qur’an related to the heavenly Qur’an? Are there two Qur’ans or only one?”

“Only one.”

“So the same Qur’an is both earthly and heavenly.”

“But it is the same Qur’an, one Qur’an, not two—one truth, not two—one divine Word, not two.”

“Whether it is in heaven or on earth?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that is what we believe about Jesus. So if we are associators, so are you. And if you are not, then we are not either.”

‘Isa did not have an immediate answer to this, and Fr. Heerema continued: “ ‘Isa, do you see this book I am carrying?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

“It says ‘The Qur’an’ on the title page. But it is not the Qur’an. It is a translation of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is in Arabic, not English. A translation of the Qur’an is not the Qur’an. All it can do is communicate some of the meaning of the Qur’an.”

“And why is the meaning of the Qur’an not the same as the Qur’an?”

“For the same reason the meaning of the ‘Ode to Joy’ is not the same as the ‘Ode to Joy.’ ”

“An interesting comparison. Do you mean that you can’t translate Arabic into English as you can’t translate poetry into prose, without leaving something behind?”

“More than that. The ‘Ode to Joy’ is not just poetry but song. It must be recited. That is what the Qur’an is: recitation. The book in paper is like directions for the book in the human voice, as sheet music is directions for music that is played, or as the words of a play are directions for the actual performance.”

“I find that very interesting. So the Qur’an is more like a play than like a novel?”

“In that sense, yes. But it is not a book of stories, like your Bible. It is a book of eternal truths.”

“But this eternal truth is recited in time, in history, when it is proclaimed.”

“Yes.”

“And this Qur’an is the Word of God?”

“Yes.”

“So the Word of God happens, in time.”

“The recital of it happens. The truth of it is eternal,” ‘Isa said.

“But with that qualification, you would say that the eternal truth, the eternal Word of God, happens in time.”

“Yes.”

“Well, we Christians say the same thing about Jesus.”

“But when you Christians say ‘the Word of God,’ you mean a person, not a book.”

“We mean first of all the person, yes, but also, secondly, the book. But you put the book first.”

“We do.”

“I think we disagree with you about that. We believe in the primacy of the person, the power of the person, the value of the person first of all.”

“Perhaps that is because you do not understand the power of a book,” ‘Isa retorted. “We do. We Muslims understand the power of the Word, the spoken word. It is like the power of music. And in that way, I think perhaps we understand even your book, your Bible, better than you do.”

“What do you mean? Are you saying you understand Christianity better than Christians do?”



“No, I meant the power of your book, not its teachings. Your book, your Bible, was once very powerful in your culture, was it not? It was once much more like the Qur’an in that way. Your old King James Bible: everyone read it and loved it and knew it and believed it and memorized it and preached from it and recited it. It had power over your souls and over your culture. It used to sing in your souls. And now it no longer sings. Because now you have twenty different new sissy translations that sound like interoffice business memos, all dull and f lat and ugly and weak, and you have lost its power over your souls.”

Though Evan listened to this tirade with an uncomprehending frown, Fr. Heerema listened intently and sympathetically, and replied, “ ‘Isa, I think you are right there. I think we may need you Muslims to remind us of the power of our own written Word.”

Evan had to go to another class, so ‘Isa and Fr. Heerema continued their conversation over lunch. ‘Isa tried his quid pro quo argument on him.

“You understand why we Muslims can’t accept your claim for Jesus to be more than a prophet. Can you explain to me why you Christians can’t accept our claim for Muhammad to be a prophet?”

“I will make a deal with you, ‘Isa. I will try to explain why we are skeptical of your claim about Muhammad if you will tell me why you are skeptical of our claim about Jesus.”

‘Isa accepted the deal. “That’s easy. The Qur’an says: ‘How should he have a son when he had no consort?’ It is blasphemous to think of God having a consort, God coming down to make a woman pregnant. That’s what the false, corrupt gods of the pagans did. The Qur’an calls this idea not only false but ‘monstrous falsehood, at which the very heavens might crack, the earth break asunder, and the mountains crumble to dust.’ ”

“Oh. I see. Well, I think that is a very good reason and a very bad reason.”

“How can it be both?”

“It is a very good reason because if that is how you understand the word son—literally—then you are absolutely right to call this a blasphemous idea. But it is a very bad reason because that is not how Christians understand the word son. Don’t you ever interpret religious language symbolically?”

“No, the Qur’an is literal divine speech, for all Muslims. Even the Sufis, who add many mystical meanings, accept the literal meaning first.”

“I think perhaps that is a deep source of our misunderstanding: our different attitudes toward language—as we saw a few minutes ago when we spoke about the power of the written word. Tell me, if you will, please: if you interpret everything in the Qur’an literally, do you also interpret the following passage literally? After rejecting the Christian claim that Jesus is Allah’s Son, Muhammad adds, ‘But if the Lord of Mercy had a son, I would be the first to worship him’ (Qur’an 43:80-81). ”

“Yes, of course, we take that literally. Especially the ‘if.’ ”

“But why did Muhammad add that?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps it was to show Muslims that these Christian heretics were not intending to blaspheme. That’s what you said about us: you said we had a good intention, a good reason for not worshiping Jesus. You agree with our motive, but not with our theology. And perhaps the Qur’an is agreeing with the Christians’ motives, but not with their theology.”

“And that is a very deep spiritual understanding, don’t you think, ‘Isa? To understand the good motives of the people who believe something you think is very, very wrong?”

“It is indeed.”

“In fact, I think an agreement about motives is an even deeper agreement than an agreement about theology. Jesus and the Pharisees had the same theology, but very different motives, very different states of soul.”

“You are saying that religion is far more important than theology.”

“Yes. Theology is the road map; religion is the journey.”

“I think every Muslim would agree with you there.”

“Thank you, ‘Isa. That is very gratifying to me. And to God, I think. Even though the theological differences remain, and they are essential, and we cannot overcome them. There is still an unbridgeable canyon between us in theology.”

“The canyon is unbridgeable from us to you, but not from you to us.”

“What do you mean?”

“We would have to leap an infinite chasm to accept your claim about Jesus. But you would have to take only one small step to accept our claim about Muhammad. I still don’t understand why you Christians can’t take that one small step?”

“Your quid pro quo again. Didn’t we answer that question in our conversation with Evan? It’s just not logically possible.”

“Go over it again, please. I’m not convinced that it’s not logically possible.”

“All right. A prophet of God never speaks falsehood, right?”

“Right.”

“But Muhammad said that Jesus was not the Son of God, right?”

“Right.”

“And divinely inspired scriptures never speak falsehood, right?”

“Right.”

“And the Qur’an denies that Jesus is the Son of God, right?”

“Right.”

“You see what logically follows. If the New Testament is right, Muhammad cannot be a true prophet. That logically follows. It’s not because of our lack of appreciation for Muhammad that we can’t accept your claim about him, it’s because of our loyalty to Christ. To accept Muhammad as a prophet, we would have to abandon the New Testament. But to accept Christ as a prophet you do not have to abandon the Qur’an. So the gap is an unbridgeable one for us, not for you—exactly the opposite of what you said.”

“Well, where do you think the Qur’an came from then, if not from God?”

“I don’t know. Let’s think about that together, shall we? Let’s look at the alternatives.”

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