There are many ways to engage and respect people of different faiths. However, in our efforts to bring forth temporal harmony and find common ground, how do we know if we have gone too far?
This timeless question emerged in recent days amidst the controversy of a Wheaton College professor’s attempt to reach out to the Muslim community by pledging to wear a hijab for the duration of Advent. As part of her plublic comments regarding this decision she noted that she was inspired by the fact that Muslims and Christians possess a unique bond across these two faiths as “people of the book” who, in the words of Pope Francis, “worship the same God.” She is now suspended from teaching duties pending a review of these statements and how they align with the college’s statement of faith; a decision considered prudent and necessary to many and offensive to others.
Sadly, as a former graduate student of Wheaton College, I am not surprised to hear these reports of theological confusion on the nature of Allah sprouting at the very institution founded as a bastion of Christian orthodoxy. Several years ago I witnessed first hand the planting and tending of these thoughts on campus, notably led one evening by the renowned theologian Miroslav Volf. In certain ways I feel for this suspended professor, whose statements are only the most recent product of a culture of thought kindled and allowed to smolder unchecked for many years. The following is an edited version of my thoughts during my time at Wheaton, thoughts which seem all the more prescient given current events.
In the opening pages of C.S. Lewis’ conclusion to the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, King Tirian, the last king of Narnia, comes to believe that he sinned against Aslan, who is rumored to have returned. However, Lewis has already revealed to his readers that this so-called Aslan is false. The creature paraded to the Narnians as their lord and savior is none other than a mere donkey dressed in the skin of a lion. Unable to do more than mimic the movement of a lion behind a smokey shroud, this false Aslan is created and controlled by a talking Ape who seeks to manipulate the creatures of Narnia into doing evil for his personal gain. Even though the new commands mouthed by the Ape seem inconsistent with the message the true Aslan proclaimed throughout all of time, King Tirian’s submission to the lion’s sovereignty initially leads him to accept these rumors as true and to bow before the farce.
While the king awaits his fate for defying the will of “Aslan”, the Ape explains to the gathered creates of Narnia that he has inked a new partnership with Calormene soldiers from the south, formerly sworn enemies of Narnia, and suggests that they are now friends and compatriots. A little lamb who could take the Ape’s words no longer then chose to speak up:
“I can’t understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash. They have a god called Tash…They kill men on his alter. I don’t believe there’s any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?”
All the animals cocked their heads sideways and all their bright eyes flashed before the Ape. They knew it was the best question anyone had asked yet. The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb.
“Baby!” he hissed. “Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things? But you others, listen. Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormene’s wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for You Know Who. That’s why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan; Aslan is Tash.”
The resulting effect of his announcement upon the gathered Narnian beasts is described by Lewis as one of sadness and defeat. Through the pronounced creation of an imagined diety later named Tashlan, the Ape turns the entire meaning of the Narnians’ history and beliefs on its head. To their king, this effect did not go unnoticed nor could he let it stand unchallenged.
…as Tirian looked round on the miserable faces of the Narnians and saw how they would all believe that Aslan and Tash were one and the same, he could bear it no longer.
“Ape,” he cried with a great voice, “you lie. You lie damnably. You lie like a Calormene. You lie like an ape.”
It is from the single claim, that Aslan and Tash are one, that Tirian was able to see past the charade and reveal the very heart of the Ape’s lie.
A few weeks ago I attended a lecture at Wheaton College by the well-known theologian and professor at Yale Divinity School Miroslav Volf where he introduced the central thesis of his latest book, Allah: a Christian Response. Namely, he addressed the claim that Muslims and Christians both worship the same God, who is one.
The heart of his comments touched on the notion that, for all practical purposes, the god most Muslims have in mind when they speak of him and pray to him is the same as that of most Christians when they say and do the same. His argument, simplified, focuses on how both faiths are monotheistic and teach that God created the world, that God is good, and that God will judge the world. Therefore, a Muslim’s understanding of Allah, while not quite equivalent to that of the Christian God, is similar enough in conception and essence to argue that we pray to and worship the same deity, albeit in different ways. His purpose for this conclusion was to provide common ground so that he could forge a new friendship between Muslims and Christians; one where we can focus on our similarities over our differences, one where we can create a peace between our faiths, one where Allah and God are one. Beginning to sound familiar?
Volf chose to “bracket out” the question of eternal salvation and/or damnation. As pure conjecture, I would guess that by deciding to “bracket out” this factor he intended to make his comments more palatable to his audience. Or rather, in his mind he was choosing to avoid what seemed to be the more dangerous and controversial ground so that the rest of his message might be more deeply considered by those in attendance. Yet the implications for salvation deeply concerned me throughout his entire address and continue to do so today.
It is in the testimony Lewis provides for his controversial character of Emeth, the infamously saved Calormene, that I found a clear answer to Volf’s implication that his work can be considered separately from questions of eternal life. As Emeth describes to the returned Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve regarding his loss of joy and eventual turn to Aslan:
“And most of all when I found we must wait upon a monkey, and when it began to be said that Tash and Aslan were one, then the world began to be dark in my eyes. For always since I was a boy, I have served Tash, and my great desire was to know him and, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name Aslan was hateful to me.”
Emeth does not come to love Aslan through the newly forged concept of Tashlan, nor do any of his fellow Calormenes. He thought of this union as an abominable mockery of Tash and “wondered that the true Tash did not strike down both the Monkey and the Tarkaan [his leader in the Calormene army] with fire from heaven.”
Emeth was a true believer. He was earnestly seeking eternal truth and therefore he could see the notion of Tashlan for the lie that it was because he understood that if you really believed in either Aslan or Tash you could not accept this amalgamation without fundamentally altering the character and essence of both.
Volf’s new claims regarding the nature of Allah arise from a desire, as he explained that night, to make way for respectful dialogue between faiths. He asked us at the time, “should we not want to treat others as we would also want to be treated?” In this query he is very correct, for just as Tirian heard of the notion of Tashlan and felt compelled to cry out against it, so too did Emeth. Our similarities are not found in a common God, not in the way that Volf’s work seems to direct us. Instead, our similarities are found in a mutually zealous search for, and adherence to, the Truth.
The search for the Truth is one which commands we respect the differences between us, for we understand that these differences dispute ideas that hold eternal value and therefore carry with them eternal consequences. Our beliefs are not platitudes to be molded or manipulated by the shifting winds of culture and politics. We uphold them as absolutes, shout of their truth in the wilderness, and respect those who respect the fact that we really mean what we say.
What alarmed me most about that lecture – and, truthfully, what I am deeply ashamed of for my own part – is that there was not a single person present that night, at an institution which is supposedly one of the epicenters for evangelical thought, who was willing to stand up and say, “You lie. You lie damnably.” Instead we all just sat there and simpered and smirked for our celebrity guest. Perhaps some of us silently looked on with distrust or disagreement but, like the Narnian beasts, a great many that night appeared to accept his message as truth. And why shouldn’t they? For it was coming from a renowned authority figure with a Phd who possess excellent stage presence and the ability to tell stories that will make your heart melt and your reason fly away.
I believe those of us who knew better failed that night. And this is a lesson I hope to learn from and never repeat. There is a notion out there among the educated elite that we need strive to meet cleverness with cleverness. That the only way to question or address the teachings of someone as well endowed intellectually as Volf is through his own methods and in his own language.
Being clever in apologetics isn’t always a bad idea. But there are some times when the best thing to do – the most truthful thing to do – is to simply stand up and say “You lie.” Many of us have lost sight of the value of speaking the truth with a bold simplicity. In fact, I fear we are often guilty of tearing apart some of those little lambs whose stuttering comments strike more deeply at that which is true and good than anything our fancy terms and wry comments could ever achieve.
We also forget that in cases such as this lecture any challenge issued is not fundamentally about changing the mind of someone as well prepared and clever as Miroslav Volf. Rather, it is about speaking out for the sake of the people who are listening to him and, when there are no ears to hear, speaking out for the sake of defending truth itself.
The power lies not in the messengers or in the ways they choose to articulate the message. The power lies in the living Word, in the Truth. Tirian was attacked, silenced, and imprisoned by the Ape and his Calormene companions for speaking out, but in time he was rewarded for his attempt to defend the true faith and the true Alsan.
We need speak out because there is much to loose. Tash, in the story, did turn out to be real. He was not just some idea to be manipulated but a distinct and evil creature who did not care for his followers and was destined to be vanquished by the might of Aslan’s roar. Lewis may have chosen for Aslan to save a single Calormene with the line, “Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” Yet he also continues on with Aslan directly answering the claim that he and Tash are somehow the same:
“It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kind that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and it by Tash his deed is accepted.”
Volf built upon this notion of deed of good versus evil in his lecture, particularly in drawing parallels between modern day Muslim terrorists and Christian crusaders who so mercilessly slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 1099 AD. He claimed that such blood thirsty acts must certainly be examples of worshiping the same god of violence regardless of who they claimed to be perpetrating the acts for. Where Volf and Lewis clearly differ is that Lewis saw no need in the penultimate end of time to somehow enlist or defend other deities in order to forge common ground between good Calormenes and the Narnian creatures so beloved by their Creator.
It is one thing to creatively imagine that our sovereign God, in his great mercy and love, will extend salvation to those who genuinely seek after him while on this earth. It is quite another to claim for the sake of an entire religion that their god and ours are one and the same. Such efforts, while undertaken to forge peace and understanding, will do nothing but distort the very truth of God and lead us away from eternal and lasting peace.
I do not know whether Lewis is correct in depicting God’s salvation as inclusive of those who do good acts in the search for truth, nor is it something we will ever truly settle among us on earth as it is God’s judgment to exact. But I am confident that we are commanded to have no other God than the one who is revealed to us in holy scripture. And as much as there may be similarities between God and other deities such as Allah, there are even greater differences. When we trample over these differences to such an extent that we can no longer speak of them in meaningful terms, we risk our ability to openly proclaim the unique wonders of our God to a world who so deeply hungers for him. Moreover, once set down this path, we may come to no longer believe in these foundational differences as needed or even as true elements of our faith.
Our words, both of love and truth, will not always be met with open arms or respect. But we are not here to be loved by this world. We are here to follow after the heart and, yes, the fate of our Lord and Savior as he was scorned and rejected and killed.
May we be little lambs who know the truth well enough to boldly question its perversions, even while being spat upon. May we be Tirians and Emeths and not falter in our ability to call out these efforts of diluting delirium for what they truly are: lies. May we so love our Creator that we find the strength and wisdom to love all his creation in ways that engage our neighbors with kindness and compassion in truth, just as he seeks after all of us with faithful abandon and selfless love.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
An earlier version of this post first appeared here, published in Spring 2011