When Religious Pluralism gets Silly

Interfaith Dialogue is a bizarre phenomenon; I never know exactly what the point is. Is it just to find one what various traditions agree on? If so what’s the point? Where is the dialogue? Is it to compare doctrines? To what end? Also, dialogue on what basis, addressing what questions? Different religions address different questions with different assumptions. John Milbank puts it right in his essay “The end of Dialogue”:

The Event of dialogue, since its Socratic beginnings, assumes a commonly recognized subject matter and certain truths that can be agreed about this subject matter by both (or all) participants)

And then at the end of the Essay:

In the course of such a conversation, we should indeed expect to constantly receive Christ again, from the unique spiritual responses of other cultures. But I do not pretend that this proposal means anything other than continuing the work of conversion.

The fact is, most religions make claims, and any dialogue will, if taken seriously, end up being attempts at conversion or they will end up being vacuous and empty posturing. A religion reduced to empty vacuous posturing ends up killing itself, if a religion means nothing concrete, if it has no truth claims, it becomes empty. An article recently published Ian Mevorach is a perfect example of religious pluralism in its extremes, to the point to where it becomes silly.

The silliness starts quite early in the article Ian says:

Historically, most Christian theologians—including John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Nicholas of Cusa, and Martin Luther—have seen Muhammad not as a “Spirit of Truth” but as a “Spirit of Error,” a false prophet or heretic. There are many Christians today who respect the Islamic tradition and would never make such an offensive statement about Muhammad.

However, the majority of Christians still maintain a fundamentally Islamophobic position on Muhammad. So I believe that the time has come for peacemaking Christians to contradict this position directly. Changing our view of Muhammad—so that we recognize him as a true prophet rather than discredit him as a false prophet—would effectively inoculate Christians against Islamophobia and would help to establish a new paradigm of cooperative Christian-Muslim relations.

I can summarize the above statement thus: Not being a Muslim is Islamophobic. This is what Ian Mevorach is saying, even though he probably doesn’t realize he’s saying it. If one accepts Muhammad as a true Prophet, in that he transmitted a revelation from God in the Quran, you are necessarily a Muslim, and necessarily not a Christian. The Quran says, very clearly:

That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;–but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. (4:157, Yusif Ali)

If you don’t believe Jesus Christ died, you’re not a Christian, plain and simple. The death by crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is central to Christianity. If one accepts that Muhammad was a true prophet, and thus this revelation was actually from God himself, then you have to believe Jesus wasn’t killed. Once you believe that, you’re no longer Christian anymore. In fact, you then have to throw out any belief that doesn’t fit with Muhammad’s revelation, given that according to the Quran itself, it is the final revelation, not only that, unlike the bible, the Quran is made up of the literal words of God, not just the writings of men inspired of God. If you accept this, you must give up Christianity and become a Muslim lest you be inconsistent.

Another option for Ian Merovach is that Muhammad is a true prophet, but prophet doesn’t mean what Muslims mean when they say prophet, he’s a prophet, not in that he has revealed the word of God, but just that he had a good and just message for mankind. If that is the case, then what we have is even more of an offense to Muslims than the claim that Muhammad wasn’t a prophet, it’s the claim that being a prophet means completely nothing special and it’s nothing but an arbitrary cultural moral figure. Then we can say anyone is a prophet if a culture thinks of one as being one, it’s the claim Muhammad is a prophet, but that the claim is empty.

Now if it is the case that saying Muhammad is a false prophet is Islamophobic, then everyone who knows who Muhammad is, and is not a Muslim, is Islamophobic, and the term Islamophobia loses all meaning. If Muhammad was a true prophet, then the Quran is the literal and final word of God, Jesus was not killed, and Islam is the final and absolute truth. This is not a question, Islam as the absolute and final truth follows logically from Muhammad being a true prophet.

What about the actual argument? The whole argument is based on John 14:17 (NRSV):

17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

John 14:26:

26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

John 16:13, which says (in context):

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Here is Ian’s argument:

his discourse is designed to open the minds of Christians to receive a future revelation not as something that competes with or diminishes the Gospel, but rather as something that glorifies Jesus. Unfortunately, these words in the Gospel of John have been totally missed by Christians who reject and belittle the Qur’an; we have for the most part completely ignored the unity of the Gospel and the Qur’an in terms of their common revelatory source. However, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, we have the opportunity to receive the Word of God in the Qur’an in accordance with Jesus’ promise that the Spirit of Truth “will take what is mine and declare it to you.” We can accept the Qur’an as a revelation, not in opposition to the Gospel, but in unity with the Gospel and the will of Jesus.

Of course, this is true, after Christ there were inspired teachings, every Christian believes this, if they believe that the New Testament documents were inspired. However if you take this scripture to mean that the Spirit of Truth can go on indefinitely, and would include the revelation of Muhammad then The Gospel of John itself cannot be true, since the Gospel of John says very clearly that Jesus was killed in order to save the world. This is something the Quran denies, and in fact, the Quran brings a sin/virtue calculus which is meant to cover sin rather than the blood of Christ, which is the Christian message. One cannot logically accept both the Gospel and Quran as revelation.

The fact is that the most common interpretation of the Advocate verses is that it was the Holy Spirit that the Church received from God. If you want to start claiming that we can apply these verses to anyone and everyone who claims to bring a revelation from God, then why not Joseph Smith also? But even Joseph Smith would be more plausible since he didn’t teach anything so obviously and clearly contrary to the Gospel as the idea that Jesus was never killed.

This sort of radical interfaith nonsense does no one any favors. It doesn’t respect Islam, in that it completely ignores the actual claims of Islam, believing that one can accept Muhammad as a true prophet yet stay a Christian, believe Jesus was killed for the sins of mankind, that Jesus was God, or that only through Faith in Christ ransom can one be saved and other Christian belief. It basically treats the claims of Muhammad as empty. It doesn’t respect Christianity, in doing such ridiculous and loose playing with Christian theology and exegesis. It doesn’t respect actual interfaith dialogue which, when done right, is done respectfully, but recognizing what the real claims and the real stakes of the different religious theologies are.

When Religious Pluralism gets Silly

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