What the People of the Book Teach About God’s Nature

On one crucial point, Judaism, Islam and Christianity are in agreement. All insist that faith in God is the first requirement. But then that’s the prerequisite of any religion, isn’t it? The differences lie in the what each religion teaches about the nature of God.

Let’s take Christians. They teach that God is love. You hear that over and over again. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son …” Christians believe that by dying on the cross for our sins, God (through Jesus) showed how much He loved us. Why else would God go through all that if He didn’t?

One of the criticisms that Christians have about Islam is that Allah is not primarily a loving God. They seem to need proof that God loves us, and that that proof is provided by His sacrifice on the cross. Muslims believe that God is continually showing His love for us and that the only proof we need is 1) that He created us in the first place; 2) that He is always there for us; and 3) that He is a Merciful God. Besides, why should God have to prove anything? He is God.

It’s completely erroneous to say that Allah is not a loving God. First of all, Muslims believe that Jesus was one of the great prophets of God and that we are to heed his teachings. We accept what he taught about God’s nature. But Jesus never said that God was a Triune God. The Christian Church developed the concept of the Trinity by putting together certain things that Jesus did say with the opinions of New Testament writers and of theologians who lived centuries after Jesus.

Christians start off wrong in their dealings with Muslims when they assume that Allah is a completely different God than the one they worship. The One God is the same whether He is worshiped by Jews, Christians or Muslims. But men try to shape their understanding of God according to the tenets of the religion they follow. Jews emphasize God’s omnipotence, Christians emphasize His love and Muslims emphasize His totality.

That’s why Muslims believe that Allah has 99 names. His nature can’t simply be summed up in one sentence. He is omnipotent and loving, but He is much more than that. To be fair, Jews and Christians also believe that God’s nature is complex. And we all agree that that God is unknowable exactly because He is God.  But we can also rejoice in the fact that God hasn’t left us completely in the dark about His nature.

All the People of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims) believe that God reveals Himself in His Book(s). Each of these religions believes that their Book is the last word on God. (But only the Qur’an truly is the last word.) That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn about God from reading the other Books. We can use the Qur’an to guide us as to what has been corrupted in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, but I think it’s important to familiarize ourselves with the pictures of God that we find there.

You can tell a lot about what a person believes about God’s nature by the rules that they follow. Jews follow the Ten Commandments which start out with God stating that He is a jealous God, and that therefore we are not to have any other Gods before Him. Christians like to sum up what Jesus taught in the phrase, “Thou art to love the Lord God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.” Muslims take seriously God’s admonitions to worship and follow Him alone. All three emphasize different aspects of what God expects from us, but we can learn from them all about the God’s nature.

No one religion can say that it alone has a complete understanding of God. We need to remember that when we interact with each other.

See these charts that compare Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

 

 

 

 

 

My Faith Journey: The Lost Years (Part 3)

No matter what has happened to me in my life, I’ve never stopped believing in God. If anything, I stop believing in me.

After my divorce from my children’s father (the minister), I felt unworthy to be in God’s Kingdom. I stopped going to church for several years. I left my children’s religious education up to their dad. (Which only made me feel worse, as if he was the “good” Christian and I was the “bad” one.) I certainly didn’t feel forgiven for all my sins.

But when things got tough, I still prayed to God for strength and comfort. I knew He was still there, waiting for me to…what? Return to church? Was that all it took to be a good Christian? Or was it enough that I believed in the Trinity? There were times when I felt like anything but a Christian. But I clung to that definition of myself, because what else could I be? I believed in Jesus and I still thought that he had died for my sins and brought me eternal life.

Even so, I had doubts. How could Jesus be both God and man? Was it really true that only people who believed that were going to Heaven? What about all the other people in the world who weren’t Christians? Were they condemned to Hell, no matter how much they loved God and tried to live according to His principles?

And then there were the Christians themselves. I knew plenty of Christians who were sincere and loving people. But I also knew just as many (if not more) who were narrow-minded and judgmental. If Christians were supposed to be transformed by their faith in Christ, where was the evidence?

Not that I thought I was a good example of a Christian. I made a lot of poor decisions during this period. Six months after my divorce was final, I remarried, and of all people, I married the man I’d gone with in high school. The one I’d gotten pregnant with. I think now that I was feeling guilty because I’d aborted his baby. I was also feeling very vulnerable: my first husband had rejected me, the Church had rejected me and most of my friends had rejected me. It felt good to have someone come along who really wanted to be with me. Plus I was feeling shaky about raising my children alone.

Turns out, I’d been right to break up with him the first time. He was verbally and sometimes physically abusive to my children. I tried to make excuses for him—he’d never been a dad before, he was frustrated that the children didn’t warm to him right away, he’d been physically abused by his own father. We all went into therapy and I thought it would get better.

And I felt trapped. I didn’t want to admit that I’d made such a huge mistake. And I was terrified at the prospect of being a single mother. How would I support myself and my children? I couldn’t go back and live with my parents. I had no education and no job prospects.

And then I got hired by the post office and suddenly I had the ability to get out of the marriage. Fortunately my husband agreed to a dissolution and moved out of the house. I had a chance to start over.

Part One

Part Two

Part Four

 

 

 

My Faith Journey, Part Two

When my grandfather died, I was devastated. I’d always considered him my best friend, my advocate and my ally in a world that so often seemed hostile to me. I was a lonely child and I often felt like an outsider. My grandfather made me feel accepted and unique. And more than that, he represented God to me. Most of what I knew about God, I’d learned from him and I would forever equate him with godliness and mercy.

I was seventeen and was still dating the Jewish boy who by then was in college. It was a very unhealthy relationship, to say the least: he was most probably mentally ill and he frequently threatened to commit suicide and take me with him. While he was away on a theater tour of Europe I mustered up the courage to break up with him.

After that, I fell hard for another boy who rejected me and finally ended up dating another boy who was my age. In the fall after I graduated from high school, I went away to college but I still saw my boyfriend on weekends. The one time we had unprotected sex, I got pregnant and had an abortion when I was nineteen. I felt guilty and confused and didn’t really want to be with my boyfriend any more, but I didn’t know how to end it.

In my second year of college, I met the young man who would become my first husband. I was attracted to him partly because he was planning to become a minister. In my state of mind, that felt like a sign from God. I broke up with my high school boyfriend and started dating the prospective minister. Nine months after we met we were married. We were both twenty years old.

What’s probably obvious to you, my readers, is that my husband was a replacement for my grandfather, but I didn’t see that until years later. I still considered myself to be a Christian at this point, but I didn’t really feel very close to God. Being married to a divinity student made me feel closer. But our marriage wasn’t made in heaven and we found ourselves wondering why we’d gotten married.

About this time I met a “born-again” Christian and she impressed me with stories of how much God cared about and loved me. I realized that I’d never allowed God into my heart and that I needed to know Him personally. My husband and I both came to the same conclusion at the same time and a few months after we were married, we, too, became “born-again” Christians.

My mother didn’t understand my new-found religious devotion. In her eyes, I’d always been a Christian. But I knew that I’d been seeking something more and I felt that I’d found it by finally accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior for myself. I felt that before that I hadn’t really known what it meant to be a Christian. I was finally learning what it meant to be in a personal relationship with God.

But all was not smooth-sailing. My husband took on a very rigid view of what it meant to be a Christian, especially a Christian wife and mother. (We started our family a year and a half after we married.) He insisted that he was not only the head of our marriage but that he was also my spiritual guide and counselor. The problem with that was that he was extremely critical and I constantly felt judged and found wanting.

We struggled to make our marriage work, but after ten years and four children, we separated. He had his own church by then and I had to move, with the kids, out of the parsonage. We moved in with my parents. I was blamed for the break-up and lost all my former friends in the church. I was suddenly a black sheep in God’s kingdom.

See My Faith Journey, Part One

Part Three

 

 

My Faith Journey, Part One

I remember believing in God when I was five or six. I’d lost something precious to me and prayed to God to help me find it. I immediately found it and remember being quite impressed. God must be real!

That’s a child’s understanding of God, of course. At that stage I didn’t really equate Jesus with God. I knew about Jesus: about all the good things he’d done and that he loved me. (Probably the first hymn I ever learned was, “Yes, Jesus loves me/ Yes, Jesus loves me/Yes, Jesus loves me/The Bible tells me so.” ) But to me God was simply God.

It takes a while for a child to grasp the idea of the Trinity. (Some people never really understand it.) Or even that Jesus was supposed to be God, too.  When I was in the second grade, my teacher told us the entire story of Jesus, from Christmas to Easter and I remember crying because I couldn’t believe God would love us enough to send His son to die for us. But even then, I thought of Jesus as God’s son, not as God Himself.

My mother’s father was a Lutheran minister and I used to love going to his church and hearing him talking about God from the pulpit. I adored him and I’m sure one reason why I believed in God was because he did. I also may have modeled my concept of God after him because he was a wise and loving man who I believed was the only person in the world who really understood me.

As I grew older I did get the message that Jesus was supposed to be God sent to Earth in human form, but all that meant to me was that God was powerful enough to do that. God could do anything! I knew we were supposed to worship and pray to Jesus, but I felt more comfortable with the concept of God as our Father and Creator (the first person of the Trinity). I worshiped Jesus at church and prayed to the Father in private.

Eventually I learned that the Holy Spirit was the third person of God in the Trinity, but that made even less sense to me. I never prayed to the Holy Spirit. He (it) wasn’t God to me; he was God’s spirit working in us.  That’s how I understood the Trinity: God as Father created us, God as Son saved us, and God as Spirit changed us. It was complicated but also simple. But I still felt more comfortable praying to just “God.”

When I was in the seventh and eighth grade I attended catechism classes where I was taught all the doctrines of the Lutheran church. At the end of that period I was confirmed as a full member of the church. I still remember the Bible verse that was given to me when I went through Confirmation: “Be thou faithful until death, and I will give you the Crown of Life.” That verse still forms the basis of my faith.

I didn’t attend church that much after I was confirmed. My parents didn’t always go themselves and once I went through confirmation they probably thought their obligation to introduce me to religion was over. We did always attend on Christmas and Easter, often in my grandfather’s church, and I have wonderful memories of the candlelight and silence of Christmas Eve and the jubilant hymns and smell of lilies at Easter.

I remember asking my grandfather questions about God around this time. I was entering adolescence and, like most teen-agers, I was starting to wonder about everything I’d been taught in church and Sunday School. Not only that, but I started dating a Jewish boy when I was sixteen and was trying to learn about Judaism. I eventually decided that I couldn’t “give up” Jesus and decided to remain a Christian.

Then, when I was seventeen, my grandfather, who I felt loved me even more than my parents did, died suddenly of a heart attack and my world turned dark.

Part Two

Part Three

Some Thoughts About Righteousness

After I prayed this morning, I felt good about myself. Why? Because I’d followed Allah’s will and that made me feel righteous. But the more I thought about that, the more it seemed to me that I had the concept of righteousness all wrong. I’m certainly no scholar, and my knowledge of the Qur’an and the ahadith is sketchy. But as I thought about righteousness this morning, I had the following thoughts:

The point of righteousness  is not so that we can feel better about ourselves (which often means that we also feel that we’re better than others), but to train ourselves to care more about others. Because being righteous, or virtuous, or even pious isn’t primarily about getting into Jannah. It’s about becoming the person Allah wants us to be in this world.

That’s not to say that being righteous doesn’t make us feel better. It’s a good feeling to draw closer to God. Sin separates us from Allah; righteousness unites  us. Not because we’re made worthy to stand before Him by our acts of righteousness, but because our mindset becomes more like His. We become one with Him in purpose. We get our minds off ourselves and on to Allah and others.

Righteousness means nothing unless it’s demonstrated by what we do for others. Righteousness should be an attitude of the heart more than an act of the will. But we have to act to demonstrate what’s in our hearts, and to spread Allah’s love and message to others.

At the same time, we must never act in order to get others to think better of us. Righteousness should be never be a show. If my being righteous makes me feel pride, I’m on the wrong track.

Allah judges righteousness differently than we do. He has different standards of what’s important. When we perform righteous acts, we should never be puffed up with pride. Instead, we should be humbly grateful to Allah for showing us how to be righteous. And for showing us why it’s important to be righteous.

Righteousness needs to be paired with repentance, so that every act is an act of penance, not in the sense of punishment, but to show that we know we did something wrong and we want to make up for it. Allah will always honor our attempts to start over.

The goal of Islam isn’t our personal redemption (or shouldn’t be). The goal of Islam is to help us along our journey into righteousness. Getting into Jannah is only a side-benefit. It’s not about what we get, but about what we give.

Allah has already established who we are and His view of us is far more positive than Christians believe it is. At the same time it is realistic: Allah knows we’re prone to sin. (Christians believe that we are sin; they spend so much telling themselves how sinful they are, it’s no wonder that so many Christians struggle with guilt and a sense of spiritual inferiority).

Contrary to Christian belief, people are inherently capable of goodness and “random acts of kindness.” Allah made us with the potential for evil and good (or righteousness). Evil comes from rebellion against Allah and our better natures. Rebellion is a rejection of  what is good about us; righteousness is an affirmation of the same.

Video: Interview About Sharia Law

In an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Feldman said: “Sharia, according to Muslims, is God’s word on how you’re supposed to live your life. The question is what did God actually say when he told you how to live your life and on that, Muslims disagree. Islam and Sharia are not the same thing. Islam is the word for a general set of religious beliefs, primarily the oneness of God and the prophesy of the prophet Mohamed. Sharia is the systems of norms and ideals that govern the life of a believing Muslim.”

 When asked if Americans should be afraid of Sharia Law, Feldman replied, “No, there’s no reason for an American living under our constitutional system of government that protects us against established religion to fear the introduction of Sharia in our country. It literally cannot happen and won’t happen unless 60 to 70% of Americans suddenly become fundamentalist Muslims, and that’s not within the bounds of possibility.”

 (via Harvard Law School)