Successful Awkwardness in Interreligious Dialogue


Last night I had the pleasure of grabbing a drink with two of my good friends from graduate school. Unsurprisingly, the topic of religion came up for discussion. One of my friends is a Muslim, and she and I had a nice talk about Christianity and Islam. She and I had a lively discussion on the Christian claim that Jesus is God. In her view, Christianity has distorted Jesus’ true identity, as a mere prophet of God. Of course, in Islam, Jesus is lauded as a great prophet and the Messiah. She continued to insist that it is incredibly offensive to think that God would become man. In response, God gave the final revelation to the Prophet to correct Christianity’s aberrant teaching. What I found particularly interesting was her reaction to my claim that I wholeheartedly endorsed the incarnation (she also didn’t like my claim that God died in Christianity, but here I stand firmly in the Lutheran tradition). She said that it was “ridiculous” that I could actually believe that God would humiliate Godself and become man. Of course I have no proof to argue for the incarnation, rather it is an axiomatic decision that Christians are compelled to make (at least those who endorse creedal, orthodox Christianity). I found myself in a delicate position because I had no desire to ridicule her religion or theology, not because I’m mature and a good person. Rather I felt that if I were to try and play the “well I respect your beliefs, you should respect mine as well” card, the engagement would have been killed. Socially, I believe it would have been considered a major offense if I would have called her religious beliefs absurd or unbelievable (which is an entirely different matter). I also find Islam a very rational and believable religion. It makes a lot of sense, unlike Christianity, which is probably what led Tertullian to claim “I believe because it is absurd”. I found it hard to not be defensive, but I decided it would be best to listen and engage. We eventually claim to the conclusion that a belief in the incarnation is in fact the difference between Islam and Christianity. This should come as no surprise. Despite her offensiveness, I found this level of engagement incredibly refreshing. I prefer this sort of open and sometimes aggressive discussion as opposed to the niceness and false sentimentality of so much inter-religious discourse. True engagement is going to be uncomfortable, but awkwardness is probably a sign of successful dialogue. That is to say, if you’re not offended, it’s probably because someone in the discussion was being dishonest.


20 Responses to “Successful Awkwardness in Interreligious Dialogue”

  1. Wes Says:

    This reminds me of Peter Rollins’ bit on evangelism, that we should actively seek to be evangelized to by people of other religions.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Yeah it crossed my mind as well. What I liked was about the conversation was that our friendship enabled us to be honest and offensive. If the relational structure had not been in place, I worry I would have been more defensive. As I always say, if you can’t laugh at your own beliefs, chances are you have no faith.

  3. Austin Says:

    while it’s true that the incarnation is a major difference between islam and christianity, it also seems that the incarnation is only so misunderstood by the islamic community when understood apart from a trinitarian theological paradigm. that is, of my many, many discussions with islamic friends/strangers, not once have i encountered an islamic individual who has tried to understand nor accepted trinitarian dogma (which is fine; i’m not saying they should). the point being, in the islamic paradigm, incarnation is incomprehensible and blasphemous because there is only one, singular, homogenous conception of god (for the most part, that is – there are of course minority islamic musings that suggest a bit more nuance); god as singular essence. whereas in trinitarian theology (tersely stated anyway) there is a necessary heterogeneity of the godhead. this allows for the incarnation (in all its absurdity) to be a ‘viable’ doctrine. for islam, on the contrary, the incarnation means that transcendent GOD (that which is absolutely ontologically separate from the material sphere) violated its necessary essence. thus, it seems that while the incarnation is perhaps THE difference between islam and christianity, i wonder if incarnation-as-difference is only so perceived through the competing paradigms of trinitarian and unitarian theology…

  4. Jeremy Says:

    You’re right to suggest this understand, and I should probably say more a bit now to give more theological nuance. Obviously from the Christian perspective it was not the Father but the Son who became incarnate.

    One of her hypotheses was that the the revelation was given to the Prophet to correct the false, vulgar belief that God had literally created a Son with the Virgin Mary. This explains why in the Qur’an there’s a continued insistence that God would have no Son since it would be disgraceful. I tried to explain that this view was simply inaccurate and unorthodox, but she stated that it was common enough for there to have been given a new revelation. She and I both agreed that the Prophet had likely encountered dumb Christians on the trade routes in Mecca who had simply misunderstood Christian theology.

    Beyond the disbelief in incarnation, there was also no reason for her to understand why God would have become man. I told her that for God to fulfill God’s his mission to become God, God had to become man. She too found this very offensive. Atonement theories such as Anselm’s try and provide a basic justification for the necessity of the atonement. In Islam, one only needs a combination of faith and beliefs along with good works, although ultimately God will decide on judgment day. Also, any sort of atonement theory is tossed out the window since Islam also denies Christ actually died. This last idea is one I’ve never understood. Islam thus finally sanitizes the Christian message by stripping it of its major offense: namely the death of the Son of God.

  5. Austin Says:

    don’t you think that perhaps the designation ‘son of god’ is also completely misunderstood? i mean, ‘son of god’ is less an ontological ascription than a functional one. i see it best as denoting the role of the messiah. so ‘son of god’ does not mean ‘offspring’ in the assumed ‘human’ sense, but ‘prototokos,’ as in ‘only unique son.’ in other words, it’s the uniqueness of the person of the messiah, his ministry, his death, etc., that makes jesus ‘son of god.’ thus, when we say that jesus is the son of god perhaps it needs to be made clear that this is not some herculean idea but something completely other.

  6. Jeremy Says:

    The terminology is generally awkward and of course the Son of God is also quite ambiguous in the Bible. And I agree that making Jesus some sort of demi-God or superman is entirely unhelpful. This is one of the reasons (in agreement with Pannenberg) I think the virgin birth is entirely useless.

    I’m not sure if I agree that the uniqueness of Jesus’ life and death make Jesus the God enfleshed. I’m kinda inclined to agree with Zizek’s clownish christology. Christ, this ridiculous man, is the God-man. He’s no different than you or me. He wasn’t the most impressive human being that ever graced the earth. But this man was the incarnate God.

    I suppose my anxiety is that liberal christology tends to strip Jesus of his diety, but always makes the concession that he is the best person EVER through his word and deed. I don’t buy that. He didn’t end world hunger. He was a loser in every sense of the word.

  7. david cl driedger Says:

    Tolerance is our sacred cow in Canada and it is amazing how pervasive the feeling is that one wrong or differing view will literally make the sky fall. I would be more critical of our culture on this issue if it wasn’t for the fact that many of the dominant views are fairly good. Anyway, I’m chiming in on your last point. Isn’t the phrase ‘loser in every sense of the word’ an inverse of what you are rejecting . . . and perhaps even the correct inverse? Loser in the sense of yoderian rejection and independence from the powers. His life was in fact pretty significant in its mode of loserness.

  8. Austin Says:

    to be clear, i’m not claiming that i think he was somehow unique unlike all others, just that clearly the writers of the nt did (that is the general meaning that ‘monogenes’ and ‘prototokos’ signify). as such, there is a sense in which uniqueness was/is important to the identity of god/jesus/church/etc.. and it’s this element that seems to be overlooked/misunderstood in the islam/christian debate. that said, i guess i’d prefer not to think of jesus as incarnate god so much as that the christ-event redefines god – an hermeneutical shift as opposed to an ontological one. thus, in this sense, any ‘person’ is a potential ‘christ’ (or, even a ‘better christ’ – as creston davis once claimed referring lenin!!) with the latter in mind, the typical moral superiority theses of liberal protestantism is skirted.

  9. Austin Says:

    so, i guess ‘uniqueness’ need not be seen in terms of jesus-as-individual but merely in terms of ‘messiah-as-figure’ (of which jesus was a particular singularity – similar to the idea of the singular-universal in sartre).

  10. Jeremy Says:


    I was in a rush, and that probably needs to be fleshed out. I mean he was simply a loser in the eyes of everyone. He preached this message of this coming Kingdom, and instead he got murdered. Now Christians will want to jump in and claim the resurrection somehow changes everything, but I’ll bracket that point for right now. Like James Cone often says, Jesus’ power is his weakness. I’d probably need to hear more about this claim that his life is significant in his mode of loserness.


    Yeah I know you weren’t trying to say he pissed gold, and I’m sorry if I misconstrued what you were saying. I don’t mind saying the christ-event redefines God. I like the idea, and I’m also a big fan of this notion that there is no God hiding behind Jesus’ back. If we want to know about God we talk about the cradle and the cross, not omnipotence, omniscience, etc. As Altizer would say, in Christianity it’s not simply that Jesus is God, but God is Jesus.

    I like the notion of the “potential christ”. I suppose what I was reacting to was this festhisization of Jesus’ life common amongst some Christians. Althaus-Reid used to say Jesus might have been a feminist, but he could”ve done a helluva lot more for women’s rights.

    I’m about to start reading Schleiermacher’s christology? What are your thoughts? I started thinking today that Schleiermacher’s idea of Jesus’ perfect God-consciousness is actually more scriptural than I had initially reckoned (if we confine it to the Synoptics). Jesus’ unique union with the Father probably is better described as some perfect God-consciousness than as one of ontological identity. The gospel of John is a different animal.

  11. John Anngeister Says:

    Speaking from a liberal Christian perspective, what I haven’t found among Muslim believers is one with a critical stance toward the Koran comparable to my critical (yet ultimately believing) stance toward the Bible.

    I’m still learning in this area, but my limited exposure is to folks who look at the Koran as infallible. This in my view is a book-fetish and is no better than a Jesus-fetish.

  12. Jeremy Says:

    I don’t think the Qur’an and the Bible are on the same level for both religions (unless you ask fundamentalist Christians who believe subscribe to inerrancy).

    Islam:Qur’an::Christianity:Jesus Christ

    They do have a theory of dictation for the revelation given to the Prophet.

  13. Austin Says:

    yeah, i have no idea what to do about ‘john.’ one day i’d be interested in reading some good johanine literature. no time now though.

    i really dig schleiermacher. it was hard for me to get here, coming out of an evangelical background that despises ‘liberal christianity’ and identifies S. as being the founding figure in said movement. that said, there is a really good scholar who’s done some interesting work on schleiermacher named johannes hoff that you might want to check out. unfortunately, much of his work is untranslated. but i’m sure there are ways to find some gems.

    i look forward to your notes from reading S.

  14. Jeremy Says:

    You can always start with Origen’s commentary. I’m sure that would be a mind-fuck.

    Thanks for the rec. I’ve enjoyed S more than I expected. I guess I just don’t really identify as having a vibrant (or, for that matter, one at all) spiritual life. But the system he’s constructed is impressive and much more serious than I was ever led to believe.

  15. Stephen Says:

    I know this is winding down, but I want to jump in here in support of Austin’s understanding of Jesus vis. ‘son of god.’ It appears to me that the synoptic gospel writers, along with most of Paul’s works (minus pseudepigraphals?), appear to be arguing that Jesus takes on the sociological status of a unique Davidic king. This is in line with Psalm 2 and especially Psalm 89, where the Davidic king is the unique representative of God to the people and vice versa, with powers over the oceans, etc. Jesus is unique among humanity, but it is not because of ontological difference.
    Further, I don’t think absolute moral superiority is necessary in this view, although each writer certainly finds things in the life of Jesus that they do view as morally significant.

  16. Jeremy Says:

    Yeah I agree with this assessment. I think this is probably correct Biblically. I was thinking more about how the term is used in the creeds (as a Trinitarian affirmation). Although I recognize many people read back in Trinitarian ideas incorrectly into the scriptures. Also, you a Caputo fan? What do you think of his theology?

  17. Stephen Keating Says:

    I like what I’ve read so far (WWJDeconstruct, On Religion). I should be getting to The Weakness of God in the next couple weeks. What did you think?

  18. Jeremy Says:

    I’m a big fan of deconstruction, and I’ve benefited much from his books on Derrida (especially Prayers and Tears). I’ve read alot of Caputo, and I’d suggest After the Death of God for the most succinct summary of his theological position. I’m thinking Caputo is basically taking liberal theology to its logical conclusion (i.e. ultimately negating God and focusing on man). Basically he’s radicalizing Tillich (and he does situate himself broadly within the radical theology tradition of the death of God, which also believed to in the Tillichian tradition). Caputo is the liberal theologian par excellence because he has completely decentered theology away from focusing on God to some sort of radical phenomenology of religious life. Also he is a big fan of historical critical scholarship, especially the likes of Crossan, Borg, etc. Ultimately, I appreciate his politics (although I think he’s a bit naive to think we might have a future with global capitalism) and his work, but I don’t like the wedge he attempts to drive between strong (dogmatic) theology and weak theology. Anything creedal is derided as oppressive and conservative. Yet I wonder how Caputo would understand Latin American liberation theology, which is orthodox theology and radical politics.

  19. Stephen Says:

    Thanks – that’s an helpful summary.

  20. Jeremy Ridenour, guest blogger: Negotitating Differences between Muslims and Christians « I Think I Believe Says:

    […] I wrote a post on a dialogue I had with my Muslim friend. She called the incarnation ridiculous and made fun of Christianity. […]

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