Thursday, February 4, 2016

Mere Anglicanism 2016: a Report (II)

In the first part of this report on the 2016 Mere Anglicanism conference in Charleston, South Carolina last week, I covered the four lectures that related to Islam as an ideology and as an historical movement. In this second part, I will recap the three remaining talks, which focused on experiences and techniques for engaging Muslims at an individual level.

There were two perspectives from Christians whose duties bring them into daily contact with Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. The first, by the Most Rev. Mouneer Anis, who trained first in Egypt as a doctor and hospital administrator before being ordained as a priest in 1999 and then consecrated as a bishop a year later, stressed that Christians and Moslems co-existed in Egypt for fourteen centuries before relations began to change in the 1970s. That is when Islamists, Salafis and jihadists started to agitate for a restoration of the caliphate, which required the subjugation of other faiths. Christianity and Islam differ fundamentally in that Christians accept Jesus' substitutionary atonement for their sins; Muslims believe that no such substitution is possible in Allah's eyes. Each person on his own must strive to have his good works and pilgrimages to Mecca hopefully outweigh  his failings, in order to receive forgiveness from Allah and admission into Paradise.

In recent years, the growth of Christianity in Egypt has far outpaced the growth of Islam. In Dr. Anis' experience, the things that bring Muslims to inquire about Christianity are (1) visions and dreams they have of Jesus; (2) the lifestyle of Christians who evince their love and respect for others; (3) the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount; and (4) healing in answer to prayers. In welcoming such inquiries, Christians should avoid certain unwise assumptions:
  • thinking that we, and not the Holy Spirit, can transform lives
  • thinking that people can be won to Christ through deceit
  • thinking that local churches lack the vision to reach out to their community
  • witnessing to Muslims by taking advantage of their weakness at a crucial point
  • witnessing to Muslims without an understanding of their culture
  • being "un-Christ-like" by attacking their beliefs, and
  • acting from other wrong and unbiblical motives

In summary, said Dr. Anis, Christians who witness to Muslims must depend entirely on the Holy Spirit, and should be authentic, humble and generous in all their dealings. Muslims who convert frequently must pay a heavy price in loss of family relationships and everything they had held dear; the Christian community must be prepared to do all that it can to mitigate those losses. He closed his talk with a short film that showed the various kinds of Christian outreach his own diocese is sponsoring, with an emphasis on providing the best possible loving care to Egyptians from all walks of life in Christian-run hospitals, and offering testimonies from those whose lives had changed in consequence. God's love, shown to Muslims and others through freely given medical and other care, brings results on God's timetable. "Our job is to witness to Christ's love, to pay the price when asked, and to involve the local community of believers."

Another perspective on witnessing to Muslims was offered by Fouad Masri, a Lebanese-born, third-generation pastor who trained in the United States, and then in 1993 founded the Crescent Project, based in Indianapolis, through which he has taught more than 21,000 Christians how to share their faith sensitively and caringly with Muslims. He stressed that Muslims generally do not know what Christians believe, that they never read the Bible for themselves, and have repeatedly been told that it is unreliable (its text is, e.g., hopelessly corrupt in comparison with the Qu'ran that was dictated directly from Allah).

"Because you have been at this conference," he predicted, "God will put a Muslim in your path. Be an ambassador for your faith: represent it truly, humbly, and without apology or evasion. Be friendly -- don't criticize Muslim beliefs; build bridges, biblical bridges, from your faith to theirs, with which you can reach them. Invite them to your home, and share what you have. Remember that God, not us, makes people Christians; we are God's humble servants, and our involvement is His involvement with the world." There are many more resources, and much more detail, at the Crescent Project Website, as well as videos at this related site, and individual apps and study materials here. Together, they embody a wealth of personal experience and wisdom that no conference participant should ignore.

The seventh speaker, Dr. Nabeel Qureshi, gave his talk between Mouneer Anis and Fouad Masri, who each provided the bookends to frame his highly compelling and moving personal testimony. Born in America of Pakistani parents, Dr. Qureshi was raised as a devout Muslim, albeit in one of its more  recent (and peaceful) offshoots, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He was well-educated, and highly motivated by his parents, with whom he was extremely close. They had him reciting regular daily prayers before he could even understand what they meant. Nabeel looked to his father as the authority on all things Islamic, and trusted his views implicitly.

Change came when Nabeel went away from home to attend college, and met several new influences. One of them, a devout and well-educated Christian named David Wood, was on the debating team with him; they became roommates and the closest of friends. Each would challenge the other about his faith, and no waffling, evasion or exaggeration of facts was allowed. Nabeel found that his second-hand information about the Christian Bible was inadequate, and that its text was far more reliable than he had been led to believe. To his great chagrin, the same inadequacies appeared with respect to his knowledge about the real origins of Islam, the questionable authorship of the Qu'ran, and the true character of its prophet -- who even sanctioned giving captured wives as "sex slaves" to his soldiers, just as ISIS is doing today.

Over the course of his four years at college, in which he was a pre-med student earning top grades, Nabeel's conversations and explorations of Islam and Christianity with David Wood occupied thousands of hours. Through another friend, they had several lengthy sessions talking to Dr. Gary Habermas, an authority on the evidence for Christ's resurrection (which Muslims are taught did not happen, because Jesus -- who was wholly human -- either survived crucifixion, or the Romans nailed up someone else in his place).

The evidence for Christianity proved so compelling in the face of the more dubious backing for Islam that Nabeel was eventually brought to a crisis in his second year of medical school. He was so torn between his love of truth and his love and respect for the family who had raised him that he begged God to provide him with a clear sign one way or the other -- knowing in his heart of hearts that he most likely would be disowned by his parents if he renounced Islam and converted to Christianity. God answered his prayers, Nabeel converted, and he remains estranged from his family today -- as he gave up his medical career to tour with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, preaching and spreading the gospel to all who will listen. For those wanting to experience his conversion in all its gripping ups-and-downs, I highly recommend the book he has written: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus.

The conference closed with a panel of all the speakers (except for Dr. Boa), who fielded questions culled from previous submissions by the audience. The Rev. Christopher Royer, the Executive Director of Anglican Frontier Missions (and who had delivered two excellent sermons at the conference services, based on his front-line experiences in Turkey), moderated the panel.

It began with a short summation of the conference as seen through the eyes of Bishop Nazir-Ali. He noted that the subject of the conference was Muslims, whom we all are called to love. Thus, we have to engage with Islam -- while Islamism (Islam's politicization) is the obstacle to our engagement. Using the insights of Archbishop Anis and Pastor Masri, Bishop Nazir-Ali stressed that such engagement requires (1) the presence of the Christian community among Muslims (especially those seeking exodus); (2) a duty of hospitality; (3) building bridges which both may use to connect (e.g., faith-based hospitals); (4) dialogue using (5) a common language, which leads to (6) witness, which accepts (7) that everything is ultimately in God's hands. Christians have a duty, he said, not so much to convert Muslims, as to "bring them to a point of decision," where they could welcome "the possibility of assurance."

The first question to the panel asked whether the teachings of militant Islam are entitled to protection under the First Amendment. Professor Jenkins drew the distinction between ideas and beliefs, which are absolutely protected, and exhortation to violence, which is not.  Dr. Anis responded to a question about the influence of imams, and stated that it was dependent on the militancy of the individual. He reminded the audience that the Shiite sect is awaiting the reappearance of the twelfth imam, who "disappeared" in the tenth century, as part of their eschatology.

Nabeel Qureshi fielded a question about allowing in Muslim refugees from Syria, and drew the same line that Dr. Ken Boa had drawn: as Christians, we individually are called upon to welcome all our fellow humans in distress, but our safety rests in the hands of our government, which bears the responsibility to screen those coming here in order to keep out terrorists. Dr. Craig had a short answer to a question about how history textbooks should present the story of Islam: "Accurately", he responded. Bishop Nazir-Ali took a question about the long-term prospects for female equality in Islam. He observed that as long as Sharia held sway, its in-built inequality of treatment toward women would continue. Muslims, he added, have only three choices about the sources from which they derive Sharia: ignore them, become apostate, or else radicalize and apply the texts as written. In response to a question of how the West should deal with increasingly repressive regimes in the Middle East, Dr. Nazir-Ali pointed out that lasting democracy needs a full supporting infrastructure, which is just not present there.

The conference came to a close after Dr. Craig responded to a question about how Christians can square the brutal extinctions ordered by the God of the Old Testament with the "God Is Love" message of the New Testament. He gave the standard rationale for differentiating in time and space: God had announced that he would give the land of Canaan to the Israelites, but only after the latter had been in captivity for 400 years, and the Canaanites in that period had reached the culmination of their evils in God's sight. The Israelis were not engaging in genocide, he said, but were carrying out God's judgment declared against the Canaanites, who refused to leave the land voluntarily, and so were killed. Muslim jihad, he said, was not similar in any way, because it was a vehicle for extending the spread of Islam through violence.

This response brought a strong reaction from Professor Jenkins, who protested that "these commands of the Old Testament God have killed millions upon millions!" -- referring to later conquerors and tyrants who justified their genocide by citing them as precedent. Dr. Craig defended his position, and noted that Scripture is often abused for personal (and dynastic) ends, but that does not make Scripture at fault. After a kind of agreement between them to disagree, the conference closed with prayers and a blessing.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Mere Anglicanism 2016: a Report (I)

[A note to my readers in South Carolina: As of this moment (7:25 PST Wednesday, February 3, 2016), the Supreme Court of South Carolina has not announced any decisions today. Should that change, I will immediately publish an update here. And thank you for your wonderful, welcoming hospitality to me and my spouse while we were your guests at Mere Anglicanism!]

The theme of this year's Mere Anglicanism Conference in Charleston, South Carolina was "The Cross and the Crescent: the Gospel and the Challenge of Islam." Over the course of four sessions, seven speakers gave the sold-out audience a comprehensive view of Islamic ideology and history, along with the understanding and tools which Christians need in their personal dealings with Muslims.

The Conference was carefully balanced. Two of the speakers analyzed the tenets of Islam and their contrasts with those of Christianity; two of the speakers spoke to the historical and present-day conflicts between Islamic countries and Western ones; two offered insights and approaches to discussing religion with followers of Mohammed, garnered from their years of experience in dealing with Muslims from all walks of life; and the seventh speaker offered a moving personal testimony to his own conversion from Islam to Christianity -- a decision which cost him his closest ties to his own family. In order to keep my report easier to follow, I shall divide it into two parts. I will first discuss those speakers who gave analytical and historical critiques of Islam, and then cover those who offered pragmatic advice in the second part.

Dr. William Lane Craig, a Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology (La Mirada, California), and also a Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptists University, opened the Conference on Thursday evening with a talk on "The Concept of God in Islam and Christianity." He explained that he had been interacting with Islam, both academically and in debates with leading Muslim advocates, for over thirty years. In that time, he learned how to address the issue of the God that each religion worships. We should not ask: "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?", because that approach gets tied up in differences over terminology and semantics. A more useful inquiry is: "What is the concept of 'God' in Islam, and in Christianity? Are they the same? And if not, which one is true?"

(The last question exposes the falsity of the notion that all religions express different versions of the same truth, each in its own way. When one demonstrates that the respective fundamental concepts of two faiths are irreconcilable, then only one of them -- or possibly neither one -- can be true. In any event, because religions do contradict each other, it is wrong to say that all religions are in some manner "true".)

Islam and Christianity differ in a number of key concepts, but most of all in their concepts of God. For Islam, Christianity errs fundamentally in holding that God is three persons of one nature. The Qu'ran expressly avows that God could never have a son, because Allah is one and indivisible, wholly perfect and unique, and goes on to say that anyone who asserts to the contrary is an infidel -- an unbeliever. In Dr. Craig's view, Mohammed's misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity may have come from his failure to distinguish what Christians of the time meant by calling Mary the "Mother of God" -- referring to Mary as the human mother of the human Jesus only, and in no way implying that she was the mother of the divine Son. As a divine being, the most perfect conceivable, God must be all-loving (because a god who was incapable of the fullest possible love would be less than a god that was). It is the essence of love to give oneself to another -- but a divine being naturally gives that love to another who shares that same divine nature, since the fullest possible love is a necessary attribute of divine, but not of created, beings. Thus the triune deity of Christianity expresses love internally, by the inextricable and wholly divine relationships among Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Nonetheless, God's love is inexhaustible and all-encompassing (to the point of sending the Son to redeem sinning humans), and thus all humans are the beneficiaries of it.

The Allah of Islam, on the other hand, is focussed only on himself, and according to the Qu'ran, does not love sinners or infidels, but only those who please him by doing enough good works. Allah's love is thus not unreserved (like God's love), but is reserved for those who earn it. Dr. Craig concluded that the objections which Christians have to the concept of God in Islam have a rational basis to them, in comparison with the objections of Muslims to the concept of God in Christianity. Indeed, Mohammed became more irrational towards Jews and Christians as he grew older and more warlike. Islam, in brief, is not a church for man's salvation, but a way of life that makes no meaningful place for Christians and their beliefs.

Dr. Craig's thesis was a powerful and unstinting one. He made the point that politicians will never express directly what is wrong with Islam, because of their fear of offending voters. It was left to another theologian/philosopher, Dr. Ken Boa, to carry the point further and articulate more exactly the proper role of governments toward Islam in contrast to how individual Christians should relate to Muslims.

Dr. Boa was a last-minute substitution for Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and  Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University, who became too ill to travel. He is the head of Reflections Ministries in Atlanta, and holds two doctorate degrees (one from Oxford and the other from New York University) as well as a Masters in Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He gave a shortened version of the four hours of lectures on Islam which can be viewed for free on his Website.

Dr. Boa explained the Qu'ran's Principle of Abrogation, by which Allah reserved to himself the right to replace, or abrogate, certain verses with later ones that contradict or conflict with the earlier ones. Thus many of the Qu'ran's positive statements about respecting the "people of the Book" (Jews and Christians) were abrogated by later commandments to kill Jews and unbelievers wherever they can be found. This evolution in the Qu'ran corresponded with the Mohammed's move from Mecca, where he had lived in accordance with treaties he had made with Jewish tribes, to Medina, where he spent much of the last ten years of his life at war with both fellow Arabs and Jews, and in robbing caravans for their riches.

Another unique principle espoused in the Qu'ran is that of "deception", or taqqiyah.  Muslims may freely lie and deceive infidels, according to Mohammed, whenever necessary to save their own lives or to advance the cause of Islam. Accordingly, this principle makes it practically impossible to achieve any lasting treaties with warlike Muslim nations, who are encouraged by their Qu'ran to hide their real intentions until they can attack with advantage an enemy that has been deceived into letting down his guard.

At the same time, Dr. Boa stressed that Islam is not monolithic, and that there is much variation (and strife) between its differing factions (which go way beyond just Sunnis vs. Shiites). These different factions are further split into different interpretative views, according to which the Qu'ran is read either figuratively or more literally, and with greater or lesser emphasis upon its more peaceful or warlike passages. It is only a minority of Muslims who read the Qu'ran to command the killing of all unbelievers and the subjugation of the entire world to the rule of Islam; many others are made uncomfortable by those interpretations. (Over 60% of the world's Muslims are not Arabs.) But no final authority exists, and so each faction looks to its own leaders and imams for guidance.

Dr. Boa made it clear that as Christians, we are called upon to love our enemies, and to pray for them. But what is proper for individual Christians at the personal level provides no guidance for entire countries or their governments in dealing with the rampages of ISIS or other Muslim terrorists. Such abuses must be met with overwhelming force, as the West learned during the first 900 years of Islam. (I was reminded of a remark by Justice Robert H. Jackson: "The Constitution," he once wrote in a memorable dissent, "is not a suicide pact.")

Taken together, the talks by Drs. Craig and Boa provided a comprehensive and thoroughgoing critique of Islam as a religion, and left no doubt about the irreconcilable conflicts of its militant side with the New Testament. Those who would argue for "peaceful co-existence" between the faiths simply do not understand how militant Muslims read their Qu'ran. And while many Muslims may well be peaceful, and have nothing but honorable intentions, it is precisely those Muslims who are not the problem at the international level.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and Professor Philip Jenkins, both experts in the history of religion (and of Islam in particular), gave complementary overviews of the arc of relations between Islamic and Western societies and their governments. For Bishop Nazir-Ali, the history of Islam is rich in details that show a broad range of adaptability to times and circumstances, from the years at the beginning, when Islam was uncertain about its mechanism of succession and accommodative toward Jews and Christians, to the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, when it was so weak that the fires of nationalism broke it apart. Drawing on the materials in his book Conviction and Conflict, Bishop Nazir Ali concluded his extemporaneous presentation with a list of still unresolved issues: 1) the role of religion vis-à-vis the state; 2) the role, if any, that democracy -- with its long history of consulting its citizens on a regular basis -- can play in an Islamic state; 3) whether government is more a matter of taking power (i.e., power that is worth fighting for) than of giving it up (e.g., should Muslims have a Bill of Rights?); 4) the relationship between religion and law (e.g., Islam and Sharia, with its basis in the perceived inequality of the sexes, versus Christianity and Western law, with its emphasis on equality); and 5) the role of jihad -- can Islam be dealt with as an ideology, apart from how (and where) it grows?

On the whole, Bishop Nazir-Ali appeared to be more optimistic about our ability to resolve these issues before the conflicts between Islam and the West are exacerbated, although he did not play down in the slightest the hard work that such a resolution would require. Baylor University Professor Jenkins, on the other hand, outlined a more grim picture, in which the back-and-forth struggles of the Crusades have never really ceased, and will continue until war becomes ever more likely.

In and of itself, "crusade" is not a word which the so-called Crusaders ever used to describe what they did; the word is a nineteenth-century romanticized gloss that recently has acquired a pejorative connotation. (When Pope Urban called for warriors to go on what is now called the First Crusade, his call was for a "pilgrimage.") The first four crusades were marked by extraordinary brutality and cruelty on both sides, and the forces driving them have abated but little since. In the West, the Church made other sects in other countries the object of ongoing crusades, as (for instance) in the case of the Albigensians, and of Santiago Matamoros ("St. James the Moorslayer") in Spain. Islam, for its part, continued the struggle with the siege of Otranto in 1480-81, by retaking Constantinople in 1543, and Cyprus in 1571 (notwithstanding its huge loss at the Battle of Lepanto later that same year). In 1578, the Portuguese king called for "the last crusade" in Morocco. The Ottoman advance was finally halted only at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Had they not been defeated there, the Hapsburg Empire would today be Muslim.

Beginning again in 1917 with General Allenby's entrance into Jerusalem (ill-timed to coincide with the anniversary of Hannukah), the Middle East has gone back and forth, and been in constant flux, ever since. That is where the most sacred places are, and "sacred places will be the focus of new attacks," said Prof. Jenkins. Just as a global cooling in the 13th-14th centuries forced many conversions, he predicted that present day global warming would also lead to new conflicts -- but primarily along the 10th parallel (i.e., in north-central Africa). Europe's weak demographics, combined with its rampant secularism, make it ill-equipped for these future struggles with militant Islamists.

“The prospects for religious war in the next decade are extremely high unless groups like Boko Haram and ISIS are uprooted,” concluded Prof. Jenkins. "The last person to die in a crusade has not yet been born. And if you are not distressed by this lecture, then we need to talk."

This concludes the first part of my report on Mere Anglicanism 2016. In Part II, I will take up the talks of the Most Rev. Mouneer Anis, Fouad Masri, and Nabeel Qureshi.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mere Anglicanism Conference Next Week

Your Curmudgeon looks forward to attending his third annual Mere Anglicanism Conference in Charleston, South Carolina, starting Thursday of next week (January 28, 2016). The topic is timely: "The Cross and the Crescent -- the Gospel and the Challenge of Islam", and the roster of speakers is very distinguished. Adding to the value of the gathering are the wonderful choral evensong, morning prayer and concluding final mass services at Charleston's Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.

It looks as though Charleston and its environs will escape the worst of the eastern winter weather, and my wife and I will be grateful for the chance to spend quality time with so many of our fellow Anglicans hailing from South Carolina and beyond. There still are places available for those who have not yet decided -- if you have any difficulties signing up, just tell them the Curmudgeon sent you.

Blogging will take a back seat to the Conference for its duration -- unless perchance the South Carolina Supreme Court issues a decision this next Wednesday, January 27. (The Court releases new decisions every Wednesday, and my experience has normally been that important decisions tend to come out when the Curmudgeon is on vacation.)

[UPDATE 01/27/2016: The Court released two opinions this morning, but neither one was the case involving Bishop Lawrence and his Diocese.]

We greatly value the friends we have made at this Conference over the years. We will, as usual, file a full report of the stimulating talks after it is over. If you are going to be in Charleston for this marvelous gathering, please do not be shy -- come forward and introduce yourself.