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 taqiyyah.  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.


  1. It was good to see you again Oh Learned Curmudgeon.

    As I pointed out at the time, Dr. Craig makes what would be considered an error by Islamic standards when he said "Mohammed misunderstood" for in their eyes, Mohammed was repeating the words of an angel and thus Allah's message directly, and therefore Mohammed was not interpreting God's message. Allah sanctions all kinds of things that we Christians cannot believe because Jesus commands us to do otherwise, such as "Love your enemy".

  2. Given the seriousness that radical Islamists take their religion, it is important for all of us to learn how to communicate the Jesus that the Qu'ran does not teach to inquiring Muslims.

  3. Thank you so much for your thorough reporting. It is a stir to prayer. I'm currently living not far from that band of predicted increased unrest, and serving among men & women whose hearts are set on bearing the word and life of Jesus to little-reached people groups in those regions. May the Lord God oversee His Church; may He pour out His Spirit and power through who know Him; and may they "overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony."

  4. "The very preservation of the personality of God necessitates some transcendent non-material object great enough so to precipitate a submergence of the mechanical processes sustaining the universe into the depths of divine subconciousness as to make impossible the submergence of divine consciousness in those processes. And this object, furthermore, must be so all-compelling as to make it forever out of the question for God to find full and ultimate satisfaction in the material universe that He has brought into being and sustains in power and wisdom. Such a transcendent object, need we say, can be nothing less than a second divine Person equal in every respect to Himself?"
    The Triune God by C. Norman Bartlett, S.T.D. Professor of the National Bible Institute in New York
    American Tract Society, New York 1937