PART III: "Taking Shahada Was Indeed Wittnessing to God"
Stubbe himself had been part of a pro-Unitarian trend; (1) and the greatest English poet, Milton, is now known to have been a closet Unitarian. (2) John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Charles Dickens, were further examples of men who publicly rejected Trinitarian theology. In Nonconformist England, more than in any other European context, the doctrine of the Trinity had come under sustained criticism. I visited the Unitarian chapel at Rosslyn Hill, in Hampstead. ‘The Religion of Jesus, not the Religion About Jesus,' proclaimed the poster. The Trinitarian obstacle was gone; but where was his Jewishness? Did it have no meaning at all?
The wider culture, still then sometimes interested in theology, was reporting on these tensions. In the seventies, a large crop of new writing revived the old Dissenting challenge to the Trinitarian position. Surveys indicated that a growing number of clergy held ‘heretical' views on the Triune God. Trinitarianism, which posits three centres of consciousness within one God, was a paradox which an increasing number of educated people seemed to find oppressively difficult. Like Channing, they were asking whether ultimate reality should not be ultimately simple. Some responded with despair, and ended in Buddhism, ‘alternative spiritualities,' or agnosticism. But this metaphysical question also began to open Christian theology up in a fresh and insistently Unitarian direction. (3)
|Trinitarianism, which posits three centres of consciousness within one God, was a paradox which an increasing number of educated people seemed to find oppressively difficult.|
Side by side with this came the growing awareness that a full admiration of Jesus is only possible when he is regarded as exclusively human. In 1977 I was fascinated by the controversy when a group of theologians and Biblical experts published a book called The Myth of God Incarnate, drawing angry but agonised hostility defenders of the fifth-century creeds. (4) I remember reading the text during a balmy summer on the Norfolk coast. It was not difficult to sympathise with the editor, John Hick, a Methodist minister whose study of the historical Jesus, and whose openness to other religions, had taken him far his earlier born-again Evangelicalism. One of the lessons I drew the book was that the orthodox creeds had removed Jesus any possibility of real human understanding or empathy on our part. Classical church doctrines held that he was entirely human as well as entirely divine, but the newer theologians were pointing out that those things which constitute our humanity, including forgetfulness, and lack of full knowledge of past and future, and the capacity to make mistakes, cannot exist properly in the orthodox Jesus, in whom God and man are fused. As Geoffrey Turner complains:
It is not easy, in one's devotions, to see him as one of us, with all our bodily and mental functions: eating and excreting, sleeping, learning languages, laughing, getting headaches, being exhausted, experiencing fear, being puzzled, and, of course, dying. (5)
The Gospels, in passages which as a child I had found immensely powerful, dramatically told that the Devil tempted him, and that, faced with the possibility of punishment, he prayed: ‘Father, take this cup me!' Yet the orthodox theologian utterly confounds the pathos of this moment, insisting that ‘Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal.' (6) Despite the outward drama, he knew everything; which, I concluded, was precisely to say that he was inhuman, unlike us in any respect.
He is hence neither recognisably human (and hence a fairly accessible figure), nor is he straightforwardly God (difficult, but coherent), but exists as some third entity utterly strange to us. Hence, in one recent book, a theologian has the courage to write: ‘The traditional view of Jesus Christ actually demeans both his accomplishments and his heroism by attributing to him ‘intrinsic deity' that essentially eliminates the possibility of either authentic temptation or failure.' (7) In Jewish-Christian dialogue, in particular, the ‘christological idolatries' of the traditional view have been frankly acknowledged. (8)
|Muslims have always been distressed by the casualness of the methods by which the biblical texts were transmitted to the Bible's eventual compilers.|
From Hick's collection I learnt that these undercurrents were being facilitated not only by the awareness that Jesus is made alien and God made more complex by the traditional ideas, but also by the braver spirits of biblical criticism. Muslims have always been distressed by the casualness of the methods by which the biblical texts were transmitted to the Bible's eventual compilers. B.D. Ehrman's book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (9) is one of the more recent scholarly demonstrations of the fragile obscurity of the methods by which the Gospels in particular were handed down. Professor Burton Mack, and others in the celebrated ‘Jesus Seminar', have sought to reconstruct the original unitarian teachings of Jesus, a process fraught with extreme difficulty. (10) The debates rage on, but over the course of the last century it was clear that the traditional picture was regarded as untenable by a steadily-growing number of researchers. Sometimes this has resulted in further expansion for the Unitarian church, or other sects that do not accept the Trinity, such as the Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses. Often, too, I encounter Anglicans who privately deny the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and agree wholeheartedly with my understanding of Jesus' self-belief. The consequences for Islam have been particularly interesting; in 1999 the Daily Express published a series of articles predicting the leading trends which would be visible in the new millennium. One of these thinkers, the best-selling biographer of Jesus, A.N. Wilson, wrote as follows:
Islam is a moral and intellectual acknowledgement of the lordship of God without the encumbrance of Christian mythological baggage [...] That is why Christianity will decline in the next millennium, and the religious hunger of the human heart will be answered by the Crescent, not the Cross. (11)
Most ordinary churchgoers are not informed of the conclusions of the bible-scholars and the theologians, and continue to practice a naive faith. (12) Yet not everyone is protected by such ignorance. Certainly, my own migration towards Islam was facilitated, if not entirely supplied, by those questers for the historical Jesus who doubt that he would have accepted the abstruse metaphysical conundrums of the Athanasian Creed. How would the charismatic wandering rabbi of Galilee have voted, had he found himself at the Council of Chalcedon?
Other blessings deserve to be recounted. Already in love with Islam, but still nominally Anglican, I visited Cairo in the spring of 1979. I spent two weeks photographing and sketching in the mosques, attracting the attention of the invariably-polite but curious Egyptians who worshipped there. One afternoon I was sitting against a pillar in the mosque of Imam al-Shafi'i, telling a young man of my troubles with the Trinity and the Incarnation, and hearing his courteous reflections which, without compromising Islam, reminded me of God's mercy and His respect for the ‘People of the Book.' Looking back to that afternoon, I recall the verse addressed to the Blessed Prophet: ‘Had you been harsh, and hard of heart, they would have scattered round about you.' (3:159) Today, in those mosques, are they all so courteous to guests? Are they adorned still by that absolute Abrahamic virtue?
|Most ordinary churchgoers are not informed of the conclusions of the bible-scholars and the theologians, and continue to practice a naive faith.|
In Cairo's mosques I saw more than architecture. I saw religion in its classical majesty. For me, one of the greatest gifts has been Islam's miraculous steadiness. Today, entering an English church, one cannot know what will be presented. The Anglican liturgy, once based on Cranmer's fine Book of Common Prayer, has been ‘d' by men manifestly unworthy of the task, provoking division and rancour, often leaving congregations with shallow performances in the place of ancient beauty. Sometimes one receives the distinct impression that the committees have placed ‘relevance' above considerations of beauty and truth. Disputes over which prayer-book to use are now common. Even in Catholicism, which often has a better sense of the dignity and beauty of ritual, there has been a crisis since the forced abandonment of the Tridentine Latin Mass at the Second Vatican Council in 1965; as Pope Benedict has acknowledged: ‘One shudders at the lacklustre face of the post-conciliar liturgy as it has become; or one is simply bored with its hankering after banality and its lack of artistic standards.' (13) Whatever political disasters may have overtaken some Muslim lands, the core doctrines and practices are miraculously intact. In a mosque, one experiences not a hankering after banality, but a ritual inherited a great age of faith, a Rock of Ages, into which one can submerge and be annihilated as one seeks for God. It may be said that no other religion practices as its founder did; no other religion is so liturgically united both geographically and to its sainted past. If I have one recommendation for Turkish readers, it is that they do not neglect the immense gift of worshipping in congregation in the mosques. For us refugees, the Muslim liturgy is an astounding, irreplaceable gift; it is the ‘banquet of God', as the hadith describes the Holy Koran and its reverent reception in the midst of our worship.
‘Going up' to Cambridge allowed me to attend Unitarian services on a regular basis. It also brought me closer to some debates that were raging in the Divinity School. Geoffrey Lampe, professor of divinity, had just published a detailed and iconoclastic account of the doctrine of the Holy Ghost, God as Spirit. This was a systematic manifesto aiming to rescue Christian belief and worship baffling doctrines which, he felt, were hastening the secularisation of England. The Church's various ‘myths of redemption,' he wrote, ‘receive, on the whole, little support the New Testament writers.' (14) The Trinitarian model, an obstacle to worship, should be reinterpreted to signify the three modes by which a non-Triune God operates. ‘We need no mediator', (15) he went on to say: God is, by definition, enough; there is nothing in the ‘Son' that is not also fully present and powerful in the ‘Father'. In fact
The personal distinctions have no content, and are therefore meaningless, so long as they are understood to consist solely in the relations themselves. If religion is to be Trinitarian, they have to be filled out with content; yet to do this is impossible. (16)
‘Taking Shahada', I found, was indeed ‘witnessing' to God. The hypocrisy of my final months, when I worshipped as a Unitarian but walked near and around mosques, not knowing how to go in, or whom to approach, was thankfully swept away by the ceremony, which God's wisdom has kept simple. All that I had enviously learnt, I now placed at the centre of my way of life. Hitherto, leaving church after Evensong had been a relief ritual, now leaving the mosque, or ending the prayer said in a college room with a friend, gave me a sense of enormous humility and calm. There was much of ancient Rome in the Church's priestcraft, I realised, including a love of theatre; in the namaz, there was the ancient simplicity of surrendering the ego to Abraham's God, Alone, without partner. The complexities were stripped away by the ‘light words' of the Witnessing, and I felt that I now had the reality of what I had once only claimed to have: a personal relationship with God. The beloved had lifted her Greek veil.
1. For the background see Philip Dixon, “Nice and Hot Disputes”: the Doctrine of the Trinity in the seventeenth Century (London: T & T Clark, 2003).
2. Michael Bauman, Milton´s Arianism (Frankfurt am Main, 1987).
3. One leading thinker who rejected Trinitarian orthodoxy was Geoffrey Lampe, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge; see his God as Spirit (Oxford, 1977). See also J. Gwyn Griffiths, Triads and Trinity (Wales, 1996). For a more popular example of this large literature, see Anthony Buzzard and Charles Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity´s Self-Inflicted Wound (University Press of America, 1998).
4. John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977).
5. Geoffrey Turner, “Jon Sobrino, the CDF, and St Paul,” New Blackfriars 88/1017 (September 2007), 542.
6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 474.
7. Mark H. Graeser, John A. Lynn and John W. Schoenhurst, One God One Lord: Reconsidering a Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (Christian Educational Services, 2000).
8. A. Roy Eckhardt, Jews and Christians: the contemporary meeting (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1986), 153 for Christianity´s “christological idolatries”. See also Luke T. Johnson, “The New Testament´s Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic”, Journal of Biblical Literature 108/3 (1989), 419-41.
9. Oxford, 1993.
10. Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (San Francisco, 1993).
11. A.N. Wilson, “The Dying Mythology of Christ´, Daily Express 21/10/99. Wilson´s biography, Jesus (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992), explains how his research caused him to reject his formerly devout Anglican faith, in favour of an image of Jesus who considered himself to be messiah, prophet, and pure monotheist, but not a person in a Trinitarian God. He writes, for instance: “The ultra-orthodox Christians - whether Catholic or Protestant - are so anxious to preserve their religious faith intact that they do not dare to confront the conclusions of the last two hundred years of New Testament scholarship.” (p.xv).
12. Professor John Rogerson of Sheffield University, in The Expository Times, 113/8, p.255: “Most congregations are kept in ignorance of the findings of biblical criticism.”
13. ph Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco, 1985), 121.
14. G.W.H. Lampe, God as Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 16.
15. Lampe, 144.
16. Lampe, 226.