A few years ago I wrote an article entitled “Russia and Islam, part eight: working together, a basic “how-to”” in which I wrote the following about how (some) Christians and (some) Muslims could/should try to work together:
The fundamentally misguided yet typical approach:
Having had many opportunities to exchange views with Muslim from different countries and having also heard Christian and Muslim religious figures engaged in various debates, dialogs and discussions, I can describe the typical scenario by which such dialogs are conducted.
Typically, both sides try to establish a list of all the issues Islam and Christianity agree upon. These include that God is love, that the Mother of Jesus was a virgin, that the anti-Christ will come before the end of time, that Moses was a great prophet, that angels are the messengers of God any many other things. Added to this list of topics of agreement are usually statements about how Christians and Muslims have lived in peace side by side and how this should continue today. This is a well meaning and polite way to engage in a dialog, but this is also a fundamentally misguided one for the simple reason that it overlooks absolutely fundamental theological and historical problems. Let’s take these one by one.
Irreconcilable theological differences between Christianity and Islam
The highest most sacred dogmatic formulation of Christianity is the so-called “Credo” or “Symbol of Faith” (full text here; more info here). Literally every letter down to the smallest ‘i‘ of this text is, from the Christian point of view, the most sacred and perfect dogmatic formulation, backed by the full authority of the two Ecumenical Councils which proclaimed it and all the subsequent Councils which upheld it. In simple terms – the Symbol of Faith is absolutely non-negotiable, non-re-definable, non-re-interpretable, you cannot take anything away from it, and you cannot add anything to it. You can either accept it as is, in toto, or reject it.
The fact is that Muslim would have many problems with this text, but one part in particular is absolutely unacceptable to any Muslim:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made
This part clearly and unambiguously affirms that Jesus-Christ was not only the Son of God but actually God Himself. This is expressed by the English formulation “of one essence with the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί in Greek with the key term homousios meaning “consubstantial”). This is *THE* core belief of Christianity: that Jesus was the theanthropos, the God-Man or God incarnate. This belief is categorically unacceptable to Islam which says that Christ was a prophet and by essence a ‘normal’ human being.
For Islam, the very definition of what it is to be a Muslim is found in the so-called “Shahada” or testimony/witness. This is the famous statement by which a Muslim attests and proclaims that “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God”. One can often also hear this phrased as “There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is His prophet”.
Now without even going into the issue of whether Christians can agree or not that “Allah” is the appropriate name for God (some do, some don’t – this is really irrelevant here), it’s the second part which is crucial here: Christianity does not recognize Muhammad as a prophet at all. In fact, technically speaking, Christianity would most likely classify Muhammad as a heretic (if only because of his rejection of the “Symbol of Faith”). Saint John of Damascus even called him a ‘false prophet’. Simply put: there is no way a Christian can accept the “Shahada” without giving up his Christianity just as there is no way for a Muslim to accept the “Symbol of Faith” without giving up his Islam.
So why bother?
Would it not make much more sense to accept that there are fundamental and irreconcilable differences between Christianity and Islam and simply give up all that useless quest for points of theological agreement? Who cares if we agree on the secondary if we categorically disagree on the primary? I am all in favor of Christians studying Islam and for Muslims studying Christianity (in fact, I urge them both to do so!), and I think that it is important that the faithful of these religions talk to each other and explain their points of view as long as this is not presented as some kind of quest for a common theological stance. Differences should be studying and explained, not obfuscated, minimized or overlooked.
Sorry for the long quote, but this will save us all a lot of time. What I want to discuss today, is how the early Christians dealt with this issue and what general lessons we can draw from their example.
First, I think that we should not have the tree hide a forest: what I am writing today is NOT about Christian-Muslim dialog, but goes much further, it also applies to, say, any dialogs between the Latins and the Christians, and even INSIDE Orthodox jurisdictions (say, “World Orthodoxy” as oppose to traditionalist Orthodox jurisdictions). So this is first and foremost about a mindset.
- Mindest one: seek out and list all the things two religions/denominations/jurisdictions/etc have in common and proclaim as a basis for unity (of what kind will be discussed below); this mindset also tries to ignore/obfuscate the “small and obscure theological points” which really “don’t matter too much”.
- Mindset two: seek out and place a powerful “flashlight” on all and ever “minor theological point” and openly discuss them not only internally, but also with the other side.
One example: the Latins. Here is what I have heard innumerable times from them: “while we have different rites and traditions, we have the same faith, and we even have inter-communion!”. Here is what is overlooked:
- The issue is not “ritual”, the Latins are, and always have, been liars about that, especially when they created the “Eastern Rite” to try to mislead the naive. The issue is the differences in doxa, in the faith.
- While it is true that the Latin allows the Orthodox Christians, and pretty much anybody else who happens to walk in, to receive their sacraments, the reverse is not true. The Latins never mention that.
- The true is that the Latins see the Orthodox as schismatics, folks who did not change/pervert the faith, but who did not submit to the Pope.
- The Orthodox see the Latins has heretics, people who have changed/perverted the original Christian faith.
- Orthodox Patriarchs, especially the “World Orthodoxy” types, can hug and even pray with Popes, but they have no authority whatsoever to lift the anathemas (see explanation below) imposed by Church councils.
Note, since the three words above are totally misunderstood in the West, here a few very simplified (please remember this) definition:
Schismatic refers to a person/group who creates or incites the organization of, or who is a member of, a splinter group, somebody who breaks the proper order of the Church, usurps the proper hierarchy. Strictly speaking, the schismatics do not differ in faith, in doxa (unless they built a theological justification for their schism which, by definition, is an ecclesiological heresy, but we can ignore this for the time being).
Heretic: person, or teaching, which differ on issues of faith, of doxa, and who then proclaim this “false knowledge”.
Anathema: this is an official denunciation by the Church of a person and/or teaching which set himself/itself aside from the Church and which represents a danger for the faithful of that Church. Note that the purpose of public anathema is twofold: to warn the one condemned and bring about his repentance, and to warn others away from his error. It is thus a profoundly pastoral act where a person is separated, cut off, the Church, not “cursed”, but handed over to the judgement of God.
So these are not insults or curses, but “theological categories” which have been used since the Apostolic times to define who/what the Church was dealing with. These are necessary theological categories without which Christianity cannot exist, nor can anybody understand what the Apostles and Fathers wrote without understanding the true meaning of these categories.
In our times, many will wonder if the various religions/denominations/jurisdictions should not unite with each other on the basis of what they have in common and then stand together against their common enemies.
Of course, some of those unity-seekers are simply liars (the Latins, specifically, their own doctrine contradicts their actions and syrupy words), but many others are sincere. Here is what Saint Gregory the Theologian wrote in a latter to a priest in the 4th century about such liars and deceivers: (emphasis added)
I desire to learn what is this fashion of innovation in things Concerning the Church, which allows anyone who likes, or the passerby, as the Bible says, to tear asunder the flock that has been well led, and to plunder it by larcenous attacks, or rather by piratical and fallacious teachings. For if our present assailants had any ground for condemning us in regard of the faith, it would not have been right for them, even in that case, to have ventured on such a course without giving us notice. They ought rather to have first persuaded us, or to have been willing to be persuaded by us (if at least any account is to be taken of us as fearing God, labouring for the faith, and helping the Church), and then, if at all, to innovate; but then perhaps there would be an excuse for their outrageous conduct. But since our faith has been proclaimed, both in writing and without writing, here and in distant parts, in times of danger and of safety, how comes it that some make such attempts, and that others keep silence? The most grievous part of it is not (though this too is shocking) that the men instil their own heresy into simpler souls by means of those who are worse; but that they also tell lies about us and say that we share their opinions and sentiments; thus baiting their hooks, and by this cloak villainously fulfilling their will, and making our simplicity, which looked upon them as brothers and not as foes, into a support of their wickedness.
The context of this letter was a denunciation of various heresies of the time (see full letter here), but the mindset and deceptive tactic Saint Gregory describes have become extremely common in our modern times. This letter is so fundamental to Christianity, that it was the basis for future Church Council decision and a text which each Orthodox Christian ought to read at least once in his life.
Okay, fair enough, but an honest reader might still wonder whether such “fine and obscure theological points” should not be overlooked, or at least set aside for a while, for the sake of a putatively much more important unity.
This is a fair and valid question, and I will address it next.
First, let’s ask “unity of what, by whom and for what”? Russian Orthodox Christians and agnostics fought very successfully alongside Chechen, Syrian, Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) Muslims. Yet no “inter-faith dialog” was needed for that purpose at all. So unity against a common political or military enemy does not require any theological discussions AT ALL.
Next, some religions are diametrically and irreconcilable at their core, in their essence, because they compete for the same “title” shall we say. As I have said many times, Latin “Christianity” is nothing more than an “anti-Orthodoxy” and rabbinical “Judaism” is nothing more than an “anti-Christianity”. In other words, Latins and Christians fight for the same “title” as do Judaics and Christians. Now compare that with Islam: have any Muslims ever declared themselves “true Christians” or have any Judaics declared themselves “true Christians”? What about the opposite? Have any Christians declared themselves “true Muslims” or have any Christians declared themselves to be “true Jews”. Not the former, for sure, but the latter, yes, very much so in fact. So the most futile and impossible religious dialog would be one between Judaics and Christians, but the one between Christians and Latins is not much behind, especially since the Latins have now officially declared that Judaics are their “older brother in faith” and that they together expect the coming of the same Messiah, except that for the Latins it would be His second coming, but for the Judaics it would be His first. In sharp contrast, Christians have always know what comes next: the anti-Christ.
The truth is that the entire “ecumenical dialog” is, at best, a colossal waste of time and, at worst, a “pan-heresy”, that is the sum total of all heresies, a super heresy if you want. The only “unity” which it shows is a unity unbelief, indifference and hypocrisy. By all the involved participants.
[Sidebar, can anybody imagine any of the Church Fathers sitting down with an entire panopticum of heretics to discuss with them what the Church might have in common with them? In fact, look at all the major Christian heresies, say Nestorianim or Arianism, they did not reject Christianity as a whole, only some specific teachings, yet the Fathers denounced them as anathemized heretics, not “brothers in a common quest for unity”!]
Coming back to Russians and Muslims, I the article I mention in the opening, I said that Muslims and Christians ALREADY have a lot in common, specifically ethics:
Any religion has two primarily components: what it believes in, what it proclaims, and then the rules of life, the “how to” of daily existence which it mandates. In Christian terms there is the doxa (what you proclaim or glorify) and the praxis (how you live your spiritual life on a daily basis). These are the basic rules common to most religions: not to kill, not to steal, to live a life of modesty, to protect the weak, etc. When comparing Islam and Christianity one can find both differences and similarities between their praxis and ethics. The differences in praxis are not that important because they mostly affect the private lives of the faithful: Muslims will fast during the month of Ramadan, Christians during the four major fasts of the year and on Wednesdays and Fridays. So let them, who cares? They really do not bother each other and, in fact, they are typically respectful of each other’s traditions. On ethics, however, the two religions mostly agree both on a social/corporate and individual level and, with one notable exception which I will discuss below, Christianity and Islam have very similar ideas of what is right and wrong and what society should stand for or pro-actively reject.
But I also mentioned a fundamental ethical difference: capital punishment, the death penalty.
But how big a deal is that? While Christians are by and large opposed to the death penalty, most Russians today are not, quite the opposite. Not only that, but this issue is a social and political one, yes, influenced by religious values, but this is not a dogmatic, crucial issue of faith. The millions of Muslims in Russia do not protest for the restoration of the death penalty, and if they did they would be joined by a lot of non-Muslims, including plenty of Orthodox Christians.
Again, our issue today is not Islam in/and Russia or, even less so, Islam vs Christianity.
[Sidebar: I have covered that at length in the following series:
I also discussed it further here: http://thesaker.is/russias-civilizational-choice/
So let’s not discuss this here, please]
Our main topic today is differing approaches to “fine and obscure theological points“.
Today we live in a post-modern, post-Christian, society which has even totally lost interest for the very notions of true/false, right/wrong, healthy/pathological, etc. Our so-called “pragmatism” is nothing but a complete denial of such categories (other than maybe for propaganda purposes). And, of course, as Jerry Mander and Chris Hedges pointed out in their books (see here and here – I HIGHLY recommend them both), we now live in an empire of illusions and in a total absence of the sacred. This is what 1000 years of lies and deceptions by the Papacy has resulted in: a post-Christian world with no concept of truth, not moral, not factual, not even logical. And everybody is lying practically on auto-pilot, mostly by obfuscating the differences between true/false, right/wrong, healthy/pathological of course, but also between even “simpler” categories, such as beautiful/ugly, make/female, adult/child, etc. Instead we are fed a diet of “acceptance” or “positivity” which is nothing more than a form of brainwashing on a societal scale.
No wonder the proponents of such deceptions have no use for “fine and obscure theological points” and, crucially, no wonder they misrepresent whatever truth they pretend to stand up for! Most grievously, they are ALL doing what Saint Gregory described in his letter: they also tell lies about us and say that we share their opinions and sentiments this applies especially to the following three categories:
- Latins (the Papacy) and its “offsprings”
- World Orthodoxy (official, government supported, Orthodox denominations)
- Judaics (especially the Haredi types, the modern version of the sect of the Pharisees)
From these three “source liars” then come even more offsprings, even rebellious offsprings (say the Reformed denominations) which might not even realize that they are repeating the lies, mindset, assumptions, those whom they rebelled against.
One of the key purposes of these vignettes is to first, bring your attention to this reality and, two, to show you what/how the original, early Christians did and wrote and how they dealt with so-called “minor and obscure theological points”.
By the way, my purpose is not to “gun for” the three groups I mentioned above (let God be their judge), only to give you some instruments as to how to detect them and to offer you at least one alternative to their current monopoly on the mind and souls of millions of sincere, well intentioned, people who are simply not equipped with the tools to discriminate between the fake lie and the real thing.
Allow me a metaphor: you can make fish soup out of an aquarium, but you cannot make an aquarium from a fish soup. The modern deceivers have turned a very diverse and well lit aquarium into a tasteless and dark fish soup, “spiced up” with lie after lie after lie. Some have been at it for 2000 years, others for “only” 1000. Eventually they all joined forces: that is the world we live in today.
I don’t want to let them get away with this, hence these Vignettes, which are really only an attempt to pass on that which was handed down to me. Nothing more.
In conclusion, to those who have no time, interest in putative “minor and obscure theological point”, I will simply repeat the words of Christ Himself: Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (John 8:44). As for those who truly seek the truth, I will repeat the words of Saint John the Theologian who warned us all about the deceivers: Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. (1 John 2:18-19).
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I, Andrei Raevsky, aka The Saker, have absolutely no authority whatsoever to teach anything to anyone. None. Zero. Ziltch. Nada! The “Christian Vignettes” are NOT a catechism, or a course in dogmatics or anything else formal. These vignettes are only one guy’s strictly personal musings on various topics. Nothing more.