Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I've got a lot going on right now with upcoming deadlines and such. As a result, I haven't had much time to write but I still read most every day. Aside from my usual reading of the Bible and the Quran, I've also been reading this article about Catholicism, Christianity, Jesus, and the Bible that was recommended to me by in a recent reply to one of my posts.

I primarily didn't want people to think I had abandoned this site; I'll be back and writing again soon, hopefully.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

More free will... this time with special guest, Jonah!

After the previous post about free will, I started thinking about stories of prophets from the Bible. Lucky for me, they also happen to be mentioned in the Quran so it makes it that much easier to converse with both sides. Initially, I began by recalling the story of Jonah (Yunus in Islam.)

Although God had given Jonah free will, He still had a plan for him. God wanted Jonah to go to Ninevah, a large city that was full of sin and sinners, and warn them against their wrong deeds. Jonah didn't want to do this and attempted to escape his God-given responsibilities. He tries to run away and sail to another country when the ship he had hired hit a great storm. Once the sailors realize that Jonah is the cause of the storm and there's no other escape, they throw him overboard and the waters calm. Jonah is then swallowed by a great fish where he is stranded for three days and eventually repents and asks for God's forgiveness. The fish then spits Jonah onto the shore where he fulfills his duty and prophesies to Ninevah (there's a little more to the story but it doesn't apply to this conversation.)

In this story we see that God has chosen Jonah for a particular role. However, Jonah, being a man, has the gift of free will. His will just happens to oppose God's will, as is evidenced by his attempted escape. However, Jonah's will is feeble compared to God's will and Jonah's greatest attempt to avoid God's calling is a joke compared to God's overarching dominion of the universe. God didn't impose on Jonah's will by simply changing his desire to avoid his responsibility. Jonah's will remained intact and God simply reminded him that God knows best and man doesn't.

It actually kind of reminds me of a parent-child relationship. The parent knows best but the child sometimes rebels. When the parent makes a child eat vegetables, the child's will remains unchanged but even the strongest, most stubborn child will give in given enough time and coercion. God has a plan for each of us; we can make decisions to resist that plan and rebel but given enough time and coercion, we'll bend and accept God's will.

Obviously, many people are more than happy to accept God's will from the beginning. Our free will still gets in the way and we rebel from time to time but when one's will aligns with God's will, your spiritual life should go smoothly even though you might have to occasionally withstand the slings and arrows of a cruel, secular world.

This brings up a related question, though. If we all eventually give in to God's overpowering will, why wouldn't everyone eventually go to Heaven? I think that God's always pushing and prying us to follow Him, which provides the coercion, so eventually everyone would come to the truth. However, since man has only a finite lifespan, those who are stubborn enough can make it through their whole life without listening to God's constant call. To go back to the parent-child analogy, if the child is stubborn enough, eventually the evening has passed and it's bedtime. If the vegetables are still sitting on the plate and the kid's still sitting at the table, you've got to give up, accept defeat, and send the kid to bed.

However, this theory somewhat contradicts "whomever Allah guides, there is none who can lead them astray and whomever Allah leads astray, there is none who can guide them." This implies that there are some people whom God completely refuses the prospect of Heaven. This means that God is not calling all people and it's up to each individual person to choose to follow God. This means that some people are called by God and others are turned away. Those who are called are already accepted into Heaven and those who aren't can't ever attain Heaven regardless of their wills. I find this hard to accept.

My frequent (and possibly only) reader Azooz commented on my last post with a story about a smart farmer with 6 sons, the father can "predict" how each one will perform in a situation and thus chose among them - each son would have characteristics and behaviors and from those the father could "guess" fairly well how each would behave, God created it all, the father and his sons, and would know beater than all.

This makes sense to me. God created us all and knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we'll think, what we'll say, and how we'll act long before we do. In this case, God's not choosing to guide or lead astray but, rather, He's simply not wasting time on those who won't accept His guidance. He truly wants everyone to follow him but, because He gave man the option not to, He knows many will refuse Him and go their own way.

I can accept this but I still don't think this explanation quite meshes with the "whomever Allah..." phrase. We'll have to think about it some more.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Islam & Free Will?

Everytime I go to the mosque for jumuah, there's one phrase at the very beginning of every khutbah that gets me thinking. "Whomever Allah guides no one can lead astray and whomever He misguides will find none to guide him aright." What worries me are its implications on free will. It sounds like we're predestined to either paradise or damnation; it sounds very Calvinist.

In the Quran, most things seem to mesh fairly well with discussions of free will in Christianity. God is omnipotent and has created the entire universe. Everything in the universe acts according to God's will but God has given mankind the gift of free will. If man chooses to do good then he is rewarded whereas if he chooses evil, he is punished.

However, in both the Bible and the Quran there are places that imply that man is under God's control. The quote with which I opened is an example of this, although I'm not sure if that's from the Quran or from where it comes. In any case, it implies that if your actions are good, it is due to God's guidance, and if they are evil, it is due to God's lack of guidance. Another disturbing ayah is "Whether you warn them or warn them not, they will not believe you. God has placed a seal on their hearts; there is a veil over their ears and their eyes, and a painful torment awaits them." (2:6-7)* According to these, man does not choose to disobey God but rather God chose for them. Thus, at the beginning of time God chose our fates, paradise or damnation, and we have no choice in the matter. If this is the case, God is unfair to reward or punish people even though they have no say in their actions.

However, other ayat such as "We have shown man the path of truth and the path of falsehood; he may choose either the path of guidance and offer the thanks, or choose the path of ingratitude" (76:3))* lay out very clearly that we are given free will and our decisions in life affect our final state in the afterlife.

Like I said, the same free-will versus predestination argument rages in Christianity with Bible verses supporting both sides. However, none of the verses that are used to support predestination seem to be quite as clear-cut as these. It's sometimes an interesting topic to discuss but it can be equally disturbing if you really think about it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Questioning Paul

I don't know why I put Paul and John of Patmos into a different category than Isaiah, Jeremiah, or any of the Old Testament authors. For some reason the Old Testament authors were prophets whereas I think of the New Testament authors as historians documenting Jesus' life and sayings. That's obviously not the case as 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament were written by Paul and even the Gospels are accepted as not written by those who knew Jesus during his lifetime.

I have a hard time completely dismissing those books as, using that argument, one would have to dismiss almost the entire Bible. Oral tradition has been a long-standing means of communication and that's how most of the scripture was transmitted throughout time. My problem is when the writers or repeaters add to or subtract from the original content.

Paul of Tarsus was a well-known persecutor of the early Christians. Then, on the road to Damascus, he was struck with a vision of Jesus and instructed to preach his word. I don't know why I can accept the prophets having visions and being divinely guided but have a problem with the Apostles and Disciples. I think in my mind, they were instructed to teach Jesus' message and not to create. I realize that the message given by Jesus (or any prophet, for that matter) was incomplete and needed to be interpreted but obviously many people in early Christianity, even within the circle of the Apostles, have many different interpretations. The interpretations I trust most are, naturally, those from the people who actually knew and were directly taught by Jesus. However, very little is reliably attributed to the original Apostles, indeed, the majority of the New Testament is attributed to Paul and Luke, a follower of Paul.

If Paul were indeed divinely inspired, I would expect his words to be accurate. Paul obviously believed that the apocalypse would occur very soon, during the lives of some of his audience. I can assure you that now, almost two thousand years later, none of Paul's original audience are still alive. Also, Paul's disagreements with other leaders of the early church. Indeed, the term "Pauline Christianity" is used to highlight his extreme influence on the formation of Christianity, regardless of the ideological differences between him and the Apostles heading the early Christian church of Jerusalem.

On the other hand, regardless of ideological differences, the original Apostles did accept Paul and charge him with teaching the Gentiles. If he did go astray, it wasn't initially when he was still in agreement with the others. I just wish there were documents from other writers that affirm or refute Paul's teachings. I feel like the more I read, the more I know how many different hypotheses exist and the less sure I am about anything.

Also, this would be a great time for someone with some formal Christian theological education to chime in. Although I've emailed numerous pastors, priests, and seminary professors to represent Christianity, none have commented on a post or replied to my email. The only voice of Christianity thus far was a one-time visitor who commented on a post. Representing Islam I've had at least one email reply from an imam and the continual comments from my Saudi friend. You'd think the pastors would be more interested in keeping their sheep from straying. Maybe they're turned off by the anonymity.

Friday, October 5, 2007

More Confusion?

I feel like I'm often very pro-Islam for some reason. I've justified it in the past with the excuse that my Christian upbringing leads me to read primarily about Islam as that's where my knowledge is most lacking. However, after my last post, I realized that I need to apply the same criticism to Islam as to Christianity. In particular, my argument about the Trinity being complex and mysterious and my desire to believe that God wouldn't ask us to accept anything too terribly confusing.

If you're unfamiliar with Islam's story of Jesus, I'll give a brief, hopefully accurate but definitely incomplete, summary. Islam, like Christianity, believes that Mary was approached by the archangel Gabriel and informed of her virgin pregnancy. Mary she left town to give birth in the wilderness under a date tree and was made unable to speak about her pregnancy and birth upon returning to town with the baby Jesus. Since his mother was unable to defend herself against accusations of unchastity, the baby Jesus miraculously spoke and defended her, which then broke the seal on his mother's lips. His miraculous conception and birth, however, did not make him a deity any more than Adam, Eve, or Melchizedek are deities although they were created by God without father or mother.

Jesus' mission, according to Islam, is very similar to his mission according to Christianity. He wandered through Israel and Judea performing miracles and teaching the Gospel. However, this was done as a prophet of God rather than as Son of God. Islam (as a majority, although this also states a different viewpoint) does not believe that Jesus was crucified but was simply made to look crucified, either through being replaced by a look-a-like or else by simply fainting on the cross and then waking in the tomb. Most Muslims believe that Jesus was taken up to heaven by God while still alive and will again come, just as in Christianity, at the end of days to establish Islam as the world's religion and abolish all others.

Until just now when reading the differing viewpoints of Jesus within Islam, I had only been aware of the theory where Jesus was replaced with another man made to look like him. This is the point I wanted to refute as confusing. Why would God make it look like Jesus was crucified if we are all supposed to believe otherwise? It would be one thing if only the Romans and his Jewish enemies were convinced of his death but his followers and even his mother witnessed and believed his death.

Of course, now as I write my argument, I'm finding holes. If Jesus didn't claim to be the son of God, it wouldn't matter if he died or not. Whether Jesus the prophet died on the cross or not, he still spent his life teaching God's word and performing miracles in His name. Whether Jesus the prophet was raised to Heaven while still alive or he died a natural death beforehand, he still spent his life teaching God's word and performing miracles in His name. Jesus' crucifixion only really matters if Jesus is not just a prophet but God's Son, sent to pay for the sins of the world through his suffering on the cross and his following internment in Hell before being raised on the third day.

I definitely agree with the arguments that Jesus' staged death is tricky and not very consistent with my impression of God. However, as I stated in the last paragraph, I don't know if it matters much unless it is a central facet of your religion. If Jesus hasn't been crucified but had died a natural death, couldn't he still be deified? Indeed, many religions don't even wait for someone to die before declaring them as gods; for instance, the Dalai Lama or all the many kings and rulers who were worshipped as gods (in the literal sense) by all their subordinates.

I guess I didn't have any revelations in today's post. Oh well, you can't find enlightenment everyday.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Intellect, the Bible, and the Quran

One of the things I really like about Islamic culture is the intellectual nature of it. The fact that Mohammad's first revelation was "Read!" is indicative of that nature. My understanding is that every Muslim is supposed to read the entire Quran during the month of Ramadan. Additionally, Quranic memorization is a common occurrence and there is even a well-developed science to reading the Quran.

This stands in stark contrast to much of Christianity, where many people never read the Bible and indeed for centuries only the clergy and well educated had access to Bibles. Although the Roman Catholic church insisted on keeping mass in Latin for centuries, it made no effort to educate people in Latin. It wasn't until relatively recently that colloquial translations of the Bible were made.

Islam is similar in its sticking to Arabic but it stresses learning and reading Arabic for all Muslims, not just the clergy and affluent. In this way, religion has a place in the lives of everyday, common man rather than just those with the money and time to pursue such studies.

This intellectual side is also evident in the Quran, which states that one should understand and not simply blindly follow what you're told. I very much respect this questioning of religion as blind acceptance of anything is dangerous, in my opinion. I feel like if you're going to believe something and follow something, whether it's religious, political, or scientific, you should be able to logically explain your belief. Blind acceptance without question leads to fascism in government and extremist cults in religion. I don't claim that Islam is without this blind acceptance or that Christianity is without intellectualism; I just appreciate how it seems to be a central facet to Islam.

Anyway, after I started my questioning of everything, my regular reading of my Bible changed drastically. I began noticing many little things that didn't quite make sense. One of these oddities was Jesus' praying to God. I couldn't figure out why Jesus, as a part of God through the Trinity, would need to pray. I can accept him leading prayer amongst others but his individual prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane doesn't make any sense to me. As a part of God, it seems to me that he's praying to himself. Is he asking himself for intervention or blessing?

I asked my Pastor this question and I wasn't terribly pleased with the response. I was told that it is part of the mystery that is God. The question was actually reflected back to me: how would I, as a believer, explain it to a non-believer? It actually makes me think of the movie Contact where the scientists state that the simple solution is most probably fact, Occam's razor. It's much more natural to accept a god that's clearly understandable and plainly laid out. The whole "mystery of God" thing is fairly unappealing. I don't claim that God must be entirely comprehensible to man but if God wants man to worship and follow him, I think he would clarify important issues such as these.

Another thing that I noticed while reading, although the Quran this time, was the mention of the Holy Spirit. In sura Baqara, 2:87, "We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit." I also noticed it later on in the same sura but I didn't write down which ayah. I also should've noted the Arabic word that was translated to Holy Spirit. What surprised me was the fact that it was captalized, especially given its meaning in Christianity. I can understand the Quran referencing the spirit as a characteristic of God but the "Holy Spirit" has a well-defined meaning in the mind of Christians. For this reason alone, I would expect the translator to avoid that phrase, especially capitalized as it is.

Anyway, my reading of both the Bible and the Quran continue. We'll see what I pick up on next.