Mars Hill Forum #122: “The Bible, the Qur’an, and the Universal Struggle for Freedom,” March 26, 2007, Union League Club, New York City, Guest: Dr. Radwan Masmoudi, President, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID)
Prepared Remarks by John C. Rankin
This is part of a Mars Hill Forum series recently renamed: “Islam, Christianity and Hard Questions,” after a delightful forum last night with Imam Talal Eid of the Islamic Institute of Boston. Tonight, we will look at “The Bible, the Qur’an and the Universal Struggle for Freedom.” Here, and in this whole series, I am seeking to address the most compelling international issue of our day – “Islam and the West” as some define it – in a proactive fashion that seeks honest communication with Muslim leaders.
When we consider the 1400 year conflict between Islam and the West, we who are Christian are called to follow Jesus. In Luke 10, Jesus commissioned seventy-two disciples to announce the kingdom of God in the religiously mixed towns of the Trans-Jordon. They were to look for “a man of peace,” likely a well-known and respected leader. If they found one, they then knew the whole town would be receptive to them. In most every culture across history, civil societies have their men of peace. They are those who can be trusted to be men of their word, to have the well-being of the community at heart.
My goal is to find men and women of peace within the Islamic Ummah or community, and seek such honest conversation. In Radwan Masmoudi I find such a man.
These forums seek to highlight intelligent and gracious conversation between the Christian and Islamic communities; with prior Jewish reality in the background. The goals are twofold:
- To equip Christians and Jews to learn how the Qur’an understands itself on its own terms; and to equip Muslims to learn how the Bible understands itself on its own terms.
- To maximize religious, political and economic liberty for all people equally.
Among Jews, Christians and Muslims, we can sum up our respective identities this way: Biblically rooted Jews and Christians share the belief that the Hebrew Bible is given by Yahweh Elohim (the Hebrew transliteration for the LORD God), is trustworthy in all it claims, and its text has been faithfully stewarded by the Israelite and Jewish community across four millennia. The key difference between a Jew and a Christian is the question of the Messiah’s identity. Christians believe that the New Testament is given by the Lord God, is trustworthy in all it claims, including Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and its text has been faithfully stewarded by the Christian community across two millennia. Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed by Allah to the last Prophet, Muhammad, it fulfills and completes the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, is trustworthy in all it claims, and its text has been faithfully stewarded by the Muslim Ummah (community) across its 1400 year history.
In international politics today where Jews, Christians and Muslims interface, the deepest questions are rooted in the interpretations of the Bible and the Qur’an. In looking carefully at the theological assumptions in place in both, only then can questions of political implications in service to human freedom be fully understood and addressed.
For a vigorous dialogue in service to these ends, this series seeks to make sure that all perspectives are truly heard by all others present. Thus, there is no rush to accomplish anything apart from integrity in relationships.
For those who affirm the Bible on its own terms, and for those who affirm the Qur’an on its own terms, can we each accomplish the following goals?
- To articulate the positives of what we believe and why, and then listen to the positives of what the other believes and why;
- With humility and intellectual rigor, to have the freedom to question one another as equals on points where we may not agree;
- Upon such clear definitions of terms, to then have the freedom to leave all open questions open; and
- Upon such a basis, to work together, each on our own articulations, to serve religious, political and economic liberty for all people equally.
This series is rooted in the biblical order of creation, which by definition is entirely proactive and fully comprehensive in nature. Therefore I seek to be consistently rooted in the proactive, and accountable to whether or not I am comprehensive in approaching this or any other topic.
The Bible on its own terms is a story line – the only fully true story ever told. Out of the story line come doctrines or teachings, and the three all-defining doctrines of the Bible are those of creation, sin and redemption. Or to put it another way – the order of creation, the reversal and the reversal of the reversal. Yahweh Elohim, the LORD God, intended for us the healthy order of creation, we went the wrong direction away from it, and he restores us to the right path through Jesus the Redeemer. Genesis 1-2 equals the good order of creation, and this is unique in the face of all religious and secular literature in history.
In other words, in the biblical order of creation, all is good – there is no brokenness of trust, no war, no fear, no discord. In fact, all is shalom – the Hebrew word for peace which has a deeper reality where it refers to integrity and wholeness. In contrast, the essence of sin is the brokenness of trust, where Adam and Eve broke trust with one another and with Yahweh Elohim, in their act of disobeying his goodness.
In the biblical order of creation, which I call Only Genesis, there are ten positive assumptions, out of which come the six pillars of biblical power, and these are the predicate for the six pillars of honest politics, which will be detailed in another forum.
1] Only Genesis has a positive view of God’s nature.
The nature of Yahweh Elohim is that he is greater than space, time and number, and part of that reality paves the way for his trinitarian nature, where as the Three are One, so we have the basis for diversity in service to unity – the very basis for family and a healthy civic order. His nature is good, his power is unlimited, and his power is the power to give blessings to all humanity. This is the power to give, the first of the six pillars of biblical power and honest politics.
2] Only Genesis has a positive view of communication.
The first words of God in the Bible are: “Let there be light.” Light is the basis for communication, and the idea of revelation is to reveal or communicate what was otherwise not seen.
In the Bible, light versus darkness is profiled in three ways. First, in physics, darkness always dissipates in the presence of light. Light has an atomic weight, but darkness has no atomic weight, thus in physics, darkness does not exist. Second, in ethics, those who live dark, hidden and deceptive lives do not want to be in the presence of those who live openly and honestly in the sight of God and one another. This is the power to live in the light, the second of the six pillars.
And third is the reality of spiritual domains, where Jesus is the Light of the world and Satan is the prince of darkness. Since darkness does not exist, Satan is the prince of nothing, and if we begin to grasp this profound theological truth – which Jesus knew when he went to the cross, our lives would be transformed by the power to live in the light. No need ever to chase the darkness, or react to it. Be proactive in the light, and by definition, the darkness will flee.
The height of redemptive communication is stated in the prologue to John’s Gospel, where Jesus is the Word of God, he is God, he is the light of men, he comes into the world, and “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” The Greek word here for “understood” is katalambano, which means to reach up, grasp and pull down – and neither the devil nor anyone living in darkness can do this with the Light of the world.
Thus, the revelation of God’s Word in the Bible is rooted in these realities of light versus darkness, it comes to us across thousands of years, in the checks and balances of faithful covenantal communities, reflecting qualities of the trinitarian nature of Yahweh Elohim, and as inspired by the Holy Spirit.
3] Only Genesis has a positive view of human nature.
In Genesis 1-2, man and woman are created in God’s image, reflecting in their finitude the infinite nature of Yahweh Elohim – to be creative, responsible and free in being good stewards over the good creation he has given us. We are all made in God’s image, therefore we are all equal in the order of creation – we equally suffer the ravages of sin, and we are equally sought after by Yahweh Elohim throughout redemptive history so we can be saved.
4] Only Genesis has a positive view of human freedom.
In Genesis 2, Yahweh Elohim’s gift of human freedom is based on the radical nature of a level playing field – he sets before us good and evil, life and death, defines them accurately, and then gives us the freedom to choose between the two – along with the reality that we will reap what we sow in making our choice. Only truth can afford such freedom to be given; error seeks to impose itself, because people would not otherwise choose it if they knew the difference between truth and error.
This biblical language of freedom is rooted in the metaphor of an unlimited menu of good choices as in a banquet, set next to the one choice of evil. The Hebrew is akol tokel – “in feasting you shall continually feast” as the definition of freedom to do the good; versus moth tamuth – “in dying you shall continually die” as the definition of slavery to evil.
This positive view of freedom is the power of informed choice, the third pillar. It is the unique predicate for religious, political and economic liberty, and hence for good government. We are not free to say yes to God’s goodness unless we are first free to say no, for goodness is a gift, as is love, and forced goodness is an oxymoron, forced love is another way to define rape. Yahweh Elohim is good, and he is free to do the good; but he is not free to do evil, for to do evil is to become a slave to it, and Yahweh Elohim is a slave to no one and no thing. Freedom is his good gift to all of us as equal sharers in the image of God.
Let’s put it this way – is there anyone here tonight who does not delight at the thought of a banquet with friends, where there is an unlimited menu of good choices in food and drink? …….. Thus, we are united in our hopes – Jew, Christian, Muslim, pagan and secularist alike. Now the challenge is to import this biblical and anthropological reality into human government.
5] Only Genesis has a positive view of hard questions.
Adam and Eve were free in the order of creation to bring to Yahweh Elohim their toughest questions as they exercised their freedom of stewardship over the creation. Redemptively, the love of hard questions in the face of emotionally painful and intellectually vexing questions is explicitly celebrated throughout the Bible. The very essence of rabbinic teaching is that students are first taught to ask questions before they can have interest in or understand the answers, and Jesus, as the quintessential rabbi asked far more questions than he gave answers. This is part of the intrinsic nature and joy of the learning and discovering process hard-wired into the image of God, and it is the fourth pillar: the power to love hard questions.
6] Only Genesis has a positive view of human sexuality.
Male and female are made in the image of God as equals and complements. Yahweh Elohim exercises the power to give in blessing Adam, who receives it so he can pass along that same power to give to Eve. She receives it and exercises the power to give in response to Adam. They are thus designed to be forever free in initiating the power to give to one another, and together in giving back to Yahweh Elohim praise and thanksgiving.
We have two choices in life – give and it shall be given, or take before you are taken. Yahweh Elohim uniquely possesses the unilateral power to give, and all pagan deities and secular constructs assume the power to take before being taken. In marriage there are three possibilities, 100-0 where the man demands 100 percent and gives nothing in return, which equals male chauvinism; 50-50 where man and woman draw a line down the middle of giving and taking, but if one steps over the line, there is war; or 100-100, where man gives 100 percent of his best to his wife because Yahweh Elohim has given him 100 percent of the best man could receive in his finite nature, and thus the woman is free to give 100 percent of her best to her husband. The prescription for peace.
And as man and woman become one in marriage – the two becoming one – as image-bearers of God they reflect the nature of the Trinity, of the Three who are One, and on such a foundation, the equality and complementarity of man and woman are defined.
7] Only Genesis has a positive view of science and the scientific method.
Whereas pagan religions view the sun, moon and stars as gods and goddesses, the biblical order of creation is unique in viewing them as inanimate objects – consistent with scientific reality. And the scientific method, rooted in the principle of falsification, is uniquely and ethically rooted in the standards required of all Hebrew prophets, and to which Jesus submitted himself.
8] Only Genesis has a positive view of verifiable history.
The Bible is unique from the beginning in having everything rooted in eye-witness history, with checks and balances in place to ensure integrity of what is written down. And it is exceedingly bold as to name the first man and woman, where they lived, and who their children were all the way down to Jesus. No mythology in the Bible.
9] Only Genesis has a positive view of covenantal law.
The Bible is unique in that Yahweh Elohim – who is our Creator and is greater than space, time and number – hold himself accountable to the promises he makes to us; and this is the example for good government in human politics.
10] Only Genesis has a positive view of unalienable rights and the First Amendment.
The unalienable rights of life, liberty and property which lead to the power to pursue happiness in healthy community can only be located in Yahweh Elohim’s gifts given in Genesis 1-2. And the cognate First Amendment liberties of religion, speech, press, assembly and redress of grievances, flow out of the same foundation.
In the redemptive order, the Bible defines the last two pillars – the power to love enemies and the power to forgive, both of which are highlighted in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and in his atoning death.
This definition of Only Genesis is my attempt at Biblical Theology 101, and on this foundation I approach any and every issue in history. Only Genesis provides the basis for equality and freedom for every human person, and for honestly representative government rooted in unalienable rights – and here Dr. Masmoudi and I pursue the same goal. Thus far I have not defined anything relative to Islam, where the Bible and Qur’an agree and disagree with each other. In our dialogic period, and during the questions and answers, we will begin to enter into this discussion. And in future forums I will do so with specific issues delineated, now having spelled out my interpretive foundation.
Let me conclude with another foundational concern, this one being rooted in the biblical history concerning Abraham and Ishmael – crucial for any sense of Jewish and Christian interface with Islam.
As a young boy, perhaps five years old.
There he sits outside the small tent, meant to spend these years at play and wonder, yet the intrusion of undeserved pain already gnaws at his soul. There, at the bitter edge of a large nomadic community, he lives alone with his mother Hagar. They are shunned by most people, with furtive glances that young Ishmael doesn’t know how to define, but he feels them deeply and unhappily. His mother loves him dearly, holds him tight and teaches him the basics of hygiene, language arts and social skills, of how to grow into manhood.
But his father is not present to model such a manhood, for Abraham is married to Sarah, and Ishmael is the son of a hastily arranged and foolish concubinary with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar. In other words, we come to learn that Ishmael is the son of a discarded slave-woman whom Sarah despises for no good cause. Ishmael has no legitimate inheritance rights or honorable standing in the community. He is rejected and feels the shame deeply, all for something which is not his fault, which is not his mother’s fault. But at age five, he does not understand these social and sexual realities – he only feels the shame, and doesn’t know why he has to feel it, when other boys his age do not. They have daddies at home.
Then imagine the periodic community-wide feast involving perhaps 2,000 people. The seat of honor goes to the patriarch, the wealthiest and most powerful man in the area – Abraham. And next to him sits his beautiful wife Sarah. Then back at the edges sit Hagar and little Ishmael. Hagar has told him before that this man is his father, but little Ishmael is not allowed to see Abraham, for Sarah would be furious, and they would have to flee for their lives into a desert that only holds death. Ishmael listens, and most of these words are not really understood, but serve as background for the years ahead. At this moment though, the little Ishmael only has one desire – to sit next to his daddy in the sight of all the people, to be honored as daddy’s little boy. So simple,
not possible, and thus Ishmael grows to be a wild donkey of a man, always fighting for survival and for a dignity and honor not given.
Ibn Ishaq, the first biographer of Muhammad, claims this lineage for him, and Islam grew out of Arabia 2600 years after Abraham. There is a deep struggle in the subconscious of Ishmael’s lineage. The Arabic word for struggle is jihad. Virtually invisible in the Qur’an and Hadith, this is an inner struggle for honor to erase the undeserved shame, for freedom from a birthright of slavery. It is an inner struggle at the root of the historical and original jihad against all who will not submit to Islam. And in the face of this reality, the calling for biblical people is to honor Ishmael, to honor all Arab and Muslim peoples, and all others including ourselves, as equals in the sight of the Creator, Yahweh Elohim, the eternal Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Only then can the message of the Prince of Peace cut through the boiling tempest of the Middle East — he who was rejected by men as he went to the cross in our stead, then rose from the grave with all rejection conquered. Hagar called Yahweh “the God who sees me,” and the name Ishmael means “God hears.” Do we also see and hear?
And far more broadly than the world of Arabia and Islam, there is a universal struggle. The world’s greatest social evils are rooted in “the chosen absence of the biological father,” whether physical or emotional in nature.
If we listen to the children of divorce, we can trace most pain back to what is, or is at least perceived to be such a chosen absence.
If we listen to women forced through an abortion by the chauvinism of irresponsible men, we can trace most of the pain back to such a chosen absence.
If we listen to men and women struggling with issues of homosexual identity or actions, we can trace most of the pain back to such a chosen absence. And likewise for many who struggle with heterosexual promiscuity.
If we look at the emerging soul-searching pain of the children of donor sperm, such a chosen absence is not only deliberate, but mockingly so for perhaps a pittance of cash.
If we look at the poverty in the ghettos of the United States, we can note how at least seventy percent of black children grow up in the pain of such a chosen absence.
If we look at polygamous cultures where sons do not have the chosen full presence of their fathers – in the midst of the sibling rivalries due to the positioning struggles of rival wives – then we can understand people like Osama bin Laden.
Historically, the pain of such a chosen absence, and in a unique way, most deeply affects the Arab and Muslim soul tracing back to Abraham and Ishmael. Abraham’s absence was chosen yet unchosen – he chose the folly of breaking his marriage covenant with Sarah, at her initiative, but then to keep his marriage intact, yielded to her war against Hagar and Ishmael; yet he never stopped yearning for his son Ishmael, to be a full father to him, but had no power of choice to make it a reality.
How complex broken trust becomes across the pages of history, ever since the original covenant of one man, one woman, one lifetime was assaulted. And only because the Son of God willingly died on the cross for us, splitting the Trinity for some hours in history, yet with unbroken trust in God the Father, and unbroken trust in the power of the Spirit to raise him up from the grave – only because of this calendar defining event, do any of us have hope.
What I have stated here, from the biblical account of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac – is a risky proposition in the presence of Muslim persons. For I am raising an issue of great debate between Jews, Christians and Muslims – and by acknowledging the historical reality reported in Genesis, I am making an accurate diagnosis of the historical pain of Ishmael’s shame and yearning for true honor, and those of us who are Jewish and Christian must therefore show honor to all Arab and Muslim peoples, and not exploit it as has happened in the past. We are all equal as image-bearers of God, we are all equally violated by sin and have acted sinfully, and we are all equally in need of honor and forgiveness. I no less than anyone, being a descendant of William I of Normandy, born in 1028 A.D., and who due to the nature of his birth was also known as William the Bastard.
Thus, if we grasp the ten positive assumptions of the biblical order of creation in Genesis 1-2, Only Genesis, and the six pillars of biblical power that flow from such a foundation, we will be a free people able to bless one another across the great historical and religious divides. I ask all of us – Is there anything here not proactive in nature, good, beautiful and attractive to all people of good will, to all men and women of peace?