The Limits of Science and the Transcendence of God

March 10, 2018 § Leave a comment

Since the Enlightenment, many have tried to position science and the Christian faith (or Theistic religion in general) as two mutually exclusive worldviews. Many thought, and still think today, that advancements in science have replaced our need for God or His miracles. How should Christians think about science? Are science and faith in God at odds?

Sometimes categories are just convenient ways of maligning one idea and exalting another. The truth is, science done scientifically is good and true just as teaching the Bible Biblically is good and true. Both can be distorted and misapplied. To understand both better, including their compatibility, we should first look at what both science and the Bible say about themselves.

GOD around nature

RESPECTING THE BOUNDARIES

How do we do science scientifically? Science is a systematic process by which we explore the natural universe through observation and experimentation. The Scientific Method pioneered by Sir Francis Bacon (a man of both science and Christian faith) in the 17th century, involves making observations, asking questions, forming a hypothesis, testing it through experimentation, and coming to a conclusion, or repeating and refining as necessary.

Can science explain God? No. Science can’t explain God because of its self-imposed limitation to inquiry about the natural and physical world. God falls in the category of supernatural, which means outside of nature. Science by definition is not qualified to examine God.

Can science explain science? No. It can’t provide an adequate explanation for itself  because the foundations of science are not scientific but philosophical. Science deals with how, not why. So when we ask why do science in the first place, we can’t offer scientific evidence or reasons to support it.

J. Warner Wallace, a Christian apologist and retired homicide detective, applies his investigative experience by following the evidence “outside the room”, as described in the premise of his book, ‘God’s Crime Scene’: “Can everything we see in the universe be explained solely from causes found within the natural realm, or is there evidence of an outside ‘intruder’? Is the universe a ‘scene’ that can be explained by natural ‘internal’ forces, or is an external ‘intruder’ a better explanation?”(1) Just as nature itself can’t explain nature, science, the limits of which is nature, points to something “outside the room.”

Can God explain science? Yes. God’s word in fact lays the foundations for scientific endeavor and the natural universe we explore with it. Among other realities, the Bible accounts for the origins of nature, the laws of nature, and the exploration of nature.

The origins of nature are explained in the Genesis creation account. When we observe our world and consider its possible beginnings, the evidence points “outside the room.” As the Kalam Cosmological Argument for Classical Theism presents: Everything that began to exist has a cause, and since the universe began to exist, the universe has a cause. Logically, the first cause of the universe must be uncaused, and the eternal, personal, all-powerful Creator God of the Bible is a sufficient cause.

The laws of nature broadly encompass physical/scientific laws (like gravity and uniformity), natural law (morality and human rights), and the basic rules that govern logic (like the law of non-contradiction). These are called “laws” because they are consistent and reliable observed patterns in nature (including human nature and how we think) that are not conceived or established by us, but thought to be inherent or transcendent. In other words, they come to us from “outside the room.” The Bible accounts for these laws with accounts of God establishing order and uniformity in nature (Genesis 8:22)(2), writing moral law on our hearts (Romans 2:15)(3) and creating us in His image as beings who also think morally and employ logic (Isaiah 1:18)(4).

The exploration of nature is a fundamental part of human flourishing since the beginning, or at least since God scattered the nations at Babel (Genesis 11). Our scientific endeavor is fueled by a hunger to expand our territory and a thirst for knowledge about ourselves and our world. But why do science? Why do we spend billions launching exploratory spacecraft and searching for signals from aliens on the outside chance that we might not be alone in the universe?(5)

We can deduce from Scripture that we are made to ultimately encounter God through scientific exploration. Paul, in Acts 17:24-27, told the intellectuals of his day: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and… gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him…”. And in Romans 1:20, Paul makes it clear that we are “without excuse” for atheism and ought to logically infer a Creator, as most do, by observing creation.(6)

TRANSCENDING THE BOUNDARIES

If we take science “outside the room” to assess the supernatural, we are giving it a scope and authority it is not meant to have. Granting science such ultimate authority is one of the tenets of a religion called Scientism.

While science can’t transcend the boundaries of nature and the physical universe, God is by nature transcendent. God is infinite and limitless in His presence, power, knowledge and love, so boundaries are nothing to Him.

Nature can’t logically create itself. God transcended nature, first, when He created it (Genesis 1:1). As Deism would suggest, God could have created the universe and then left us alone, but Colossians 1:17 puts Him “in all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (The so-dubbed “strong forces” that hold atomic particles together are interactions that physicists don’t fully understand). God could have left His creation to perish completely in their sin, but instead God loves us, cares for us, and is active in and author of our story.

This love led Him to absolutely transcend our world in the sending of His Son (John 3:16-17)(7). Jesus Christ was born in the flesh, living a perfectly sinless life as fully man, but died as an atonement for our sins, a payment He could only make if He was also fully God(8). After defeating sin and death on the cross and through His resurrection from the dead, Jesus ascended back to the Father, leaving us His Holy Spirit.

Our sin cemented a barrier between man and God. Through Christ, God, who is no respecter of barriers, broke it down. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes (or transcends) to the Father except by Me.” (John 14:6) If not for God’s transcendence into our world, especially through Christ, we could never realize transcendence into His—but that’s exactly what He offers through faith in Christ alone. Jesus is the only “Way” we can truly get “outside the room.”

SCIENCE AND FAITH

Some claim that “science says” this or that. But outside of the definition and parameters we’ve given it, does science itself actually say things? Or is it more accurate to say that science is a process by which scientists say things? Scientists are people with individual worldviews and the choice to either use science correctly or make it do things it’s not supposed to do when they say things.

Does “science say” that our universe created itself, or that life originated from non-living matter, was seeded on earth from another part of the universe, or diversified by natural and undirected processes over billions of years? Actually, people with Naturalistic or Materialistic worldviews come to such conclusions in the name of science (or Scientism)—without observation, without testing, and without the aid of actual science. They are starting with a certain assumption dictated by their worldview and working to prove it using science.

If we prop up science with worldview assumptions or take it outside its self-imposed limitations, we are anti-science. If we assume that God is only a conceptual crutch to explain natural phenomena until science replaces Him, we are anti-theology. People who consider themselves Christians should evaluate science on the basis of what science teaches about itself. Likewise, people who consider themselves scientifically minded should evaluate Christianity on the basis of what Christianity teaches about itself.

In another act of transcendence, God has given us His word, and the Bible understood Biblically does not contradict science understood scientifically, but instead supports and even explains science. When we see, do, and define both science and the Christian faith correctly and honestly, the two are in harmony.

1) God’s Crime Scene: a Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, by J. Warner Wallace, David C Cook, 2015, p. 23.
2) “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (NIV)
3) “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” (NIV)
4) 
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lordthough your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (ESV)
5) “The Cost of SETI: Infographic.”
Bad Astronomy, 1 May 2011, blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/05/01/the-cost-of-seti-infographic
6) “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (NIV)
7) “
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (NIV)
8) My post:
“God and Man Collide: Why the Hypostatic Union of Jesus Matters” (https://godneighbor.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/god-and-man-collide-why-the-hypostatic-union-of-jesus-matters/)

The Existence of God is Worthy of Debate—But an Atheist Minister in a Christian Church?

October 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

atheist-pulpitFrom the UC Observer Magazine, published by the United Church of Canada: “After nearly a week of deliberating, the sub-Executive of Toronto Conference voted to ask the General Council of The United Church of Canada to conduct a formal hearing to determine whether to fire Rev. Gretta Vosper — the last step in a long process that now seems increasingly likely to remove the atheist minister from her pulpit.”(1)

Ponder these things:

1. Somehow, there is a congregation that identifies as a Christian church that at some point actually hired a minister who identifies as an atheist.

2. Somehow, an atheist has been allowed to minister at a Christian church for 19 years.

3. Somehow, it takes a “long process” of “deliberating” and a vote to request a “formal hearing” to consider whether or not an atheist should continue to pastor a Christian church.

Does a doctor, while seeing a patient with a knife in his gut, deliberate for weeks over the decision to remove the knife (whether or not it was self-inflicted or allowed to fester for a long time)? This boggles the mind.

For sure, people are upset because bounds—that should never have been set—are being overstepped in the process, and some fear that “the United Church may be turning its back on a history of openness and inclusivity”—code words for theological compromise that began long ago. Obstacles that should never have been.

Gretta Vosper has fans in the church (she is also “a prolific blogger, author and guest speaker”). In fact “a petition in support of Vosper…calls on the church ‘to show loving kindness to everyone, irrespective of belief or no belief.'”

Loving kindness respects all people as human beings made in God’s image, regardless of their beliefs, and love calls us to seek God’s best for them. Loving kindness does NOT invite heresy, or entrust the preaching and teaching of God’s Word to someone who does not even believe in God or His word. This doesn’t seek God’s best for the congregation either.

“Vosper calls herself an atheist and has been serving her church for 19 years. She has stated that she does not believe in a Trinitarian God or a supernatural god. She said love is the most sacred value and that she had stopped using the word ‘God’ because it was a barrier to participation in the church.”

God is love. To exclude God from Vosper’s “preaching” is to exclude love. If “God” is a barrier to participation in this church, what can there be in this church that is worth participating in? The love of God? The truth of God’s Word? The good news of salvation from sin through God’s one and only Son? If “God” is not preached from Vosper’s pulpit, the silence of the name of “Jesus” will be even more deafening.

Thankfully, “others have been frustrated that the United Church has allowed someone to be a minister in a Christian church while disavowing the major aspects of the Christian faith.” At least someone sees the problem.

Vosper’s lawyer “called for Conference to put the review on hold for a year in favour of a structured dialogue or debate,” meanwhile Vosper would remain a minister. Structured dialogue and debate is a great thing, but if you’re expecting that process to take a year, you’re likely not looking to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”(2) You’re contending for theological liberalism or atheism, heresy we already know God detests and Jesus died for.

If a minister is an atheist, and a congregation is a Christian church, then the atheist belongs in the pew, not at the pulpit. The pairing makes no sense at all, and frankly there’s little to debate about that. Now if we want to debate the existence of God, let’s have a dialogue.

1) Milne, Mike. “Atheist minister Gretta Vosper one step closer to dismissal, formal hearing requested” UC Observer Magazine. United Church of Canada, 22 Sep. 2016. Web. 03 Oct. 2016. (Link: http://www.ucobserver.org/faith/2016/09/vosper_atheist_minister/)
2) Jude 1:3: Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

‘Hedge of Protection’ Prayer Gets an Upgrade

August 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

The popular prayer for a “hedge of protection” may be getting an upgrade to stronger materials. Many pastors and missionaries, seeing a higher level of danger both physically and spiritually in today’s culture, are praying for a more substantial means of protection than the hedge, which dates back to the book of Job.

-1x-1“A row of leafy bushes simply doesn’t cut it anymore in today’s world,” said Dale Hill, a pastor and structural engineer in Bakersfield, CA. “At our church, we’ve started to pray actual fences. Wood or vinyl at least. When we feel really spiritually oppressed, we go for steel-reinforced concrete barriers and the like.”

Julian Deever, who leads worship at Hillside E-Free in Denver, is trying a more transparent approach. “We’ve actually constructed sturdy plexiglass cages, like the one surrounding our drummer, for our entire worship team and pastoral staff. Take that, Satan!”

Denise Stewalski, a prayer warrior who owns ToughTree Landscaping in Chicago, doesn’t think Christians need to abandon the traditional hedge concept just yet. “There are some very sturdy bushes available to pray around your pastors, missionaries, and loved ones. Junipers, for instance, make pretty formidable barriers, and the reasons most homeowners hate them make them a great option. The roots are tough, they’re prickly to the touch, low maintenance, and they’re usually full of spiders and lost baseballs. I’d like to see the Devil try to get through a Juniper hedge.”

“We also have a sale on them this weekend,” she added.

What many Christians see as an issue over what a “hedge” is made of, some have a greater faith in the One who plants it. “If God puts a hedge of protection around you, the kind of shrubbery doesn’t matter. You are safe!” says Ellen Green, head of Horticultural Ministries at Park Forest Chapel in Memphis, TN.

If God’s ideal place for Adam and Eve was a garden, should we worry that His “hedge of protection” won’t protect us? Maybe we’ll be just fine among the hydrangeas.

Yes, Evil is a Problem (With a Solution)

January 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

video attempting to address the Problem of Evil(1) prompted a Facebook comment from an atheist I’ve encountered before. Below is a brief conversation that followed.

ATHEIST

He looks so proud of coming up with such a bad argument!

CHRISTIAN

Cheesy video, and maybe an unfair dig against hippie hairstyles, but a good illustration. Whether the problem is “too much” evil and suffering (as the barber complains) or any evil and suffering at all, neither is evidence against the God described in the Bible.

First, objective evil (the only kind worth complaining about) only makes sense in light of objective good, which doesn’t make sense on atheism. Second, a good God creating humans with freedom to choose could not prevent our sin (the root cause of the world’s evil and suffering) without preventing our freedom to choose, and nobody’s okay with that idea.

And even if the world’s evil and suffering were a tiny fraction of what it is, the barber would still complain(2). God’s plan of redemption in Jesus Christ includes making all things new, so one day evil and suffering will be gone. The days the barber chooses to spend complaining and disbelieving are days that a good God has graciously given him as more time to come to repentance and faith (2 Peter 3:9).

ATHEIST

You’re not going to be able to dismiss the Problem of Evil that easily…even the most prominent Christian apologists can[‘t] explain it away. As C.S. Lewis conceded, it’s the most powerful argument against the Christian god.

CHRISTIAN

The problem of evil is not “easy”. That’s why it’s a “problem.” But a problem is something to think about and work through, not to discard because it’s a problem (like this list of unsolved problems in all types of fields of study(3)).

There are no “easy” answers because we’re the ones who see and often experience evil and suffering. C.S. Lewis knew it wasn’t easy but knew the logic behind it was sound, that freedom to love requires the freedom to do evil, which he summarized very effectively in The Case for Christianity:

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (…) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will -that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying.”

Even though it makes perfect sense why there is such things wrong with the world, it’s a problem because we don’t know why “we” or why “they” suffer the particular way that they do. It’s personal, so of course we don’t like it. But it also makes sense that we wouldn’t be able to fully know the mind of God and His ultimate plan for eternal good that can involve our temporary pain (like the pain of surgery in light of a better life afterwards).

God has an answer in redeeming evil through His Son, because He is a personal God that knows and loves us, desiring to save us from what are in the end the consequences of our own sin.

Most arguments for atheism based on the problem of evil assume a God who is not personal (deism) and just doesn’t care to intervene, or that He is just plain mean. Neither fit the description of the God of the Bible.

Have a great day!

ATHEIST

I’ll counter with two words that have nothing to do with personal choice or ‘sin’: bacteria and earthquakes. Yet cause unmeasurable pain and suffering.

CHRISTIAN

Actually, they are linked to sin. After their disobedience, God told Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you.” (Gen. 3:17) and Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning” as a result of man’s sin and “waits eagerly” for redemption (Rom. 8:19-22). The corruptive effects of sin reach everywhere in nature, which God created “good” to begin with (Gen. 1:31). Ninety percent of all bacteria are still good, non-pathogenic and necessary, but some became harmful to humans after the Fall. Likewise, most earthquakes are still harmless and too small to be detected without sophisticated seismography, and they were likely a non-issue before a cursed creation. We shouldn’t expect to know why God allows certain things to happen and how He works natural disasters or disease for ultimate good. But how much less natural disaster or disease would satisfy? And how do we know God hasn’t prevented many more disasters and disease? It seems He’s kept harmful bacteria at a mere 10% and stabilized the earth’s crust sufficiently that most earthquakes are non-destructive.

ATHEIST

Well, I guess if you believe that all the problems in the world are the result of one bite of a fruit, then we are just going to have to disagree. There’s not much more I can say if you are just going to suspend reason like that.

CHRISTIAN

That is a pretty common sentiment among atheists, but atheism is the cause of that sentiment, not the result. If there is no God, the only law we can break is our own, and “small” sins are no big deal because the foundation for authority is relatively small. If I were to, say, tell a lie to an infant, there would be virtually no consequences for me. If I tell a lie to my older child, I may lose his trust. If I lie to my wife, I may lose her trust and get banished to the couch. If I lie to my boss, I may get fired. If I lie to the government, I could face fines or prison. If God exists, He is infinitely higher in authority than any power on earth. Even a “small” sin like eating of the one tree God commanded Adam and Eve not to, a decision actually rooted in pride, arrogance and disobedience, is severe when all sin is an offense against an infinite Creator who wrote moral law on our hearts (and without whom all moral assessment is arbitrary and meaningless anyway). It’s not about the size of the sin, but the sovereignty of who we are sinning against. Sin is sin to God, and “all have sinned and fall short.”

But thank you for the discussion, I always learn something and appreciate you taking the time. I hope you have a good week.

(Related post: Too Much Evil and Suffering in the World?)

1) http://www.yesheis.com/en/v/god-does-not-exist
2) https://godneighbor.wordpress.com/2014/12/05/too-much-evil-and-suffering-in-the-world/
3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_unsolved_problems

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God? (That He is vs. Who He is)

December 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

A_church_and_a_mosque_in_Beirut_Lebanon

From “Do Christians And Muslims Worship The Same God?” by NPR on December 20, 2015, this recent controversy is summarized:

“Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, decided to wear a headscarf during the Advent season as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims. In doing so, Hawkins quoted Pope Francis, saying that Christians and Muslims ‘worship the same God.'”

A Christian response in the article:

“‘The question basically comes down to whether one can reject Jesus Christ as the Son and truly know God the Father,’ says Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. ‘And it’s Christ himself who answered that question, most classically in the Gospel of John, and he said that to reject the Son means that one does not know the Father.'” (John 6:46; 14:9; see also 1 John 2:22-23)

A Muslim response in the article:

“One theologian with knowledge of both Christian and Islamic doctrine is Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif., the first Muslim liberal arts college in the U.S. Born Mark Hanson, he was raised as a Christian and then converted to Islam. He quotes the Quran as saying that God is immeasurable, so to define God in some particular way is impossible. ‘God is much greater than anything we can imagine,’ Yusuf says. ‘The Muslims have a statement in our theology: Whatever you imagine God to be, God is other than that.‘”

Dr. Mohler’s response has to do with knowing God by identifying Jesus Christ the Son, which Islam denies. Yusuf explains that in Islam, one cannot really have a clear definition of God. And this I think is key to why the answer to the question as posed, “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?”, has to be no. Christians, Muslims, and all human beings who are made in God’s image have an intuitive awareness of God. We all know He exists. We have an array of world religions because we’ve taken the general revelation of God and sought to define Him in various ways. But there’s a difference between recognizing God’s existence and worshipping Him.

Yusuf’s Muslim interpretation of the Qu’ran is not that God is “greater than” what we can imagine, but that He is “other than” what we imagine. There’s a distinction. We cannot fully comprehend the greatness of God, but the Bible assures us we can know Him (John 17:3). To say “to define God in some particular way is impossible” means knowing God is impossible, therefore worship is impossible. We cannot worship what we can’t know (though some have tried, like the Athenians in Acts 17).

Of course, Yusuf’s agnosticism about God (Allah) brings to light the Qur’an’s self-contradiction. The Qu’ran has 99 names for God, and you can’t name God 99 times without claiming to know perhaps 99 attributes of God. The description of God in the Bible differs greatly from the God of the Qur’an. They’re both Theistic in category, because we all recognize God exists, though some have suppressed this truth as Romans 1 explains. We know this without the Bible or the Qur’an. But in person, character and attributes, “God” is articulated very differently in both.

Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, argues that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, but that “the description of God is partly different.” I would argue that it is fundamentally different. God cannot be both trinitarian and not trinitarian at the same time; God cannot both have a Son and not have a Son; He either sent Jesus to die in our place or He did not. These are basic logical absurdities and therefore cannot be descriptions of the same God.

And as Dr. Mohler explains, Jesus was God in the flesh, and a non-negotiable in the Christian identity of God. The Bible describes a triune God who sought to redeem us from our sins and reveal Himself by sending His Son to offer Himself on our behalf. A God who isn’t this or didn’t do this is not the same God. In 2002, Baptist theologian Timothy George noted, “Apart from the Incarnation and the Trinity, it is possible to know that God is, but not who God is.” (Emphasis George’s)

Another voice from the NPR article:

“Amy Plantinga Pauw, a professor of Christian theology at Louisville Seminary, says Christians can have their own definition of God while still seeing commonality with Muslims and Jews. ‘To say that we worship the same God is not the same as insisting that we have an agreed and shared understanding of God,’ Pauw says.”

Pauw touches on the crux of the debate but perhaps doesn’t see that true worship requires an accurate understanding of God. We can see “commonality” with many belief systems. Christians do share a common general knowledge of God and should share a mutual love and respect for our Muslim neighbors as fellow image-bearers of the Creator, even though we disagree over who He is. This means we can have solidarity where our common interests lie, even where they extend from our unique theologies. But when it comes to worship, something we can’t truly do without knowing the object of our worship, Christians share no altar with Muslims.

A Question About Churches and Psychic Fairs

June 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

Serious question: Should a Christian church or ministry have a presence at spiritual, holistic, or metaphysical expos or events?

The Iowa Metaphysical Fair (formerly the Iowa Psychic Fair) is this weekend in Des Moines. The vendor list has what you would expect: psychics (including pet psychics), palm and tarot readers, channelers of the dead (séance), spiritual coaches, various artists and musicians, minerals, crystal and jewelry retailers, paranormal experts, shamanic healers and expounders and sellers of other various types of holistic screenings and wellness.

In other words, everything “spiritual” in the offerings, but nothing explicitly Christian or Biblical. I’m sure the reasons churches don’t consider renting a booth at such events steeped in spiritualism and the occult are Biblical (Deut. 18:9-14, Lev. 19:31, Prov. 27:1, Gal. 5:20-21, 1 Cor. 2:11).

But considering that people come to these fairs and expos looking for spiritual answers, is it a legitimate mission field for Christians? Don’t we have a lot to say about the metaphysical? Do we get a booth and offer the Gospel at places like this? Or are these places where Christians should “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness…” (Eph. 5:11)?

Islam ABC: Aniconism, Blasphemy, and Confusion from the Quran’s Ambiguity

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

250px-Charliehebdo

“100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” says this French cartoon of Muhammed.

While we recover from the recent Charlie Hebdo shooting by Muslim extremists over pictures of Muhammed considered blasphemous, there’s a lot of talk about what Islam teaches about creating images of Allah or the prophet Muhammed. There are actually two Muslim laws that come to mind here, one that prohibits the creation of images of any person or animal and one made to protect the image of Allah, Muhammad or the Qur’an. Beyond this, there is enough ambiguity in the teachings of Islam that leaves a door wide open to Muslim violence like what we just saw in Paris.

ANICONISM 

Aniconism is the Muslim prohibition of drawing, painting, weaving, carving, etc., of pictures of any sentient (non-plant) life. This is not taught in the Qur’an, but comes form the Hadith, a collection of writings, sayings and deeds of Muhammad compiled a few hundred years after his death. While there is some disagreement over the role of the Hadith among Muslims, it carries high authority in Islam, below the Qur’an, but is often used to interpret the Qur’an, and provides the basis for Sharia Law (Sharia is how is Muslims live out Islamic law in society).

The Hadith states, “The painter of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, Make alive what you have created.’” (Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, No. 646-647). The exception seems to be the making of dolls for children, most likely because Muhammed married a 7 year old girl who played with dolls. The prohibition of creating (not necessarily owning) images of people and animals is very general with no specific attention to the image of Muhammad, and according the the Hadith it is an offense punished by Allah at the later “Day of Judgment”, unless the creator can bring his artwork to life. Perhaps a puppeteer or videographer might get by with this, but I would guess that stipulation is intended to expose a fraudulent creator as only God can create life.

One interesting thing about this law is that it seems to be followed by only conservative Muslims. Most Muslims have TVs, photos and artwork displaying people or animals in their homes, and Muslim history is loaded with paintings and miniatures, even some depicting Muhammed. The impetus of this law seems to be an interest in avoiding something that could become an idol.

BLASPHEMY

Simply put by the well-known Muslim cleric Anjem Choundry in a recent USA Today article, “the Messenger Muhammad said, ‘Whoever insults a Prophet, kill him.'” The Qur’an states, “Who can be more wicked than one who inventeth a lie against Allah?” (Surah 6:93) and “Lo! those who malign Allah and His messenger, Allah hath cursed them in this world and the Hereafter, and hath prepared for them the doom of the disdained … Accursed, they will be seized wherever found and slain with a (fierce) slaughter.” (Surah 33:57,61) The Hadith states: “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Who is willing to kill Ka’b bin Al-Ashraf who has hurt Allah and His Apostle?’ Thereupon Muhammad bin Maslama got up saying, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! Would you like that I kill him?’ The Prophet said, ‘Yes’…” (Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 59, No. 369)

But moderate Muslims tend to disagree with a death-to-blasphemers interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith, despite the fact that many Muslim countries have very harsh penalties for insulting a prophet of Islam. Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the fourth Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, paints a more gracious view in his book Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues: “Islam goes one step further than any other religion in granting man the freedom of speech and expression. Blasphemy is condemned on moral and ethical grounds, no doubt, but no physical punishment is prescribed for blasphemy in Islam despite the commonly held view in the contemporary world.”

QAMBIGUITY LEADS TO CONFUSION

It is no secret that the Qur’an is a difficult book to read and understand, and it isn’t just a matter of reader presuppositions, but marked ambiguity. It’s literary style is fundamentally confusing. The Qur’an’s mystical, non-linear structure seems to have no beginning, middle, or end, with few breaks or markers to provide historical context. Some maintain that this literary rule-breaking amounts points to an underlying profound complexity that demonstrates its divine origin and amplifies the rewards of intense study. Many Muslims say that to truly understand the Qur’an, you must learn Arabic. One might conclude then that Allah only intended his message to be accepted by those proficient in Arabic. However, here is one testimony of a former Muslim with a university education and proficiency in Arabic who still abandoned Islam after he found the Qur’an to be nonsense.

It’s no wonder that such opposite interpretations (or Tafseer, the Arabic word for exegesis) of the Qur’an exist, i.e. “And kill [disbelievers] wherever you overtake them…”– (Surah 2:191-193). Some say these verses apply today and some say they don’t. The top tier of Muslim scholars known as the Ulama seek to provide Islamic jurisprudence, laying out the law under Sharia. But not all Muslim sects accept Ulama authority and interpretation of the Qur’an.

In any case, the Qur’an’s perplexing structure leaves NO ONE with a clear path to understanding whether these kill-the-unbeliever/blasphemer verses are description of history or prescription of behavior. I think this is a big part of the problem with Islam.

Of course there are varying interpretations of the Bible. But a straightforward reading of, for example, the wars God commanded of Israel against wicked nations in the Old Testament reveals a cultural setting and historical context that doesn’t signal believers to pattern their behavior after this. In the Qur’an, this message is muddled and confusing. And without a clear message, power-hungry or militant-minded followers are free to inject their own.

This botched restoration attempt by a well-intentioned Catholic parishioner of a century old fresco of Jesus may have earned the death penalty under Sharia if it were of Muhammed.

This botched restoration attempt by a well-intentioned Catholic parishioner of a century old fresco of Jesus may have earned the death penalty under Sharia.

Back to Islamic beliefs about Muhammad cartoons and other depictions of the prophet or Allah: Any image of Muhammad or any sentient being is prohibited, but this rule is seldom enforced in Islam, and the judgment belongs to Allah in the hereafter. Insult Muhammed, on the other hand, and under Sharia law it’s blasphemy with penalties that range from fines to beheading. And how do we define blasphemy? Is artwork offensive if it’s drawn poorly, or its meaning misunderstood? Serious or satire, it most certainly will offend someone, so in reality any depiction of Muhammed could be viewed as an insult to him and therefore blasphemy. You just never know.

Obviously the Islamic worldview regarding blasphemy and other out-workings of Sharia law present big problems for global society, and they have throughout the religion’s 1,400 year history. Moderate Muslims who don’t agree that capital punishment fits these crimes, or the crime of refusing to convert to Islam, are not the immediate problem. But the confusion and ambiguity of what relevant Quranic teaching means for Islam’s detractors leads to a lot of violence by many Muslims who do decide these texts call for Jihad. It isn’t a matter of just a few isolated acts by fringe groups, but by some estimates the Charlie Hebdo attack was the 24,823rd Islamic terrorist attack worldwide in the 13.3 years since 9/11. These adherents to the “honor religion” that is Islam feel duty-bound to protect their God from slander or misrepresentation. I don’t know of any other faith, including Christianity, that requires the defense of their God’s honor. (According to Psalm 18, God is OUR defender.)

Christians are required, however, to give a defense of the truth that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and explain the hope He provides (1 Peter 3:15) that Allah does not. But we are to do this “with gentleness and respect”, not the sword. We can’t look to secular governments for the answer. The only thing that will stop the spread of militant Islam is a fundamental change of heart brought forth by the Spirit of God. To be sure, terrorism must be met with physical resistance, but the confusion and irrationality of Islam that fuels it should be met with fervent prayer and faithful witness for Christ, including sound Christian apologetics (Related posts: Three Challenges for Muslims and Sword or Peace? Debating Jesus’ Mission with a Muslim).

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