Creation evolution and intelligent design – a satirical view

An imagined conversation between Richard Dawkins and his maker.

God:  Richard, my dear friend.  It really is a pleasure to welcome you here.

Dawkins:  I don’t understand.  I’ve spent all my life building evidence that proves conclusively that you don’t exist.  If I were you, I’d be furious.

God:  But I created you just as you are, and I love you.  It is a pleasure to have you here, and I am really proud of the way in which you have used the intellect I gave you.

Dawkins:  Even though I clearly made a huge mistake?

God:  You never made a mistake.  You simply reached a conclusion from the evidence that you chose to chose to research.

Dawkins:  I never found a scrap of evidence to suggest that you might exist.

God:  Your scientific methods have been exemplary.  It was not your fault that you never looked at thousands of years of evidence for my existence.  It never was part of your field of research.

Dawkins:  I don’t understand.  What evidence had you in mind?

God:  The mystical experience of thousands upon thousands of your fellow humans over many thousands of years.  And often in complete isolation from other mystics.  Your learned colleague Carl Gustav Jung offered a very elegant theory to explain away the mystical evidence – it was obvious to him that there had to be some kind of explanation for such a large body of experience of this nature.  Like you, Jung did not want to accept the most obvious explanation for it.  He came up with the ‘Collective Unconscious’ concept.  It was so complex a theory that most of his colleagues misunderstood.  I find the simple answer is often the best.  In this case, I am the simple answer!  But as I have said, psychology was never your field.

Dawkins:  I understand.  But the work I have done in the field of evolution, and the connections that I have made with our growing understanding of DNA and genetics obviously pointed me towards humankind as part of a random process.  Where does this put the understanding of creation?

God:  First, answer me this: Is the human understanding of DNA and the genetic process complete?

Dawkins:  No, it is not.  I have wondered whether a complete understanding will ever be reached.

God:  Well, neither is my creation complete.  When I set the process in motion, I was in full control, and still am.  There is much that I want to show you.  You have spoken of genetic mutation as a random process.  You considered it to be some kind of mistake that happened from time to time.  It is my method of creation.  Whenever I introduce a mutation, it is to fulfill my purpose and to achieve the perfection which every human knows inwardly at the heart of their being.  Some see it more clearly than others.

Dawkins:  But there have been mistakes.  What about the unsuccessful creatures?  The dinosaurs died out, didn’t they?

God:  I have never made a mistake.  You mention the dinosaurs.  Your knowledge of the genetic process that I use has shown you that there is in every human a large trace of all that has gone before, and that includes the dinosaurs that I created.  All of past creation is represented in the crowning glory of my creation – and that, Richard, is you.

Dawkins:  Me?

God:  Yes Richard.  Humankind is the highest point in the process.  The mystics were right when they wrote that I made humankind in my own image and likeness.  This is why you spent your whole life pursuing such a wonderfully creative path towards greater human knowledge.  I am proud of you and of your work.  You spent your whole life praising the elegance of my creative process – in so doing, you were praising me!

Dawkins:  But I have clearly failed you.  I have made every attempt to convince others that you don’t exist.  What about those children I taught?  I proved to them that science and religion cannot exist together.  I have done great harm.

God:  You have not.  I made sure that each one of them sees evidence to the contrary.  All of them have the same freedom I gave you.  You have done no harm at all.  One of those children began to reflect on what you had said, and from that point went on to become a firm believer!  And you have added a great deal to the collective experience of humankind.  Come with me now, and let me show you the perfection at the end of my creative process …..
© 2008 – The Revd Barry Drake MA.



The traditions of the church

The traditions of the church

To suggest that the church can be divided into three main strands is, perhaps a little simplistic. Most churches will include members who would identify with more than one of these strands. It is easy to find churches that belong to the catholic strand which are also moderately liberal in their belief and practice. Similarly it is not hard to find evangelical churches that are moderately liberal or moderately catholic in some of their thought.

I am going to suggest that there may be substantial benefits for any one of these three strands when it is exposed to, and in dialogue with the other two. Before looking at this, I have taken a look at each of the three strands or traditions, and also at the pentecostal or charismatic as a movement which encounters all three traditions.

The Bible – “Evangelical” tradition

GENERAL (objective) view[1]

Karl Barth, a German theologian whose theological writings literally take up several feet on the library shelves was known to summarise everything he had wanted to say in his lifetime of study by quoting the children’s song:

Jesus loves me, this I know,

For the Bible tells me so.

People who emphasise the bible in their relationship with God over and above intellect, tradition, and current inspiration may be described as ‘evangelical’. Worship in this tradition is often dominated by the sermon and readings from the bible.


Bible literalist (sometimes called fundamentalist). At the extreme end of this position are six-day creationists who reject scientific advance completely, and refuse to take into account any of the useful tools for bible interpretation provided by archaeology and up-to-date scholarship, even when this throws new light on the bible itself. Bible inerrancy is a term sometimes used by members of this group.


Lack of respect shown to tradition and history mean that old heresies can and do recur unchecked. Lack of respect given to intellectual challenge can result in failure to accommodate the intellectual, social and practical needs of the world as it constantly changes. The evangelical wing of the church is noted for its missionary zeal far more than its concern for social change. At their worst, evangelical Christians can be seen to be narrow and moralising, sanctimonious, harsh and judgemental. In such cases, the old saying ‘ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est’ (where compassion and love are found, God Himself is there’) comes to mind (1 John 4:7). A tendency to use ‘proof texts’ to ‘prove’ a particular spin on their teaching can result in imbalance in their teaching. This often leads to a ‘gospel’ being preached which simply does not stand up when tested against the whole of the bible, against the example of Jesus Himself, and against tradition, love and compassion, and intellect. It is not difficult to find this extreme among American Southern Baptists.


Its high regard for the inspired nature of the bible means that it takes very seriously the bible as the church’s main guide to the Christian faith. Taken alongside intellectual testing, and scrutiny of history and tradition to ensure that the old traps are not revisited, the evangelical tradition can, and does, revitalise and challenge moribund areas of the church.


Jesus clearly takes a very high view of scripture, and uses it to settle and to refute arguments. On a number of occasions (the temptations, the argument about healing on the Sabbath etc.), Jesus uses scripture over against ‘proof texts’ to show that God has to be listened to in the whole bible, and not just in a few choice tracts. The evangelical wing of the church frequently falls into the trap of proof texting.

Jesus also reproves the bible scholars of his day for failing to listen to the prophets. The prophets, both then and now, always cry out for justice, mercy and peace. If a rigid interpretation of scripture is militating against justice, freedom or peace (or all of these), then it has to be challenged. Jesus sits lightly to the bible when he tells us that the Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). In that instance, he uses intellect to make sense of what God wants. In the case of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11), he lets compassion motivate him into going against scripture by not advocating that both the woman and her lover be stoned to death! (Deut 22:22 & Lev 20:10)

History and doctrine – “Catholic” tradition

GENERAL (objective) view

In the catholic understanding, it is the continuity of God’s leading of the church down through the centuries that is important along with all the accumulated teaching (Christian doctrine) that has developed over that time. The Creeds and the Liturgy are essential to the catholic tradition and its belief is expressed in worship or liturgy especially in the context of the Eucharist or Mass.


Attachment to tradition to the exclusion of intellectual analysis and biblical testing and interpretation can lead to a very bigoted position which defies argument both from scriptural and intellectual viewpoints.


Possibility of harmful doctrines creeping in and being left unchallenged because they are an agreed part of ‘our Catholic tradition’. At its worst extreme, catholic worship can degenerate into just ‘going through the motions’ (2 Tim 3:5) – following the outward form of religion- …).


Awareness of tradition means that, alongside proper balance from intellectual and biblical challenges, the catholic tradition can offer a high degree of stability, with freedom from extremes in worship, practice and belief.


Jesus attacks the traditionalists when their interpretation of the bible leads either to the favouring of one person or group of persons against another, or when it goes against love and compassion (Mark 7:9-13). He is prepared to sit lightly both to tradition and to the bible in certain instances, when intellect or compassion show the need..

Human reason – “Liberal” tradition.

GENERAL (objective) view

Particularly through the last two hundred or so years the liberal church tradition has evolved. This emphasises the need to submit our faith and practice to the critique of human reason (which is nevertheless God-given). This often leads to openness to other ways of thinking as well as scientific theories and methods and the light they throw on the Christian faith (biology, psychology and sociology are all therefore important, to give just three examples) as also is the light that they throw on the bible. The agenda of the world (the poor, the place of women etc.) or the local context is often important in the liberal approach.


The Sea of Faith movement (after Don Cupitt) represents the far extreme of the liberal tradition. It is widely misunderstood to be nothing more than atheistic humanism which represents Christianity as a moral framework rather than a theistic faith.


Liberal Christians have, in the past been very sceptical about religious experiences, miracles, the supernatural, and the emotional dimension of the Christian faith. For this reason, liberals have often been written off as unspiritual by those who have not taken the time and effort to engage in dialogue with them. During the late nineteenth and twentieth century, much of the then accepted theological scholarship was in the hands of liberal scholars. Without the necessary checks and balances against bible and tradition (and, indeed, prophecy), it is hardly surprising that twentieth century theological texts reach some extremes which are already proving to be an embarrassment to large sections of God’s people – including a great many who would be happy otherwise to be designated ‘liberals’.

Rationalism resulted in many liberal Christians neglecting both scripture and tradition during the nineteenth and twentieth century to the extent that a substantial part of the protestant church turned towards Unitarianism. There are still Unitarian churches in existence today, and it is significant that some of them describe themselves as the ‘thinking person’s church’. It is of interest to note that the Jehovah’s Witnesses came out of one of the nineteenth century Unitarian sects – a group which called itself the ‘Bible Students’, which perhaps says much about the JW’s approach to Christianity.


Strong awareness of the emphasis in the bible and the teachings of Jesus about social justice, equality, human rights and peace. Liberals tend to be at the forefront of Christian pressure towards social change. They will involve themselves in politics, and will be unafraid to endure persecution for speaking out on behalf of those whom they see as being oppressed – even when that oppression is being carried out in the name of the church.

It is worthy of note that much of the social change brought about by Christians in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries has been brought about by liberal Christians. One might especially consider members of the Quaker Christians in this context.

Today, as in the past, liberal Christians challenge us to re-interpret scripture into a changing and challenging world. This was the case when slavery was abolished. Conservative evangelical Christians could ‘prove’ the case for slavery from scripture and could not for the most part, support abolition. The motivation for this change came not from scripture, but from reason, alongside compassion.


Jesus was regarded by some as being at the liberal extreme, but not by others. (See supplementary comments for the position of Jews at that time.) His cries for justice and peace at the expense of slavish adherence to entrenched positions with regard both to scripture and to tradition are deeply reminiscent of the passion of the liberal Christian of today.

There are many examples of liberal behaviour in the life of Jesus, but one might care to consider the full implications of the meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-29) from the viewpoint of a Jew of any persuasion to understand his liberal position.

Charismatic (pentecostal) Experience

The charismatic or pentecostal movement is not strictly a fourth tradition, but rather, a movement that is found in all three of the traditions identified above. It began in the evangelical wing of Christianity, and is currently strongest in that wing. It is strong within the catholic tradition, but currently at its weakest within the liberal wing. As liberals encounter the charismatic movement, they may need to analyse and understand before accepting it. Less intellectually inclined Christians tend to jump in and think later (perhaps reminiscent of the apostle Peter?).

GENERAL (objective) view

In the charismatic movement appeal is made to the believer’s direct experience of God which can manifest itself in various ways. Charismatic worship is often characterised by allowing times for the believers to experience the presence of God through say, worship including praying or singing in tongues, and to hear what the Holy Spirit might be saying or doing through prophecy. The gifts of the Spirit as described by Paul in (1 Cor 12:4-10) are expected to be in operation. The ministry of healing is perhaps the best-known gift.

The pentecostal movement teaches that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit as described by Paul, are given by God to the church today, and should be accepted and manifested within the whole body of Christ.


Since pentecostalism is a movement rather than a tradition of its own, its weaknesses tend to show as emphases in the weaknesses of the tradition in which Charismatic Christians find themselves. As an example, in the evangelical wing, Charismatic Christians who do not have the checks and balances of reason and tradition firmly in mind can over-spiritualise their faith and become ‘too heavenly minded to be any earthly use’.


The Spirit challenges and enlightens. The gifts of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:4-10.) are there for the building up of the body of Christ and will enlighten and enliven the church wherever they are in operation. In the catholic tradition, the spirit will challenge the church to look again at its understanding of tradition. In the same way, it will challenge evangelicals to re-visit scripture and to see new things in it (Matt 13:52). For the liberal Christian there will be challenges to look beyond rationalism and see the bigger picture: God’s picture.

The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost brought a new dynamic to the first Christians. Before, they believed. Afterwards, they knew: firsthand and with unshakeable conviction. They went out to teach: not from scripture; although they quoted from scripture, neither did they did they teach from tradition: although they quoted the traditions of their forefathers. The first disciples taught directly from what the Spirit had written on their hearts. Thus it was that Paul, a traditionalist, suddenly began to teach what was, by his own former standards, extreme liberal teaching. Similarly, Peter, who had until that time always been ruled by scripture, took an extreme liberal position with regard to the food laws, and with respect to contact with gentiles (Acts 11:5ff). The bible-Christians of his day were horrified, and Peter soon afterwards went back on what God had commanded (Acts 15:1-32 and Galatians) This led to the council of Jerusalem – the first of many deep and painful divisions in the church over issues of belief.

Philip put what would have seemed a bizarre interpretation on the words of Isaiah when he encountered the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8-27-39). Also, he completely ignored the scripture (Lev 21:20), which tells us that a eunuch is beyond salvation. He did this because that is what the Spirit led him to do.

The phrase in Acts ‘it seemed good to the Spirit and to us’ is a telling one. Receive the inspiration, but first test it out with other Christians (of all traditions?). If there is dissent, then one has to question the nature of the ‘inspiration’.


Jesus used all the gifts of the Spirit described by Paul. Not only that, but he encouraged His followers to do so.


At the time of Jesus, there is strong evidence of all the strands of belief that we have seen above.

The scribes and the Pharisees were the orthodox of their day. They followed two main schools, those of Hillell and Shammai. Although both were tied strictly into belief in the authority of scripture, the school of Shammai was closer to what Christians would perceive as evangelical, whilst the school of Hilell was more akin to the traditionalist (catholic) Christian approach, but with liberal tendencies. The words of Jesus align him more closely with the teachings of Hilell than with those of Shammai. It is perhaps to the Sadducee party that we should look to find the extremes of liberalism. The Zealots too had something of a liberal outlook, although in their case, they allowed their drive towards social action to move them into a terrorist position. One might make comparisons here with Christian Crusaders and with the inquisition.


The situation in the church (‘on the ground’) is not quite as distinct as the above might suggest. As an example, I would cite the Cristadelphian Ekklesia [2]. Christadelphians teach that the bible is exact and true in every possible way. This includes the way in which the world was created (Gen 1 & 2), and the way in which the world will end (Rev). The bible is treated by Christadelphians as a kind of scientific textbook. (bible inerrancy). However, Christadelphians are also very intellectual, so many of the liberal teachings are within their remit. It is maybe because of this that Christadalphians are Unitarian; the trinity is a ‘man made doctrine’, and is not scriptural.

The extremes of all three of the positions that I have identified above are viewed by the mainstream of Christianity as being on the fringe of, if not completely outside, the realm of orthodoxy. I asked a Christadelphian friend about salvation. He believes that Christadelphians are the only ones who will be saved. However, he said that there might just be salvation for those who read the bible, and understand it. My feeling about this is that my friend was implying that ‘through the bible alone comes salvation’. To me, this is remarkably similar to a pre-Vatican-two Roman Catholic understanding, (taken from Augustine [3]) that outside the (Roman Catholic) church, there is no salvation. A catholic friend spoke to me some time before Vatican two about salvation being possible ‘for those who cling to the outside of the ark of salvation’. For him, the ark of salvation was the Roman Catholic Church.   Mainstream Christians might want to reflect on the idea that ‘by grace alone’ is the only way to salvation (Eph 2:8).

The conclusion that I draw is that all who are at the extremes of the various Christian traditions believe absolutely that they are right, and that they, and only they, can be saved. I feel that among mainstream Christians, that those who are at any of these extremes are often closer to being part of a cult than they are to being part of Christian orthodoxy.

It is likely that most Christians belong to a particular tradition for one of two reasons. Some will have been introduced to a church by family or friends, and will never have been made aware of the existence of anything outside that tradition. In earlier, times, that was perhaps the most common experience. The other reason, which is becoming increasingly common, is that of people searching around or ‘church tasting’, until a church is found which suits that person emotionally or intellectually.

Increased choice is good. One problem that is seen to arise because of this is an increase in the number of churches that attract like-minded people. It is always comfortable to spend time with those whose views we share. This kind of mutually supportive group can soon become exclusive if it has no external challenge, as those who argue against some of the more extreme thinking and ways find themselves forced to leave that church.

Many of what one might describe as the ‘new churches’ are focused on a small aspect of the gospel message. If that focus becomes really extreme, the church has frequently been known to split; two new churches result. One is extreme and the other more moderate.

The motive for forming a ‘new church’ has often been the paralysing effect of too great an adherence to tradition. The opposite of that is for the church to ignore tradition altogether, and when that is the case, as some of the new churches discover to their cost, history begins to repeat itself.

Some years ago, I had the painful duty of listening to the evidence regarding one of the local churches that was at that time part of the URC tradition. Under the leadership of a strong personality who had a somewhat paranoid side to him, the church had deliberately and methodically rejected all of those members who had opposed the resulting extremism. The justification was always made using phrases such as ‘you are possessed by an evil spirit’, and ‘God says you are wrong’. It was the painful decision of the URC to expel that particular church (and minister) from membership of the URC. The evidence put forward has made me very aware of the danger of such a process of change towards any extreme.

My own conclusion is that without a healthy balance between all three of the major traditions that we have reviewed above, along with the ongoing enlightenment that the Holy Spirit brings through the charismatic movement, the church can be neither whole nor healthy.


Scrip refs – Jesus, scripture and tradition

Matt 9:13 – mercy not sacrifice

Matt 9:14 – fasting

Matt 12:1-8 – Jesus lord of the sabbath

Matt 12:10-14 – healing on the sabbath

Matt 15:1-10 – denial of God’s word by their tradition

Matt 19 – the rich man – who can be saved? What is impossible for mere man is possible for God.

Matt 21:23-26 – By whose authority do you do these things?

Matt 23 – the Woes – esp. vv13 et seq.

Mark 12:1-12 – The question of authority – and the tenants in the vineyard.

Luke 7:29-30 – Scribes, Pharisees and John the Baptist

Luke 7:39 – Pharisees and the anointing of Jesus

Luke 10:10 – The Kingdom is near wherever the followers of Jesus are welcomed

Luke 11:42-end – The teachers neglect justice, peace – kill prophets – burden people (the      woes)

John 8:3 – the woman caught in adultery- see Lev 20:10 & Deut 22:22

[1] The sections headed ‘General’ for each tradition are taken from Module 1 of the Southwell Diocese Certificate in Christian Discipleship with minor alterations.

[2] Dr. John Thomas was a founder member of the Churches of Christ along with Thomas and Alexander Campbell in the mid nineteenth century. Dr. Thomas was an intellectual, and studied the bible from an academic viewpoint having little regard for tradition – in his view tradition was nothing more than ‘man made doctrine’. He came to the view that the Trinity was unscriptural, and a purely man-made teaching. Over this issue, he finally left the Churches of Christ and founded the Christadelphians.

[3] Saint Augustine (died A.D. 430): “No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honour, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church.” (Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesia plebem)

© The Revd Barry Drake 2016


An open letter from the Revd Dr. David Hilborn

In a recent web search, I came across your article on ‘The Role of Jewish-Christian Dialogue in an Inter-Faith Society’. You may be aware that since 1997, I have been Theological Adviser to the Evangelical Alliance. In this capacity, I recently organised a special conference on the Holy Land and Jewish-Christian relations, at which a number of different theological and soteriological views were aired. John Dean was there, and
appreciated the event very much.

I was rather taken aback that you had chosen to start your paper by referring to my comments at the District Council meeting of 1994 which debated the matter of other faiths representatives at General Assembly. I’m pretty certain that I did not not assert as any sort of unequivocal dogma that ‘all members of faiths other than Christianity would suffer eternal damnation unless they converted.’ My view is that the only revealed, reliable and preachable means to salvation is through faith in Christ, but I have always maintained that, being sovereign in these matters, God can save whomever he chooses, and may indeed save some who do not explicitly declare a Christian commitment. I just do not think we have any right as Christians to make this unknowable, speculative possibility a basis for evangelism. The EA Theological Commission report, The Nature of Hell (Paternoster, 2000), which I co-edited, elaborates on this issue in respect not only of committed members of other faiths, but also in respect of the mentally impaired, children who die in infancy and so on. I recently contributed an article to a forthcoming book on Evangelicals and Universalism
(Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate, Paternoster, ed. Robin Parry & Chris
Partridge), which makes it clear that Evangelicals have differed widely in their understanding of the ‘population of heaven’, and it should be pretty obvious from this that I think it is as arrogant for any Christian to consign a particular non-Christian definitely to hell as it is for any Christian to promote a particular non-Christian to heaven. I’m sure I said something along these lines at the District Council meeting, but you seem to have filtered that bit out, or at least forgotten it!

As regards the Jews, while I accept on the basis of Romans 9-11 and other texts that they have a distinct, continuing function within the covenant purposes of God, I would emphasise that this does not exempt them from the reach of the Great Commission. The New Testament was written by Jews about a Jewish Messiah, and yet those same Jews were adamant that Israel must turn to Christ in faith as they had done. My question to you, as a fellow minister and brother in Christ would be, “Why might you wish to hold back the benefits of the gospel from those to whom Jesus first preached
it, and from whom he said it must go out to the ends of the earth?” In this respect, I agree with the Jewish Christian Joseph Steinberg, Director of Jews for Jesus, who said at the conference to which I have referred that the most anti-Semitic thing any Christian can do is to withhold the Good News from Jews.

It is a long while back, but I expect that what you characterise as ‘discomfort” and ‘evasion’ on my part was, in fact, something along the lines of what I have described above. It may not be in accord with your own position, but I do think it would be fair to correct the rather misleading impression of my views which you have offered in your article, and if there were some way of doing this, I’d be very grateful. Please feel free to
reprint this message to that effect – but I would ask you to do so in full.

You may want, of course, to come back on it, but at least you will be basing
your comments on what I have actually articulated, rather than on your own personal recollection of part of what I might have said once at a fairly fraught District Council!


The Role of Jewish-Christian Dialogue in an Inter-Faith Society

Back to Index

© The Revd Barry Drake M.A. May 2000

The Role of Jewish-Christian Dialogue in an
Inter-Faith Society

Some six years ago, my friend and colleague the Revd David Hilborn argued vehemently about inter-faith relations at a district meeting of our denomination. The discussion was over a proposal to invite observers from other faiths to attend our annual
General Assembly. David opposed this, and sought support from the district meeting. (Please see David’s response to this comment) The discussion became quite heated, and it seemed to me that from David’s point of view, all members of faiths other than Christianity would suffer eternal damnation unless they converted. I posed the question “What would David wish to do with the Jews?” David seemed uncomfortable with this question, and evaded a direct answer. Since then, I have been increasingly aware of the importance of Jewish Christian dialogue. It can take place from a Christian stance from which dialogue with faiths other than Judaism would be impossible.

It has been said in the light of the Shoah that the alternative to dialogue is desolation. It is no use either, trying to claim that faith is no longer an issue in today’s “secular society”. Global statistics clearly show that the reverse is true.  In this situation, Judaism finds itself in something of a unique position. Statistically small in comparison to several other world-faiths, Judaism has had, and continues to have a major influence on the two numerically largest faiths, Islam and Christianity. Both Islam and Christianity have roots closely related to Judaism. Both Islam and Christianity would lay claim to Abraham, if not Isaac and Jacob too, among their patriarchs, and both Islam and Christianity hold the Hebrew Scriptures in high regard. This being the case, Judaism ought to find a pivotal role in interfaith dialogue out of all proportion to the number of Jews in the world! And, since Christianity is numerically the largest of the world faiths, with adherents approaching 33% of the world’s population, dialogue between Jews and Christians must have a very significant and important place not only in inter-faith matters, but ultimately in the entire question of future world peace! And I don’t believe for a moment that this is overstating the case.

In making the above broad statement, we are talking about the entire world, and not one single multicultural society. However, America and the UK are increasingly
becoming multicultural and multi-faith in themselves, and can thus be said to represent a microcosm of the rest of civilisation. It is in such societies that bridges may be built, and the seeds of God’s eventual Kingdom of justice and peace sown.

For many Jews, a desire to seek out and understand the rootsof anti-Semitism in the light of the Shoah has been a considerable motivationtowards dialogue. For Christians,

interest in the religious background of Jesus, and a desire to know more about the Jewish understanding of the Bible has always been there. In the early days of Christianity, we know that discussion was taking place between Jews and Christians – indeed, whether or not Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, written around 150 CE is
based on actual dialogue that was taking place, it suggests that Justin was concerned that the distinct identity of Christianity was in some danger of being lost because of regular intercourse between Christians and Jews. It was fear for the unique identity of
Christianity that led to the hostile attitude of the church Fathers towards the Jews.

In recent years, Christianity has been forced to recognise its own part in the anti Semitism that led to the Shoah. From all parts of the Church this acknowledgement has led to regret and penitence. There are Christians and Jews who feel that the Pope, on his recent visit to Israel and to Yad VaShem did not go far enough in apologising on behalf of the church for its past: be that as it may, to many of us, the fact that the Pope was willing to admit to any past mistakes at all on the part of the church is something close to miraculous.
The realisation that the seeds that gave rise to the Shoah are all around us today, and the concern that such a cataclysmic event must never again be allowed to occur provides an intense pressure to dialogue as a matter of extreme urgency. At the same time, there are reasons for suggesting that there is currently a window of opportunity for Jewish Christian dialogue, for that matter for all interfaith dialogue, that is unique in its character and its timing.

Dialogue or Desolation

The recent declaration by the British Government that Yom Ha Shoah will in future be a national holiday is a recognition that we must not forget the past, and that we must beware of any tendency to travel a similar path in the future.

As I write, there has just been an advance by Jordanianstowards Northern Israel. There are many conflicting claims, and the political situation is both fragile andunclear. One thing that is clear isthat old hatreds are continually being rehearsed, and issues of faith are beingused to bolster claims to territorial rights. In the former Yugoslavia, vast tracts of land have been laid waste. The tensions and hatreds that exist in that part of Europe go back to the time of the crusades. Once again, faith issues are inextricably linked with the political situation. Murder, rape anddestruction begin with the devaluing of the human beings who are regarded as the ‘enemy’ because of their differing faith. Attempts at genocide have given rise to a new phrase – the euphemism ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ has become a commonplace today. We don’t even have to restrict consideration to geographical locations in which different world-faiths play a part – in Northern Ireland different traditions within the Christian faith have been used to justify violence for many years. Indeed, the nature and progress of Christian ecumenical dialogue over the last few decades may have much to teach Christians about wider faith issues. As I observe political situations of this nature daily on my television screen, I begin to take Kung’s statement that”there can be no peace between the nations of the world until there is peace between the religions of the world” as being both accurate and prophetic. The second world war, and the ensuing hostility between the countries of the former Soviet Bloc and the Western allies has taught the world that global war must be avoided at all costs, and there can be no doubt that interfaith dialogue has an important part to play in the mutual understanding that is needed to maintain some kind of world peace, however fragile this may be. The need for this dialogue thus becomes increasingly urgent. The Church of England Newspaper dated Friday, January 14th 2000 carried an article urging dialogue between Christianity and Islam in order to avoid war. The article talks of Kosovo and the Sudan, and the need to reach mutual understanding “so that each faith is respected for their own beliefs and traditions”

– A Problem, or an opportunity?

Perhaps the greatest barrier to any interfaith process is exclusivism – the belief that there is only one valid faith. This has until recent years been the normative Christian position. To the Jew, election – being the chosen people of God – is a central concept, but non-Jews are part of the Noahide covenant, and there is recognition that there are righteous people among the gentiles. Most world faiths accept the validity of belief systems other than their own. Exclusivism is then for the most part a Christian idiosyncrasy. And for the Christian who wants to hold rigidly to exclusivist principles, Judaism remains a problem. The teaching that no one can come to God except through Jesus, based on John 14:6 does not sit easily alongside Paul’s statements in Romans 11 that God has not rejected His people, and that all Israel will be saved. In the past, the problem has been sidestepped using the idea of supersession – Christianity has superseded the Jews; Christians are now the chosen people in their place. This once

popular teaching has been marginalised in our day and age. The statements made by the Vatican in the last few decades have offered a lead and a way forward for the whole of  Christianity. In the place of Exclusivism, Rome now advocates Inclusivism – the teaching that people of other faiths may be saved without converting to Christianity, however it is Jesus who does the saving. Newbigin defines those who hold this view as
having “an inclusivist position which acknowledges Christ as the only saviour but affirm that his saving work extends beyond the bounds of the visible church”. This easing of the former Christian position, coupled with the strong incentive towards dialogue means that today, Jewish Christian dialogue is better developed than any other interfaith dialogue. Much has been learned in the process that can be applied to dialogue with other world faiths.

The Church of England newspaper article cited above claims that dialogue between the faiths is possible even when the Christian party holds an exclusivist position. Evidence
that dialogue from this position can work can be seen in the development of a number of writers. I offer three examples.

George Knight writing in his 1962 book, “Law and Grace” said: “The Church therefore has an abiding and imperative commission to proclaim Christ to that portion of the Covenant People of God who have not yet understood that it is Christ who interprets to them their existence as Israel and who fulfils in himself the meaning of their existence
and calling ……” which at first sight seems to rule dialogue out, but he goes on to say: ” …… Yet, since the Church has still so much to learn from these its brethren who dwell
with it within the bonds of the one Covenant about the meaning of the redemption of the social order and communal life of man, both Church and Synagogue must humbly listen to what the other has to say to its ‘Siamese Twin’. Not only has each much to teach the other, each has much to learn from the other”.

In a later work “I AM – This is my name”. Knight continues to regard proclaiming Jesus to the Jews as important, but he has mellowed in his attitude a great deal, suggesting that he had in fact been in dialogue, and was probably moving towards an inclusivist position.

The late Lesslie Newbigin, who was highly regarded for his ecumenical work as a Bishop of the Church in South India first went to India as a missionary, and originally held a strictly exclusivist view. This changed over the years, and his book “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” (1989) is a defence of theinclusivist teaching. He writes: “anyone who has had intimate friendship with a devout Hindu or Muslim would find it impossible to believe that the experience of God of which his friend speaks is simply illusion or fraud”.

Dialogue with other faiths changes and broadens our views. Only a few years ago, The
Evangelical Alliance, which represents the more conservative extreme of Christianity would have given a definite ‘No’ to dialogue. In the April/May 2000 edition of ‘Idea’, the EA magazine, there is an article entitled “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf”. This article strongly advocates dialogue. It gives an opportunity, the writer says, “to explain what we really do believe, rather than what they have been taught we believe”. It stands to reason that the converse is true as well.

I have already mentioned Jewish Christian dialogue as being very much a part of the early days of Christianity. Has anything changed that would make dialogue today any more fruitful than it was then?

In the first place, there is a difference noted already; worldwide perception of the Jews as a people has been changed forever by theShoah. The establishment of the state

of Israel is another important factor here. Jews are once again a nation as well as a people. Secondly, as mentioned above, the church in its early days was struggling for identity. Today it has stood the test of time, and no longer need feel threatened in dialogue with Jews. And with time, Christianity has matured, and learned from some, at least, of its many mistakes.

Stephen Neill (1961) quotes André Neher as saying: “Israel’s role is not to bring other peoples to itself but to God, whereas for Christianity, men can come to God only through Christianity”. I feel that this is a powerful insight on Christianity’s failure to live up to its founder. Our Christian scriptures tell us that unless we remain grafted into the “True Vine” we are as good as lost (John 15:1). The Vine here can only be Jesus
representing Israel. In Scripture, the Vine is always Israel. When we are grafted into Israel, then our purpose as Church can only be the same as that of Israel – to bring other peoples to God. That has always been the priestly function of Israel. It is also the true priestly function of the Church. How then, can we live that function while we remain at enmity with Israel?

There is a deep feeling among many Christians that the challenge of dialogue might be too much for their own faith. This has to be a sign of their underlying doubts. It is my personal experience that the greater the challenge has been, the greater the deepening of my own faith has ultimately been. A faith that is not allowed to question is no faith at all. It is quite possible to explore and re-consider without jeopardising our faith – when we are true to our faith in dialogue, our own faith will become more real and alive to us.

A Window of Opportunity

The word ‘post-modern’ is one that is being bandied about a great deal, although so far I am unaware of one single helpful definition of post-modern, I suspect we are all to some degree aware of its effect. In the churches, for example, there is a widespread tendency to move from intellectual understanding to a more spiritual and emotional experience of God. I believe that this is a symptom of something that is far more sweeping. And I believe that because Post-Modernism has at its root emotion and spirituality, attempts to intellectualise the process will be unsuccessful. Vincent Donovan (1991) sees within the process a spiritual and emotional crisis that is affecting all the world faiths. His prophetic view of the immediate future is of a flourishing of faith such as the world saw round about the time of the Major Prophets and the beginning of Zoroastrianism. He suggests that we are at the beginning of an opening window of spiritual awareness, and predicts radical change for all of our faiths if they are to survive at all. Would it be too much to suggest that a group of world faiths in dialogue could be part of this process? It was, after all, the challenge of dialogue that drove Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikhs, out into the Jungle. On his return from what must have been a profound spiritual experience, Nanak announced, “There is no Hindu, no Mussulman, only God”. I suggest that through the pain of dialogue, this might be our experience too – although naturally, we will each want to continue to worship Him in our own time-honoured way!

Thus far, we have looked at some reasons for the urgent need for dialogue between world faiths, and pointed to the central position of Jewish Christian dialogue within that process. The next question that needs to be asked is where we would expect such

dialogue to lead.

An illustration:

Representatives of a number of world faiths in our area meet several times a year as a body known as the Schools Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE). There are two sub-groups within SACRE for discussion purposes. Anglicans, and Other Faiths. My denomination is somewhat bizarrely placed along with Roman Catholics,
Methodists and other non-Anglican Christians, in the ‘Other Faiths’ group, together with Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and any other world faiths who wish to be represented. There is a great deal of unanimity in this diverse group simply because we all wish to see our children educated with good spiritual and moral roots. In this situation, it is concern over collapsing family values, general moral and spiritual malaise, and the need for a disciplined education with justice and world peace as common ground that motivates all of us. Here, our individual faith and religious differences take second place to the concerns which we all share together, and in which we are in general agreement. For me it is a wonderful example of what can happen when our faiths come together. Dialogue here is not for dialogue’s sake, but for the sake of our common interest in the future of our society. On that issue we are not divided. It is in issues such as this – and I would here include environment, human rights (and duties!) peace and justice – that the world faiths, under the leadership of our one God can speak with one voice. It is in these areas that together, we can speak volumes to the world.

In an earlier essay, I concluded that at the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity, somehow Christianity took prophecy out of Israel but left behind the Torah. This is a situation that can change through sensitive dialogue. Helen Fry (1996)

believes that what Christians have most to learn through dialogue with Jews is “the acknowledgement that profound experiences of God are to be found outside of Christianity”. This is saying something similar to the experience of Lesslie Newbigin out in India. I feel that this is only a beginning though. If my conclusion that the Christians left Torah behind in Israel is valid, then it is time we began to look to the Jews for something of what we have left behind. Let me give a personal example:

I had the privilege of dining with a family of South African Jews. The father of the family was telling me about his son. At one point, he said thoughtfully, “Ah well, Maimonides once asked the question, ‘What man is truly happy?’, and he answered his own question, ‘He who is satisfied with what he has”. At first, I remembered the words for the simple and highly relevant wisdom that they offer. Later, I found myself thinking that we have nothing akin to this simple but powerful store of wisdom in our Christian tradition. I can’t imagine anything in, say, Augustine, or Aquinas that might carry the same direct authority. In Christianity, the nearest that we have would be sayings from our mystics (the prophetic?), and I have to admit that most of those are less than accessible, and few if any are quotable in the way that the Jewish Sages are. I feel that there is pure gold for the Christian in an encounter with the Torah and by that I mean the full Jewish understanding of what Torah is.

A further question that will inevitably become part of dialogue is that of culture. Judaism is far more than a faith. It is a people, a nation, a faith, and a civilisation Judaism is a culture. Christianity, in its early days tended to enter into syncretistic alliances with different pre-existing cultures. This has proved both a strength and a weakness. Donovan showed the strength of the trans-cultural element of Christianity by allowing it to blend with the culture of the Masai people.

However, the culture that is central to Judaism is based as one might expect, on the Torah. Is itunreasonable to expect that Christianity too, ought to be more deeply rooted in that selfsame culture? This is not, ofcourse intended to open up the argument that was around at the time of the Council of Jerusalem. It does, however suggest that in the years following the Council of Jerusalem, we Christians left behind much from our Jewish roots that would have been of value all the way down through the centuries.

Answering the question “What have the Jews to gain from dialogue with Christians?” Fry points to prayer: “Many Jews would acknowledge that after the Shoah they have difficulty with private prayer”, and she feels that this area is one in which Jewish Christian dialogue may help. In fact, prayer and prophecy go hand in hand. Christianity is itself in the process of re-discovering the work of the Holy Spirit. This is an area in
which Christians and Jews might well learn to work together, after all, prophecy was with the Jews long before the Christians came on the scene.

The Future

I said above that interfaith dialogue might usefully look at parallels with Christian ecumenical dialogue. Churches Together in England suggested that we would do well to look at our work as churches item by item. We should continually be asking ourselves: “Is this something we could do better together?”

Statements made by the Council for Christians and Jews are far more powerful than statements made by either Jews or Christians. In ethics, morality, social order and
justice, and environmental issues, we are for the most part united. In these areas at least, we ought to be continually working together – and considering these issues alongside our counterparts in a wider faith arena. There is currently much interest on the part of Jews to dialogue with Muslims. This has been brought about by the political situation in Israel. It is this selfsame situation that can prove to be a barrier for the Muslim. The involvement of Christians in that dialogue would alter the balance a great deal. Mustafa Khalil writing to Muslims on the internet shows from the Q’ran a number of reasons why Muslims should enter into dialogue with Jews and Christians. Such dialogue would be far more effective if the three faiths did it simultaneously.

We have seen above that contact with people of another faith as friends and neighbours leads to our respect for them, and for their faith. This in itself is the beginning of dialogue and needs to be encouraged. Dr. Edward Kessler offers the view that a process of education needs to be at the forefront of dialogue

Anderson, J. N. D. 1970-1972 “Christianity and Comparative Religion” London, Tyndale Press

Chapman, Colin 1992 “The Christian Message in a Multi-Faith Society” Oxford, Latimer House

Clarke & Winter 1991 “One God One Lord” Cambridge, Tyndale House

Cracknell, Kenneth 1986 “Towards a new relationship” London, Epworth Press

Cracknell, Kenneth (Tr.) 1984 “Christians and Muslims talking together” London, BCC

D’Costa, Gavin 1990 “Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered” New York, Orbis Books

Dinshaw, Nadir 1992 “A Wide Open Heart” London, Christian Action

Donovan, Vincent J. 1978, 1982 “Christianity Rediscovered” – London, SCM

Donovan, Vincent J. 1991 “The Church in the Midst of Creation” – London, SCM

Falaturi, Petuchowsky & Strolz 1987 “Three ways to One God” Tunbridge Wells, Burns & Oates

Fry, Helen P. “Christian-Jewish Dialogue” – Exeter University – 1996

Griffiths, Bede 1982 “The Marriage of East and West” London, Fount Paperbacks

Hertzberg, Arthur 1991 ” Judaism” New York, Simon and Schuster/Touchstone

Hick, John 1999 “The Fifth Dimension” – Oxford, OneWorld

Hilborn, David 1997 “Picking up the pieces” – London, Hodder and Stoughton

Kaplan, Mordecai 1934 “Judaism as a Civilisation” New York, MacMillan

Knight, George 1983 “I AM – This is my name” Eerdmans

Knight, George 1962 “Law and Grace” London, SCM

Leeming, Bernard 1960 “The Churches and the Church” London, Darton Longman & Todd

Neill, Stephen 1961″Christian faith and other faiths” London, OUP

Newbigin, Lesslie 1989 “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” London, SPCK

Race, Alan 1983 “Christians and Religious Pluralism” London, SCM

Sayers, Dorothy L. 1940 – “Creed or Chaos” – Hodder and Stoughton

Sidhu, Sivia and Singh 1969, 1970 & 1971 “Guru Nanak” Gravesend, The Sikh Missionary Society

URC 1980 “With People of Other Faiths in Britain” London, The United Reformed Church

From the internet:

Nostra Aetate – downloaded from the Vatican web site

Kessler, Edward – Jewish Christian Relations – the next generation – downloaded from the CJCR web site Early Church Fathers – edition by Philip Schlaff The home page of MultiFaithNet – supported by the University of Derby Interfaith and the Future by John Hick Risks in Religious Dialogue by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Magonet – Considering the sensitivities and sacrifices necessary for real understanding and progress between faith communities. ‘Thomas Merton And Inter-Faith Dialogue’

Exploring A Way Forward.’ – Colin Albin. A paper for the Thomas Merton Society Conference, 1998 Befriending the CHRISTIANS and JEWS according to the Quran – from Islam site “submission” Theological Education and the Challenges of Interfaith Dialogue Kenneth Cracknell – Research Professor in Theology and Mission – Brite college Inter-religious Resources Web Sites of Interest statistical view of world faiths Jesus the Pharisee – Barry Drake March 2000


Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks (in the foreword to the Helen Fry reader – 1996) uses the phrase “Friendship or fratricide are the only alternatives that the twentieth century has set before religions”, and Hans Kung says that there can be no peace between the nations of the world until there is peace between the religions of the world. A 1999 figure places only 16% of the world population in the category of “non-religious”. Approximate figures from the internet show Christianity: 2 billion, Islam: 1.2 billion, Judaism: 15 million – a total of well over 50% of the world’s population.

There is the Muslim suggestion that both Jews and Christians use badly  translated and corrupt versions of the Hebrew Bible – “as for the books of Moses, records tell us how they were repeatedly destroyed and only partly restored”. Introduction to Islam by Muhammad Hamidullah (Centre Culturel Islamique, Paris, 1969), and there is a suggestion from some orthodox Jews that the same is true about Christians and their scriptures – nonetheless, the theoretical acceptance of Hebrew scriptures, and the use of the translations we have – bad or good – must be a basis for at least some dialogue.

I am thinking here of Bernard Leeming, writing in 1960. Many of the major theological stumbling blocks that he noted at that time have little significance today in relations
between Catholics and Protestants. Leeming invited dialogue rather than proselytism (here referring to attempts to ‘convert’ Protestant Christians to Catholicism and vice
versa). The similarity between Leeming’s commentary on the state of inter-denominational relations then, and the state of inter-faith relations today is worth noting.

There is one school of thought that would place the root of the Second World War in the
category of war between faiths. Dorothy Sayers, writing in 1940 to a world at war, spoke of a new paganism. In a lecture entitled “Creed or Chaos?” she spoke of Nazi Germany as being Pagan, and used this as an example to show the continual battle in which the Christian is immersed. Of the pagan way, she said: “If I do not believe in the fatherhood of God, why should I believe in the brotherhood of man?”. A recent TV
documentary “The Nazis; a warning from history” showed a clear connection between Nazi leaders, and pagan worship practice. A friend of mine who spent her teenage years
in Nazi Germany told me: “First they took away the Old Testament, because it was a Jewish book. Then they took away the New Testament because it was about a Jew. They never quite succeeded in bringing the old Germanic gods back, but they tried”.


Nostra Aetate (1965) showed a profound move away from the former Catholic teaching that there could be no salvation outside the church – meaning the Roman Catholic Church. This had been the Catholic position right up until the Second Vatican Council.

There are three main strands of thought among Christians. Exclusivism and Inclusivism have been discussed briefly. The other concept is Pluralism, whose best known advocate today is John Hick. The idea has been around for many years, indeed Alan Race cites Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th Century as an advocate. Pluralism suggests that God reveals Himself through all the world faiths, and in effect, each holds some of
the truth. Ultimately, the pluralist would say that only in the coming together of all the faiths will the truth be found.

Personally, I find the concept of inclusivism inadequate, and something of a compromise, nevertheless, it has had a very positive effect on many evangelical theologians in giving them the freedom to dialogue rather than proselytise.

P174 of “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society”1959 article “Jews confront Christianity”. Neil does not name the publication. To take Donovan’s argument alone would not be adequate – but taken alongside the prophetic voice of the Charismatic Christian churches, it seems to confirm my personal expectations. There is more than a hope- there is a definite expectation that we are approaching a time of massive revival. Personally, I can’t see that this is to be confined to Christianity.

Nanak was a Hindu, and as a boy, had a close friendship with a Muslim. As he grew up, his confusion with the different teachings that he and his friend received became a problem to him. His bafflement led to three days spent alone in the jungle where he received his experience of God.

Jesus the Pharisee – Barry Drake March 2000 – available as here.

The final chapter of the reader ” Challenges for the future – mutual

The wisdom of the sages may not be regarded as Torah in the strictest sense. To the non-Jew, it is part and parcel of a unique Jewishness that points always towards Torah.

The whole point of Mordecai Kaplan’s 1934 book was to show the nature of
Judaism as Civilisation. The theme has been taken up by Jewish and Christian scholars since that time.
“Christianity Rediscovered” – (1978 – 1982)

Acts 15

“A shared tradition: the Rabbis and Christian Exegesis”

The same chapter earlier referred to.”Befriending the CHRISTIANS and JEWS according to the Quran”

Hugo Gryn Memorial Lecture: “Jewish-Christian Relations – the next generation”.

General Assembly 2000 – annual reports, resolutions and papers, published by the United Reformed Church “This year, we held a further seminar with members of the Reform Synagogue on our use of Scripture. As we studied in depth our shared Scriptures we were led to new insights, particularly on the concept of the Messiah in both traditions and how we understand God acting in history. In the coming year we hope to pursue this further and also have a meeting with the Sikhs, especially with younger people. This kind of bi-lateral dialogue can be done at local level – why not try it?”


The Trinity: A Muslim Perspective

The Trinity

A Muslim Perspective

By: Abdal Hakim Murad

[Text of a lecture given to a group of Christians in Oxford]

A number of difficulties will beset any presentation of Muslim understandings of the Trinity. Not the least of these is the fact that these Muslim understandings have been almost as diverse and as numerous as those obtaining among Christian scholars themselves. It is true that medieval Islam knew much more about Christian doctrine than the doctors of the Church did about Islam, for the obvious reason that Muslim societies contained literate minorities with whom one could debate, something which was normally not the case in Christendom. Muslim-Christian dialogue, a novelty in the West, has a long history in the Middle East, going back at least as far as the polite debates between St John of Damascus and the Muslim scholars of seventh-century Syria. And yet reading our theologians one usually concludes that most of them never quite ‘got’ the point about the Trinity. Their analysis can usually be faulted on grounds not of unsophistication, but of insufficient familiarity with the complexities of Scholastic or Eastern trinitarian thinking. Often they merely tilt at windmills.

There were I think two reasons for this. Firstly, the doctrine of Trinity was the most notorious point at issue between Christianity and Islam, and hence was freighted with fierce passions. For the pre-modern Muslim mind, Christian invaders, crusaders, inquisitors and the rest were primarily obsessed with forcing the doctrine of Trinity on their hapless Muslim enemies. It is recalled even today among Muslims in Russia that when Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan, capital of the Volga Muslims, he told its people that they could escape the sword by ‘praising with us the Most Blessed Trinity for generation unto generation.’ Even today in Bosnia, Serb irregulars use the three-fingered Trinity salute as a gesture of defiance against their Muslim enemies. And so on. Much Muslim theologising about the Trinity has hence been set in a bitterly polemical context of fear and often outright hatred: the Trinity as the very symbol of the unknown but violent Other lurking on the barbarous northern shores of the Mediterranean, scene of every kind of demonic wickedness and cruelty.

To this distortion one has to add, I think, some problems posed by the doctrine of the Trinity itself. Islam, while it has produced great thinkers, has nonetheless put fewer of its epistemological eggs in the theological basket than has Christianity. Reading Muslim presentations of the Trinity one cannot help but detect a sense of impatience. One of the virtues of the Semitic type of consciousness is the conviction that ultimate reality must be ultimately simple, and that the Nicene talk of a deity with three persons, one of whom has two natures, but who are all somehow reducible to authentic unity, quite apart from being rationally dubious, seems intuitively wrong. God, the final ground of all being, surely does not need to be so complicated.

These two obstacles to a correct understanding of the Trinity do to some extent persist even today. But a new obstacle has in the past century or so presented itself inasmuch as the old Western Christian consensus on what the Trinity meant, which was always a fragile consensus, no longer seems to obtain among many serious Christian scholars. Surveying the astonishing bulk and vigour of Christian theological output, Muslims can find it difficult to know precisely how most Christians understand the Trinity. It is also our experience that Christians are usually keener to debate other topics; and we tend to conclude that this is because they themselves are uncomfortable with aspects of their Trinitarian theology.

What I will try to do, then, is to set out my own understanding, as a Muslim, of the Trinitarian doctrine. I would start by making the obvious point that I recognise that a lot is at stake here for historic Christian orthodoxy. The fundamental doctrine of Trinity makes no sense unless the doctrines of incarnation and atonement are also accepted. St Anselm, in his Cur Deus Homo, showed that the concept of atonement demanded that Christ had to be God, since only an infinite sacrifice could atone for the limitless evil of humanity, which was, in Augustine’s words, a massa damnata – a damned mass because of Adam’s original sin. Jesus of Nazareth was hence God incarnate walking on earth, distinct from God the Father dwelling in heaven and hearing our prayers. It thus became necessary to think of God as at least two in one, who were at least for a while existing in heaven and on earth, as distinct entities. In early Christianity, the Logos which was the Christ-spirit believed to be active as a divine presence in human life, in time became hypostatized as a third person, and so the Trinity was born. No doubt this process was shaped by the triadic beliefs which hovered in the Near Eastern air of the time, many of which included the belief in a divine atonement figure.

Now, looking at the evidence for this process, I have to confess I am not a Biblical scholar, armed with the dazzling array of philological qualifications deployed by so many others. But it does seem to me that a consensus has been emerging among serious historians, pre-eminent among whom are figures such as Professor Geza Vermes of Oxford, that Jesus of Nazareth himself never believed, or taught, that he was the second person of a divine trinity. We know that he was intensely conscious of God as a divine and loving Father, and that he dedicated his ministry to proclaiming the imminence of God’s kingdom, and to explaining how human creatures could transform themselves in preparation for that momentous time. He believed himself to be the Messiah, and the ‘son of man’ foretold by the prophets. We know from the study of first-century Judaism, recently made accessible by the Qumran discoveries, that neither of these terms would have been understood as implying divinity: they merely denoted purified servants of God.

The term ‘son of God’, frequently invoked in patristic and medieval thinking to prop up the doctrine of Jesus’s divinity, was in fact similarly unpersuasive: in the Old Testament and in wider Near Eastern usage it can be applied to kings, pharoahs, miracle workers and others. Yet when St Paul carried his version of the Christian message beyond Jewish boundaries into the wider gentile world, this image of Christ’s sonship was interpreted not metaphorically, but metaphysically. The resultant tale of controversies, anathemas and political interventions is complex; but what is clear is that the Hellenized Christ, who in one nature was of one substance with God, and in another nature was of one substance with humanity, bore no significant resemblance to the ascetic prophet who had walked the roads of Galilee some three centuries before.

From the Muslim viewpoint, this desemiticising of Jesus was a catastrophe. Three centuries after Nicea, the Quran stated:

‘The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger, messengers the like of whom had passed away before him . . . O people of the Book – stress not in your religion other than the truth, and follow not the vain desires of a people who went astray before you.’ (Surat al-Ma’ida, 75)

And again:

‘O people of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion, nor utter anything concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and do not say ‘Three’. Desist, it will be better for you. God is only One God. . . . The Messiah would never have scorned to be a slave of God.’ (Surat al-Nisa, 171-2)

The Quranic term for ‘exaggeration’ used here, ghuluww, became a standard term in Muslim heresiography for any tendency, Muslim or otherwise, which attributed divinity to a revered and charismatic figure. We are told that during the life of the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, a few of his devoted followers from Iraq, where Hellenistic and pagan cultures formed the background of many converts, described him as God, or the vehicle of a Divine incarnation – hulul. The claim of course irritated Ali profoundly, and he banished those who made it from his sight; but even today marginal Islamic sectaries like the Kizilbash of Turkey, or the Alawites of the Syrian mountains, maintain an esoteric cosmology which asserts that God became incarnate in Ali, and then in the succession of Imams who descended from him.

Mainstream Islam, however, despite its rapid spread over non-Semitic populations, never succumbed to this temptation. The best-known of all devotional poems about the Blessed Prophet Muhammad: the famous Mantle Ode of al-Busairi, defines the frontier of acceptable veneration:

‘Renounce what the Christians claim concerning their prophet,
Then praise him as you will, and with all your heart.
For although he was of human nature,
He was the best of humanity without exception.’

A few years previously, the twelth-century theologian Al-Ghazali had summed up the dangers of ghuluww when he wrote that the Christians had been so dazzled by the divine light reflected in the mirrorlike heart of Jesus, that they mistook the mirror for the light itself, and worshipped it. But what was happening to Jesus was not categorically distinct from what happened, and may continue to happen, to any purified human soul that has attained the rank of sainthood. The presence of divine light in Jesus’ heart does not logically entail a doctrine of Jesus’ primordial existence as a hypostasis in a divine trinity.

There are other implications of Trinitarian doctrine which concern Muslims. Perhaps one should briefly mention our worries about the doctrine of Atonement, which implies that God is only capable of really forgiving us when Jesus has borne our just punishment by dying on the cross. John Hick has remarked that ‘a forgiveness that has to be bought by full payment of the moral debt is not in fact forgiveness at all.’ More coherent, surely, is the teaching of Jesus himself in the parable of the prodigal son, who is fully forgiven by his father despite the absence of a blood sacrifice to appease his sense of justice. The Lord’s Prayer, that superb petition for forgiveness, nowhere implies the need for atonement or redemption.

Jesus’ own doctrine of God’s forgiveness as recorded in the Gospels is in fact entirely intelligible in terms of Old Testament and Islamic conceptions. ‘God can forgive all sins’, says the Quran. And in a well-known hadith of the Prophet we are told:

On the Day of Judgement, a herald angel shall cry out [God’s word] from beneath the Throne, saying: ‘O nation of Muhammad! All that was due to me from you I forgive you now, and only the rights which you owed one another remain. Thus forgive one another, and enter Heaven through My Mercy.

And in a famous incident:

It is related that a boy was standing under the sun on a hot summer’s day. He was seen by a woman concealed among the people, who made her way forwards vigorously until she took up the child and clutched him to her breast. Then she turned her back to the valley to keep the heat away from him, saying, ‘My son! My son!’ At this the people wept, and were distracted from everything that they were doing. Then the Messenger of God, upon whom be peace, came up. They told him of what had happened, when he was delighted to see their their compassion. Then he gave them glad news, saying: ‘Marvel you at this woman’s compassion for her son?’ and they said that they did. And he declared, ‘Truly, the Exalted God shall be even more compassionate towards you than is this woman towards her son.’ At this, the Muslims went their ways in the greatest rapture and joy.

This same hadith presents an interesting feature of Muslim assumptions about the divine forgiveness: its apparently ‘maternal’ aspect. The term for the Compassionate and Loving God used in these reports, al-Rahman, was said by the Prophet himself to derive from rahim, meaning a womb. Some recent Muslim reflection has seen in this, more or less rightly I think, a reminder that God has attributes which may metaphorically be associated with a ‘feminine, maternal’ character, as well as the more ‘masculine’ predicates such as strength and implacable justice. This point is just beginning to be picked up by our theologians. There is not time to explore the matter fully, but there is a definite and interesting convergence between the Christology of feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther, and that of Muslims.

In a recent work, the Jordanian theologian Hasan al-Saqqaf reaffirms the orthodox belief that God transcends gender, and cannot be spoken of as male or female, although His attributes manifest either male or female properties, with neither appearing to be preponderant. This gender-neutral understanding of the Godhead has figured largely in Karen Armstrong’s various appreciations of Islam, and is beginning to be realised by other feminist thinkers as well. For instance, Maura O’Neill in a recent book observes that ‘Muslims do not use a masculine God as either a conscious or unconscious tool in the construction of gender roles.’

One of Reuther’s own main objections to the Trinity, apart from its historically and Biblically sketchy foundations, is its emphatic attribution of masculine gender to God. She may or may not be exaggerating when she blames this attribution for the indignities suffered by Christian women down the ages. But she is surely being reasonable when she suggests that the male-dominated Trinity is marginalising to women, as it suggests that it was man who was made in the image of God, with woman as a revised and less theomorphic model of himself.

Partly under her influence, American Protestant liturgy has increasingly tried to de-masculinise the Trinity. Inclusive language lectionaries now refer to God as ‘Father and Mother’. The word for Christ’s relationship to God is now not ‘son’ but ‘child’. And so on, often to the point of absurdity or straightforward doctrinal mutilation.

Here in Britain, the feminist bull was grasped by the horns when the BCC Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today issued its report in 1989. The Commission’s response here was as follows:

‘The word Father is to be construed apophatically, that is, by means of a determined ‘thinking away’ of the inappropriate – and in this context that means masculine – connotations of the term. What will remain will be an orientation to personhood, to being in relation involving origination in a personal sense, not maleness.’

Now, one has to say that this is unsatisfactory. The concept of fatherhood, stripped of everything which has male associations, is not fatherhood at all. It is not even parenthood, since parenthood has only two modalities. The Commissioners are simply engaging in the latest exegetical manouevres required by the impossible Trinitarian doctrine, which are, as John Biddle, the father of Unitarianism put it, ‘fitter for conjurers than for Christians.’

The final point that occurs to me is that the Trinity, mapped out in awesome detail in the several volumes devoted to it by Aquinas, attempts to presume too much about the inner nature of God. I mentioned earlier that Islam has historically been more sceptical of philosophical theology as a path to God than has Christianity, and in fact the divine unity has been affirmed by Muslims on the basis of two supra-rational sources: the revelation of the Quran, and the unitive experience of the mystics and the saints. That God is ultimately One, and indivisible, is the conclusion of all higher mysticism, and Islam, as a religion of the divine unity par excellence, has linked faith with mystical experience very closely. An eighteenth century Bosnian mystic, Hasan Kaimi, expressed this in a poem which even today is chanted and loved by the people of Sarajevo:

O seeker of truth, it is your heart’s eye you must open.
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.
If you object: ‘I am waiting for my mind to grasp His nature’,
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.

Should you wish to behold the visage of God,
Surrender to Him, and invoke His names,
When your soul is clear a light of true joy shall shine.
Know the Divine Unity today, through the path of love for Him.

Abdal Hakim Murad

[Currently, he is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. He studied at the universities of Cambridge and al-Azhar, Egypt, and has also translated a number of Islamic works including Imam al-Bayhaqi’s The Seventy Seven Branches of Faith (Quilliam Press, 1992).]

A Church for Today?

A talk given on Sunday, March 8th 2015.

It is 144 years since your church was planted here in this place! This church has an enormous cloud of witnesses who have gone before. Whatever your church got right, and whatever it got wrong in the past, during my time in this district, I have always struck by the way in which the local folk hold your church in high regard. Something must have been right!

Currently, I am a tutor on a ministry training course … Our recent theme was “Aliens in the land” – it was based on the book of Ruth. Where do Christians stand on the question of immigration etc.? We were given the following story:

A middle aged couple moved into a semi on a suburban estate. Their very warm, caring next door neighbour invited them around. The husband was working, so his wife went alone. ‘Would you like a glass of wine?’, she was asked. ‘A cup of coffee please’. She says, but with obvious disapproval. She looks around. The house is untidy. A teenage girl and a ten year old boy are in the room. The girl is listening to music on headphones – out of contact with everybody. The young boy is engrossed in a hand-held computer game. Again, out of contact. There is very loud rap music from the teenage son who is upstairs. Mum persuades him to turn it down. Typical family really. The new neighbour says nothing, but her body language says it all.

The man of the house arrives – apologises for being late. He had to work later than expected. The new neighbour smells beer on his breath – he had taken his client out for a hospitality drink. The neighbour has no way of understanding this. The man is a larger than life. A warm, very outgoing character. He is clearly anxious to welcome his new neighbours, and to see what they might have in common.

He talks about his job, his family etc. hoping to find common ground. Finally, he tells her that every Sunday morning, they have a ‘family time’; quality time as a family – they play golf together at the local golf club and finish up with a meal and a drink there. “Would you like to join us along with your husband? It is a really enjoyable occasion. You will be very welcome”. The new neighbour says, a little sharply, ‘Oh no, we go to church on a Sunday morning.’ After which she looked at her watch, thanked her neighbours for inviting her, and left. On the way out, before her neighbour had closed the front door, she heard the man mutter something about ‘ ….. God botherers’.

In the context of ‘aliens in the land’, the new neighbours were the aliens. They were new to the community, and their neighbours had bent over backwards to be welcoming. The newcomer did everything she could possibly do to reinforce the view that all churchgoers are judgemental, hypocritical killjoys.

After the story, we had a very interesting group exercise. We were to imagine planting a church in that locality with the family next door in mind. What is our new church like? And what is there about it that will attract these particular neighbours?

The ensuing discussion was fascinating. We ended up with an imaginary church in a local pub. We’d meet, maybe on a Sunday afternoon, and end with a meal and a drink for those who wanted to stay. The worship would be informal and interactive, with space for discussion as we go. The launch was to be by holding an an event. Possibly a pub quiz, or maybe a barbecue (with alcohol!). The event would be social only, with NO ‘God stuff’. It would be family oriented, as would our new church. We wanted to get to know the local folk – pure and simple.

Now back to reality: this church was planted on this site 144 years ago. The society into which it was planted was very very different from society today. In those days, guilt feelings were everywhere. I know you have occasionally enjoyed a Moody and Sankey sing-along. Moody and Sankey were part of a worldwide Christian revival when this church was quite young. Their method was to literally, ‘put the fear of hell’ into everyone. I quote from one of their meetings:

“One night as Sankey sang ‘Come Home, O Prodigal, Come Home’, a cry pierced the silence and a young man rushed forward and fell in the arms of his father, begging forgiveness. The entire congregation was impressed and hundreds pressed to an adjoining room seeking prayer and pardon”.

Also, in those days, drunkenness was a major problem in a way that we simply can’t imagine. Some Christians urged folk to ‘sign the pledge’. Others founded a ‘temperance movement’. Yates’ Wine Lodges were one excellent example. Alcohol was sold there, but no spirits. Moderate drinking was OK.

Today, there is no guilt as such. The Christian concept of ‘sin’ is meaningless to today’s society. Instead, however, many people feel empty and unfulfilled. They feel a need for acceptance. They simply don’t feel accepted. There is a great sense of alienation. People feel a need for acceptance, for love, for community and for a way of finding commitment – to something …. a ‘something’ which they have not yet discovered.

To meet with folk ‘where they are at’ means taking away the emphasis that church used to give to the concept of ‘sin’ (whatever that was supposed to mean) and instead to see the lovely person behind the sadness.

You might look at education today. We no longer use the ‘big stick’ approach. Instead, we give praise, affirmation and encouragement. We try to discover what a child is good at, and encourage them to learn to do it even better. This approach works really well.

You have probably seen recent reports of Stephen Fry and his outburst. I have to agree with him. Stephen Fry’s ‘god’ really is a mean minded, petty, vicious monster. I was brought up with a God a bit like that. The God I found (eventually) is totally loving and accepting. We don’t have to grovel and beg forgiveness. But that is what the founders of this church needed to do – in their day, they felt just a guilty as the rest of society. That attitude has long since gone. Stephen Fry’s ‘God’ is a relic of those far off days, and it is we who need to change our attitude.

Sin – what is that supposed to mean? If I were to offer you ‘sin’ for today, it would not be about all the things you shouldn’t do. Today, society has put an overwhelming emphasis on individuality. The individual person and their status seem more important than anything else. Getting on, and getting to the top (wherever that is) seems to be what life is all about. So: we have turned our back on God, we have sidelined the family and community, and unsurprisingly, people are often lonely and feel unloved and unaffirmed – they feel they are failures if they have not reached ‘the top’.

Our Christian faith has all the answers. It begins with a living relationship with our loving, living all-forgiving, all accepting God. It begins with that relationship in each of us: in our lives. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we do in church on a Sunday or any other day. If you want your neighbour to find God, then take God to them – not in words, but in yourself. Become Jesus. He didn’t preach and moralise (except to the converted!). He loved, and accepted people where they were at. Can we do the same?

I leave you with a challenge. If you were to plant a church today, what would it look like and feel like, and why might your neighbours beg you to take them there? God meets all of our needs today just as surely as he did 144 years ago. Our needs today are not the same as they were then. We need to become a church that reflects today’s needs, and allows God to meet the needs of our community as it is today.

Revd Barry Drake MA