Choosing to be Catholic, Part 5

During my first semester of college, two of my good friends and I started meeting to discuss religion.  I was Catholic, another friend was Muslim, and another Protestant.  We wanted an informal place to get together to learn about our religions from each other, so we met up weekly over hot chocolate and chai tea (which I failed at making) and brought along our holy books.  My friends brought the Bible and the Qur’an, and I brought The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, the Bhagavad Gita, and a Jesuit prayer book called In All Things.  Each week had a new discussion topic that we planned for, but more often than not we ended up veering off topic, in a good way.  We talked about the nature of God, traditions, rituals and holidays, and similarities and differences between the Biblical and Qur’anic stories about Abraham and other major figures.  I remember the three of us getting giddy when the words to stories about Abraham in both the Bible and the Qur’an matched up almost perfectly.

Here it is important for me to give a little background on Islam.  Muslims believes in the same God as both Christians and Jews.  The name Allah is Arabic for “the God”; the “the” signifies God’s oneness and superiority over other gods that existed in the pagan Middle East.  Islam descends from Abraham and regards Jesus and Moses as holy messengers of God’s Word.  God’s final Word was delivered through the prophet Muhammad, who heard the new and final Word of God through the angel Gabriel (the messenger angel of Christianity too.) Muslims do not believe in the divinity of Jesus nor of the prophet, Muhammad.  Out of reverence for Muhammad and the other prophets like Jesus, they are not depicted in art and the phrase “peace be upon him” is used after their names are said.

These discussions were greatly helpful to me, because I got to know Islam from a friend, not just from reading out of a textbook.  Even more so, my friend’s questions about Christianity helped me to reconsider aspects of my faith that I’d never thought deeply about.  I realized that Christianity had certain (and positive!) things that other faiths didn’t, and I wouldn’t have picked those things out without her outsider’s perspective of Christianity and Catholicism.

Jesus among his followers and children

One of the most significant conversations we had in our little triumvirate was about the nature of God and His relationship with mankind.  I remember trying to explain to my Muslim friend how Christians strive to be like Jesus; she was surprised.  “You try to be like God?” she asked.  I realized I’d been vague, and that she thought I’d been saying that we try to be God-like.  “No,” I said, “We don’t think that we as humans can be as great as God, but we try to act as God did on earth through Jesus, emulating his actions.  We try to live in simplicity and humility, and accept those traditionally marginalized by society.”

I knew why my friend was initially confused and probably a bit disturbed by the concept of Jesus and the idea that we as Christians try to act as He did.  For Muslims, the thought that God would take on human form is outrageous.  In Islam, God is an all perfect and all powerful being, and manifesting Himself in human form would be demeaning.  The Qur’an addresses this directly: “God is indeed just One God. Far be it from His glory that He should have a son. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth. God is sufficient for a guardian.” (Qur’an 4:171)

Additionally, Islam is all about complete submission to the power and perfection of God.  So the thought of Christians trying to emulate and take on that perfection seemed wrong to my friend.  And she’s right; if Christians were trying to be God-like–claiming power and judgement over the whole universe–that would be blasphemous.  Rather, as I obviously didn’t express well initially, we try to emulate the way in which God worked in the world through the person of Jesus.  Muslims too try to emulate the good qualities of God, listed as the 99 names of God (the Merciful, the Protector, the Forgiver, etc.)  However the emphasis of the two religions is different.  For Muslims, its about submission to God’s will, whereas for Christians its about participating to help enact God’s will.

All of this led me to think about another way I had heard the difference between Christians’ and Muslims’ relationship with God explained.  I can’t remember who said this to me and if the person was Christian or Muslim.

He or she said that in Islam, one’s life is spent on the path toward God.  In Islam, “the straight path” is the one that a person must take throughout life to reach God.  On the other hand, in Christianity, one’s life is spent on the path with God.  This reminded me of  the songs I used to hear during school Masses at St. Matthew that spoke of Jesus guiding us on life’s path as a friend.  In Christianity more so than in Islam, God and man work together in a friendship and a kind of equality.

Me walking in Muir Woods in Northern California.

I had previously thought that because we (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) believed in the same God, we believed the same things about God and our relationship with Him.  I didn’t realize that my faith had a unique view of God that others didn’t.  I couldn’t let go of that image of God that I had always grown up with: a God who could be a friend, someone who would walk on the path with me.  I had a harder time connecting with the Islamic view of God, which to me seemed more impersonal.

Neither the Christian nor Muslim view of God is correct or incorrect.  God is God, He can encompass all of our beliefs about Him or none of them.  However, I realized that the Christian view of God connected with me more.  I felt I could have a deeper relationship with a friend-like God, one who manifested Himself in the world in order to walk with and guide His people.

(Please correct me if I am wrong in my interpretation of Islam or Christianity and the faiths’ perceptions of God.  What I have written here is only what I remember from conversations and I have not taken the time to verify it.  I also realize that the interpretations of individuals of the same faith can be vastly different, so I’d love your feedback in the comments section.)

Questions for reflection: How do you or your religion see your relationship with God?  How would you explain that relationship it to an outsider, someone not of your faith?

Sources about comparative religion:

-Comparison chart (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) at religiousfacts.com

-See sources from yesterday’s post (Choosing to be Catholic, Part 4)

Part 6 will be posted tomorrow.

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