Posted by Rob Courtney on November 14, 2017
In June, I will make my fourth pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I can't wait to return to one of my favorite sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the traditional site of Jesus' tomb as well as Calvary. It's frankly kind of a chaotic place where multiple Christian denominations are always competing for power and control of this holy space. There is so much conflict between these competing versions of our Christian faith that the keys to the front door are not held by any of the denominations. Instead, the keys are kept by two Muslim families.
People are always a little surprised to learn that the Muslims have, for centuries, acted as a neutral party between competing Christian sects at the very heart of Christian devotion in Jerusalem. In 1192, when Jerusalem was under the control of the Muslim leader Saladin, he appointed the Judeh family to be the "Custodian of the Key," and the Nusseibeh family to be the "Custodian and Doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher." Every morning, shortly before 4:00 AM, to this day, a member of the Judeh family hands off the key to a member of the Nusseibeh family, who then goes and unlocks the doors of the church. A similar ritual happens every night at 9:00 PM when the key is returned. In this way, relative peace is kept, and the status quo maintained.
Mustafa Akyol reminds me of this when he writes, "The Qur'an takes a middle ground between [arguments against both Judaism and Christianity]: To Jews, it says that Jesus was the legitimate Messiah that they should have honored and obeyed. To Christians, it says that Jesus was still a human who worshiped God--and not an object of worship himself" (p. 79). I had never made some, of what seem to me now, obvious connections Akyol observes between our three monotheistic faiths, nor would I ever have thought of Islam as taking a middle ground between the two.
Anglicans famously believe in the via media, the "middle way." We have often acted as mediators, and as an ecumenical bridge between Catholicism and the Reformed traditions. We share a little bit of the characteristics of both. I think I see that, while Muslims and Christians may certainly believe different things about Jesus, perhaps this value of moderation between extremes could also be a point of dialogue.
Islam is, of course, experiencing a unique problem with extremism within its ranks. The ongoing state of affairs at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher serves as a reminder that our own faith is not immune to extremism. No religion or group bound by commonalities is. I think it's important for us to remember this truth, while highlighting our connections with other faiths and peoples. If we cannot hold up those connections, we risk overreacting to groups within groups and painting the whole with a broad brush. That's why I appreciate people like Akyol, who offer us reminders of the things that unite us.
As I mentioned in the first email, nothing he's writing here is new, nor outside the bounds of fairly mainstream biblical scholarship. He is perhaps making more of the triumph of Paul's version of Jesus over the marginalization of James' version than we might, but his points are valid. The debates and tensions of the early church are right there in the New Testament for us to observe. Yet, as he notes, "even when the evolution of doctrine in early Christianity is granted, mainstream Christians can see it as the unfolding of God's mystery in time, through 'inspired' men [and women] who established the truth about Christ" (p. 50). That's exactly how I would see it. If the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors, the Holy Spirit also inspired the apostles, and the fledgling Church, and continues to help us grow into "all truth." Jesus reminded us in John that the Spirit would tell the Church more about him that the original disciples were not ready for yet. The way we see it is that Paul's teaching was part of the unfolding doctrine.
Despite our different understandings of who he was or is, all three of our faiths have a connection to Jesus. All of us have a connection to God through him in one sense or another. As this book is showing us, that connection is a ripe source of dialogue and discussion.
What are your thoughts on what you've read so far? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.
Tags: ebook study, mustafa akyol, the islamic jesus
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