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Dealing with Doctrine

Dealing with Doctrine

This post first appeared at Contemplative Journal in January 2015.

It is not uncommon today to find spiritual practitioners who draw from multiple religious traditions to find their own way, or who claim to walk two or more paths jointly.  Increasingly, in addition to the spiritually independent, there are Jewish Buddhists, Sufi Christians, and Muslim yogis on the scene—bridging, rather than leaving behind, our historic religions.  Combining diverse practices and traditions, however, is not always easy, and one of the greatest difficulties for those outside of the experience is understanding how these practitioners overcome the seemingly incommensurable truth claims of the various traditions.  Doesn’t Christianity, for example, claim that Jesus is the Incarnation of God and the Second Person of a Trinity, while Islam says that these doctrines promote idolatry and polytheism?

When such core doctrines are mutually incompatible, how can one claim to practice in both faiths?  To hold to one would seem to necessitate renouncing the other.  And yet, there are Christian Muslims walking around to the contrary.  In my own experience, I’ve encountered two basic approaches to this quandary.  In the first, the practitioner simply brackets the doctrinal conflicts.  Often someone of a contemplative bent will claim that these divergences exist primarily at the level of doctrinal formulation, and that their goal is to get behind words to experience.  A good example of this approach is expressed in words from Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, writing in 1963 to the Sufi Muslim Abdul Aziz:

Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes us away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas.  In the realm of realities we may have a great deal in common, whereas in words there are apt to be infinite subtleties and complexities which are beyond resolution.  It is, however, important, I think, to try to understand the beliefs of other religions.  But much more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light […]. It is here that the area of fruitful dialogue exists between Christianity and Islam.[1]

Merton gently side-steps the question of doctrine, pointing instead to the “realm of realities” beyond the words.  Whether using Merton’s contemplative tack or not, in this approach the difficulty is simply placed in a “suspense account,” while the practitioner takes on the practices of the community and engages in its worship and devotion.  This mutual engagement may shed new light on the doctrinal disagreement that could not be arrived at through non-participant observation or intellectual engagement alone.  This approach could be identified as a primarily “interspiritual” tactic.

In the second, more academic approach, the practitioner attempts to deconstruct the difficulties based on a critical romp through language, text, culture, and history.  What, in their original contexts, were these doctrines attempting to say?  What situations were they responding to?  And how could they have misunderstood each other?  Holding to the Christian-Muslim dialogue for our example, we can turn to the argument over God’s “begetting” a son.  The language of “begetting” carried over into Christianity from Judaism; we find it used of God’s appointment of David as king in the Psalms: “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7).  Here it is obviously metaphorical language, not intended to be understood in a literal or biological sense.  The same language also developed along philosophical lines within Judaism and Christianity to speak of “eternal divine emanations” (as seen in mystical texts like the Jewish Zohar).  In this latter sense, it became attached to the Christian doctrine of the “eternal generation” of the Logos or “Word” who is “begotten” eternally within the Godhead.

The Qur’an, however, rejects this language (Sura 112:3: “He begot no one nor was He begotten.”), as it was heard anthropomorphically and biologically within the cultural-linguistic matrix of Arabic.  Samuel Zinner notes that “this language could not have been integrated in an orthodox sense by the polytheistic Arabians of Muhammad’s time, so deeply ingrained in them was the notion of the quasi-physical nature of God having male and female offspring.”[2]  Confronted with this, one might argue that what one tradition protests in the metaphor is not what the other tradition seeks to affirm, creating space for doctrinal renegotiation and fresh understanding (and bringing us to a position not unlike Merton’s: the bulk of the difficulty seems to exist at the level of language and culture).

Similarly, it has long been recognized that the conceptions of the Trinity denounced in the Qur’an are equally heretical for orthodox Christians.  For example, Quran 5:73: “Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying the truth: there is only One God.”  No orthodox Christian would say that God is the third of three, but rather that there is a dynamic “threeness” within God.  In orthodox Christian doctrine, there is not “God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit” but rather “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit”; this is “God-the-Three-in-One” not “God-the-One-of-Three.”  That which one tradition rejects, when examined closely, is not actually that which the other affirms.

Likewise, Quran 5:116: “When God says, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, “Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God”?’ he will say, ‘May You be exalted!  I would never say what I had no right to say…’”  In this ayah (verse) we see not only the divinization of Mary, but Mary and Jesus elevated as gods beside God.  Such claims represent legitimate threats to monotheism for both Muslims and Christians.  In light of the specific doctrinal rejections made by the Qur’an, many scholars have posited that the early Islamic community was primarily in dialogue with “heretical” Christian sects that were still active in seventh-century Arabia, creating fresh space for conversation between Christians and Muslims today.  Simple historical context can help peal back layers of misunderstanding that arise from scripture’s transposition into a new setting.

Such explorations into the formulation of doctrine begin to break down the hard lines with which we draw our doctrinal distinctions.  We sometimes find that our religious traditions have been talking over and under each other; while they may not ultimately formulate their sacred worlds in the same way, their doctrines may not be as antagonistic as they initially appear.  Entering the conundrum through interspiritual dialogue, which prioritizes experience over formulation, we will not be surprised.  In the words of Thomas Keating, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”[3]

But as human beings, we must speak, and practitioners of combined and hyphenated paths (like those who are raised multilingual) may best poised to offer more faithful translation from one religious language to another.  It is precisely these practitioners, so often depicted as spiritually illegitimate, who offer a fresh hope for our polarized religious landscape as they open new avenues of understanding, exploration, and dialogue.  And so I pray: may the multiple belongers and the spiritually hyphenated, the dual religious citizens and those who have been deported from their spiritual countries, find that theirs is a vocation of healing and reconciliation for our one beautiful, broken human heart.  Amen.


[1] Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985), 54.

[2] Samuel Zinner, Christianity and Islam: Essays on Ontology and Archetype (London, UK: The Matheson Trust, 2010), 94.

[3] Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation (New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2006), 90.

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