The Patron Saint of Interfaith

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For the past several centuries, Christians have not had to pay much attention to dialogue with other religions on their own soil. Historically, the only minorities they were likely to come into contact with were Jews, and we know how disastrously that encounter would become.

Suddenly though, the growth of Muslim numbers in the West makes it essential to establish lines of communication. But where do we start? Other than vague calls for peace and tolerance, is it feasible that somewhere, some day, Christian and Muslim leaders could sit down for a searching debate over each other's faith claims, and even end the discussion on friendly terms? Not, surely, this side of the Day of Judgment.

Actually, we find excellent models for this process in the much-maligned Middle Ages, when millions of Eastern Christians lived under the power of the newly established Caliphate. At that stage, Muslims were still genuinely curious about how to draw the lines between themselves and the other monotheists who made up the bulk of their subjects. Christians, meanwhile, found the Islamic regime a huge improvement on the oppressive power of the Christian Roman Empire. Of course, this rosy situation changed grievously over time, but for some glorious centuries, the two faiths held serious debates that really do offer lessons for today. Even the central issues of debate then and now remain largely unchanged.

We need to get medieval on our past.

One precious document records a two day debate that occurred in Baghdad in the 780s between the Caliph, al-Mahdi, and the Katholikos Timothy, head of the Church of the East that claimed followers across the Middle East, and deep into Eastern and Southern Asia.

For a modern audience, the most striking point about the debate is how much the two sides shared, going far beyond the existence of God and the authority of the Biblical prophets. The Caliph has no problem about acknowledging Christ as a very special prophet, born of the Virgin, and he can cite a good deal of Christian scripture. Timothy, on the other hand, knows the Qur'an, especially its portions relating to Jesus, and is well used to handling the standard controversial points that Muslims drew from these texts. He can even draw Christian conclusions from the mysterious groups of characters that litter the Qur'anic text, letters that still baffle modern commentators.

Much of the discussion consists of the Caliph's attempts to clarify Christian doctrine, and to press Timothy on charges that are made against his faith. How could someone as learned as Timothy, he asks, possibly accept that God married a woman and begot a son? If Jesus worships God and prays to him, if he talks about going to the Father, doesn't that prove that he is separate from God? How can the two be one? Aren't you arguing for two different Christs, one divine and one human? Do you seriously believe that God the Creator literally died on the cross? And most scandalously, aren't you Christians really tritheists? All those charges still stand front and center in Muslim controversial works today.

Timothy lucidly explains the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and he uses telling analogies. Even so, most modern Christians who are not themselves academic theologians are likely to share some of the Caliph's doubts and confusions, while they struggle heroically to grasp the subtleties of Timothy's defense.

The debate moved on to very dangerous ground when the Caliph began asking why Christians did not accept Muhammad, who was so clearly foretold in the Christian gospels? We are still at a stage in Islamic history when Muslims were at least seeking authority from the New Testament. They found it in Jesus's promise that they would receive the Paraclete, the Comforter, whom Muslims then and since identified with Muhammad. Just as the Jews rejected Jesus, who was their prophesied messiah, so Christians rejected Muhammad. However free the discussion, Timothy simply could not simply denounce Muhammad as a fraud, so he steps around the argument by pointing out that Muhammad clearly could not be the Holy Spirit, who was invisible and lacked a body.

The Caliph sounds very modern when he accuses the church of having corrupted or censored their gospels to remove obvious prophecies of Muhammad, an indictment that echoes in many parts of the Muslim world today. Throughout that Islamic world, in fact, modern apologists proudly circulate a Gospel of Barnabas in which Jesus explicitly points to Muhammad as his successor, and cite this as the true lost gospel from which the inferior Christian texts stem. Timothy defends his own scriptures, and also, bravely, downplays the claims of the Qur'an. If it is equal to the Bible, he asks, why has it not been proved by signs and miracles?

As the debate drew to its conclusion, Timothy drew an analogy that still impresses. Imagine, he said, that we are all in a dark house at night-time, when someone throws a precious pearl in the midst of a pile of ordinary stones. Everyone scrambles for the pearl, and some think they've found it, but nobody can be sure until day breaks. In the same way, he said, the pearl of true faith and wisdom had fallen into the darkness of this transitory world; each faith believed that it alone had found the pearl. Yet all he could claim -- and all the caliph could say in response -- was that some faiths thought they had enough evidence to prove that they were indeed holding the real pearl, but the final truth would not be known in this world.

For Timothy, the Christian claim to have the pearl was confirmed above all by miracles, by signs and wonders, although the Caliph retorted that evil men and magicians were also good at miracles. Many modern Christians too might not be too comfortable staking their faith on the evidence of miracles.

At the end of the day, neither side had converted the other, perhaps neither man convinced the other, but each learned a great deal, and Timothy went home in peace. Might he become the patron saint of interfaith dialogue?

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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