Sunday, March 05, 2006

Muslims and Materialists: What They Have In Common

Though both would likely deny that they are much alike, Muslims and materialists hold one cultural linchpin so closely in common, they resemble each other more than they imagine. Both groups do not recognize Jesus as the physical manifestation of God, a claim that allows one group to follow the teachings of Mohammad and the other able to live decadently. (By Muslims, I do not mean a faction or the loud minority that is under such scrutiny, but the doctrine of Islam, applicable to all Muslims. By materialists, I mean the non-religious, possibly the generically spiritual who do not adhere to any doctrine, and tend to reject any claim of absolute Truth.)

In a culturally Christian nation like America, materialists (or secularists) disregard the divinity of Jesus, but not that he ever existed. (This, of course, is their right, and I in no way would want to infringe on that right.) In what may be an effort to make up for the fact that they don’t believe in Jesus’ divinity, they often attest to the wonderful teachings of Jesus, acknowledging his compassion, love and even brilliance. While they don’t tend to see the teachings as authoritative, per se, they see them as top-notch. His death was something of a tragic accident, a political misunderstanding between some Jews and Romans and not much more. Ironically, seeing Jesus as a mere teacher makes his teachings worth very little to us, because the character of the teacher is never legitimated.

In Islamic doctrine, a similar disregard for the divinity of Jesus takes place, albeit for a different reason. Islam rejects the Christological assumption that Jesus was God, the Word made Flesh, because there is only one god, Allah. They reject the teachings of St. Paul and especially the gospel of John, the gospel that makes the most claims about the divine and eternal nature of the person of Jesus. In essence, they have chosen to ignore parts of the Christian canon, a canon that had been established almost 300 years before the prophet Mohammad. Islam does regard Jesus as one of the great prophets, which, of course, he was. They recognize his birth from Mary, his moral teachings and authority. But they don’t recognize his death on the cross as a salvific act. (I believe they actually don’t believe he died on the cross, but sometime later. I may be wrong about that.) Ironically, seeing Jesus as a mere prophet makes his prophetic teachings worth little to us as well, because they don’t come from God, but from man.

Both groups concede that Christ was “a great teacher.” But he was much more than that. For Christians, he was a savior, an intermediary between man and God, a person who would forever change the relationship humanity would have with any god, or God. The problem with the view of Jesus as only a great teacher is that if Jesus was a mere teacher, he was one of the most bizarre teachers in history. He was always talking about this new kingdom of God that was on the way, the final judgment, how he and the Father were one, and all sorts of other strange ideas. Surely no great Ethics or Philosophy professor would be considered great the moment he started to prattle on about his divinity, his upcoming death and resurrection, or the upcoming reign of God. He wouldn’t be great; he would be nuts.

As usual, C.S. Lewis puts it best. This is from “Mere Christianity”:

”I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

This alienation of Jesus as only a teacher allows materialists to disregard his teachings, because they’re just a series of good teachings, no different from Plato or Aristotle. This leads to a lifestyle religious fundamentalists often find offensive: decadent, amoral, relative. And because Islam does not have the ability to regard Jesus as the final prophet, it is at the whim of Mohammad’s prophecies, which include the teaching that those who are not believers are infidels, a religious dogma materialists would find offensive. Yet, I would argue both offenses are born out of not taking who Jesus was at face value, and saying exactly what C.S. Lewis said not to say: that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not God.

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