Some years ago, a seminary student told me that, according to some of her professors, the interfaith Christology question is going to be the “next big issue” confronting the church. Theologian Kristin Johnston Largen, from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, has picked up the banner. In her book Finding God Among Our Neighbors, Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology, she writes:
“. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.”
It’s already happening in our Christian/ Muslim book study. As we began reading Islam’s Jesus by Zeki Saritoprak, we Christians soon realized that there’s a whole lot about Jesus in the Qur’an, particularly about his birth. Check out the story of the Annunciation:
“And mention in the Book, Maryam, when she withdrew from her family to a place facing east. She placed a screen from them; then We sent to her our angel (Jibrael, or Gabriel), and he appeared before her in the form of a man in full human form. She said: ’I seek refuge with The Most Beneficent God from you, if you do fear Him.’ The angel said: ’I am only a Messenger from your Lord, to announce to you the gift of a righteous son.’ She said: ‘How can I have a son, when no man has touched me, nor am I unchaste?’ The angel said: ‘So it will be, your Lord said: ‘That is easy for Me: And to appoint him as a sign to mankind and a mercy from Us ‘, and it is a matter already decreed.'”—Qur’an 19:16-21
As we listened to our Muslim friends tell of their devotion to both Mary and Jesus, we were challenged to rethink our own understandings of who and what Jesus was and is. Surprisingly to us, Jesus is called the Messiah (al-Maseeh) at least nine times in the Qur’an. But, we had to ask, what does ‘messiah’ mean? We already knew that there are differences between the Jewish and Christian messianic job descriptions. And so it is with Islam. The Qur’an indeed identifies Jesus as the Messiah, a messenger who will bring justice, prosperity and peace. But it does not agree that the Messiah is the son of God.
Indeed, they are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, the son of Mary.’ (5:72)
The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. (5:75)
Now, for orthodox Christians, the answer is clear-cut. Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.”
But many Christians are reexamining the Jesus 0f the Nicene Creed. Coming from both our expanding knowledge of the cosmos and of other Christologies from other places and people, we’re no longer satisfied with outdated “substance” language.
We’re also not satisfied with dualistic separations between human and divine, heaven and earth, and matter and spirit. As we think more about the interconnectedness of everyone and everything, the question of who and what Jesus was and is comes into play.
Personally, I find great meaning in distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the cosmic Christ. I value both. And find that this Christology can be very interfaith-friendly.
We’ve only begun to delve into these ways of talking about Jesus with our Muslim book study friends. I’m pretty sure that the Christians in the group are all on the ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum. How we will explain some of these non-orthodox ideas and how they will receive them remains to be seen.
The importance of this study, in my opinion, is not only the interfaith dialogue we’re having between Muslims and Christians, but also the intrafaith one we’re having among ourselves as we work through our own answer to Jesus’ question: