Awareness of God: Thoughts on theism vs. atheism

“The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God. They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways: there is none that doth good, no not one. The Lord hath looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there be any that did understand and seek God.”

– Psalm 14:1-2 (Douay-Rheims Bible).

“The Lord loves us so dearly that it passes all description. Through the Holy Spirit alone can the soul know His love, of which she is inexpressibly aware. The Lord is all goodness and mercy. He is meek and gentle, and we have no words to tell of His goodness; but the soul without words feels this love and would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility forever.” 

St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938).

The divide between atheism and theism ultimately reduces to a question of whether one believes and is aware of the existence of another world, a spiritual dimension, or whether one does not believe such a dimension exists. Belief or disbelief in a higher power, in a force or dimension directed by something beyond what our cognitive rational mind can recognize, is a natural and logical consequence of where one falls in answering this question.
 
Ultimately, as decent as we can and should be in our dialogues and day-to-day encounters with those who differ from us in this regard, we have to recognize that we as theists adhere to a fundamentally different worldview and understanding of existence compared to atheists. We should remember that our particular worldview and understanding of existence as Orthodox Christians especially sets us apart in Western society from atheists whose primary engagement with Christianity is with Roman Catholicism and the vastly different Protestant denominations. 
 
At the core of who they are by their declared belief that Goes does not exist, atheists must inevitably think that those of us who believe in a spiritual dimension and who avow prayer as a means of communicating with the divine are hopelessly deluded. Likewise, all theists, but most especially we as Orthodox Christians, have to recognize with sadness that atheists are blind and deaf to the spiritual reality of God’s presence, of which we are intimately and experientially aware, for God is “everywhere present and filling all things”.
 
Thanks be to God that His design for all people to come unto Him and to know Him by His love – the will of the Father through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, communicated to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit – can and does illumine the hardest of hearts. As much as many of the recent sacrilegious public acts by those promoting militant atheism and other radical ideologies horrify us as Orthodox believers, we must remember that no theist can become an atheist without first losing trust in those whom they have seen speaking for or acting on behalf of God. We should be moved out of genuine love for their souls to pray for atheists – many of whom are kindhearted and fundamentally decent people – but we must always strive to answer the hatred of militant atheists with love, with silence when we are mocked, and kindness when we are scorned.

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Response to YouTube video “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”

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This is almost a year old, but I hope that the main points I made in response to the popular YouTube hit “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus” still hold up:

1) Jesus never said that he wanted people to shun organized worship or live primarily by their own free interpretation of the Scriptures. He opposed religious legalism among those who used their external observance of the exact precepts of Mosaic law as an excuse for ignoring its inner meaning by not caring about the poor or downtrodden.

2) Rather than abolish religion, Christ repeatedly proclaims Himself as God Incarnate, Son of the Father and Lord of the world, proclaiming that salvation comes only through knowledge of Him who is God from all eternity. He endows His apostles with authority to forgive sins in His name and He promises that He will always protect His Church.

3) Anyone belonging to any group or belief system can act hypocritically. Christians and other people of faith don’t have a monopoly on hypocrisy. Look at how the core tenets of all major faiths inspire people to live in peace.

Talking to Muslims about Jesus

The need for a respectful approach

I have many Muslim friends whom I love and respect very much. Throughout my interfaith service work and dialogues all Muslims I have met and worked with were very kind, charitable, and community-minded individuals. Many have repeatedly told me that they feel freer to practice their faith here in the United States than anywhere else. How do we as Orthodox Christians go about talking about our faith with Muslim friends or colleagues? What is the best way to go about doing this?

I have only discussed theology with a few of these Muslim friends, and whenever we talk about Jesus in Islam and Christianity, they of course tell me they do not believe Jesus was God, and ask, “How could you believe Jesus (peace be upon him/”PBUH”) was a god?”

One thing you will notice right away is that Muslims always attach this honorary suffix to Jesus’ name, as well as any person they consider a prophet other than Muhammad, their final prophet, to whom they say, “May Allah honor him and grant him peace”. On the internet you will see “peace be upon him” often abbreviated by English-speaking Muslims to “pbuh” or the Arabic transliteration into Roman letters, “A.S”. That this suffix should be given to Jesus (Isa in Arabic) should immediately strike Christians as a positive thing.

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            It is very important to recognize in someone the common ground you share, and reaffirm your respect for them before you begin to civilly discuss your differences. A lot of people are very ignorant about Islam and are unaware of both its commonalities with many Christian teachings, and its many differences. There have been many cases since the September 11 attacks of Muslim American citizens being brutally attacked for their faith, as well as Americans of the Sikh faith being attacked because the attackers erroneously thought they were Muslims.

Having a respectful dialog with a Muslim can really go a long way in giving them a positive impression of Christianity in the event that they feel negative towards our faith. It is also an important part of the Christian Way to condemn violence and hatred wherever it is found, whether it is directed against those of our faith, as is often the case throughout the Middle East today where Christians endure severe persecution and restrictions on their basic liberties, or those outside our faith.

One area we have in common with Muslims is that we both accord Jesus a very high place of honor. In fact, someone cannot be a Muslim if she or he does not believe Jesus was a prophet of God and among those “nearest to Allah” (Sura 3:45). (Allah is the Arabic word meaning ‘The God’, the only God). Thus, if a Muslim ever insults Jesus during your conversation or speaks disparagingly about any of His miracles (many of his miracles are mentioned in the Qur’an, as well as some alleged ones which the Bible does not mention) do not be surprised if his or her Muslim friends rebuke or chide them.

Jesus in the Qur’an: in some ways similar, in many very different from Jesus in the Bible

The Qur’an repeatedly and emphatically states that Jesus was only a Prophet of God (4:171, 5:17, 5:75). It goes further, saying that at the Day of Judgment Jesus will emphatically deny before Allah that he ever claimed divinity (5:116, 5:72, 3:55). This is a direct refutation of Christian claims that Jesus was the Son of God and God Incarnate. Islamic jurisprudence considers shirk,  (شرك‎) that is, making partners to God, the sole unpardonable sin: “Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the garden [Paradise] and the Fire will be his abode.” (5:72). In Sura (chapter) 5:17, those who believe Christ is God are condemned as living “in blasphemy”. Make special note of these passages, since many Muslims today raised in Western countries may not actually be familiar with them.

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            Islam thus incorrectly assumes that Christian belief in the Trinity is tritheism, belief in three gods, and therefore the unpardonable sin of shirk. In effect, the Qur’an teaches that Christians were misled or deluded into making Jesus and Mary ‘gods’ beside Allah (9:31, 19:88-92). This view of course ignores that Orthodox, Catholic and some Protestant Christians honor and venerate (see Luke 1:46-55, the scriptural text of the Magnificat), but do not worship Mary, and consider Jesus to be fully God, not God’s ‘partner’ or a separate god beside Him.

Interestingly, the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be directly revealed from God, holds that Jesus performed many miracles (5:110, 3:49), but by Allah’s power, not his own. Jesus in the Qur’an is only God’s servant, His prophet. Curiously, the Qur’an refers to Jesus indirectly and by name almost one hundred times in fifteen suras (chapters), far more than it refers to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Qur’an holds Mariam (Mary) in very high regard. In Sura 3:42 the Qur’an calls her “chosen” of God and “pure”, the virgin whom God has “preferred above all the women of creation”. The only woman mentioned by name in the text, it mentions Mary far more than the New Testament does. She is highly honored throughout the book (21:91, 23:50), which affirms her annunciation from the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) and her virgin birth (19:19-22).

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            The Qur’an also promises Jesus’ Second Coming (43:61), yet ironically, Prophet Muhammad is not expected to return to earth. Muslims believe Jesus was a devout Muslim (one who submits to Allah), was the Messiah sent to preach to the people of Israel, and heralded the coming of the Prophet Muhammad.

In its view of Jesus, the Qur’an can be considered an antithesis or attempted refutation of the Christian Gospel. It explicitly denies the Crucifixion (4:157) and thereby the Resurrection, claiming instead that Jesus was assumed bodily into heaven without death. Prophet Muhammad, by contrast, died and was buried at Medina, Islam’s second holiest city in modern day Saudi Arabia, where he and his first supporters found refuge after the Meccans expelled them.

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Correcting two major misconceptions which Muslims tend to have about Christians

1)      “Don’t Christians believe in three gods?”

The Qur’an accuses Christians of believing in three gods. This shows a clear misunderstanding of the Trinity. If the person or group of Muslim friends you are talking with wants to learn a bit more, then you can discuss the Trinity with them, but it is important not to get bogged down in complicated theology. You should share that the only people who claim to be Christians who worship anything resembling three gods are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons, known among themselves as “Latter-day Saints” or LDS). Technically, Mormons are not tritheists, but henotheists because they believe in a possibly infinite number of ‘exalted’ beings who become gods through a process called exaltation, but they only worship the ‘Godhead’ of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Latter-day Saints are tritheists in the sense that they reject the Trinity, believing instead that the ‘Godhead’ of Father, Son and Holy Ghost are three ‘separate beings [gods] united in purpose’. This will likely horrify or shock your Muslim friends, since it fits the very definition of shirk in Islam. You can also share that Mormon prophets historically taught, and many Mormons still believe, that God the Father was once a man who they believe progressed through a process called exaltation to become God, and that He has a tangible body of flesh and bone.

This will horrify Muslims, as it horrifies you. Muslims are strict monotheists, so in establishing common ground with Muslims, you can repeatedly reiterate that you believe Mormons beliefs about God/gods are not yours.

2)      “Don’t Christians worship Mary?”

This is an area where many Orthodox and Catholic Christians struggle in convincing evangelical and some mainline Protestant Christians that we do not, in fact, “worship” Mary. You should make clear that while you venerate and honor Mary as the Virgin Mother of Christ, and therefore the Mother of God Incarnate, (God come into the flesh among Men), you absolutely do not worship her, for she, while exalted and made holy by the power of God, is still human, a created being, and therefore not deserving of worship.

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The Discussion: Planting doubt in a Muslim’s mind that Jesus was only a Prophet

1)      If Jesus never claimed He was God, but the Qur’an says that at his Second Coming Jesus will insist to Allah that he was merely acting as His prophet and servant, why does the Qur’an put Christians (along with Jews) in a relatively protected status as “People of the Book”? Our Holy Book, the Bible, transparently supports Jesus’ divinity, which is considered the sole unpardonable sin of shirk, that is, ascribing ‘partners’ to God. Why then does the Qur’an considers the Christian Scriptures, which, it claims, so distort Jesus’ true message heralding the coming of Muhammad, worthy of honor?

Why, if Jesus truly never said the things about Himself which the New Testament preserves about Him (His repeated claims to divinity and the path to salvation only through faith in Him), would Muhammad order his followers to leave Christians alone, when what we believe about Jesus is the very antithesis of what Prophet Muhammad taught about him, deserving of eternal “fire” (5:72) due to our “blasphemy” (5:17)?

From Islam’s perspective, Trinitarian Christians commit “shirk”, that unpardonable sin of making “partners” to the One God (Allah), so why then does the Qur’an often put us in a more positive light than it does Jews, when Jews are strict monotheists, closer to Islam’s standard for monotheism, than we Trinitarians?

2)      Islam claims to be the fulfillment and correction of both Judaism and Christianity, but nowhere in the Qur’an are Muslims urged to read the Torah or any of the books of the New Testament. The latter makes sense, given that the New Testament clearly lays out that Jesus is the Son of God and God Incarnate, but how can the Qur’an claim to be the fulfillment of Judaism and Christianity when its ‘predecessor’, Christianity, included the Jewish holy scriptures into its canonized scriptures (the Holy Bible) as the Old Testament, and yet Islam does not make any actual use of the Jewish scriptures or Christian ones? Also, given that Muslims mirror Jewish dietary practice by consuming only halal foods similar to Jewish kosher rules of slaughter, and see the Old Testament prophets, especially Adam, Moses, Elijah, and Ishmael, as forerunners of Jesus and Muhammad, why do Muslims still not use the Hebrew Scriptures?

3)      In the Qur’an, Jesus ascends to heaven by bodily assumption, he never dies, and he is foretold to return to earth at the Second Coming. Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, died and was buried, did not ascend to heaven, and will never return to earth. Muslims at the Day of Judgment believe that Jesus will deny before Allah that he ever claimed divinity, yet Jesus alone of all the prophets in Islam was assumed bodily into heaven and will return to earth close to the Day of Judgment. Somehow, despite his bodily ascension, his miracles, his birth to a virgin, and his foretold return, Jesus is still considered only God’s servant, the same as the Prophet Muhammad or earlier prophets. This does not make sense when you consider that all other prophets, believed to have acted and performed miracles through Allah’s power and grace, died, were not born to virgins, did not ascend bodily to heaven, nor will any of them come again to this earth.

Ultimately, from a Christian perspective, the claims of the Qur’an about Jesus only being a Prophet come off as an attempt to ignore Jesus’ divinity or cover up the claims He made in the Bible, while limiting the miracle-performing parts of Jesus’ life, as well as his true role and scope as Messiah to the people of Israel. The result is a kind of ‘hybrid’ Jesus who is plainly greater than the other prophets given all the unique things the Qur’an teaches about him, but he is still emphatically not considered divine. Why thus did Islam’s greatest and founding prophet Muhammad die, never to return again, yet Jesus in the Qur’an never died, but is to return again to earth? Surely this means Jesus is greater in Islam than the Prophet Muhammad- yet such a statement outrages and offends devout Muslims!

4)     In the Qur’an Jesus’ mother Mariam (Mary) is held in very high regard. In fact, she often appears with the suffix “peace be upon her”, the only woman honored in this way by name in the Qu’ran. In fact, an entire sura (19) is named in her honor. In the text, Mary is a righteous virgin who is astonished when the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) appears to her and reveals that she would conceive Jesus not by a man, but by the “holy spirit of God”. Islam honors Adam, Abraham, Elijah, Ishmael, Moses, and most of the Old Testament prophets, yet no prophet’s mother, not even Muhammad’s, conceived virginally or by the “holy spirit of God”! In the Qur’an, Jesus also miraculously spoke at his birth (19:22-33); not even the New Testament has Jesus speaking at birth! Surely, a mere prophet does not speak from his cradle and proclaim himself, at birth, to be a prophet!

5)      A common explanation I’ve heard among Muslims for why Jesus could not possibly be divine is that in the Qur’an, there is a verse attesting that Jesus and Mary both had to eat food for sustenance.

“Christ, the son of Mary, was no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. . .” (5:75).

This is a really weak argument. If Allah, the One God, deigns or chooses to  become Incarnate in His infinite grace and love for the world, then why should He not, if He deigns to take on humanity, then eat? Why should He not do so? He is God, capable of all things, of anything He commands or wills! Why should He not partake of a small part of His creation, of some food? Just because God deigns to eat does not mean He needs to eat for sustenance!

Thus, Islam argues, the Christian understanding of Jesus must be some kind of weak or flawed ‘god’—a god who needs to eat, what kind of god can that be? Christianity sees Jesus as fully man and yet fully God, who loses none of His divine majesty and transcendent power by choosing to take on our humanity.

This is what befuddles Muslims more than anything, since they reject the Incarnation entirely, and so once you plant doubts in their mind about Jesus’ role as only a Prophet in Islam, you can hopefully begin to start talking to them about the Incarnation and how everything the Christian Scriptures ascribes to Christ, and indeed, the miracles recorded in the Qur’an, make much more sense as the accomplishments and will of God Incarnate, than a mere Prophet.

Realizing our life in Christ

We are called to love every person as a child of God made in His very image

If anyone professes that man is created in the very image of God, for men are all “children of the Most High” (Psalm 81:6 LXX), then it follows logically that the essential purpose of man’s life here, his very being, is to unceasingly worship His Creator through all his actions, by his words, and in his very demeanor, countenance and spirit.

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If anyone truly and sincerely claims this divine inheritance, through which we are called to “be perfect even as [our] Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), summoned to be “imitators of God as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1), and exhorted to become “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), then he or she would naturally seek to conform the entirety of their life, the whole of their inner heart and the depths of their noetic mind, to glorify and praise God in all ways and at every moment.

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Even the etymology of the word by which we have been known to the world since the first days after Christ ascended to heaven, ‘Christians’, from the Greek Χριστιανών, means ‘little anointed ones’. How then can a Christian, a little Christ, thus truly be a disciple of the Lord, much less aspire to mystical union with Him through participation in the divine energies, if he or she does not live, show and even breathe Christ in all they do, from the depths of their being? How can we be Christians, how can our lives be a “Christ-like fragrance rising up to God” (2 Corinthians 2:15 NLT) if we do not truly love all those around us?

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The simple answer is the logical one. If the very essence of the Christian life is to worship and glorify the boundless and ineffable grace, mercy and majesty of God, if the core calling for all humanity is to worship Christ the Savior by loving and honoring His image present in each of His children – even the lowliest or ugliest or rudest person – then any person who does not understand this simplest of the Lord’s commandments (John 13:34, Matthew 22:37-40, Deuteronomy 6:5) cannot, in truth, be numbered among His anointed ones (Matthew 25:34-46).

Our highest calling as Christians is to do as St Paul wrote to the Ephesians in Asia Minor, walking “in love, as Christ also has loved us, and has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling fragrance.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, KJV). Among all those who lovingly honor Christ’s commandments, we know that the Lord “abideth in him, and he in Him. And in this we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He hath given us.” (1 John 3:24, Douay-Rheims version).

Certainly, the idea of conforming one’s actions, one’s approach to living and thinking, and even the eye of one’s noetic heart to live chiefly to glorify God runs completely contrary to what “the world” values today, especially in its prevailing secular outlooks of modernism and relativism, which challenge and question the very concept and existence of objective Truth.

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This is why the true heart of the Christian Gospel appears as foolishness to those who live and think and have their being in and of the world, outside of a yearning for God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Indeed, St. John the Theologian, beloved apostle of the Lord, reminds us that our love, if truly selfless, is something the world not only often fails to understand, but indeed, because it is selfless, is something the world often despises:

“Wonder not, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not, abideth in death.” (1 John 3:13-14, Douay-Rheims version).

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Yet if we truly hold to the faith we have received (Jude 1:3, 1 Corinthians 15:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Corinthians 11:2), living out the essential message of the Holy Scriptures and the universal witness of the ancient and holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church, if we rest assured in the vast reservoir of wisdom handed down through centuries of martyrs, confessors, evangelists, teachers and pastors of the revealed Truth, how natural and joyous it is to be a Christian, to take upon ourselves the mantle of Christ crucified for love of the world, even a love it does not want or understand!

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, KJV)

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What a fathomless blessing it is to participate in the divine energies, the very manifestations and grace of God active in the world, indeed, in all who are open to it, through the invisible power and action of the Holy Spirit. It is by our participation in the energies of God that we are motivated, strengthened, and beckoned forth to show the world that we are truly little Christs by our selfless and genuine love for all His children. This love, fired by faith, is the spring, the catalyst in our souls, for our transformation in Christ, our divinization:

“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (John 13:34-35, Douay-Rheims version).

For just as we remember St. Paul’s admonition that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26), so too do we recall that works done without a loving spirit of real devotion to the other lack the spirit and grace of God. For any works lacking in love is are not true examples of loving kindness by which we truly desire to serve, selflessly, as little Christs unto our brothers and sisters:

“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20, King James Version).

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St John Chrysostom on the necessity of Christian love, a shining lamp to the world

“There is nothing colder than a Christian who is not concerned about the salvation of others . . . . Do not say, ‘I cannot help others’: for if you are truly a Christian it is impossible not to help others.

Natural objects have properties that cannot be denied; the same is true of what I have just said, because it is the nature of a Christian to act in that way. Do not offend God by deception. If you said that the sun cannot shine, you would be committing an offense against God and making a liar of Him.

It is easier for the sinner to shine or give warmth than for a Christian to cease to give light: it is easier for that to happen than for light to become darkness.

Do not say that that is impossible: what is impossible is the contrary . . . If we behave in the correct way, everything else will follow as a natural consequence.

The light of Christians cannot be hidden, a lamp shining so brightly cannot be hidden.’

-St. John Chrysostom (347-407), archbishop and Patriarch of Constantinople

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The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholic Churches venerate St John as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, while in the Roman Catholic Church he is revered as a great Doctor of the Church. During his tumultuous tenure as Patriarch of Constantinople, he ran afoul of the Empress Eudoxia after criticizing her for her vanity, haughtiness and indifference to the plight of the city’s poor. He offended the imperial capital’s wealthy political elites by turning over their lavish gifts to him to the poor and exhorting them to repent of their dissolute lifestyles. Extremely eloquent and persuasive as a preacher, he earned his epithet meaning “the golden mouthed” from his numerous homilies and his masterful writings as a practiced ascetic and theologian. He is the principal author of the Divine Liturgy which bears his name. The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is the most widely used liturgical form in the world today following the Novus Ordo ‘ordinary form’ of the Roman Catholic Mass, and among both Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics, this Byzantine liturgical form is the most widely celebrated.