How I rediscovered Christianity through Islam

By Philip Clayton I always thought that the way to believe more deeply was to surround myself with other Christians. … Continued

By Philip Clayton

I always thought that the way to believe more deeply was to surround myself with other Christians. After all, isn’t that the traditional tool for religious socialization? Send the child to Sunday School, surround her with Christian friends and teachers, make it a Christian high school and college if possible … and then her faith will hold for life. Teaching a child to be Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, it was said, works much the same way.

Perhaps this practice worked in previous generations, but the challenges institutional religion faces today are unheralded in the entire history of the United States. In fact, you’d have to go back to the Reformation to find an equally revolutionary period of transition. A major national survey recently published in USA Today shows that 72% of “Millennials“–Americans between the ages of 18 and 29–now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Even those who self-identify as Christians no longer follow traditional forms of Christian practice. Church attendance, Bible study, and prayer have all declined dramatically, and doubts have increased.

“Eclectic” is the word of the day. Major movements of generic spirituality blend practices from across the world’s traditions. If one does not have specific beliefs, one does not make any truth claims; hence we can all be right and no one is wrong.

By contrast, those who seek to insulate their beliefs from all doubt have to build higher and thicker walls around their religious communities than ever before. Conservative religious groups are increasingly resorting to this strategy. Only by preaching the falsehood, perversion, or evil of religions other than one’s own can one block them from having influence. And the fruits of preaching hatred we know only too well.

But are there really only two alternatives? Those of us who study religion in American culture are now seeing the widespread emergence of a third way. It’s the way of difference without exclusion, distinction without hatred, knowledge without fear. The religious “other” is not the enemy; quite the contrary: it’s through her that one’s own religious identity and practice emerge more clearly.

I can’t explain this trend without getting concrete–which is precisely the point. The religious other will be different if you’re a conservative Jew or a Shia Muslim. Paradoxes abound. For example, it was Muslim students who first led me to rediscover my Christian identity.

(Learn more about what Muslims believe at Patheos.com.)

I was to lecture on “Christian views of the human person” at the University of Yogyakarta in Indonesia. In the midst of a deep crisis of faith, I’d prepared a very cerebral talk, keeping my own feelings and doubts well hidden. But as I stood up before those 300 intelligent, open, and interested Muslim students, it was suddenly clear: I am not a Muslim, Jew, or Hindu. I associate myself with a specific teacher and set of scriptures, and with the tradition that they spawned, blemishes and all. I set aside my notes, reminded them that my tradition was responsible for the Crusades that had done such harm to Islam, and apologized for what we had done. My view of humanity, I said, starts from those wrongs, this apology — and the dialogue we’re about to have.

One last example: I’m part of a first-of-its-kind experiment here in Claremont to train Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis, and Muslim imams side by side at the same institution. We help religious leaders deepen their own religious identity through their encounter with leaders in other faiths. What emerges is not a weird, watered-down blend of religions, but men and women of faith who become wise leaders within their own communities, working separately and together to heal the world. This is an unprecedented new world of religious encounter, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out.

Philip Clayton is Ingraham Chair at Claremont School of Theology.

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  • muslim1908

    What an excellent article! As a Muslim, I pray for the day when we all understand that our human rights are only made secure when their human rights are also made secure (whoever we or they are).”O mankind, We created you male and female, and made you into tribes and nations so that you may know one another. Indeed, the most honored in the sight of God is the most righteous of you.”

  • diagasi

    You said you worked “side by side” with Muslim imams. Hmmmmm. Did they draw your attention at any point to Koran 98:7, which says that Christians and Jews “are the vilest of creatures”?

  • averroes1

    this is a truly remarkable article and i salute mr. clayton for the perspicacity of his views. i wish the claremont initiative all the best. christian or jewish readers (or readers of any faith for that matter) should be aware that islam makes it clear that it is the perfect path to God. it equally strongly acknowledges that God had been sending us guidance from the time of prophet adam. that is why, despite our political differences, muslims never make fun of judaism or christianity. it is not coincidental that prophet moses is mentioned more often in the holy quran than the prophet mohammad himself!unlike here in america, where you can turn on the christian channels and hear pastors calling islam evil, cultish etc., you can turn on the most conservative islamic program from the middle east, and you will never hear judaism or christianity or any other major religion mocked at. just like us muslims can learn a lot from the western world, one thing christians can and must learn is to return the respect that islam shows for christianity and judaism.

  • Ken16

    “reminded them that my tradition was responsible for the Crusades that had done such harm to Islam, and apologized for what we had done.”Better you should have studied the actual history, than apologize for a fabrication of nineteenth century Europeans with an axe to grind agianst the church. Islamic armies swept over Christian Syria, Northern Africa, and Mediterranean Islands like Sicily, enslaving or enforcing dhimmitude on any who would not submit to Islam and across the Iberian peninsula, until they were finally stopped by Frankish armies under Charles Martel in what is now France.The Crusades, as commonly delineated, were a series of counterpunches to such previously unchecked expansion, that were initiated by a request from the Roman emperor in Constantinople which was in danger of being overrun by the Turks.Warfare was brutal in that era, and cities that failed to capitulate to a siege prior to the breaching of their walls were exterminated by either side. Those that surrendered were usually granted some terms, except by the Egyptian Mamaluke King, Beibars, whose genuine atrocities dwarf the ones falsely imputed to Christian armies.Muslim depredations continued for several centuries, raiding and enslaving Europeans. The numbers of Europeans captured by Islamic pirates and sold into slavery in Africa was greater than the slave trade from Africa to the Western hemishpere until the seventeenth century, and was finally checked by the British Navy and American navy in the Barbary Wars. Muslim Arabs were the primary brokers in the African slave trade also, purchasing those captured in raids from the neighboring African tribes, maintaining them in unspeakable conditions until they could be sold to European slaveship captains. The last major turning point in the conflict between European Christians and invading Muslim armies was the lifting of the seige of Vienna in 1681, where the Turkish armies were finally driven off.In short, the Crusades were in fact a defensive counterattack to a miltant and expansionist Islam that represent one part of a long history of Islamic aggression agaisnt the west. The Crusades themselves went largely unremarked and unremembered by Islamic historians and leaders until they were rediscoverd and exploited by Muslim radicals in the early part of the twentieth century.Genuine peace and understanding require not that Christians apologize for the Crusades, but that Muslims apologize to Christians for a 1400 years of violence and aggression against the western world.

  • Mortal

    KEN16 beat me to the punch, but I wanted anyway to second what he wrote. The Crusades were A RESPONSE to 400 years of Islamic aggression against Christian peoples. The West has nothing to apologize for, as regards the DEFENSIVE operations, collectively referred to as the Crusades. That’s like asking the Allies to apologize for D-Day!

  • RAVISANKAR46

    EXCEELANT ARTICLE.ONE CAN UNDERSTAND BETTER THE GOOD AND BAD IN ONE’S OWN RELIGION ONLY WHEN THEY RESPECT THE OTHER RELIGION(NO NEED TO ACCEPT ALL THEIR PHILOSOPHIES OR ACTIONS)AND TRY TO KNOW ABOUT IT SINCERELY.SELF RIGHTEOUSNESS(ONLY MY RELIGION TELLS THE TRUTH.OUR GOD IS THE ONLY GOD.OUR WISE MAN IS THE ONLY WISE MAN.OUR PATH IS THE ONLY PATH.ONLY WE GO TO HEAVEN .ALL OTHERS GO TO HELL)WILL NEVER HELP SINCE IT BLINDS ALL REASON AND INTELLECT.IF ANY RELIGION TRIES TO GROW BY DESTROYING THE OTHER RELIGION IT WILL ONLY SPREAD HATRED.WHAT IS NECESSARY IS INTEGRATION OF RELIGIONS WHERE SEVERAL GODS ARE ACCEPTED AND SEVERAL PHILOSOPHIES AND WAYS OF WORSHIP ARE ACCEPTED.SUCH INTEGRATION WILL ENSURE PEACEFUL CO-EXISTANCE.PLEASE READ THE LIFE HISTORY OF ADI SHANKARA WHEREIN HE INTEGRATED HUNDREDS OF RELIGIONS IN INDIA IN SUCH A WAY THAT ALL THESE RELIGIONS EXIST PEACEFULLY WITHIN THE FOLD OF HINDUISM FOR MORE THAN TWO THOUSAND YEARS WITHOUT DESTROYING EACH OTHER.SUCH AN INTEGARTIN WITHIN ABRAHAMIC RELIGIONS AND BETWEEN ABRAHAMIC AND ORIENTAL RELIGIONS WILL ENSURE WOLD PEACE AND PEACEFUL CO-EXISTANCE.

  • icarm

    Thanks Philip,

  • ThomasBaum

    RAVISANKAR46Concerning your post of “July 31, 2010 3:18 AM”.What you are saying is that there is no God and people should believe as you do and everything will be “just fine”, are you not?I have met God, so you are wrong, but it doesn’t matter to me whether or not you believe me.As a matter of fact, the True, Living, Triune, Triumphant God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof.God has a Plan and has had a Plan since before Creation and God’s Plan will come to Fruition.See you and the rest of humanity in the Kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth, which will come with the dawning of the seventh day, of course, the night of the sixth day shall precede it.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • abrahamhab1

    Averos claims:When a well known imam like Abu el Noor al Maqdisi issues a fatwa on the air that it is against the law of Allah for a believer to 1. Greet a non-Muslim 2. Visit him on any occasion 3.Dress like him 4. Speak highly of him 5. Live among non-Muslims except to attend school or do business or spread the faith etc.

  • AGoerner

    I appreciated your article. It is true that if you want to learn about your own beliefs, study them in the context of what others say who do not share them. I am a Christian pastor and have been dialoguing with Muslims for years. I have learned from these discussions just as much about my beliefs as theirs. In fact, the Bible says, ” I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 6, NIV).

  • Nabihah

    please check out

  • elizdelphi

    “One last example: I’m part of a first-of-its-kind experiment here in Claremont to train Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis, and Muslim imams side by side at the same institution.”In practice, this will either instill religious indifferentism (the logically untenable idea that all religions are equally true and good, or at least we should pretend so), or end in irreconcilable conflict (if each religion is forthright about their beliefs).This author says he associates himself with a certain “teacher” by which he may mean Jesus, the only begotten son of God, Word made flesh, the Messiah. But does he believe what Christians believe about who Jesus is, or does he see Jesus as one human “teacher” among others? If so, this would account for his religious indifferentism. Certainly, though, that’s not a Christian belief.Thankfully I am Catholic, our priests have a genuinely Christian education. They learn also about Judaism and Islam, and learn about interreligious relations as well as how to explain the Christian faith to members of these religions, but certainly it would not be appropriate for them to take courses meant to train rabbis or imams.

  • abrahamhab1

    Mr. Clayton asserts:“But are there really only two alternatives? Those of us who study religion in American culture are now seeing the widespread emergence of a third way. It’s the way of difference without exclusion, distinction without hatred, knowledge without fear.” As a reply to the above thesis a Muslim gave a link which serves as a reply to you.Below is an excerpt.Maybe now you can better appreciate who you are dealing with.

  • responder759

    It seems that many responders are completely missing the point of Clayton’s post — as he says in his final paragraph, by truly living the highest aims of their religion, men and women of all faiths can find common ground and work together to confront the evils of this world: hatred, injustice, poverty, and the like. Unfortunately, this is all too rare, as the overriding theme of this comment thread reveals: many men and women of faith seem stuck in an adolescent quest to claim primacy for their particular religious tradition by picking other religions apart. What a waste of time. Clearly, now more than ever, the world needs the kind of inter-religious dialog and wise religious leaders that the Claremont School of Theology aims to turn out.

  • Jihadist

    Mr. Philip Clayton, My very best to you in helping to forge

  • CMVienna

    You’ve been found out. Your cloak has become invisible.

  • jm125

    The author and this article are beyond PC stupid. Interesting that the theology institutions of the secular west are serving as useful idiots for importing islam. These stupid theologist’s will be in for a surprise when islam finally is allowed to dominate the west and their religions share the same fate as christian religions in islami land.

  • ThomasBaum

    responder759You wrote, “Unfortunately, this is all too rare, as the overriding theme of this comment thread reveals: many men and women of faith seem stuck in an adolescent quest to claim primacy for their particular religious tradition by picking other religions apart.”Do you consider it an “adolescent quest” to actually look at the koran and the bible and see very plainly that the god in one and the God in the other are not even close to being one and the same.Considering that one of the meanings of adolescent is: “growing to manhood or womanhood; youthful”, maybe one that is “growing” should actually not be afraid of learning as they are growing.If you read what you wrote, what you are saying is that people that don’t fall into your “line of thinking” are on an “adolescent quest”, wouldn’t this be just another example of an “adolescent quest” on your part? You then wrote, ” Clearly, now more than ever, the world needs the kind of inter-religious dialog and wise religious leaders that the Claremont School of Theology aims to turn out.”I have no idea what the “Claremont School of Theology aims to turn out” but if it is in line with merging “religions” that are totally unmergable, then these are not “wise religious leaders” but political operatives looking to see which way the wind is blowing.Christianity teaches that Jesus Is God-Incarnate and this is TRUE.Islam teaches that Jesus is merely a prophet and a nice guy and that the god of islam not only calls Jesus a liar but claims Jesus as his prophet.Christianity teaches that God is a Trinity and that Jesus Is The Son of God and The Son of Man and Jesus taught us to call God “Our Father” and as we look at the Trinity we call God, (Father, Brother, Guide).The god of islam gets mighty perturbed if anyone calls God a Trinity or refers to God as their Father, as Jesus taught us to do, or to say that Jesus Is God-Incarnate, which Jesus Is.The God of the bible and the god of islam are not the same and all of the “diluting” in the world will not change that fact.As I have said, the True, Living, Triune, Triumphant God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof.Also, God has had a Plan since before creation, part of which includes the Incarnation of God, and God’s Plan is, ultimately, for ALL OF CREATION, which includes ALL OF HUMANITY.See you and the rest of humanity in the Kingdom.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.