Islam and Christianity

May 26, 2009 at 10:09 am (Christianity, God, Islam, personal, reflections on my journey, religious practices)

Don’t worry, I’m not about to attempt a comprehensive comparative analysis of these two faiths in a single post. 🙂 I just wanted to say a few things from a personal perspective that hopefully address the question, “why did I lose my commitment to Christianity?” Not that anyone has asked me this question, but I felt as if someone might after the last couple of posts.

In a nutshell, the answer is that there was no good reason, but perhaps there’d been no good reason for the commitment in the first place.

I went through some disappointments. A lot of what I’d taken on board from sermons and books turned out to be wrong. There is a lot of what I now call “cause-and-effect theology” in radical Christianity. It goes along the lines of, “if we do X, God will do Y” and for the life of me I don’t know what they base their predictions of God’s behaviour on. Because of my lifelong spiritual hunger, I guess, I swallowed it all up, gripped by the idea that God can intervene in our lives in spectacular ways. Eventually I saw it for the smoke and mirrors it probably was.

But does that mean that the fundamentals of Christianity as stated in the New Testament are automatically untrue? No, of course not, and I never intended to stop being a Christian even when I first took a hiatus from church. Does it mean that my decision to date and then marry a Muslim was rational and sensible? No! I have never made a reasonable relationship decision, and this was certainly a pretty rash move on paper.

When you are steeped in a particular mindset such as a religion, opening your mind and learning about something else can be scary. To be honest, I’m not even sure whether it’s always beneficial to do so. I would like to think ideally that every religious person has thought it all through and considered alternative perspectives, but realistically, many choose the nearest or most convenient path to God without giving it much cross-examination. I’m inclined to think that sometimes it’s actually better for them to do that than to confuse themselves with endless questions.

But in my case, it so happened that I opened my mind and learnt about something else. How it happened may not have been admirable. By lacking dedication to my faith. Melting when the heat was on. Chucking it all in, then trying to justify it to myself later. But this is perhaps what happens when you have been over-zealous and naive. Perhaps that initial bad decision sowed the seeds of all of it. In any case, it happened… and I am happy it did, on balance.

And I haven’t ruled out Christianity yet. I’ve got a much clearer view of it now than before. Aside from the divinity of Jesus, I don’t see any really significant theological differences between it and Islam. Even the “saved by grace” thing has parallels, just without the human sacrifice element. I suppose I am coming towards the idea that perhaps it doesn’t really matter what religion you belong to. Perhaps it is all the same journey of faith with all the same perils and pitfalls.

I do think most of the differences between faiths and faith groups are about implementation. And this is where Islam is one up for me. I’ve already said that I like the ritual element. I generally find the approach to worship and to morality much more practical and sensible. Actually it makes Christianity look completely bonkers: drinking, but only in moderation; dating, but no sex; and the expectation of complete mental self-control?

I guess it all boils down to two tasks:

  • working out what I think was the nature of Jesus and Muhammad
  • taking the long road towards a mature faith, whatever religion (or none!) I settle on.
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18 Comments

  1. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    Interesting post 🙂 You’re a really good writer mashallah.
    I think it’s a good idea to take a break from religion if you feel it’s not working out, just so you can look at it from the outside. It doesn’t mean you’re not a Christian anymore, it’s just something to refresh your faith and we all need that from time to time.
    Finding out about Jesus and Muhammad sounds like a great idea, since you will see how amazing these two men were. I recommend anything written by Karen Armstrong, especially her biography on Muhammad, which I loved.
    What you’re going through sounds very familiar, since I went through it 2 years ago. But then suddenly I felt emotionally that I wanted to start practicing Islam, and that’s what did it for me: a feeling. Not the books I read or people I talked to. Sometimes religion isn’t only about logic, but also about feelings.

  2. Sarah said,

    Thanks for your comment, Sara.
    I don’t really feel bad anymore for taking a break from church (it’s been a rather long break lol). It wouldn’t have happened if me and that way of being religious were a perfect fit. Only a fool would ignore problems and not ask any questions.
    I feel as if I’ve been given the chance to work out what I believe from scratch, and that’s great, but difficult. And long. Karen Armstrong is on my reading list. 🙂
    I know what you mean about feelings overriding logic in the end. I feel that way too and I have to balance that against my need to work everything out rationally from a detached place. At the moment it’s Islam that’s inspiring me more. I have a hard time seeing myself going to church again. I need to make sure I pick a direction I’m going to stick with though and not flip-flop around my whole life! We’ll see what happens.

  3. Jasmine said,

    Why only the two religions? There are so many beautiful religions out there! Jasmine x

  4. Sarah said,

    Jasmine, that’s true… and I do think there is wisdom and truth in all the others too. I read a bit about Sikhism once and it seemed really amazing. I’ve tried mindfulness which comes from Buddhism.
    I guess my focusing on these two is a matter of (1) exposure to them (2) they are part of the same long tradition arguably (3) I am confused enough with just these two so I don’t know how much more I want to put into the mix!
    I think maybe I could draw inspiration from many faiths. But people always want you to define yourself. And sometimes it’s just nice to belong to something. I’m not sure I could ever again believe that there is only one way to God though. Hmmm… I reckon that needs a post in its own right.

    • Jasmine said,

      For sure it deserves a post. I think all religions are valid and good for the world, after all, our Prophets were all in certain places, speaking in different circumstances, in different language, culture, society, time: who’s to say they are not ALL divinely inspired and good for the world?

  5. Sarah said,

    Jasmine, I definitely sympathise with that view. The difficulty is that religions often claim to be the only way. For example you have to believe in Christ to be saved; or Muhammad was the last prophet so something like Sikhism is automatically false… I think the only way you can believe in all religions is to see no religion as being 100% true. But “divinely inspired”.
    And maybe that’s the most rational view. Yet since I don’t trust myself to mix and match and create my own custom religious practice, such a view would keep me in limbo spiritually. So I am balancing a need to be rational with a need to practise something.

  6. Lisa said,

    Hi Sarah I’m finally here. Sorry for the long delay.

    I was wondering if your university studies might have led you away from Christianity to an extent. I know that professors I had were often pretty liberal, and I wonder what effect that might have had. I started looking at religion more logically and less on blind faith.

    I think you are so right about there not being much of a commitment in the first place. I’m not sure what denomination you came from, but as a Lutheran, I was around a dying breed. Many worshipers were much older, and we had a brain freeze, and not enough youth to fill the gaps. Our population was dwindling. Lutherans don’t believe in missions, so there was little besides water parks and bowling for the youth.

    Also, fortunately as a Christian there was zero compulsion. It made it easier to look around at other religions, and do so legally without much judgement. It is both a benefit but also the downfall of the religion.

    I often wonder what life would be like had I walke Heather’s path as you know. Like you, I don’t think it would have been nearly as much fun or lesson-teaching.

    Would you trade sweetie? I used to think I would, but I like that life is never boring with these crazy husbands.

    I think you should look at the Prophet from all sides. Certainly read Karen Armstrong, as Cairo said. But, also look at him as possibly not the Final Messenger. You have this wonderful time allotted and should make a judgement based on all sides. I love you so much and no matter what I’m here.

    PS-I’m with Jasmine. Srinivas and Hinduism is so interesting too 🙂

  7. Sarah said,

    Hi Lisa, no worries about commenting! I know you have a lot of folks to catch up with!
    The only thing that led me away from practising Christianity as I had done was hitting the ground with a bump and realising I’d been too uncritical about what I’d taken on board. Honestly I was at my most devout as a physics student! There was just something about being “different” that I always enjoyed. 🙂 And the church I went to at uni was pentecostal so it wasn’t unexciting.
    I don’t think compulsion is good, but it’s interesting to wonder what would have happened if someone had forcibly prevented me marrying outside the Christian faith. Would my faith have recovered? Would I be better off? My gut feeling is there’s not much difference either way. Either way it’s up to me to mature spiritually. I just might have given myself a lot more thinking to do this way. 🙂
    I know you’re going through a time of questioning too and I hope we can help each other find our way!

  8. Jasmine said,

    In response to having to belive in Christ to be saved etc – I have often thought this is a language issue and how we understand things throgh language. For example: when I say to my mum or dad “please believe in me” or “why don’t you believe in me?”- I am not saying: “believe in my existence” or “believe in me and no one else” – I mean: “trust me” and “trust that I am tellig the truth, or trust that I am good”. So I think when people say: “believe in Christ” – I think what they mean is “trust” – and so all oft he religions ask us to trust the message, and trust the messenger, rather than to abandon all other forms of knowledge. Like when we say: “belief in love” or “believe in forgiveness” – my take is around language and how much meaning is lost through use of collquialism, translation, location and context. I worry when people take things literally. (Did I mention my final year dissertation was on language?!) When we are told to forsake other belief systems for example – could we not consider that in THAT time and in THAT place the other systems were false – but yet somewhere in far East Asia a while different array of factors were at work, leading to a different array of expressions of the same point?

    Jesus I find very believable because he spoke in parable and metaphor – which are expressions that make sense forever and ever no matter who you are (“let he without sin cast the first stone” for example, and “the health of the tree is judged by the fruit it produces” and similar things) whereas those “lessons” that do not transcend time and space I find significantly less “divine” because they rely too heavily on the literal expression – an form of expression that is more vulnerable to messaging than anything else! The Buddhists have the same and similar metaphors: “when you care for a tree, do you water the leaves or the root? Approach the root of problems and not the result” and so on.

    I think any text which connects to you in a way which makes its understanding and application very easy for you, and takes that message directly to a place where it softens, enlightens, and inspires to be good: is divine. And so anyone is capable of being divinely inspired because angels whisper to us all of the time. And those things that are so vulnerable to interpretation and so literal and so able to take people in comletely the wrong direction (by inspiring abuse, violence and other wrongs) is from a human being.

    The strength of methphor in revelation means that you can’t mess with the words or add stuff or the message disappears – so its more difficult to interfere with. So I, personally, find it hard to trust vulnerable messages: God, after all, the all knowing, the all wise would surely know this information and where it will lead to. Why would he make understanding his instructions hard?

    Clarity is also important. I mean, the 10 commandments are as clear as day arent they? No mess there. But in some systems (and I do use the word “system” on purpose here and not the word “religion”) the essentials are all over the place! Why? Because the message is so vulnerable. And God, by my understanding, is not vulnerable. Why would his messages be?

  9. Sarah said,

    Wow – what a lot to think about!

    I think God’s messages become vulnerable when they are expressed and handled by humans. I agree Jesus was a very gifted teacher, he spoke to multitudes of “ordinary” people so it was crucial that he find an intuitive manner of expression in order to get the message across.

    There are nuggets of clarity such as the 10 commandments in most religions but there is also a whole spaghetti of doctrines. I don’t find the New Testament as a whole to be very clear, and your point about it being ambiguous what “belief” really means seems to concur with this. Islam’s texts were compiled in a fairly disorganised way reflecting a fairly disorganised society at that time, and there are issues with hadith authenticity etc. But generally I find Islam’s message overall simpler than New Testament Christianity (but not necessarily than the teachings of Jesus).

    I admire your “personal” approach to religion (as opposed to “organised” religion). I have wondered before about whether off-the-cuff morality or set-in-stone morality is more effective. I think both seem to be effective in some people and ineffective in others. I have always tended to think in terms of subscribing to some system, and since it didn’t really work out before, perhaps I should resist this tendency.

    Thanks for the stimulating comments Jasmine. I’ve got a few more post ideas out of this discussion!

  10. Lisa said,

    I hope we can as well. My attitude hasn’t fully changed 100% about Islam. I have the same questions that you have, and the ones that started my blog in many ways.

    I also think there wouldn’t have been much difference either way. Had I stuck to Christianity and married within, I’d still be questioning everything. It is within us, but it’s hard to find someone who knows how to help us conquer it.

    I have gotten past some of the need to be different though. I think at 30 we are veering closer to just being.

    The need to be different now seems to be an insatiable desire to get a master’s and PHD for me. And I think that’s a good thing, much like your physics.

    In fact, I keep asking myself Sarah why I didn’t think of something like education in the first place? Why did I have to be different religiously? Why couldn’t I have instead propelled myself to be the only female astronaut from Austin? Well i’m not a Leo which NASA really prefers because they’re strong personalities, but you get my point….

    Love you and thank you for helping me find my way and be more transparent Sarah. I truly am grateful.

  11. Lisa said,

    PS- I am LOVING this blog. I think it’s th best out there!

  12. Sarah said,

    Lisa, feel free to be transparent – it seems to be a good thing to do! And no matter which way your thoughts go regarding religion, I’ll support you Lisa.

    You know, I still feel some of that desire to be different, mostly when I feel rejected by those around me. At times like that I revel in thoughts of turning to Islam. I suppose because that way I’m removing myself from the group rather than them rejecting me. Of course this is no reason to join a religion, and I would never allow myself to do it on that basis! But it’s something I’m aware of and I have to watch. I’m reminded of the Jewel lyric: “and you try to find yourself – in the abstractions of religion, and the cruelty of everyone else”. It’s a temptation.

    But to “be different” through education – there’s no harm in that, and it would be really amazing to go to grad school. Great idea! What would you think of studying? Biology again?

    Do you wish in a way that you had never gotten into religion? Do you think you could happily be non-religious, or is there a spiritual need that religion fulfils for you? I think for me the attraction towards religion has always been that it inspires me to be clean-living which feels better and more wholesome. The connection with God part I’ve always struggled with, but it was there as a Christian and however angst-ridden that part may have been, I miss it.

  13. Jasmine said,

    I know your question was posed to Lisa, but I can’t help but comment here! I was very relieved to come out of hardcore Islam. I have to note here that it was HARDCORE, and not “normal” Islamic practice. I felt like I lost my whole self. Being covered from head to toe make me feel like I was losing my mind, and I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror. Having to be a submissive female also didn’t fit with me at all – not at ALL. I’m just not made that way. Walking behind men, being segregated, and being with only females because I had to made me suffer. We don’t realise the impact that our appearance makes on our psyche – but if you look into it, how we look is very much an expression of who we are. And being quiet all of the time and always looking to the floor had a very negative impact as well . These are the actions of people with social anxiety problems, and here I was teaching my brain to do them automatically. The experience made me feel like I was in a concentration camp: ears and eyes closed, in uniform all day and all night long, wake early morning: wash pray – very very routined and strict. And then of course the feeling that every thought or feeling you have is sinful also had a very negative affect. Once I took off the garb, it took me a long time to be back to normal. My relationship with Islam also took a major hit during that period. I think the difference for me was that I was in an all-male environment, teaching at an all male school – and so what I was exposed to as the only female was quite tough for me to swallow – what they taught about women, what they learned about women, how they saw the female behaviour and way of being…all of that stuff hit my faith in the Islamic ways quite hard.
    However through education, learning and healing I have been able to seperate my personal experience from the overall ethos and intention of the religion and see them as two seperate things. I have also taken time to study other religions and ethos’s to answer my own questions about faith and practice. I find my belief that all faiths and beliefs are equal, and that only God knows who truly endeavours to be good and not and so we cannot expect to be able to identify people ourselves. And I also believe that we don’t really need to subscribe to only one – because in doing so we seperate ourselves and seperation leads to conflict, conflict leads to war and war is not from a good place. I think all revealed books of God are allegories of the human mind, emotions and thoughts. Each character is a symbol of something, each landscape a description of the state of the self, and God is also a word used to define something that we will never understand. This is why I am trying to stop calling God “him” – because “him” has definitions and connotations that scramble my understanding.

    I could talk about this forever Sarah! I’ll stop there ;0) Jasmine

  14. Sarah said,

    Jasmine – thanks for sharing this! I’m amazed how many people have been hardcore religious, including myself I suppose (as hardcore as Christianity gets 🙂 ). Now that I know this, I can see that your faith has really matured. That is particularly admirable after such a negative experience with religion. A lot of people start by going through a zealous period, hit bumps in the road, and then struggle to find a way forwards. I am still caught between wanting to be somewhat hardcore and wanting to be free-thinking or something. Neither really satisfies me and so I am caught in limbo.
    “God is also a word used to define something that we will never understand.” This is so true – I think hardcore interpretations of religion oversimplify God so much to the point where people think they have God sussed. It’s braver just to say “I don’t know” sometimes.

  15. Lisa said,

    I feel like I’m just afraid to not be spiritual. But mostly because of the selfish reasons of ending up in hellfire, not to please God or be a good person. I think Sarah, that I would want to continue with biology absolutely. I miss it everyday! Love you so much!

    • Sarah said,

      Hmm. Maybe you need to forget about hellfire and get to know God. And if you work out how to do that, let me know. 😉
      I missed science too, and I love being back in it, even though I have my ups and downs with it. Go for it girl!

  16. Achelois said,

    I see progression – how you went there and what happened. It is actually more fun reading it in retrospect!

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