Monday, 16 March 2015

The Diverse God in Islam and Christianity

British artist Shahida Ahmed has created a beautiful piece of work entitled Oneness:

Yet they come together to form - as the piece's title suggests - a beautiful and harmonious whole.

God's oneness, according to Ahmed's work, includes a level of inner complexity; he can have ninety-nine distinct names (or qualities) and yet they can all hang together as a seamless whole.

Interestingly, however, a common Muslim point of contention with Christianity is the latter's understanding of God as Trinity.

Trinity is the idea that the one indivisible God has variety within him.

He is one God. But that one God is also three 'persons', each possessing their own mind, will, and other distinctive characteristics.

It is not, in Christianity, simply that God loves diversity or desires relationship.

Instead he is diverse and he is a set of relationships.

He is, as Ahmed suggests in her artwork, internally complex yet perfectly harmonious.

Richard Shumack, in his excellent The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity, points out that Muslim philosophers have - for centuries - struggled to reconcile their insistance on God's absolute oneness with the rich description provided by the ninety-nine names.

Yet the difficulty of bringing the two together has not compelled them to jettison either one of these key Islamic teachings.

Perhaps, for those of us seeking to present the Christian understanding of God in contexts where Islam has a prominent voice, a piece of artwork like Ahmed's Oneness can provide us with a helpful means of conveying how Trinity and Monotheism sit comfortably together.

Ahmed, interestingly, says of her sculpture that "every piece of clay has its own characteristics, just like humanity."

In other words: She sees the diversity of humanity as having its grounds in the nature of God.

This is actually closer to a Christian understanding of God and humanity than an Islamic one.

In Christian theology, creation is simply an overflow of what God has always been doing: The eternally diverse-yet-harmonious relational community of the Trinity brings into being the similarly diverse-yet-harmonious relational community of humanity.

In Islamic theology, by contrast, God's absolute oneness means that he has no relationships of any kind until the moment of creation.

Interacting with others and dealing with diversity among persons therefore only begins for God when he makes something other than himself.

Interpersonal variety, relationship - even love - are not intrinsic to his nature in the same way as they are in a Trinitarian understanding of God.

Perhaps they exist as potentialities.

But they cannot be a reality if all that exists is a God who is only one solitary person.

Ahmed's work, then, both removes conversational barriers between Christians and also brings our discussions to a more profound level where we can begin engaging more deeply with the implications of our respective understandings of God.

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