Updated: 12 Jan 2013
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
Glory and Praise to Our God
Part 1: The perspectives
The roots of Judaism can be traced to the covenants God made with Abraham and Moses. Abraham's covenant established Judaism first and foremost as the Hebrew nation and people. "Because Abraham answers [God's] call, he ceases to be anonymous. He becomes the first Hebrew, the first of a 'chosen people.'" (Smith 284) Later, Moses' covenant established Judaism as a fledgling religion. Like Abraham, Moses was also chosen by God, but he played quite a different role. As God's tool, he helped lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Once free, "they were brought to an understanding of God that was head and shoulders above that of their neighbors, and deduced from it standards of morality and justice that still challenge the world." (Smith 308) These standards of morality and justice, the Ten Commandments, established God's everlasting covenant with the Jewish people and constituted the beginnings of Jewish written law. Over the centuries, this law was eventually compiled into The Torah (the laws of God as dictated to Moses), and the The Talmud (rabbinic discussions of Jewish law, traditions, customs, and ceremonies). (Fishbane in Earhart 481)
Throughout early Jewish history, God made His presence known to the Israelites through a series of theophanies, or instances in which the sacred (God) becomes incarnate in the profane (the physical world). Examples of Jewish theophanies can be found in Jeremiah 1, Isaiah 6 (Smith 291), and the Lord's calling of Samuel in Samuel 3. God's intimate involvement in the lives of the Israelites is further proof that the Jews are indeed God's chosen people. History was "of towering significance" to the Jews (Smith 283), because of 1) God's direct involvement in their lives in times of need and 2) God's calling of the Jews to be His chosen people (Smith 284). Cherishing Judaism's history through study and rituals is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish.
What unites most Jews is not what they believe, but the various rituals in which they participate. A tie that binds Jews is the traditional keeping of the covenants of Abraham and Moses. For instance, Orthoprax (literally "correct practice" (Module 4: "Religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam")) Jews typically circumcise their infant boys in keeping with God's covenant to Abraham: "Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you." (Genesis 17:10b-11) Orthoprax Jews commemorate God's covenant to Moses by celebrating the seder at Passover. The seder is a meal first eaten by the Israelites just before escaping from slavery in Egypt. Passover refers to God's "passing over" and sparing the Jews in captivity and instead striking down the first-born sons of Egypt.
Traditionalist Jews are very particular about what they consume, in keeping with the original laws of Moses. Diet restrictions include abstinence from pig, camel, and other "unclean" land animals. A clean animal is one "…that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud." (Leviticus 11:3) The only seafood allowed is creatures with both "fins and scales." (Leviticus 11:9) Traditionalist Jews are also particular about their attire. Tefillin (or phylacteries) are worn on the foreheads and left arms to remind the observant Jew of God's law. (Fishbane in Earhart 434) Tefillin are small boxes filled with scripture verses from the Torah or Talmud. These boxes are affixed with leather straps to the foreheads (at the hairlines) and the left arms (level with the hearts) during prayer and meditation. Observant Jews also wear prayer shawls during morning prayers "as a means of facilitating private devotion and concentration." (434) These prayer shawls are worn by Jews during weddings and can be draped over bodies at funerals.
Unlike religions centered on the self, such as Buddhism and to some extent, Confucianism, the lifeblood and structure of Christianity is centered in the church. This "lifeblood" is the mystical body of Christ – Christ's spiritual presence within the community. Without this spiritual presence, the church community would be weak and ineffective: "Human members constituted [the Church], but it was powered by Christ's – which is to say God's presence within it…" (Smith 336) A Christian society, therefore, is dependent not only on others for support, but on Christ, who graces the Christian community. In the years immediately following Christ's death and resurrection, the word "church" was known as a body of believers, and did not yet connote a physical worship space. Over time, the newer definition gained prominence. According to Christ, His church can be "wherever two or three are gathered in my name…" (Matthew 18:19) Towering Gothic cathedrals, thriving, modern worship spaces, one-room churches, wedding chapels, town halls, someone's basement, or lake-side on Easter morning are all valid places of worship because therein exists the mystical body of Christ.
Christian denominations place varying degrees of emphasis on social classes and hierarchy. The Quaker church has very little hierarchical structure as they believe the Holy Spirit can move any believer to speak, preach, or pray during a meeting. This calling is not limited to ordained ministers, but to essentially any Quaker member (Smart 123). Contrast this informality with the strict social structure of the Catholic Church: catechumens, laypeople (parishioners), sacristans, deacons, priests, pastors, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and the pope. Each rung of the leadership ladder demands greater responsibility to one's community and to God.
The monolithic nature of the Catholic Church has been attributed as a influential voice in American society in general. "American Catholicism … is not merely institutionalized in a certain way: There is a broader significance that religion has in American society." (Smart 136) Christian denominations influence society and are, in turn, influenced by it. Churches help to sway elections and political policy, and can even make or break recording artists and Hollywood blockbusters. Society likewise influences the Church: once-taboo behaviors such as divorce, interracial marriage, and inter-religious marriage are now commonplace and frequently receive the church's blessing. The Second Vatican Council exemplifies both secular societal and inter-denominational influences on the Catholic Church. The Council was borne out of a perceived need to liberalize many of its rituals, practices, and stances, while also appealing to the growing ecumenical movement; i.e. a movement "promoting a worldwide Christian unity or cooperation." (Frankiel in Earhart 599) Nevertheless, a chasm still exists between Protestants and Catholics – mostly because of differences in emphasis and theology.
Christianity is a stringent religion, that is, is focuses on "correct belief" and adherence to doctrine more than it does "correct practice". Christianity has traditionally been more orthodox than orthoprax. That is, it is more concerned with creeds and theologies than it is with actions and rituals. (Module 4: "Religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam")
The nature of the God of Christianity can be characterized as intimate and personal. The Christian ideal of God is far different from, say, the gods of Hinduism, Shinto, or Taoism. Many Protestant denominations emphasize having a "personal relationship with Christ"; indeed, God's personification is evidenced in the hymns "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "In the Garden" ("He walks with me and He talks with me and tells me I am His own…") The personification, and likewise, the incarnation of the Christian deity sheds some light on the nature of God's divinity. (Smith 340-41) The divinity of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are stated in any one of the various creeds, or statements of belief. For example, the Nicene Creed states that "We believe in one God the Father the Almighty … And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God … And in the Holy Ghost [Spirit], the Lord, the Giver of life…" (Frankiel in Earhart 540) This statement underscores a fundamental tenant of Christian doctrine – the Holy Trinity. The paradox of the Trinity is the concept of one God existing in three forms, yet still remaining one entity. Christ's human incarnation, and the concept of the Trinity are rejected by Muslims, who are uncomfortable with an anthropomorphic God. Argues Huston Smith, "The Koran draws the line at the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity … seeing these as inventions that blur the Divine/human distinction." (236) Christians believe that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. A hard doctrine to fathom; from an outsider's perspective it could appear blurry.
Muslims consider Islam to be a way of life – not just something one does privately, or on Fridays. They make no distinction between politics and religion. Islam calls Muslims "…to establish a specific kind of social order. Islam joins faith to politics, religion to society inseparably." (Smith 249) For instance, many majority-Islam countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are classified as theocratic states and use the Koran for their official constitutions. (Smart 139) Their laws are derived exclusively from Islam's holy texts, including the hadith. Huston Smith admits that the Koran, "[i]n addition to being a spiritual guide … is a legal compendium." (249) Islamic states established the Koran in a legal sense because of its explicit nature in spelling out ideals of human conduct and law.
The American concept of a "wall of separation" between church and state is foreign to them, for their church is their state. Religious freedom in Islamic states is sadly not widely in place, for deviation from Islam logically means deviation from the law. In other countries where Islam is a minority religion, it has, however, gained critical mass. Religious acceptance is prevalent and "the atmosphere of whole neighborhoods is being palpably transformed." (Denny in Earhart 703) Islam is making social and political headway in west European countries such as England and France that were once staunchly Anglican and Catholic, respectively. (703)
Part 2: The concepts
Islam and Judaism in terms of Rudolph Otto's concepts of the "Holy".
Islam and Judaism are two faiths that can trace their roots to experiences of the Holy by ordinary people. Rudolph Otto defined the "Holy" as "what you (as a religious person) would experience of an Otherness beyond self that impinges on the context of your life." (White) Otto frequently characterized the "Holy" as being mystereium tremendum et fascinans or a "tremendous and fascinating mystery." (White) Moses' first encounter with God, his mysterium fascinans, occurred on Mount Horeb (also known as Mount Sinai). The angel of God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and commanded him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. (Exodus 3:10) In the enigma of the burning bush, God chose to be subtle and waited for Moses to approach the fire before speaking. The prophet Elijah had a similar experience of the mystereium tremendum on Mount Horeb. I quote at length:
The Lord said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his head and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave." (I Kings 19:11-13a)
Elijah's encounter with the "Holy" contains two truths: One, a theophany doesn't need to be bombastic to be effective. Two, we shouldn't be quick to mischaracterize sensational events as being encounters with the "Holy". God's influence is more likely to be felt within the context of a given event, as opposed to overwhelming an event. Revelations come when one is in a receptive posture, and listens for God's voice.
Islam's roots can be traced to a series of mystereium tremendum et fascinans experienced by God's prophet, Muhammad. In concert with Moses and Elijah, Muhammad encounters God on a mountain; Smith notes that God's Book (the Koran) "…was opened to a ready soul" (225) — one ready to hear the word of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to Muhammad and commanded him to proclaim the word of God, for Muhammad was the "appointed one." (Smith 225) The physical domineering the angel of the Lord imposed on Muhammad is reminiscent of God wrestling with Abraham's grandson Jacob in Genesis 32. Both episodes involve a "struggle" between men and physical incarnations of God. Muhammad's encounter is more significant because it signaled the beginning of a series of revelations from God, of which were derived the words of the Koran. Jacob's encounter, however, is the occasion in which God gives Jacob the name "Israel", and thus his progeny are called "Israelites". Jesus was born of the Tribe of Judah, with Judah being one of Jacob's twelve sons. (see Luke 3:33; Genesis 35:23-26)
Christianity and Islam in terms of van der Leeuw's concepts of the Religious Subject, Object, Impression, and Expression.
To Muslims, the Koran is holy, but in a way that is entirely different from the way most Christians regard the Bible as being holy. The difference can be found by using the rubric of van der Leeuw's "Religious Subject and Religious Object." (White) The Koran becomes a religious object because its words are not just inspired by God, but are the actual, untranslated words of God Himself. "If Christ is God incarnate, the Koran is God inlibriate." (Smith 232) In other words, the Koran is regarded as God much in the same way that John spoke of Christ as "the Word" in John 1:14: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…" Likewise, God became Word in the Koran, and transforms the book into a religious object. (Smith 232) Christians treat their Bible with due respect, but Muslims go a step further and regard any defilement of the Koran as an assault on God.
Christianity and Judaism in terms of M. Eliade's concepts of Sacred Space, Sacred Time, and hierophany.
The Transfiguration of Christ, as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, denotes a hierophany that was experienced by Jesus and three of his disciples. Like the three experiences of the "Holy" previously mentioned, this particular hierophany occurred on a mountain top. Jesus led Peter, James, and John to a high mountain, and there He was transfigured. "His clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus." (Mark 9:3-4) Peter immediately recognized the significance of the event and suggested that the site be commemorated as a Sacred Space: "Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah" (v. 5) Eliade uses the term "transfigured" to describe a Sacred Space. (White) It is more than appropriate, for the combination of the physical Transfiguration of Christ with the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and the voice of God thundering down from the clouds make for the ultimate hierophanic experience. The Transfiguration site has not retained its status of Sacred Space, which is intriguing.
In comparison, Judaism offers a rich array of hierophanies; among them is the Passover immediately preceding the Exodus. The hierophanies of the Exodus show the sheltering, almost motherly aspects of God. One is reminded of the passage from Psalm: "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your rampart." (Psalm 91:4) From the ten plagues to the parting of the Red Sea, and to the manna and water in the desert, one can imagine a God intimately concerned with the survival of the Israelites.
When reading White's excerpts of Mircea Eliade, one gets the impression that Sacred Spaces and Sacred Times are man's own invention and are constructed as a reaction to hierophanies. In the book of Exodus, God prepackages the Sacred Time of Passover even before the first Passover meal was celebrated! "Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought you out of Egypt … Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants." (Exodus 12:17a, 24) The Passover meal (the seder) is commemorated because God made his presence known and brought the Israelites out of slavery. The landmark events of their deliverance lead one to believe that they would have commemorated the Passover even without explicit instruction from God.
- Christianity defined: The stringent religion
- The dual covenants of Judaism
- Seder and the night of deliverance: The defining Jewish ritual
- Hitler, the Jews, and Christianity: His duplicity in public and private
Image is a detail of Ordinary Time Cross, a mural by Kay McCrohan.
Biblical quotes are taken from the New International Version.
Denny, Frederick M. "Islam and the Muslim Community" Religious Traditions of the World: A Journey Through Africa, Mesoamerica, North America, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, China, and Japan. Ed. H. Byron Earhart. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Fishbane, Michael. "Judaism: Revelation and Traditions" Religious Traditions of the World: A Journey Through Africa, Mesoamerica, North America, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, China, and Japan. Ed. H. Byron Earhart. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Frankiel, Sandra Sizer. "Christianity: A Way of Salvation" Religious Traditions of the World: A Journey Through Africa, Mesoamerica, North America, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, China, and Japan. Ed. H. Byron Earhart. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
"Module 4: Religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Commentary" http://tychousa.umuc.edu Accessed 8 Aug 2005.
Smart, Ninian. Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Smith, Huston. The World's Religions. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
White, Charles S.J. "Methodology in the Study of Religion" from "Module 1: Introduction to the Study of Religions" http://tychousa.umuc.edu Accessed 12-13 Aug 2005