Guessing Rather Than Talking


Today I got a call asking my opinion about a missionary using the term “Isa al Masih.”  The official concern relayed to me was that the missionary was using the Arabic term for Jesus Christ. The issue was not that the term is Arabic, but rather that Isa al Masih is a term that ties to a Quranic depiction of Jesus rather than a Biblical depiction. From that understanding, although the Quranic and Biblical terms point to the same character, perhaps it is wrong to say that the terms are equivalent.

Of course this is nothing new. Are Yahweh, God, and Allah the same or not? All answers are inadequate. In a sense the answer is Yes. All three point to an Abrahamic understanding of the God of Heaven and Earth. In a sense the answer is No. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic understandings of God do differ considerably. If the descriptions are different, how can one say they are the same?

For me, the best answers are “No but” and “Yes but.” A Christian might say, “No, but we are seeking to worship the same God,” or perhaps “Yes, but we don’t all necessarily know the God we worship.” The latter is suggested in Jesus’s  response to the woman at the well in John chapter 4.

I would argue that “Yes But” or “No But” also works for Jesus. Both Isa al Masih and Jesus Christ are terms that seek to reference Yeshua of Nazareth. But the terms have wildly different interpretations of who he truly is.  One can say No they are too different… but both terms seek to discover the Jesus who is.

But… do two people mean EXACTLY the same thing, ever? No. We are always translating our thoughts, inadequately, whether we are talking to another of a different language or worldview… or same.

So if one is talking about Jesus the Messiah to one with an Islamic worldview… the closest term is “Isa al Masih.” The term is inadequate but is still adequate and necessary as a starting point for dialogue.

On this first point then, I believe the missionary used a perfectly fine term.  Yet I wonder if this wasn’t the key issue. The pastor(s) concerned may not have an issue with the term itself.

The chief concern may be motivation… at least as it is guessed by others. A religion is not only a body of beliefs, but a social construct. The language we use and the actions we do (and do not do) reinforce these social bonds.

Conflicts are rarely about language we use or actions we do. Conflicts tend to spring from what they guess motivates differences, not the differences themselves.

One sees this in many situations— religious or otherwise. I have known Christians who came from non-Christian settings. For example, I have known Christians from a Muslim background. They did not eat pork and they would get some level of grief from Christians. Why? It is not because Christians must eat pork. Christians have freedom. But there is often pressure to conform to “Christian culture.” Note… I live in the Philippines where eating pork is deeply ingrained in the culture.

Some Christians, upon discovering that a fellow Christian doesn’t eat pork start asking to themselves, “If ______ is one of us, why does ______ not act like us.” I heard some joke that one such Muslim background believer must be a “secret Muslim.” And maybe they were not joking. I have had people question who I ‘really’ am because I worship differently or vote differently. We know that only God can see the heart… but we tend to think that we can as well sometimes.

Perhaps some heard the missionary talk about Isa al Masih and instead of thinking “Oh the missionary contextualizes Christ to her place of ministry” they think “Maybe the missionary is getting confused in his beliefs— maybe he is not one of us.”

The answer is simple… ask. If language exists in Yes But and No But, rather than Yes or No, and we cannot read minds and hearts, we need feedback. We need dialogue.

Of course I am guessing myself. The one I talked to just had questions only. I cannot read the hearts and minds of the people involved. I have to remember to dialogue… to seek feedback.

Dialogue in Diversity

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