Orthodoxy and Islam: A Theological Perspective
From the Fall Edition of Alive in Christ, Published by the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania of the Orthodox Church in America. V. Rev John Kowalczyk Editor
Author: Dr. Harry Boosalis, Professor of Dogmatics at St. Tikhon's Seminary
A proper understanding of Islam is becoming more important with the passing of each year. As the world around us continues to broaden its borders as a ‘global village’ we no longer can afford to remain isolated, ignorant and uninformed about the important religions that make up our new world. Islam is one of the great monotheistic religions of mankind. But even more than a religion, it is also a sociopolitical system that bonds together millions of Muslims regardless of race or nationality. Their unity is built upon faith in the one God and in His Prophet Muhammad. In the nearly fourteen centuries of its existence, Islam has grown and evolved into a unique political force with a distinct culture of its own. It is the most dominant religion in the Middle East. Given its strategic geographical significance on the military map, its geopolitical influence with regard to the world oil supply, and even more so, with the new threat of militant Muslim fundamentalism, we see how extremely important it is, now more than ever, to try to better understand the basic beliefs of Islam.
According to the Dictionary of World Religions, “Islam, from its origin, has been a religious polity. A Muslim, unlike a Jew or Christian, cannot readily separate his spiritual identity from his national identity ... Islamic life is at once religious and political. The mosque and state are not separable; they are complementary expressions of the same, single reality: that Islam applies to all spheres of life. Hence, nationalism, that is Muslim nationalism, will continue to elicit tensions ...”1 Interestingly, that was first published in 1981, exactly twenty years before the tragedy and the terror of September 11th, 2001.
The point to be made is that while the message of Muhammad was, certainly centered on religion, its ultimate aim was social. His goal was not the establishment of a Church, in the Orthodox understanding, as a sacramental body mystically uniting believers to God and to one other. What Muhammad sought to accomplish was an egalitarian society on earth, free from injustice, corruption and the exploitation of the poor and underprivileged. He felt called to promote equality among all men with respect to social, economic and political rights.
Muhammad preached a social ethic that was directly related to and dependent on the worship of the one God. From the perspective of religious history, monotheism provides man and society with one God who is experienced initially as a ‘moral imperative.’2 This is exactly the essence of Muhammad’s message. Man must believe and worship the one God alone, the God who rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior. Obviously, belief in such a God, with a religion shared by all citizens, would certainly contribute to the organization and functioning of a well-ordered society.3
This emphasis on social ethics is important and constitutes a fundamental theological difference between Islam and Orthodoxy. While it would be a mistake to overstress the political and ethical aspects of Islam to the degree that we lose sight of the reality of the religious experiences of Muslim believers, Islam remains nonetheless a religion based predominately on social ethics and moral behavior. By preaching that there is one God and that all men are equal, Muhammad stressed the moral value of each action. In Islam, therefore, morality becomes the ultimate basis of salvation.
This is quite different from the Orthodox Church. Christ came for much more than the establishment of an ethical system that would facilitate the well functioning of society. Yes, the Church does preach and teach ethics and the spiritual significance of moral choices and ethical behavior. But the life in Christ is not about participation in a well-ordered society. The life in Christ, indeed the ‘abundant life’ the Lord promises to His disciples,4 is not about rewards for good behavior. The life in Christ is participation in divine love. This is very important and we will come back to this later, but it is worth repeating once more. The life in Christ is participation in divine love. This is what distinguishes Orthodoxy from Islam.
Here lies the fundamental difference between the mission of Christ and the mission of Muhammad. Christ came to transform human nature and to transfigure the whole of our human being through personal participation in the divine love of the personal God. This patristic teaching on the sanctification of human nature through the uncreated grace of divine love is not found in Islam. Such a teaching, such a unique vision of man, is found only in the Orthodox Church. In Islam, there is no theological foundation for such a teaching, neither is there such a vision of man.
One scholar writes with regard to the limits of Muslim theology, “Muhammad preached an ethic that we might call socialist as a consequence of his worship of the one God. There were no obligatory doctrines about God: indeed, the Koran is highly suspicious of theological speculation ... The Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity seemed prime examples [of such speculation] and, not surprisingly, the Muslims found these notions blasphemous.”5
Aside from these basic theological differences, another very important point we must take into account is that, at this present time in history, there is a great struggle taking place within the Muslim world today. Both on a personal level as well as on a national scale, there is much concern over the threat of modernism from the West.
Many Muslims believe that Western, and in particular American dominance in the cultural, economic and political spheres affecting the Middle East has had a negative effect on Islam. As a result of these westernizing tendencies, there is now a call to go back to traditional values and to adhere to the fundamental principles of Islam. According to the official Guidelines for Dialogue between Christians and Muslims published by the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, “There exist Muslims today who would like to see Islam applied to all parts of public and private life, since they are convinced that the Law revealed in the Koran is in every detail part of the perfect divine will for human society ... In their concern for the strict observance of worship and for the correct Islamic organization of life, they are resolved to see the Law of God applied without compromise. Trying to bring Islam back to its essential foundations (of the Koran, Tradition, and the Law) they would insist on reviving laws, traditions and institutions thought to be outmoded [by contemporary standards]”6
Many present day reform movements are attempting to restore and revitalize Islamic society based on traditional values and more ‘fundamental’ principles. The strength of Islam lies in the fact that “it is not only a religion regulating the spiritual life of the believer, but also an all-embracing way of life governing the totality of the Muslim’s being.”7 These movements are concerned with reinterpreting Islam through the perspective of the puritanical principles of Muhammad. Islamic fundamentalism, as is the case with the fundamentalists of every religion, holds that the only true way of life for real believers is the insistence on a literal interpretation of Scripture and the exact observance of the letter of the Law.
According to Dr. Seyyed Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Islam, Muslim fundamentalism was unheard of before the eighteenth century.8 The rise of fundamentalism, as in all religions, is a reaction, or better yet, an over-reaction to modernism. Western modernism confronted Islam for the first time in the eighteenth century. Dr. Nasr contends that if there were no modernism, then there would be no fundamentalist reaction to it.
When Napoleon invaded Egypt at the close of the eighteenth century, the only Muslims who resisted the new modernist trends were the Sufi mystics. This modernist movement gradually gave way to the severe and extreme reaction that followed. These are the historical roots of Muslim fundamentalism. In the twentieth century, stronger movements arose seeking further reform away from modernism. As the United States grew more and more involved in the politics of the Middle East because of its vital interests in the world oil supply, these fundamentalist resistance movements continued to spread. Many Muslims began to heed the call back to reform and to the fundamentals of true and traditional Islam.
According to Dr. Nasr, this overreaction to modernist movements and the call back to fundamentalism is not unique to Islam. All religions have their own form of fundamentalism, traditionalism and modernism, including Christianity, perhaps even our own Orthodoxy. Does not our own Orthodoxy share in these same types and trends of fundamentalist, traditionalist and modernist interpretations? Is our own Orthodoxy not open to similar overreactions as well?
As we have so clearly learned from the tragic events of September 11th, this concern for upholding the fundamental religious principles of Islam has now turned instead into contempt, zealous resentment and outright hatred toward the West. As the Islamic world enters the dawn of the new century with rising resentment toward Western society, the time to try to appreciate the appeal of this great religion is now come.
The Prophet Muhammad fought for Arab unity by establishing a society based on a shared faith and common religion. This was accomplished by the worship of the one God alone and by the establishment of laws that carried with them divine authority. With such religious laws, Muhammad hoped to unite the scattered and divided Arab people into one nation. The fact that Muhammad’s mission was accomplished in his own lifetime is a living testimony to his unique role in history as the founder of the Arab nation as well as the religion of Islam. The global influence and enormous impact that this one single man had on the history of mankind is indeed remarkable.9
This new religion recognized the universal brotherhood of all Muslims: “First the Arabs of Arabia and later, with the expansion of Islam outside of Arabia, all those who submitted to Allah in Islam were looked upon as rightful members of this vast fraternity.”10 Muhammad made it easy for converts to accept the new religion by keeping its beliefs and practices as simple as possible. By stressing the moral value of each action and by making morality the basis of salvation, only a few principles were laid down that every Muslim was required to believe and to practice. Muhammad knew his audience well. He was able to reduce the essence of the new religion to the believer’s level of comprehension and credibility. This made it easier for the common Arab to accept and follow the new religion.11
It’s interesting to compare Orthodoxy with Islam on this particular point. It seems as if in Islam there is no place for the miraculous, at least not in the same sense as there is in the life of the Orthodox believer. The religion of Islam seems much more ‘credible’ than Orthodoxy, that is to say, it is more ‘believable,’ more ‘plausible’ and easier to accept. The Muslim is not called to ascend the limitations of the human mind through a living faith in something so miraculous as the belief in the Incarnation of the Son of God.
The Orthodox believer, on the other hand, through his personal participation in the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist manifests his personal belief that God became man. The believer’s faith in the miraculous is expressed in his belief in the change of the elements from wine to divine Blood, and from bread to the Lord’s Risen Body. In Islam, however, there is no theological need to express this faith in the ‘miraculous,’ since there is no belief that God became man. Related to this is the fact that while there are indeed Muslim saints,12 there is no place in Islam for a ‘veneration’ of saints, at least not as we know it; neither is there the same kind of veneration for holy icons or holy relics.
Muhammad’s goals were much more simple than that. His primary aim was to indoctrinate and instill in his followers the will to obey and abide by the commandments of the one God. In this way Muhammad united the Arabs, and indeed all Muslims, through a common profession of faith and through their shared religious practices.
The religious and theological teachings of Islam are actually quite simple and easy to remember. They have been conveniently summarized as ‘five basic beliefs’ and ‘five basic practices.’ Belief is only validated through practice. A practicing Muslim is required to follow these five fundamental beliefs and these five basic practices. Both are necessary for one’s faith as a Muslim.
The five beliefs are as follows: 1) the Belief in One God, 2) the Belief in Angels, 3) the Belief in Many Prophets but One Message, 4) the Belief in the Day of Judgment, and 5) the Belief in the Qadar, which means the ‘timeless knowledge of God’ or ‘the pre-knowledge of God’ .13 The Islamic belief in Qadar may be seen as somewhat analogous to the Augustinian and Calvinistic notion of predestination.
The five practices of Islam or, as they are more commonly known, the ‘Five Pillars of Observance’ are the following: 1) The Practice of the Shahadah or Testimony, which is the recitation of the words ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet’; 2) The Practice of Prayer: the general practice is for Muslims to pray five times a day: at dawn, at noon, in the middle of the afternoon, at sunset and at the onset of darkness,14 and always facing Mecca; 3) The Practice of Almsgiving; 4) The Practice of Fasting during the month of Ramadan; and 5) The Practice of Pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. I will highlight two of the more important beliefs mentioned above: the Belief in One God, which relates to Islamic ‘theology’ properly speaking, and the Belief in the Day of Judgment, which addresses themes in Islamic eschatology.
We begin with the first belief, the belief in One God. Islam is based on the belief in One God and submission to Him. The absolute unity of God is the central dogma of Islam. This fundamental belief is expressed in the first pillar of observance or practice, the Shahadah or ‘Testimony’ of one’s faith. The Shahadah or ‘Testimony’ is a simple affirmation of the uniqueness of God. It is repeated daily by devout Muslims at the appointed time of prayer.
The Shahadah, ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet’, has been referred to as the ‘Creed’ of Islam.l5 These are the words a person pronounces when he converts to Islam. “The one prerequisite for becoming a Muslim is to profess the shahadah (or open testimony ... ‘there is no god but Allah [and Muhammad is his Prophet]’ ).16 It is interesting to see how there is no real rite of initiation in Islam per se, as we know it in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It seems as if there is no sacramental act or liturgical action that accompanies and manifests the spiritual reality of becoming Muslim.
Why is this so? This is because in Islam, there is no divine incarnation. In Islam, there is no teaching on the deification of man. In Islam, there is no idea of participation in divine life, neither theologically nor in practice. Islam has no experience of liturgical or sacramental life as we know it because there is not any kind of a conscious and personal participation in divine life. The focus is primarily directed toward the promise of rewards for ethical behavior. For Orthodoxy, man is called to much more than rewards for good behavior. The Orthodox Christian finds the focus of his spiritual life in his participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church. In Islam there is virtually nothing corresponding to this aspect of the life in Christ. “The ritual of Islam centers simply on prayer.”17 Prayer is the primary way of worship, not liturgical and sacramental participation in the life of the Holy Church.
Already we see how much more simplistic Islamic theology is in comparison to Orthodoxy. There is no doctrine of the Holy Trinity, nor is their any idea of an Incarnation of God. The Muslim view of monotheism seems much more restricted than the Orthodox teaching on the Holy Trinity. One very important point that shows the theological divergence between the monotheism as understood in Islam and the Orthodox understanding, is the Muslim overemphasis on God’s unity. This overemphasis is manifested in their monotonous mantra ‘God is One.’ Islam’s overemphasis on God’s unity seems to go against the wisdom of the Church Fathers and their apophatic approach to the mystery of God. By overemphasizing the unity of God and over-stressing that ‘God is One,’ our understanding of God is in fact restricted, because we are actually limiting God to the confines of human reason.
This is why it is more proper to say, in the true apophatic spirit of the Church Fathers, that God is more than One. God is above the concept of unity. God is a mystery that is so far above our limited created nature, that we really cannot apply any human concepts to Him. We cannot even refer to God in any rational categories of human thought. While there is indeed a Muslim teaching that is analogous to the apophatic approach of the Church Fathers,’18 the Islamic understanding remains somewhat different. While the apophatic teaching of the utter ‘unknowability’ of God is certainly found within’ Islam, the Muslim doctrine of the unity of God does not really reflect this truth as does the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
The main message of the Orthodox doctrine of the Holy Trinity is that God is indeed One, yet He is much more than One. God is indeed three divine Persons, yet He is something more than three divine Persons. Our doctrine of the mystery of the Holy Trinity tells us that we can not and we must not limit God through the use of human concepts and terms. God is completely beyond our created nature. The uncreated nature of God transcends the limited abilities of our human brain. Thus, the basic teaching of our doctrine of the Holy Trinity is this We do not know what God is, nor will we ever be able to fully’ comprehend Him. God is a mystery, yet He has indeed revealed Himself to man. God has revealed Himself as three Persons living in the unity of perfect love.
This then is the fundamental truth of the mystery of the Holy Trinity: God is a unity of three Persons living in perfect love. God is love; and love presupposes another Person. The Muslim believes that God is One. The Orthodox Christian goes beyond this God is more than One. God is more than unity. God is above any rational concept. The mystery of the Holy Trinity supersedes the rational limitations of our human mind. God is One, yet He is One in Three.
From an Orthodox perspective, the Muslim overemphasis on the unity of God also seems to leave a deep chasm between God’s uncreated divine nature and man’s created human nature. Of course for the Orthodox Christian, the great divide between God and creation has been bridged for all eternity by virtue of the Incarnation of the Son of God. For the Muslim, however, this great chasm remains. According to one Islamic scholar, “Allah is not identifiable with man, with whom His only connection is the fact He created him.”19
This is in sharp contrast to the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation, where God not only ‘connects’ with His creation, but he indeed ‘identifies’ with man, by personally assuming human nature in the Person of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Such differences show how both religions can proclaim their faith in One God, yet their basic understanding of monotheism remains incompatible.
Not only does Islamic theology seem to depersonalize God, but man’s personal relationship with God is also minimized. God’s relationship with man is seen mainly as one of a Creator to His creature or a Judge to a defendant. God’s relationship with man as a father to a son is not as apparent in Islam, nor is it made manifest as much as it is in Orthodoxy.
Another interesting point to consider is how the lack of an incarnational theology manifests itself in religious art. Mosques rarely contain any religious pictures of people or depictions of historic events. And if there are such depictions, they do not have any liturgical role, nor do they function in the same way as holy icons. From an Orthodox point of view, this cold absence of the many human faces that bring such warmth to the walls of Orthodox Churches simply manifests this ‘depersonalized’ relationship with the Muslim God. In Muslim mosques, the basic type of art is generally geometrical designs and verses quoted from the Koran in Arabic calligraphy.
This lack of an incarnational theology is also expressed in the Islamic understanding of the religious unity among Muslims. One Islamic scholar writes, “In partaking of Islam the Muslim acknowledges his dependence on God, his creator ... and his solidarity with fellow Muslims.”20 The important idea here is ‘solidarity with fellow Muslims.’ Obviously in Islam, as in all religions, there is a kind of connection or bonding that takes place with one’ s ‘fellow Muslims.’ The difference with Orthodoxy lies in the fact that Islam ‘bonds’ one only to fellow Muslims. In the Orthodox Church, the believer is called to ‘union’ with all mankind and indeed with all of creation.
The ‘solidarity’ offered to Muslims through the religion of Islam is not the same thing as the mystical union with God and communion with all mankind such as can be achieved and experienced in the Orthodox Church. Rather, Islam provides man with a more limited concept of ‘unity.’ Islamic ‘unity’ may be perceived more as a social ‘solidarity’ that is achieved basically by human means through commonly shared practices and beliefs. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, provides man with the divine means for mystical communion with God and sacramental unity with all mankind. This is achieved through liturgical and sacramental participation in the life in Christ. In Islam, there is nothing that corresponds to this liturgical and sacramental life. The ritual of Islam centers primarily on prayer.21 In Islam, prayer is the primary way to worship, not corporate liturgical life and sacramental participation.
If one looks closer at the daily prayer ritual required by Muslims, one is immediately struck by the rigid religiosity of the precise times, exact conditions and elaborate washing ritual that accompanies it. A Muslim must perform compulsory prayer five times a day. There are also certain conditions for prayer that are very interesting. One of these conditions for prayer is to be clean bodily.
The rather elaborate washing ritual that generally accompanies Muslim prayer is described by Dr. Riadh EI-Droubie, who is involved in Islamic education in Great Britain and is the author of several books on Islam. He writes, “The ablution is an essential part of prayer. Every Muslim must start in the name of God and wash his hands three times and rinse his mouth three times, then his nostrils three times, followed by washing the arms to the elbow three times, starting with the right hand first, then with moist hands to go over the head, ears and neck, then feet to the ankles three times. During this time of washing a prayer of supplication is said.”22
Another interesting condition for prayer is that there must be a clean place for prayer. According to Dr. El-Droubie, “Muslims can pray in any place provided it is clean.”23 It is interesting to compare this practice of prayer in clean places with the practice of St. Anthony the Great, who retreated inside an empty tomb in order to pray. There are also countless other examples of such saints who likewise pursued prayer in ‘unclean’ places. Dr. El Droubie continues, “[Muslims] can pray on the grass in the park, in an office or factory, on any clean floor ...or in a splendid mosque. When a Muslim travels or goes to a place where he is not sure of finding a clean area, he carries a small prayer rug with him. The rug, according to tradition .. must conform [in itself] to special conditions.”24
It is rather ironic to think that while a Muslim, technically speaking, is ‘free’ to pray in any place, that place must first be clean, he must pray five times a day and preferably at prescribed times, and one’s prayer must be, or at least it normally is, preceded by a precise washing ritual. Whether or not this ritual is always performed in the proper way as outlined above is not the real issue here. The point is that this is the recommended and traditionally prescribed Muslim way to pray.
What is missing here is that sense of freedom and the great variety of ways for pursuing prayer, as is readily seen by reading the lives of Orthodox saints. While there is certainly freedom and flexibility for the Muslim in prayer, as is attested to in the tradition of Sufi mysticism,25 still the general practice of praying five times a day seems overly focused on the rituals and regulations that must accompany it. Everything appears so rigidly set and must be strictly fulfilled. The focus of prayer seems to be on the religious act for its own sake, rather than the personal and existential encounter with the personal God.
Of course for the Orthodox, such an encounter’ is based on one’s sacramental and liturgical life within the Church. In comparison, Islam may appear as a religion of ethics, based on prescribed rules and precise regulations. Yes indeed, there is a rich Muslim mystical tradition that shares many elements with Orthodoxy. The question of which tradition influenced the other is a matter of debate. The point is that even though there are Muslim mystics who might in fact sound Orthodox and may even use similar concepts and terms, still, the overall theological vision of Islam remains restricted to the realm of ethics and religious ritual.
With this in mind, let us move on to eschatology. Another interesting comparison to be made between Orthodoxy and Islam relates to their eschatological teachings. Eschatology addresses issues that deal with the end times, including death, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, Paradise and Hell. In Islam, there is indeed a belief in bodily resurrection.26 However, it does not appear to have the same central significance as it does in Orthodoxy. It is not a resurrection for life as is experienced in the Christian East. Instead, the Muslim concept of bodily resurrection is associated more with judgment rather than with eternal life. In Islam, bodily resurrection is not seen in the light of Christ’s victory over death. More importantly to the Muslim, the theological significance of bodily resurrection seems reduced to the status of a prerequisite for the Last Judgment. According to one Islamic scholar, “The object of the Resurrection is to judge the deeds of men for the purpose of rewarding the faithful and punishing the guilty.”27 The main emphasis is that it is a resurrection for judgment, not a resurrection for life.
With regard to the belief in the Last Judgment, the Muslim teaching does bear some similarities with Orthodoxy. However, there are great differences as well. First of all, Islam goes to much more length in its very literal interpretation of the Scriptural and traditional depictions of heaven and hell. This ‘over-literal’ interpretation appears in the Muslim understanding of heaven. Many of us are familiar with the extravagant and vivid descriptions of the Muslim heaven, where good Muslims enjoy wonderful gardens and splendid fountains, where they wear beautiful clothes and, according to one account, where “delicious food and wine would be served to them by dark-eyed maidens ...”28
From an Orthodox perspective, the belief in the Last Judgment seems to play a much more fundamental role in Islam than it does in Orthodoxy. Perhaps the Last Judgment becomes more of a focal point in Islam since the belief in rewards and punishment is so central to the religious life of the Muslim. This eschatological perspective is perhaps the main factor motivating Muslim behavior. Not only does the Muslim God reward those who serve him, he also punishes those who do not. According to one author, “This eschatology reinforced the insistence on serving Allah through righteous and just behavior. It was also an important factor in the faith and courage that animated the warriors of Islam. Death would be rewarded by something more splendid than plunder and power. Disloyalty would be punished by something worse than earthly torture and execution.”29 One can see a connection between this kind of a mentality and the kind that motivates the fundamentalist suicide bombers of our day. These so-called suicide bombers sincerely believe that they will be rewarded for serving Allah in this highest way.
A further manifestation of Islam’s preoccupation with rewards and punishment is the teaching of the expiation of sins through the proper amount of punishment. One scholar writes, “Those who had embraced the revelations of Allah, even if they had sinned, will spend a term in Hell proportionate to their sins. They will be delivered therefrom upon expiating their sins by the right amount of punishment. The Sunni [or ‘Orthodox’] Muslim, however, insists that no infidel who denied the existence of God, or any person who did not believe in the unity of God, shall ever be redeemed. While, on the other hand no one who acknowledged the existence and unity of God will be made to suffer eternal fire. The Koran goes into considerable detail to portray the nature of punishments and rewards.”30
Although most Muslims will assert, “it would be completely unjust to claim that Islam is fundamentally legalistic,”31 the emphasis on judgment, trial, punishment and rewards remains the primary focus of Islamic eschatology. For instance, according to one author, “Judgment does not immediately follow the Resurrection. Mankind resurrected must wait a longtime during which period anxiety and suspicion will torment those in doubt ... At the given time the great book in which the deeds of mankind have been recorded will be opened and a list of each one’s deeds will be given ...”32 Once the judgment has been proclaimed, “There will follow a period of mutual retaliation when those who were made to suffer unjustly will have satisfaction. The injurer will be made to yield a measure of his good works to the injured proportionate to the injury .. . Brutes will be made to pay the penalty for cruelty. Then God will command that they be turned into dust. The wicked, however, are destined to protracted suffering in Hell” . . . 33
It is interesting to note the similarities of Muslim eschatology with the teachings of extreme Calvinism. Islam seems even more enamored with a vengeful God. Our Orthodox tradition, on the contrary, considers the Judgment to be the direct and immediate presence of God’s great love and glory. At that time, the love and glory of God will pierce each and every human soul. This will bring either light, love, joy and peace to those who accepted the Truth that God became man, or it will naturally provoke fear, misery, pain and suffering in those who rejected and fought against this Truth of God’s great love for man. God does not take delight in any human suffering, nor does He will to punish any of His children. However, He does respect human freedom, at all costs, and even allows and tolerates the consequences of our free choices.
For the record, allow me to repeat to say that it is only the Orthodox who see God as a compassionate lover of mankind, and that the Muslims see God only as a wrathful Judge seeking revenge is obviously an oversimplification and it is absolutely false. In fact, of the ninety-nine names that refer to God in the Muslim tradition, the names of the All Merciful (ArRahman) and All Compassionate (ArRahim) are among the first.34 There are also many Muslim saints, mystics and theologians who have appreciated, and continue to appreciate, the theological significance of the mystery of divine love.35 The fact still remains, however, that in Orthodoxy, as we will see, love takes on a totally new theological perspective.
Let us look deeper now at our own Orthodox theology in order to better understand how our faith differs from Islam. As we have seen, the two main theological differences between Islam and Orthodoxy are: 1) Monotheism as understood by the Muslims cannot be reconciled with the Orthodox understanding of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and 2) the Christian belief in the Incarnation of the Son of God is flatly rejected by Islam.
To put it in other words, the Muslim stresses the unity of God and the faith that He is One. Their basic theological doctrines do not really go beyond this one simple affirmation. The Orthodox Christian, on the other hand, stresses that God is more than unity. God is more than the concept of One. God is love. The Muslims believe that God is One. The Orthodox go further and believe that God is love.
The teaching that God is love is fundamental to the New Testament. Indeed, perhaps all of Orthodox theology could be summed up in those three simple words: “God is love.”36 The God of the Christians, that is the Holy Trinity, is referred to as the ‘God of love.’37
Love is the basic characteristic of the life of the Holy Trinity.38 The three divine and distinct Persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are One; they are ‘of the same essence,’ and united in their perfect love for one another.39 This then is the fundamental truth of the mystery of the Holy Trinity: God is a unity of Persons living in perfect love.40 God is love; and love presupposes another Person,41 whether divine or human.
Man, as created in the image and likeness of God, is created to share in and to live in love.42 God is love; the more man loves, the more he participates in divine life. Love is thus innate in man. Love is basic to our very being.43 It is through love that we attain to divine likeness and realize our ‘true’ personhood.44 Love makes man truly human; love makes man divine. In this light, we see that it is love that deifies man; it is love that makes man Christlike; it is love that makes man like God. One of the writers from the Philokalia, Theoliptos, even uses the term ‘deifying love.’45 The more man loves, the more deified he becomes.46 On the other hand, without love, we distort the divine image in which we are created.47 The less we love, the more we alienate ourselves from divine life.
Love is the mark of a true disciple of Christ. Love is that which sets Christianity apart from every other religion of the world. It is this message of love that characterizes our Christian faith. Our Lord Himself proclaims the crucial role of love within the lives of His followers: By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.48 St. John the Apostle and Theologian also emphasizes, God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.49 This emphasis on love is of central significance to the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel itself is ultimately a message of love.
The importance of love for the life of man is revealed in Christ’s ‘double commandment of love.’ Our Lord was asked: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? ‘He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’50 The commandments of Christ, therefore, are commandments of love.51 However, in reality it is not a question of two separate commandments. They are both directly interrelated and interdependent on one another. They form a ‘single life.’52 Without love for God it is impossible to love one’s neighbor. And without love for one’s neighbor, it is impossible to truly love God.53
St. John the Theologian emphasizes this point and writes, If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother ... how can he love God? And this commandment we have from Him; that he who loves God must love his brother also.54 So we see then, that love for one’s neighbor is the criterion of one’s true love for God.55
The love of the Holy Trinity forms the foundation on which man’s love for his fellow man is modeled. Man, as created in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity, thus has an innate ‘need’ to live for and to love other people.56 Both in the context of family life, as well as in regard to our relationships with our friends, we all live for love. We all long for love.. We’re all looking for love. Indeed, love is essential to our lives as human beings. To love someone and to be loved by someone; this is what brings life to human existence.
The Lord Himself commands his followers to love one another: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.57 However, the Lord’s commandments are not merely an ethical teaching; rather they reveal the true nature of man.58 When the Lord proclaims Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,59 He reveals the truth that one’s ‘neighbor’ is organically linked to one’s own being. One’s ‘neighbor’, that it is to say, the ‘other’ person, thus forms an integral component of our own human person. It is interesting to compare this teaching of Christ with that of the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who saw the ‘other’ as some kind of an intruder and thus as something inimical to the being of the individual.60
On the contrary, through love for his neighbor, man fulfills the true purpose of his life. The commandments of Christ manifest the truth that love is the way of God, and indeed love is the way toward God. St. Maximos the Confessor writes, Do not disdain the commandment to love, because by it you will be a son of God.61
At this point, as we look deeper into how the Church Fathers consider love as the way toward man’s participation in divine life, I would like to focus in on one writer in particular. I would like to concentrate on the teaching of St. Silouan the Athonite, and together with him, his disciple, Elder Sophrony. St. Silouan’s teaching on love is especially relevant for today. He personified Christ’s teaching on love, putting the theology of the Fathers into practice. Not only that, but he is also very relevant for us this evening because of the fact that today, September 24, is also the feast day of St. Silouan. His teaching seems to encapsulate the unique Orthodox perspective on the profound mystery of love.
Both St. Silouan and Elder Sophrony taught that by following the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the believer is led toward likeness with Christ. For example, Elder Sophrony writes, “There is no difference between the commandments of Christ and the life of God Himself. By abiding in Christ’s commandments, we organically become like Him.”62
On the other hand, St. Silouan teaches that if one hates his neighbor, it reveals that he has made his heart ‘a dwelling place for an evil spirit.’63 He stresses that without love for one’s fellow man, life loses its proper orientation and becomes oppressive and difficult to endure.64 To prove his point, St. Silouan suggests to his readers that they try living without brotherly love for even one day, in order to experience firsthand the profound difference that love makes in the daily life of man.65 It is in accordance with these sayings wherein love for one’s neighbor is seen as a basic feature of human existence that St. Silouan said so simply, yet so profoundly, “Our brother is our life.”66
There is a further aspect of St. Silouan’s teaching on love that deserves our attention. This is the special emphasis he places on love for enemies.67 This theme of love for enemies is fundamental to his entire teaching.
To begin with, the commandment of Christ to love thy enemy68 is not found in any other religion of the world. It is unique to Christianity. As compared to the commandments of the Old Testament, this commandment of Jesus Christ appears revolutionary and opposite to the prescription of the Mosaic Law.69
For St. Silouan, love for enemies is identified, above all else, as prayer.70 Prayer is the ultimate expression of true love. To love your enemy is to pray for him; and even more exactly, it is to pray for his salvation in Christ. In this light, St. Silouan offers his own definition of true love for enemies and writes, “The soul sorrows for her enemies and prays for them because they have strayed from the truth ... That is love for our enemies.”71 He writes elsewhere, “The Lord is love, and He gave the Holy Spirit on earth, Who teaches the soul to love her enemies and pray for them, that they, too, may find salvation. That is true love.”72 St. Silouan states clearly, therefore, that love for enemies is prayer for their personal salvation in Christ. St. Isaac the Syrian is more specific about praying for one’s enemies. He refers to it as praying for the protection of an enemy, and also that one’s enemy may receive mercy from God.73
The love for enemies commanded by Christ cannot therefore be reduced to simple passiveness or nonviolence. It is an active response of true and compassionate prayer for their ultimate salvation.74 However, it must be pointed out that for St. Silouan, such love does not depend on human endeavor alone. He stresses that if one does indeed love one’s enemies, it is due directly to the grace of the Holy Spirit. He writes, “The Lord taught me to love my enemies. Without the grace of God we cannot love our enemies. Only the Holy Spirit teaches love ...”75
From this perspective, we see that the commandment of Christ to love thy enemy reveals the way toward man’s perfection and sanctification. When the believer comes to truly love his enemy, he then participates truly in the life in Christ.76 St. Silouan regarded the presence of love for enemies as “a sign of the real action of grace.”77 He who loves his enemies is thus likened unto the Lord.78
It is interesting to note that Elder Sophrony directly identified love for enemies with uncreated Divine Light.79 He clearly considered love for enemies as a manifestation of grace and wrote: “The bearer of such love ... is the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit ... the brother and friend of Christ - he is a son of God and a god through grace.”80 One could say that to the degree that the believer participates in the grace of divine love for enemies, to the same degree he thereby participates in the divine and uncreated energies of God.81
In this light, the Lord’s own words spoken to His Apostles may be taken quite literally: But I say to you, love your enemies ... pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven …82
The more the believer imitates Christ by loving his enemies, the more he ‘knows’ Christ and participates in divine life. He not only believes in Christ and in the sanctification of human nature, but he lives the life in Christ through Christlike love.
The more we participate in the philanthropic love of Christ for all mankind, the more we will come to appreciate the unique worth that Christ places on each and every human person, and this includes our ‘enemies’. This is the ultimate manifestation of the life in Christ. This is what it means to be ‘alive in Christ’; it is to acquire the same consciousness as Christ, the same compassion as Christ and the same desire that Christ has for the salvation of each and every human person, including our enemies.83
Through his participation in divine love, St. Silouan experienced directly its deifying effects. He experienced in a most personal way the ontological unity of all mankind. Seeing his brother as his own life, St. Silouan prayed for the salvation of others even more than he did for himself. This is where his love, and this is where his life in Christ ultimately led him - he became Christ-like. He participated personally in Christ-like love, in Christ-like compassion and in Christ-like prayer for the salvation of all mankind. If we too can learn to love our enemies, we too can become like St. Silouan. Through love, we too can become like Christ.
Such a high and exalted degree of love, however, is rarely found today. Many people talk about love. Many people are looking for love. Yet few see the significance of the theological perspective of this divine mystery. Although many different philosophies and religions, as well as the countless poets and playwrights throughout history, all offer their own perspectives on the mysterious nature of love, none share the truth provided by, our Holy Orthodox Church.
I end with the words of St. Maximos the Confessor, who writes, “Many people have said much about love, but only in seeking it among Christ’s disciples will you find it, for only they have the true love, the teacher of love ... Therefore, the one who possesses love possesses God himself, since ‘God is love. “84
-Dr. Harry Boosalis
Another lecture from this year’s series will appear in the spring 2003 issue.