What do Christians mean when they say that God is love? How do we answer that question in a dialogue between Muslims and Christians, which is to say, in a tension-filled intellectual space of wrestling to understand and articulate our similarities and differences with regard to what it means to love God and neighbor?
With its long coastline, rugged mountains and haunting sand dunes, Oman is a paradise for desert lovers, hikers and boaters. Muscat, the capital city, is a gem—its arched white buildings and flat roofs squeezed between the blue ocean and black mountains. Yet call me an egghead, but what I remember most from a trip to Oman is a booklet I read there with an ominous title: Body Count: A Quantitative Review of Political Violence Across World Civilizations (2009). In it, author Naveed Sheikh claims that “the Christian civilization emerges as the most violent and genocidal in the world history.” Compared to Islam, Christianity is a clear winner: 31.94 million deaths by Muslims to 177.94 million deaths by Christians.
Early in October, Yale was abuzz with passionate debates about the freedom of expression. Participants included Yale students and professors, as well as prominent alumni such as John Bolton (former U.S. ambassador to the UN) and David Frum (economic speechwriter for former president George W. Bush).
Since ancient times, travelers have journeyed to sites of religious significance in order to deepen their faith. But I’ve never been much of a pilgrim. I was raised a Pentecostal, and in one regard our brand of faith was very modern: unlike most premodern people, we did not recognize any “sacred places.” For us, all places were alike to God because God had created them all.
One of the most recognizable pieces of religious architecture in the world is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, the most significant place of worship of the Sikhs. The upper part of this ornate rectangular marble structure is covered in gold. I saw the gleaming temple early in the morning, before sunrise, when it was bathed in soft artificial light.
When Toma and I became friends, he was somebody. I was 16, he was 22. He was a body builder, one of the best in the country, with aspirations and good prospects of becoming Mr. Universe. But then he embraced Christian faith and joined the church where my father was a pastor. He felt that God required him to abandon his athletic pursuits, which until then had been his god. He transposed the dreams of becoming Mr. Universe onto a religious plane: he wanted to be the apostle Paul of Yugoslavia, and maybe a new Billy Graham to the world.
We live in an age of great conflicts and petty hopes. Take first our hopes. In the book The Real American Dream, Andrew Delbanco traced the history of the scope of American dreams—from the “holy God” of the Puritan founders, to the “great nation” of the 19th-century patriots, to the “satisfied self” of many today.
A few months ago a friend told me about a conversation he’d had with an atheist in Colorado Springs. That Colorado city, the Mecca of American evangelical Christianity, may be the last place an atheist would feel at home. But there he was, right in the middle of a lion’s den. My friend had met him and started talking to him about Jesus. The man was interested.
This past summer at our family home in Croatia, I was immersed in George Weigel’s long biography of the late John Paul II, Witness to Hope. As the intense focus of world attention on his funeral made clear, he was a great world leader and, in many regards, a global moral conscience. That was plain for all to see during his life and even more clearly after he died.
When I was in Croatia this past May I went on a hunt for kulen, a specialty sausage found in a region of Northeast Croatia called Slavonia. You can’t buy kulen in any store, of course. To get it you’ve got to have friends in very high places—in backwater villages of Slavonia where people raise their own pigs and prepare kulen according to recipes passed on in families for generations.
Infertility—a gift!? Poison and a curse—that’s how this unexplained infertility of ours felt to me for what seemed like an eternity. Nine years of trying to have a child of our own was like having to drink bitter waters from a poisoned well month after month.
The theology of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger played a major part in my book After Our Likeness (1998), which sought to develop a trinitarian, nonhierarchical understanding of the church. He thanked me politely for the copy I sent him and added, “You don’t expect me, of course, to have changed my mind after reading it.”
As I was writing this piece, Good Friday was in view, and I thought of the renowned Viennese composer Antonio Salieri as portrayed in the movie Amadeus. In a scene from Salieri’s childhood, Salieri is kneeling before a crucifix and trying to make a bargain with God. “Lord, make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music—and be celebrated myself.
At a dinner in honor of a prominent guest, I was seated next to a woman who works for CBS.The tsunami had just struck off the coast of Sumatra with all its destructive force, and we were talking about the magnitude of desolation, the plight of the victims and the insanity of the event. She knew I was a theologian, so she broached the question of God. “Where was God?” she asked bluntly.
Give yourself a treat and put Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope under your Christmas tree. Moltmann published the book in German 40 years ago. After it was translated into English three years later (1967), he became an instant theological celebrity in the U.S. The book even made it to the front page of the New York Times.
A few months ago I participated in a Building Bridges Seminar, one of the annual encounters between Muslim and Christian theologians sponsored by Lambeth Palace. I was not quite sure what to expect going in. Such dialogues can range from boring to exhilarating.