Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Reading the Quran: Jesus and God


It's one of those words that has very little meaning outside of seminary and the earnest bloggery of overeducated pastors.   For most folks, exploring the identity of Jesus is little more than an opportunity to project your own ideas onto the tapestry of the few select scriptures that exactly match your social and political predilections.

Jesus backs us as we go into every war.  Jesus smiles serenely as we tell our depressed, struggling adult child that he is a worthless sinner.   Jesus stands by our side as we scramble for more and more material prosperity, sure that His will is best expressed in that heavily-mortgaged ticky-tacky townhouse filled with cheap leather furniture and consumer electronics.

But getting through that and getting at who Jesus was matters.   And in the Quran, the relationship that matters most is the relationship Jesus had with God.  The Quran talks about that relationship throughout the suras.  This isn't done systematically.   It isn't, to my eyes, structured in the manner of classical Western argumentation.  It moves instead in a whirling, circuitous series of cycles that bears more resemblance to the recurring themes and motifs in a symphony.

So Jesus appears, and then disappears, and then appears, and then disappears, as themes rise and fall and rise again.  But where the Jesus themes occur, they are consistently not the same as those in the Gospels/Epistles.   The...different...Jesus presented by the Quran isn't just different because the Quran draws from texts that have no authority in Christian faith.

Perhaps the most significant difference comes in how the Quran articulates the relationship Jesus has with God.   Repeatedly and relentlessly, the Quran asserts that Jesus cannot be God's Son.   It is not possible for God to have a son, it says, because God is God.  Unlike the endlessly canoodling deities of polytheistic pantheons, God doesn't have kids.

Throughout Quran, that case is made, over and over again.

And yet there are some odd things about how that case is made.   Is Jesus born of a virgin?   The Quran appears to up and say, yes, in fact he was.   Who was the father of Jesus?  The Quran says Joseph wasn't the baby-daddy, and that the father was the Ruh-an-Qudus. (Al-Anbiya, 91)

The what?

The Ruh is...roughly...the Spirit/Breath of God.  Meaning Mary gets pregnant with Jesus because of the arrival of an angelic messenger bearing God's spirit.   This is the same Ruh that, according to Quran, brings the Quran to the Prophet. (An-Nahl, 102)

Hmmm.  This is an astoundingly orthodox Christian position, more classically orthodox than my own lib'ral take on it.

The Quran asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, using that term repeatedly as a title for Christ.  That means "the anointed one," and it's an expression of royal authority. (Al Maeda 75, At-Tauba 31)  Christians would argue that this anointing wasn't about smearing extra-virgin olive oil on the firstborn scion of the king, but had more to do with the anointing of the Spirit.

Which Quran doesn't seem to have a problem with, because we hear that Jesus teaches with the authority of God, as conveyed by the Ruh.   (Al Maeda 110)

We hear that Jesus ascended into heaven to be with God, from whence he shall return on the Last Day. (Aal-e-Imran 55)

Given the less-than-orthodox source material that fleshes out the specific Quranic actions and teachings of Jesus, this is some pretty impressively traditional stuff.   It is also, quite frankly, the baseline for what most Christians would say constitutes the "Sonship" of Jesus.

Born of the Spirit?  Check.

Sustained by and in perfect conformity to God's will through the consistent indwelling of the Spirit?  Check.

The Anointed One?  Check.

The Message of God turned into flesh?  Yup.

Sure, it doesn't get into the whole homoiousios/homoousios argument, but then, most Christians don't have a clue what that even means.   And no, it has nothing to do with same sex marriage.  Google it.  You might learn something.

It also doesn't try to parse out the difference between "begotten" and "made."  While saying God can't beget a child, given what the Quran says in An-Nahl 102, it's clearly on the "begotten" side of the equation.

Having studied classical theology and the complex philosophical constructs underlying orthodox Christology, the Quran...for all it's protestations to the contrary...seems to be in agreement about the relationship of Jesus to God right up to the very point where it says it ain't.

Something else is at play here.

That something, I think, may have to do with how Quran approaches the Trinity.   And for that, well, there's tomorrow's post.