A Former Muslim Contemplates the Blessed Trinity and Incarnation
Don’t we owe our all to the Son of God who endured Good Friday so that he would never be excluded from our own sufferings?
The April sky was clear. The light of brother sun was shining over me while I walked in that manmade canyon between the Midtown towers. I stopped on the sidewalk. A strange thought had suddenly occurred to me: I believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. I’d in fact believed this for several weeks, but couldn’t recall that shining moment when my mind had switched.
“How did that happen?” I wondered to myself. Memories of the last few months began pouring in.
I’d begun reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity in January of that year, 2007, to familiarize myself with Christianity’s basics. In that book I’d encountered a very blunt statement: “And consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
“Blasphemy,” I’d immediately thought to myself upon reading it. I’d grown up being taught that Jesus (Isa in Arabic) was a great prophet, born of the Virgin Mary, who would return to Earth shortly before that dreaded Day of Judgment. But how could any person, who would have needed to relieve himself, be God? Written in the Quran itself were such statements as:
And they say, ‘The Most Merciful has taken [for himself] a son.’ You have done an atrocious thing. The heavens almost rupture therefrom and the earth splits open and the mountains collapse in devastation that they attribute to the Most Merciful a son. And it is not appropriate for the Most Merciful that he should take a son. (19:88-92)
And do not say, ‘Three.’ Desist — it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. (4:171)
Those who say, ‘Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary,’ have certainly fallen into disbelief. The Messiah himself said, ‘O Children of Israel! Worship Allah—my Lord and your Lord.’ Whoever associates others with Allah in worship will surely be forbidden Paradise by Allah. Their home will be the Fire. (5:72)
They have certainly disbelieved who say, ‘Allah is the third of three.’ And there is no God except one God. (5:73)
Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; he begetteth not, nor is he begotten; And there is none like unto him. (112:1-4)
Even a kindergartener knew that 1+1+1=3! I’d figured that Christianity was a religion that was terrible at math, that the Holy Trinity was a thinly-veiled polytheism. Sure, 1x1x1 also equals 1, but how could that have applied to God in any way?
And what did Christians even mean by this “Holy Spirit” anyway? Muslim scholars widely agree that he must really be the angel Gabriel (Jibreel in Arabic) who’d allegedly delivered God’s words to Muhammad, only that Christians mistook him for God.
But I’d also run into another problem in my reading of Mere Christianity — many of those words surrounding that blunt statement also made a great deal of sense. The doctrines of Islam themselves appeared more “logical” to me on the surface, whereas the outlook which followed the implications of Christian doctrines seemed to be the one that was, in fact, far more advanced.
Sometime in February of that year I’d figured out what seemed to be a pretty good solution: join a nontrinitarian church of some sort.
The “logical impossibility” of the Holy Trinity is a common criticism among Muslims directed against the Christian faith. In fact, a blog written about me last year even stated so much:
This is Simonson’s concept of God. … While respecting the right of Catholics, and indeed of any Trinitarian Christian, to believe whatever they please about God, it would be remiss of us not to share our thoughts on the serious logical impossibilities of such a belief, in the form of an excellent book on the subject. Ironically, Zubair Simonson’s voyage from Islam to Catholicism can be summed up in its title: A Journey from Facts to Fiction.
The word “logic” is, of course, routinely tossed around to justify a plethora of contradicting beliefs. The MSNBC anchor uses “logic” to demonize pro-life advocates. The white supremacist uses “logic” while making preparations for some pending race war. Our nation is polarized today because we have so many “rational” thinkers! Atheists routinely claim to side with “logic” by denying God’s existence, and then go on from there to insist upon the remarkably illogical theory that our universe happened sheerly by chance, that we are living in a creation without any Creator. For most of human history, the belief in a flat earth appeared perfectly “logical,” regardless of whatever the horizon implied.
But what happens when we look at the implications of our “logic” rather than simply bare assertions? What logical ends do we find from asking “and then what?” enough times?
Growing up, the bare assertion of the absolute oneness of God appeared far more coherent to me than the Holy Trinity, and yet implications slowly drew me away from Islam, and unwittingly toward Christianity, even from a young age.
Why would a majestic and unipersonal God create mankind in the first place? The Quran does answer this: “And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.” (51:56)
No serious practicing Muslim would dare to accuse Allah (whose 99 names include Ash-Shakoor, meaning “the Appreciative”) of egotism, but I still wondered whether something was amiss upon first hearing this at the age of 10.
Allah’s other names include Al-Wadood (“the Most Loving”), Ar-Ra’oof (“the Most Kind”), and Ar-Raheem (“the Most Compassionate”). If love is action, rather than just a feeling, then how could an eternal (As-Samad, “the Eternal,” is yet another name) and unipersonal God, having had no one to love, have been “most-loving” prior to that moment of creation?
I’d likewise developed a fascination with Sufism as a teenager. It was largely the result of reading an article about Sufi influences on the Jedi Knights (yes, from Star Wars) in a magazine article printed shortly before the rather mediocre prequel’s 1999 release. The poetry of such mystics as Rumi articulated the soul’s yearning for intimacy with God which went far beyond transactional obedience and worship. “Only from the heart can you touch the sky,” Rumi wrote, among so many other things. “Our purpose here on earth: to manifest the very nature of our spirit, which is touched by the spirit of God.”
Such words seemed to contain the tacit suspicion that God, and not the angel Gabriel, even desired to make a home for himself in a person’s very heart. It hadn’t been lost upon those whirling dervishes that Allah’s 99 names also included Al-Lateef (“the Subtle One”), Al-Muqeet (“the Sustainer”), Al-Muhyee (“the Giver of Life”), Al-Haadi (“the Guide”), and Ar-Rasheed (“Infallible Teacher”). These Sufi greats had done their very best to articulate this with what knowledge they had. It’s important to note that Sufi shrines have been bombed in terrorist attacks throughout the Muslim World in recent years.
Muslims and Christians do agree that God is omnipotent. God’s limits have more to do with his character rather than his power; that Love refuses to compel the object of love to love him back. That means that he is perfectly capable of becoming one of us. “But why would he ever do such a thing?” is the question a practicing Muslim may ask. “Why would a majestic God subject himself to such humiliation?”
Yes, we were indeed made to worship God. But why is the Quran so silent concerning the claim found in Genesis that we were made in the image of God? Does the doctrine of the Holy Trinity also come with the belief that we also were made for more?
Our Lord, who is recorded in the Gospels saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM” (a very transparent claim to divinity in John 8:58), is also recorded saying: “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15)
And St. Paul wrote: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ ...” (Romans 8:14-17)
The Incarnation is the great demonstration of our eternal God’s love and humility. Theologians such as Blessed John Duns Scotus, having thought through implications, have gone so far as to insist that the Incarnation of Our Lord was not just a “Plan B” to remedy for our sins, but had been the “Plan A” intended from the beginning. It was a pamphlet I’d been given while taking RCIA some years later, on precisely this, that I could hardly help myself from reading over and over again. How much more do we owe our worship to a God who created us for fellowship with him? Don’t we owe our all to the Son of God who endured Good Friday so that he would never be excluded from our own sufferings?
Am I a sinner because I sin, or do I sin because I am a sinner? Islam teaches the former, whereas Christianity insists on the latter. What is considered “pessimistic” in one faith is understood as “realistic” in the other. If our very hearts and minds are warped, so prone to rebelling against God, then who or what could even draw any of us just toward the desire for some sort of peace with God? Are outward acts of obedience and piety enough to rescue us from ourselves? Do enough acts of worship and kindness fully wash away the stain in a person’s heart?
Any somewhat-competent psychologist affirms that what a person sees in others is actually a reflection of that which is in him or herself. “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise,” St. Teresa of Calcutta had famously said of her neighbors, too many of whom were otherwise uncared for. If any person (who is a sinner) can see the intrinsic value of another person (also a sinner), to the point of seeing the face of Christ in others, then what must be within that person to be able to see this?
The answer, of course, has to be Christ.
God is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To reject any of these Persons is to lose knowledge of the character of God, as well as knowledge of the intrinsic value of our neighbors and ourselves. Our God is not so one-dimensional. That is why your neighbor (including the one who aggravates you) just happens to be Christ’s neighbor. That is why we ourselves become temples of God, whom he works through, in that very moment in which we allow him to penetrate our hearts.
And so there I was, standing on that Midtown sidewalk, indulging in thoughts of that strange occurrence of having picked up my belief in Christ’s Divinity. My knowledge of the Holy Spirit was even more remedial back then, and so it hadn’t yet occurred to me to ask the obvious: where did I even get this new conviction from anyway? My understanding of that much would come in God’s time. The option of joining some nontrinitarian church didn’t seem very appealing anymore. I smirked, shook my head, and continued walking on. In the worldly sense, I was walking on my way to work. In a much more profound sense, my steps were being guided toward a perennial home.