A Critique of Ismail Faruqi’s Metareligion and Ethical Analysis of Christianity. Part 2/3

II. Methodological And Doctrinal Distortions

A. Jesus’ Interiorization of Law
In part 1/3, I highlighted some problems with Faruqi’s methodology as its premises give a distorted reading of Christianity and skew the evidence in favor of Islam. The distortions become evident when Faruqi seeks to rewrite the history of the mission and ministry of Jesus through the lens of his metareligion. Faruqi, like all Muslims, maintains a respectful attitude towards Jesus. At the same time he is persuaded that the “real” Jesus is not that of historic Christianity. For Faruqi, the real Jesus should be based on results of German historical critical method and Quranic sources. One cannot help but notice the irony when Faruqi (and other Muslim apologists) unreservedly appropriates the skeptical results of the historical critical method to critique the bible while at the same time eschewing any application of the same critical method in the study of the Quran.

Faruqi has taken considerable effort to familiarize himself with the works of critics like Joseph Klausner and C. H. Dodd. Unfortunately, his appropriation of historical research is selective and subordinated to an overriding and debatable presupposition that Jesus’ pristine religion was solely aimed at effecting an internal correction of the Jewish legalistic religion. This presupposition allows Faruqi to dismiss any Biblical teaching which he finds personally unpalatable to the corrupting influence of Jewish racialism. Jewish racialism was undeniably a harsh reality in Faruqi’s personal experience. After all, he had to abandon his role as governor of a Palestinian district when the Jews won their War of Independence in 1948. But one wonders if Faruqi has in this matter allowed his unfortunate experience to color his judgment when he analyzes the Bible.

Faruqi focuses on “the ethical breakthrough of Jesus.” He stresses that Jesus’ ministry is basically religious. That is to say, Jesus “did not command us ‘to do’ at all, but to place ourselves in a certain relationship to Him.” He concludes that

Jesus universalized the community ideal of Israel by interiorizing the Law, i.e., by making all piety, all ethics, and all virtue dependent upon an inward, radical transformation of the self. . . of which only God can be the judge and after which all contention is left for personal conscience, obviates the need for law, indeed for religion in the institutionalized sense (CE 88).

But what if Faruqi’s proposal contradicts the prima facie reading of the gospels, in particular the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus declares that he has come to fulfill the law of God? Faruqi attempts to subvert the authenticity and authority of the Gospel of Matthew by claiming that Matthew misunderstood Jesus on this vital point when Jesus juxtaposed the love of God and the love of man. Based on his presupposition, Faruqi concludes that the Matthean testimony of Jesus proclaiming that he has come to fulfill the law is a Matthean interpolation to serve Jewish interest.

But what kind of ethics of Jesus do we end up with if we follow Faruqi’s reductive analysis? In effect, we are left with a teacher with no ethics at all. Faruqi’s Jesus urges his listeners to interiorize their ethics by appealing to their conscience. Such an ethics is by implication individualistic and personal. As such, there is no social ethics in Jesus’ teaching. As evidence, Faruqi draws resources from Western liberal scholarship which assert that Jesus did not found a church community. Faruqi naturally favors Western liberal scholarship since to concede that Jesus gave ethical provisions to regulate social relationships would suggest that Jesus did lay the foundation for a religious community after him. Why does Faruqi advocate the liberal thesis that Jesus did not establish a community of believers? My suggestion is that he operates with a dogmatic presupposition that a community based on authentically revealed divine law has been attained only in his own Islamic tradition. By implication, any religion that is prior to Islam could not have succeeded in establishing a community based on revealed divine moral law and that includes the religion of Jesus.

Faruqi insists that true religion requires programmatic action to implement divine law which would overthrow the natural equilibrium of existing society. From Faruqi’s perspective, the interiorized morality and personalist ethics of Jesus would not suffice for such a mission. Faruqi’s Islamic piety restrains him from openly slighting the prophetic stature of Jesus. Instead, it is enough for Faruqi merely to assign Jesus a limited mission and thus subordinate him to the later revelation given through Muhammad. Any evidence in the gospels which suggests that Jesus taught social ethics, any indication that Jesus maintained the Old Testament is divinely revealed and authoritative in regulating community life is dismissed on grounds that they are created by the early church in its clumsy efforts to buttress the ethical inadequacy of Christianity. If there is any evidence of continuity between Christianity and the Old Testament in upholding the relevance of divine law to inform ethical decisions and regulate society, it is due to the dubious process of “Israelization of the message of Jesus.” Faruqi labels such later developments in the early church with derogatory terms like the “Ezraization of Jesus.” Faruqi suggests that the contamination is due to the influence of some sections of Jewish apocalyptic movement. Working within his restrictive framework, it is no wonder that Faruqi fails to detect any teaching about society in Jesus and his apostles.

Obviously, Faruqi has skewed his reading of the gospel text to conform to his theological prejudgment. As a case example, Faruqi refers to C. H. Dodd’s contention that “Jesus Himself has set forth a substantial number of ethical precepts…in markedly authoritative tones and [has joined them to] solemn warnings that they are intended to be obeyed” (CE 123). But Faruqi rejects Dodd’s contention on grounds that Dodd failed “to recognize that a determinant may be ‘objective’ and yet ‘inward’”. Unfortunately for Faruqi, his criticism cuts both ways. If he accepts the contention that an ethic may be both ‘objective’ and ‘inward’ then he must also reckon with the possibility that Jesus’ teaching of (subjective) inner motives need not preclude (objective) concrete and specific formulation of law and precepts.

B. Historical Developments
But what about the Christian affirmation of the ethical and theological teachings of the Old Testament when viewed from the perspective of ‘Salvation-history’ (Heilsgeschichte), that is, from the perspective of God’s progressive revelation and saving action which find their fulfilment in Christ’s act of salvation on the cross? Faruqi brushes them aside with the disparaging remark that they amount to “unsuccessful haphazard measures on the part of God in His attempt to deal with the problem of evil” (CE 56). Again, Faruqi is quick to impute possible weaknesses in Christianity while remaining unaware that the same criticism applies equally to his own beliefs. I have in mind his own belief that God granted previous revelations which were supposedly distorted. Hence, the need for a final revelation in Islam. But then does not Faruqi’s history of revelation imply that his God also worked in “unsuccessful haphazard measures”?

Faruqi’s arbitrary execution of the historical critical method is evident in his superficial attempt to fabricate Hellenistic distortions of Jesus’ message in the early Church. Specifically, Faruqi speculates that Christianity exhibits an unhealthy pessimism about human nature and the need for salvation because it has adopted Gnostic pessimism towards matter. For him, the root problem of Christianity rests on peccatism which makes sin a universal, necessary and even eternalized phenomenon. Specifically, peccatism makes sin necessary and demands the need for redemption and divine redemption. In Faruqi’s view, the Christian God is compelled to respond to the human sinful predicament. The unfortunate result then is a compromising of the transcendence of God found in the teaching of the Incarnation and the Trinity. In Faruqi’s words, “Sin as a presupposition for God, of the Divine Essence, is an all too blasphemous assertion” (CE 196).

However, Faruqi’s criticism is misplaced, if not blasphemous when he suggests that the Trinity is based on peccatism. For Christians, a God who exists in solitary oneness would need to create the world in order to love. This would mean God needs the world as much as the world needs God. In contrast, the Truine God of Christianity does not need to create the world in order to love because the immanent life of the Triune God is characterized by love, that is, oneness and communion between persons of the Trinity. Likewise, because there is unity and inseparable operations between the persons of the Trinity, the revelation of God in history is the result of the overflowing love of God and thus necessarily assumes a triune character as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In short, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is self-defined and is not a consequence of peccatism.

C. Sin and Salvation
Some conceptual clarification is in order here. What does it mean when Faruqi accuses Christianity of making sin a necessity? Obviously he has in mind a logical necessity. But it is clearly a caricature of Christianity to suggest that Christians make sin a presupposition for God and divine essence. A little empathy from Faruqi would have helped him to appreciate the Christian doctrine of sin is an empirical conclusion drawn from human experience and action. In other words, the issue of sin is not only one of conceptual possibility; it is also an empirical observation of human life in history and society. This leads me to ask a counter-question. Does Faruqi’s polemic imply a trivilization of the power and destruction of sin in human existence? His unguarded optimistic statements certainly imply an uncompromising religious optimism in the face of the reality of sin. It would be good to remind Faruqi of G. K. Chesterton’s observation that the doctrine of “Original Sin” is the only empirically proven religious doctrine found around. The explanatory adequacy of Faruqi’s metareligion is called into question if it fails to recognize the destructive power of sin that is pervasive in the social and religious experience of mankind.

Faruqi’s misunderstanding is aggravated by his flawed approach to Christianity. First he constructs an a priori theory in the name of metareligion. This is followed by a procrustean slashing of the historical facts to fit his theory. The real problem is not with the method of phenomenology which Faruqi appeals to in his critique of Christianity. Indeed, Royce Gruenler in his book, New Approaches to Jesus And the Gospels (1982), executed the phenomenological method more vigorously than Faruqi and arrived at a positive conclusion regarding the accuracy of the claims of the Gospel. The problem arises only when Faruqi fails to evaluate the claims of Jesus as an unprejudiced historian, coupled with his unwillingness to revise his metareligion in the light of unbiased historical research. Faruqi’s dogmatic execution of his metareligion reminds me of F.C. Baur, the famous professor from University of Tubingen, who when told by a student that the historical facts are otherwise from his metareligious reconstruction of the origins of Christianity, gave a sharp retort in the spirit of Hegel, “so much the worse for the facts.”

Not surprisingly, we see a tendency in Faruqi to read the historical facts with jaundiced eyes. This leads him to some weird conclusions regarding the lack of transcendence of God for the Jews in the Old Testament. His claim that the Yahweh of Isaiah is merely an identification with Babylon’s mighty Lord of heaven and earth would have astounded any Bible historian (DTE 9). Finally, on Faruqi’s terms, how the religion of Israel could have succumbed to foreign pagan influence if it were racist as he claimed it to be, remains a riddle.

The historical integrity of the Gospels is not spared either. When it suits Faruqi, he interprets Jesus’ claim of unity with the Father metaphorically. “To understand such unity ontologically is to mistake such a spiritual meaning for the literal, to perceive a material precept in place of a poetical” (DTE 12). This interpretation ignores the immediate historical context which where Jesus’ hearers charged Jesus to be guilty of blasphemy as they understood Jesus claims literally. It is significant that Jesus did not correct the Jews for misunderstanding him and clarify that he was actually speaking poetically or metaphorically.

Even more bizarre is Faruqi’s conclusion that the Christian view of God as spirit originated from the Gnostics.

As a source of Christian theology, gnosticism furnished the idea that God is wholly spirit, that He is the Creator of all that is ex nihilo, and that the creation took place through emanations, the chief of which is that of the logos, the word, which is as thoroughly spiritual and divine as God. The opening verses of John’s gospel bespeak pure gnosticism and so do those of the Nicene creed (DTE 14).

At this point his misleading reference to Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, betrays a sloppy, “cut and paste” approach to Christian history in order to customize the data to fit his own preconceived history.

Faruqi speculates further that Gnostic influence led to an attitude of horror towards matter among the early Christians which gave rise to the practice of asceticism and world-denial (AT 149). Faruqi obviously fails to appreciate how intense the conflict was between Gnosticism and Docetism on the one hand (which he confusingly lumps together in one paragraph) and Christianity on the other. In so far as Docetism taught that God cannot be other than spirit, the Docetists were scandalized by the Christian proclamation that God was incarnated in Christ who was crucified. Contrary to Faruqi’s misunderstanding, the Nicene Creed was the decisive battle fought by the Church against the hellenizing influence of the Arians. It is mind-boggling that Faruqi could have committed such a grave misjudgment of history. That he could have seriously proposed such erroneous notions about the Nicene crisis when a cursory acquaintance with standard history works would have disclosed otherwise is inexplicable. At best it speaks of a confused mind, at worst it indicates how far even such an intelligent mind like Faruqi’s is prepared to rewrite history to serve his own religio-ideological purposes.

Finally, Faruqi’s objectivity in handling primary sources is questionable in the way he rehashes the old and discredited theories of the influence of the Mystery Religions on early Christianity. Thus Faruqi in one breath suggests that the early Christians substituted with ease the names of the earlier gods whether these be Mithra or Osiris or Adonis with the name of Jesus. He betrays a careless reliance on secondary sources in quoting Franz Cumont to support his view though Cumont argued otherwise his book Oriental Religion in Roman Paganism (AT 88). Faruqi obviously chooses to ignore the cautionary advice given by Cutmont in the preface to the book. With perfect nonchalance he could suggest that:

The names and personalities were a facade which changed without affecting the substance of the sacraments or their underlying doctrine. The crucified Jesus stepped into the place of the immolated god, and the doctrine was given the emendations necessary for the new religious ideology…Life-and-world-affirmation became life-and-world-denial…Indeed, what Christianity had inherited from Judaism was twisted around to suit the Hellenistic consciousnes: The Hebrew scriptural descriptions of the deity, written by and for a Semitic mind, were shorn of their poetry and taken literally to support doctrinal elements of Christianity (DTE 18).

Such disparaging charges are voiced without any evidence as to how the early Christians were influenced by the Mystery Religions. His historical hypothesis lacks credibility as he fails to identify the possible channels for permeation of a doctrine which contradicts other fundamental Christian doctrines. Finally, the stumbling block to Faruqi’s conjecture lies in the unanswered question, “Why if Christianity is so syncretistic were the believers so violently persecuted?” Proper historical reasoning and intellectual objectivity should have given pause to Faruqi to caution him from making such blatant and groundless claims.

It would have been tempting to refute Faruqi in successive specific details. However, I shall only refer the reader to standard works by J. G. Machen, Bruce Metzger, Ronald Nash, Edwin Yamauchi and Everette Ferguson which confirm that Faruqi has compromised his scholarly stature by relying on flimsy theories propounded by the German scholars from the History of Religion School (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule) in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the theories of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule have been so decisively discredited that they have no current value in the scholarly world today. Faruqi complains that scholars like Stephen Neill relied too much on Western writers when they discussed comparative religion. Faruqi is not any better when he relies uncritically on the biased judgments of German scholars who openly disbelieved in Christianity.

The internal contradictions within Faruqi’s work surface in his misreading of the sin of Adam. According to Faruqi, Paul was merely expressing the Rabbinic hatred of man and nature in opposition to Hellenic humanism and naturalism (CE 202). The Jewishness of Paul is recognized by most Pauline scholars today. On the other hand, Paul was accused of teaching against Judaism (Acts 21-22). Regardless, recognition of the Jewishness of Paul contradicts Faruqi’s claim that Paul is the chief culprit in the hellenization of Christianity. In short, Faruqi’s contradictiory claims about Paul suggest that he lacks nuance in ascertaining how Paul sensitively navigated the tension between Judaism and Hellenism in early Christian mission.

More fundamental is Faruqi’s rejection of the need for saviorism which he finds to be a fatal weakness of Christianity. Faruqi faults Christianity for failing to distinguish between “redemption from” and “redemption of”. He prefers the view which regards redemption as the passage from a danger present, a determination by disvalue, to a neutral state” (CE 225). As a corollary he rejects Christianity as failing to hold correctly both aspects of redemption. “To be redeemed therefore is not a real, ontic phenomenon, as Christian doctrine claims, but to think differently; and the Christ-event was only the teaching of a new mental state, an implication obstinately rejected by all Christians” (CE 227). Faruqi argues optimistically that contrary to Christianity man stands in no predicament out of which he cannot pull himself. “Man therefore needs no savior, no Messiah and no salvation; but rather, to apply himself to his cosmic duty and to measure his worth in direct proportion to his achievement…It called men to felicity rather than salvation, and promised them rewards in this world and the hereafter directly proportionate to their deeds” (AT 31, cf., 72-73). This is optimism indeed, but one can hold on to this optimism only by disregarding pervasive and unrestrained suffering caused by criminal cartels, oppressive governments and genocidal warring states in much of the world today.

Abbreviations of books by Ismail Faruqi.

AT: Al Tawhid: Its Implications for Thought and Life. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1992.
CE: Christian Ethics: A Historical and Systematic Analysis of Its Dominant Ideas. McGill UP, 1967.
DTE: Divine Transcendence and Its Expression. ABIM, 1983.
IC: Islam and Culture. ABIM, 1980.
IOF: Islam and Other Faiths. Islamic Foundations & International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1998.
SE: Selected Essays. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2018.

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A Critique of Ismail Faruqi’s Metareligion and Ethical Analysis of Christianity. Part 2/3

One thought on “A Critique of Ismail Faruqi’s Metareligion and Ethical Analysis of Christianity. Part 2/3”

  1. The image of Jesus as the Interioriser of the Law understood as divine law is a common or popular one but sorely misconceived and miss the point – which is that the *use* or *function* of the Law is turned upside down by the Cross. The Law is neither interiorised or exteriorised but turned inside out and outwards – i.e., not a construed in vertical terms of the divine-human relationship but purely horizontal, i.e., for the sake of the neighbour. In other words, the Law isn’t to be used as self-justification but service.

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