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

Faruqi sharpens his critique of the Christian doctrine of God by asserting that Christianity,

eternalizes the revelation of Christ not as a system of ideas that may be God’s will, but as the Christ-event. . . Christianity consistently argues that Christ (i.e. his significance) is not the will of God, nor his command, nor His idea, but God Himself, or rather God co-eternal with God. Christianity is driven to this deifying hypostasis because it eternalizes a real person and a real event. A person may be co-eternal with God, but not derivatively eternal without violating the law of identity. But to violate the law of identity in this instance is to lapse into polytheism (CE 228).

Unfortunately for Faruqi, his objection is only hitting at theological strawmen since Christians are not asserting that Christ is identical with God without remainder in his incarnate state. Indeed, Faruqi’s objection is self-defeating. If he accuses Christianity of eternalizing a historical person, his religious philosophy commits the same logical move by eternalizing the Quran which was revealed to its messenger in 7th century Arabia. Faruqi’s double standard surfaces again in his rejection of the use of analogical language in Christian doctrine of the attributes of God and the two-natures of Jesus Christ on grounds that usage of analogical language descends into paradox. But he refrains from imposing similar restrictions to how language and concepts may be used in his own theological tradition, for example, in the case of the teaching that the Quran is uncreated and eternal but was also revealed in history. In asking how concepts drawn from ordinary language may be legitimately predicated to the transcendent being of his Islamic tradition,  he argues,

The purpose of the lexicographic meaning, however is to set the imagination [emphasis mine] on a certain course in comprehending, not to predetermine the end-object of the comprehension. Lexicographic meaning gives us positive elements within the course or beam of comprehension, and it provides walls or banks for channeling its progress so as not to be mixed up with meaning-courses other words set up. Both its inclusionary and exclusionary functions are necessary and fruitful…Therefore, the mind perceives the impossibility of empirical predication while the understanding is still anchored to the lexicographic meaning of the term. For the intuition [emphasis mine] of transcendent reality is an intuition of infinity gained at the very moment of consciousness when the imagination declares its own impotence to produce the same” (DTE 27).

Faruqi rejects the Christian usage of analogical predication in references to God, but his phrase “inclusionary and exclusionary functions” sounds like Thomas Aquinas alright. Faruqi elaborates on how “the imagination is compelled to produce the needed modality once the denial of empirical predication and transcendence both are upheld [isn’t this a paradox on Faruqi’s terms?]. In this suspense, an intuition of transcendence is obtained, not unlike that of infinity and sensory inexpressibility engendered by the arabesque. The lexicographic meaning of the term serves as anchor while the imagination soars in search of an applicable modality of the meaning in question, a modality that is impossible to reach” [emphasis added] (AT 27). However, we are not told how one is able to grasp and understand “a modality that is impossible to reach.” Still, Faruqi insists that the claims of Islam is “unlike the faith of the Christians, the Iman [belief, faith] of Islam is truth given to the mind, not to man’s credulity…The claim of Islam is public. It is addressd to reason, seeking to convince it of the truth, rather than to overwhelm it with the incomprehensible” (AT 41). Faruqi assures Muslims that they can hold to this truth with Yaqin [certainty untainted by doubt] since the truths of Iman “have been subjected to doubt and emerged from the testing confirmed and established as true…Whoever acknowledges them as true is reasonable; whoever persists in denying or doubting is unreasonable. This cannot be said of Christian faith, as it were by definition; but of the imam of Islalm, it is a necessary description” (AT 41).

Faruqi’s rhetoric is impressive. Unfortunately he fails to spell out the logical procedure by which he arrives at his convictions and indicates the criteria with which they may be judged. When pressed for an answer, he simply appeals to al Ashari’s reasoning that one first accepts the revealed text as it is, and then rejects the question, “How the common sense meaning is predicable to the transcendent being” as illegitimate, in accordance to the process called bila kayfa (without how) (DTE27). But is not bila kayfa nothing more than an act of reverent agnosticism? As such, his claims of rationality here is not so much proven as asserted as an act of intuition. Faruqi is evidently also plagued by the same philosophical problem which has dogged all philosophers who seek to maintain the validity of human thought conducted within an Islamic framework with its uncompromising emphasis on the utter transcendence of God. I cannot help but remain suspicious that for all his insistence on the rationality of his Islamic tradition, the qualifications added to his rhetoric confirms that Faruqi in reality operates within an Islamic fideistic framework.

Faruqi seeks to impale Christianity with the false horns of a dilemma. If Christians take their Scripture literally, then they lack the prerequisite poetical imagination required to understand transcendental dimensions of scriptures. On the other hand, if they go beyond the literal reading of the text and apply the sophisticated analytical power represented by Augustine, they become incapable of understanding the Semitic way of talking about God (DTE 18). But is it not the case that both Faruqi and Christian thinkers rely on the same strategy to make sense of the transcendent God with human language? Those who share the same glass houses should refrain from throwing stones. At least, Christian theologians acknowledge the limits of human language when they remind their readers that the Christian doctrine of God and Christ formulated in the creedal language of the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed should be seen as limits or boundary language beyond which theological speculations may not breach. Unfortunately, Faruqi’s eagerness to condemn Christian talk as irrational would only boomerang at his own theological tradition. For Faruqi, it is paradox and irrationalism in your case but sanctified imagination, new modality and intuition guarded by bila kayfa in his case.

Faruqi is uncompromising in his rejection of the satisfaction theory of atonement. “A moral evil, which is a determination of the inner self of the moral agent, cannot be touched, let alone expiated, by anything external to that self, be it another man or God” (CE 232). Faruqi is possibly appreciative of the didactic aspect of the moral influence theory of the atonement. But he still persists in claiming that “redemption is purely an ideational affair and Jesus Christ is not the savior who has saved, but the teacher par excellence. The redemption he has brought about is not a fait [sic] accompli, but a way of life and conduct which man ought to emulate” (CE 232).

Faruqi confidently maintains that his religious philosophy offers more accurate insights into the distinction between mercy and justice. For him, justice has a higher value than mercy since a cosmos where mercy overrides justice will end in chaos. However, Christianity upholds both divine forgiveness and the atonement of Christ’s precisely as the means to reconcile what appears to be competing demands of God’s mercy and justice. God in his mercy offers forgiveness, but his forgiveness is neither whimsical nor arbitrary. He cannot simply utter forgiveness which in effect sets aside the just demands of his holiness. Hence, the necessity of the atonement of Christ’s death on the cross which expresses God’s love and preserves the integrity of God’s holiness and justice at the same time. For some inexplicable reasons Faruqi declines to engage with the Christian attempt to uphold both God’s mercy and justice.

Perhaps Faruqi’s problem arises because he works from an assumption that atonement cannot be both objective and subjective. “Redemption, as something ontic, cannot be moral or spiritual, but legal, penal, and governmental. As ontic, therefore, and as legal, it cannot leave any opportunity for ethical spiritual transformation which, like every moral endeavour then becomes superfluous. . . As a puppet, it is no wonder that the Christian who is a consistent saviourist is wide open to the spiritually fatal attacks of ethical complacency” (CE 235-236).

But surely his concern would have been allayed if he had understood that for the Christian, Christ’s work of atonement is inseparable from the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit. According to Christianity the Holy Spirit bridges the believer’s status of acceptance before God on the basis of Christ’s atonement, with a new spiritual nature in the believer created by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, there is no excuse for ethical passivity and moral indifference since the believer is endowed with dynamic power for moral action by the Holy Spirit. To charge Christians as guilty of ethical complacency both blatantly ignores the logic of Christian salvation and it moral demands. As the Book of James stresses, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

Since Faruqi has convinced himself that Christianity has inadequate ethical commitment it comes as no surprise when he asserts that Christianity has no theory of society or, what he terms as “societism”. His logic is simplistic. If Jesus’ ethics is personalistic and if Jesus rejected the religious role of law, and if he did not intend to found a society, his followers cannot do otherwise. These claims are questionable. Faruqi declares that Jesus’ ethic is a “personalist ethic inasmuch as ethical worth and unworth are functions of the quality of the will of the individual person” (CE 249-250). As a consequence, the Christian Kingdom of God became otherworldly religion in contrast to the temporary theatre of Caesar and where moth and rust consume (AT 165). Generalizing further, Faruqi contrasts Christianity with societism which requires that “a man may not only will to do the act, or he may not only honestly think that he has done it, but must actually enter the world of real space and time, disturb the flow and equilibrium and bring about the real content of the act” (CE 252). This is precisely what is lacking in Christianity. Hence, he feels justified in judging that the personalistic ethic of Jesus has been superseded by the social implementation of divine law to achieve a Godly society given in the later revelation of Islam.

I have already noted earlier that Faruqi operates with a questionable dichotomy between the objective and subjective, the personal and social and the concrete and the spiritual in ethic. He presumes that Christian ethical prerequisite is exhaustively satisfied within the inner self as a moral subject, since it consists in the determination of his will. “Christian ethics makes no demand whatever that the matrices of the moral subject’s acts, ideas, attitudes, etc., be any one, more than one, or all of the departments of the complexus of relations” (CE 251). This judgment is a travesty of Christianity. Indeed, if this were true, one could turn the table and claim the converse (albeit for argument sake), that is, precisely because his own Islamic philosophy has a social agenda, he must be indifferent toward personal ethics.

Obviously, Faruqi chooses to ignore the social aspects of Christianity articulated by the Christian theologians despite indicating some familiarity with their works. He rightly understands that it is not defensible to equate the Kingdom of God with the Church. But surely this does not mean that the Church cannot concretely embody the spiritual reality of the Kingdom so that it serves as an instrument to critique and transform society. Faruqi’s conclusion that because Christian social theology relativizes the state, it therefore has no relevance to society is nothing more than an unwarranted case of reductio ad absurdum. Thus, his discussion on Barth concentrates on the latter’s social critique but it fails to note the significance of Barth’s demand for a Christian “moulding of the state into an allegory of the Kingdom of God and the fulfillment of its righteousness, the purpose of the state is given to “clarify” rather than to “obscure” the Lordship of Jesus Christ” (CE 268-269). Faruqi’s oversight confirms how unyieldingly he is locked into his reductionist metareligion framework when he waxes eloquent: “For how can the societist will to space-time, to the world, to life and nature, ever be reconciled with the peccatist condemnation? How could societist activism be reconciled with the saviorist contention that all that needs to be done has been done once and for all? How can the societist futurism [sic] the will to a future, that is not yet but is actualizable by man’s effort alone, be reconciled with the sudden coming of the Kingdom with power of a cosmic bouleversement?” (CE 294). In a final gesture of condescension he even advises Christians to take up the task of a “Second Reformation” which begins when the Christian brushes away “the cumulative scum of the centuries” to attain an understanding of Jesus as an “exemplification of the moral law” rather than as saviour (CE 313-314).

III. Conclusion
While we are mindful that dialogue should foster mutual understanding, we feel obliged to offered a vigorous response to Faruqi polemical critique of Christianity. Dialogue, however constructive, cannot be an excuse for cozy intellectual indifference. For this reason, Faruqi has done Christians a favor by sharpening the differences between Christianity and Islam, in contrast to many contemporary Western theologians who are tempted to gloss over religious differences as they are burdened by a colonial guilt complex. Given the sharp criticisms coming from Faruqi, it is a matter of integrity that Christians respond to his challenge. The task of giving a well-considered response naturally falls on Christians living in majority-Muslim countries.

Recent developments in the philosophy of pragmatism and postmodern epistemology may discourage the project of inter-religious debate and dialogue on grounds that competing intellectual frameworks or paradigms are esssentially incommensurable (for a good discussion of incommensurability see, Richard J. Benstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism). But surely, to the extent that we all share the same life-world, it is reasonable to expect that religions engaging in dialogue be subject to the same standards of rational criticism. This demands transparency in how we apply various criteria for rational evaluation of conflicting truth claims. In any case, I hope to have demonstrated that the a priori metareligion commended by Faruqi is too biased to be helpful. In a real sense Faruqi has not initiated a genuine dialogue aimed at achieving mutual understanding which does not ignore genuine differences between Christianity and Islam. For whatever personal reasons, Faruqi has been too concerned to find weaknesses than to understand Christianity. Consequently, his critique, despite all its sophistication must ultimately be judged to be a failure.

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 1/3
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 3/3”

  1. Faruqi fails to address the central point of Christianity – which is the humanisation of God for the sake of humanity … as such, Christianity doesn’t eternalise Christ but temporalises Him – the Incarnation and, therefore, the Crucifixion and, hence, the Resurrection … this is the meaning of Revelation … Divine Revelation, to be precise …

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