Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Turkish Tree

I need to get out of Turkey. The warning sign: I'm beginning to enjoy Nescafe. Nevertheless, I'm slowly warming up to the place even after getting flim-flammed. The mosaics of Chora were the equivalent to a month worth of beautiful sermons. I had some time with the relics of Gregory and Chrysostom at the Patriarchate (stolen in 1204 and recently returned) all to myself. For every Muslim who got mad at me for not taking my shoes off in the proper way or charged me to enter a free mosque, I seemed to meet a God-fearing person who is welcoming and genuinely kind. One carpet salesman I spoke to today, who looked liked he stepped straight out of the Sabado Gigante set, was slick, pushy and clearly only after cash (surprise). Another was deeply informed, kind, and spoke of the reckoning he expects on Judgment Day for the prices he charges. And I don't think that was just carpet talk.

It all gives one reason to consider Muslim-Christian relations again, but this time with the sound of the evening's call to prayer in the background. Today at the tomb of Sultan Mehmet II (who conquered Constantinople), I was given an Engish tract by an earnest young Muslim who chanted while I was in the tomb. After most significant victories in the Ottoman empire soldiers would visit this tomb, and I wonder if he was praying for a similar global turn of events. I read the tract, but haven't yet converted. It said Allah is merciful. Follow that river to it's source and you'll find just how merciful - to the tune of his having become a crucified God.

I've heard Christians refer to Allah as, and I quote, "an idol at best and a demon at worst." I can't say I agree. As I hear the calls to prayer in this city, I wouldn't exactly prefer raw secularization. I would however, prefer more Christianity. It is sad to see how many churches I couldn't get into and how many Byzantine monuments are utterly neglected (or have disappeared!) in comparison to a place like Thessaloniki. Yet in the meantime, I'll take the God-fearing Muslim to the people who scammed me anyday.

A good verse for Muslim-Christian relations is the this one. Muslims certainly do see, but not as clearly as those who know Christ. They would say, and do say the same of me (but I happen to be right). I realize that saying that in the wrong circles here could get me martyred. Good thing my Turkish is limited to "Tea, Sugar and Dream" (the way to prounce "thank you"). Still, can a Muslim be more faithful with their limited revelation than a Christian can be with a fuller revelation? Of course. Remember the Last Battle (see the second #5)?

Christ is God. My Muslim friends (yes, I do have some) are wrong about this. They say I'm wrong about this. Across that fault line genuine love and friendship is perfectly possible, perhaps moreso than across a secular gulf. The real insult is to pretend no fault line exists. So yes, I love the people of the tree - enough to show them the man they're misperceiving.

A delightful Princeton professor gave a lecture on Johannine material at our seminar in Greece last week in which he suggested that the development of Christ as God took place nearly one hundred years after Christ died. Now, even if this were true, it doesn't mean that Christ's divinity would be automatically suspect. But the thing is, it's not true. When I reminded the professor privately that some of the earliest fragments of the New Testament we have, the hymns in Phillipians and Colossians, both contain some of the hightest Christology in the New Testament - what was his reaction? Refusal to admit the evidence? No, polite and civil concession, because a calm consideration of such evidence shows it's not imaginary. John developed something that was long already there. The Jesus movement may have been wrong, but there is no disputing that it proclaimed Jesus God from a very early time - certainly well before the written evidence. "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" they once asked (in our earliest Gospel no less). What might Mark have been getting at by putting the words, "My son, your sins are forgiven" into the mouth of Christ?

Eternal salvation of humanity at large is an impenetrable matter, the shoals of shipwreck for many a young vessel of faith. But has the straw man of certainty really been granted? Best focus on one's own salvation, while still (a very important "still") spreading the message around. As Augustine said, there are many wolves within and many sheep without. But whatever concessions and surprises occur on Judgement Day, the God who makes such concessions (of which we have no guarantee), will be none other than the one who became one particular first century Palestinian Jew, full of grace and truth.