Recently I came across an article on the Huffington Post, in which the author, Amaryllis Puspabening, argued that “believing in [two different religions] does not cancel out one or the other.” She writes from her experience being raised by a devout Muslim mother and a non-practicing Catholic father in Asia, and as she admits that she has only “an average profiency in both,” I would like to offer my own above-average insight in response to her and those who are similarly confused. By the number of “likes” her article has garnered, there are obviously many who share her delightfully syncretistic views.
My insight and experience comes from two master’s degrees in theology, one of which was explicitly focused on contextualizing Christianity for people from different cultural and religious backgrounds. While I was pursuing that particular degree, I worked with a ministry whose mission was sharing the gospel with Muslims and Hindus in a way which was culturally familiar but also theologically sound. From my experience studying both Christianity and Islam, and working with ministries and missionaries to Muslims and Muslim converts to Christianity, I can tell you that your metaphor of being “bilingual” is not entirely apt. As you admit, you have only “an average proficiency in both,” whereas a person who is bilingual is fluent in both languages by definition. You, however, are fluent neither in Islam nor in Christianity. You are not both a Muslim and a Christian; you are neither. I do not say this to insult you, but to inform you. Some of what I am about to say may seem harsh, but is no more so than some of the criticism I once received from my best professors.
Your belief is full of logical contradictions, which is evident when you write: “Contrary to what people have been telling me, believing in both does not cancel out one or the other. This whole time people only wanted a proof of my faith. They want to see me accept the Holy Communion or go on Hajj, and only then will they stop asking questions.” If you participate in neither the fundamental rites of either religion (and I assume you have not been baptized, either), and you do not believe in Christ as the Son of God who died for your sins, then you do not believe in both. It’s not evident that you truly believe in either. Then you state that your “faith transcends the religions [you were] taught,” because you must recognize inherently that the two are mutually exclusive, and that people have been telling you so for a reason.
You write also: “I was given the freedom to make my own judgments and build my own truth, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.” However, truth is not something you get to create; it is objective. It is an objective truth, for example, that Christianity has from its beginning held that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and was resurrected from the dead, and that Islam from its inception has held that Jesus is merely one of the prophets. It is objective truth that Muhammad is held to be the primary prophet of Islam, and that the Qur’an is the infallible word of Allah as related through the Prophet, and that according to Allah, Jesus is not the Son of God. You write that your mother taught you that Jesus is one of the prophets of Islam, that “we all pray to the same God,” but you do not address a single time how you reconcile Islam’s belief that God has no children (and that to say so is blasphemy) with Christianity’s foundational tenet that Jesus is the Son of God. Your article is trite and superficial, just as your understanding of either religion appears to be.
You can’t wish away both religions’ foundational teachings and pretend that they’re not mutually exclusive. That’s not enlightened – it’s ignorant, and displays a lack of appreciation and respect for their theology. Only if you’re ignorant or deliberately ignoring the claims of each religion can you pretend that they’re compatible. That’s why you can only be one or the other or neither.
However, I do not think your article is entirely without substance. You make quite a beautiful and moving statement to conclude your piece: “Without Islam, I may never have known God, and without Catholicism, I may have never grown to love Him. One can never know nor love God completely—and so I shall continue to learn.” I think it is wonderful that you have found truth and beauty in both religions, and that you seek to know and love God. As you claim some Catholic affiliation, you might like to know what the Catholic Church says about its relationship with Muslims.
The Catholic Church accepts that there are elements of Islam which are true, and you do not have to abandon what is true in Islam in order to be a Christ-follower. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, states that “Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways” (839). With respect to the Church’s relationship with Muslims, it says,
The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day. (841)
The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.” (843)
There are elements of truth in all religions which serve to point us toward God, but those religions are also flawed, marred by the shortcomings of sinful human nature. The Catechism states:
In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them: Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. (844)
The Church even holds that there are members of other faiths who are saved members of the invisible, universal Body of Christ. The Catechism maintains that salvation is only through faith in Christ and baptism into the Church (846), but that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church” may nevertheless be saved if they “seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience” (847). A person who hears the gospel, however, and rejects it will not be saved.
You are partially right when you say, “One can never know nor love God completely,” but I’d add the qualifiers “in this life” and “without Jesus.” The reason God sent His Son, Jesus, was so that we might know and love God more completely. Jesus said this of himself repeatedly: “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me” (John 12:44).
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him. . . . Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:6-9)
I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. . . . Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. (John 17:6-8, 25-26)
Accordingly, if knowing Jesus means knowing God, then rejecting Jesus means rejecting God. Jesus said as much: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
Across the world, Muslims who have never met a Christian nor seen a Bible are turning to Christ in response to dreams and visions. Even an ISIS fighter with the blood of many Christians on his hands has converted after encountering Jesus in a dream. It is important to note that when Jesus appears to them, he does not tell them to remain Muslims, but to follow him and accept him as their savior. They know that being a Christian does not depend on the religion of one’s parents, or whether or not you attend church and were raised Christian your whole life. It depends on your answer to the question: “Who do you say Jesus is?” You can cling to what is true and beautiful within Islam and allow it to add depth and color to your Christian devotion, but if you say “Jesus is Lord,” then you have to reject Muhammad as a prophet. If you cannot say that, then you are not a Christian in any meaningful sense.
I would also like to comment on your concern that Christians would have you abandon the way you pray and what you cherish within Islam. You mentioned a couple of times your fondness of the prayer Al-Fatiha, and there is no reason that a devout Christian cannot pray this prayer. For the non-Muslim readers, this prayer is the opening surah of the Qur’an, and the English translation (by A. J. Droge, 2013) is as follows:
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
Praise (be) to God, Lord of the worlds, the Merciful, the Compassionate, Master of the Day of Judgment. You we serve and You we seek for help. Guide us to the straight path: the path of those whom You have blessed, not (the path) of those on whom (Your) anger falls, nor of those who go astray.
I agree that any Muslim who prays Al-Fatiha with a sincere heart is praying to the One God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And to whomever prays it with a sincere heart, God will reveal Himself through Jesus Christ, who came to show us the love of God by dying for our sins. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). You say you do not want to be forced to see less than you do, and that is not my wish for you. I would challenge you to open your eyes even wider and entertain the possibility that Christ truly is who he said, and that everything true and beautiful in every religion is pointing all of humanity to this one, spectacular Truth. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mark 4:23).
The Christian tradition and its styles of worship are deeper and richer and more varied than most people, including Christians, would ever imagine. The Body of Christ, the Church, has always been enfleshed in her culture, from contemporary worship music, megachurches, the priesthood of all believers, and Pentecostalism to Catholic monastics, medieval mystics, colorful icons, ancient hierarchies, Byzantine chants, and the solemn contemplation of the Orthodox – and everything in between. She was never meant to be a homogeneous set of cookie-cutter Christians, but to embody unity in diversity. You do not have to abandon your culture for some alien transplant of Western Christianity. Instead, you could go deeper and allow Christ to speak to you within your culture, to illuminate and transform it according to His purpose.
I, too, used to believe similarly to you, that all religions are the same and that my spirituality, my “truth,” transcended the narrow beliefs of those who insisted on one religion. But then I realized that Jesus was asking me a question which I could not ignore, and that to avoid answering it is to answer it in the negative. He was asking me to lay aside all that I am to follow him. I do not have the authority to make up my own truth, but only to open my eyes and allow God to show me.
You say that Catholicism taught you to love God, but do you love the one He sent? We love God because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), and His love for us compelled Him to give “his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). At some point on your journey, you will have to answer for yourself who Jesus is and whether you will receive the fullness of His love. I pray that God would reveal Himself to you and guide you as you seek to draw closer to Him.