Islam and Christianity on
A Collaborative Interfaith Reflection
by Farhan Shah and Jay McDaniel
Collaborative Interfaith Reflection: A Leading Edge
Something new is happening in the religious world today. As people affiliated with different religions get to know each other, the possibility emerges that they can engage in collaborative interfaith reflection. Our essay is an example of this. Our own co-thinking is facilitated by the fact that we are both process theologians and thus share common assumptions about life, the world, and God. See Twenty Key Ideas in Process Thinking and A Process Interpretation of Islam.
Collaborative interfaith reflection can be theological, philosophical, psychological, sociological -- or all of the above. Whatever its tone and style, it is a leading edge in our multi-faith world and accomplishes two aims at once. It speaks to the needs of those within a given tradition on topics of import and at the same time it develops ideas that can be jointly shared and developed by participants in both traditions. That’s what we are trying to do in this essay. Ours is a collaborative, interfaith essay on “psychological well-being” within Islam and Christianity, in the tradition of process thinking. In Islam a primary influence for process thinking is the Qur'an itself, along with the work of the philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. In Christianity a primary influence is the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, along the work of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. As process thinkers we are shaped by these respective influences and also by the influences of one another. In what follows we offer a bit of context for our reflections and then we turn to “psychological well-being.” Our proposal is threefold:
- Psychological well-being can be understood by Muslims and Christians alike as inner responsiveness to the lures of God within the human heart and mind, which can be felt both consciously and subconsciously, individually and collectively.
- Psychological well-being takes the form of holistic self-realization in which a person feels deeply, enjoing six key characteristics of experiential range and depth (see below) and with a capacity to “realize” many different qualities of heart and mind
- Psychological well-being, itself always in process, is one of the primary aims of "humanistic" religion as opposed to authoritarian religion. Here "humanism" is itself holistic, including felt and appreciative relations with other people, other animals and the natural world.
On, then, to context.
In our respective settings some, perhaps many, millennials abandon the “Islam” that they know because it seems anti-life, anti-human, or, to say the same thing, psychologically destructive. Or they abandon the “Christianity” they know, because it likewise seems inhumane. Often the forms of Islam and Christianity they know are indeed authoritarian, rule-preoccupied, patriarchal, and anthropocentric.
Thus these young Muslims and Christians are caught in a dilemma. They can remain true to “Islam’ and “Christianity” in its problematic forms but lose their humanity; or they can gain their humanity by converting to another religion, or by adopting atheism or secularism, which can seem to them to be more humane. A question emerges: Can Islamic and Christian scholars help pave the way for a third way – that is, a way of understanding Islam and Christianity whereby the two religions are seen and felt as psychologically healthy and whole-making, as “on the side of life.” Can they be presented as ways of living in the world that are continuous with the best of tradition but also forward looking: that are truly good for humanity, fostering self-respect, creativity, compassion, healthy forms of community, and zest for life?
For Muslims living in a European and democratic context, which is the case for one of us (Farhan Shah), the dilemma is especially harsh. Religious dogmatism has been a failure, especially for the newer generation of believers. Often the newer generation sees Islam as opposed to critical thinking, creative self-expression, and life itself. Islam seems rigid and inflexible. This is why it is so important for Muslim scholars to show how critical reflection, open-ended dialogue and cognitive flexibility can be understood as Quranic virtues and not as alien virtues to internalize.
As critical reflection and open-ended dialogue are reclaimed, opportunities for creative transformation emerge. The fundamental problems with some traditional, oppressive and life-negating understandings of Islam are then opened for critical re-examination. Young Muslims sense that they can stop relying on unexamined, unconscious philosophies and pseudo-solutions, causing much individual and social harm, and instead seek new and fresh ways of thinking about a religion they love or want to love.
A similar situation obtains for young Christians in the West who experience Christianity as authoritarian and life-denying, a false “corporatization” of the fresh and free teachings of Jesus. Many of them also experience Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, as having been almost completely coopted by right-wing politicians and (older, white, male) religious leaders, such that it is a mere excuse for ethnic nationalism.
Happily, we now see some of this constructive movement in some Muslim circles. Muslims in the West are now asking some fundamental questions: What are the worthwhile goals of a reconstructed Islam? What should be the function of Islam in our postmodern context? How can Islam supply Muslims with the strength and courage to cope with the manifold challenges they are facing? They are agreeing that no interpretation of Islam will be life-enhancing that does not centrally incorporate the concept that human beings are creatures with agency and normative responsibility; that the future is open-ended, a process of formation; and that human beings have an important role to play in creating their futures, thus becoming God's co-workers. In their own ways, they are becoming “process” thinkers, influenced by the pioneering work of Muhammad Iqbal.
Parallel to this, a younger generation of Christians in the US and other parts of the world, millennials are also developing new and more vibrant understandings of Christianity, where it is closer to the free and fresh teachings of Jesus, and distanced from the right-wing conservatism that haunts older Christian circles. Some among them are also “process” in orientation, in their case influenced by the pioneering philosophical outlook of Alfred North Whitehead as interpreted and advanced by John B. Cobb, Jr. and an emerging generation. In effect two forms of process theology are emerging: Islamic and Christian.
Again and quite fortunately, the same is occurring among Jews influenced by the creative work of Rabbi Bradley Artson. His own work in God of Becoming and Relationship has opened many doors for Jews interested in articulating uniquely and beautifully Jewish outlooks on life which have appeal to wider audiences as well, which include Muslims and Christians. See, for example, Rabbi Artson’s Moments of Torah, which are seen and enjoyed by many. What we find, in effect, are fresh, multi-faith currents in Process Theology.
Millennials in these different traditions face different problems as they develop these fresh forms. In a North American context among Christians, one of the greatest challenges is to critique the hyper-individualism that permeates American life, adumbrating a more relational alternative. In Islam, by contrast, one of the urgent tasks of religious leaders and scholars is to foster dynamic, thriving and spacious environments in which believers can actualize their individual personality in creative and novel ways; only Muslims with these capacities can manage the future and its changing actualities, and thus face novelty and perpetual flux with courage, self-belief and confidence.
Such is the background for the remainder of essay below, written by the two of us, which offers what we hope is a positive view of human fulfillment that can be, as we see things, both Quranic and biblical, both Muslim and Christian.
Psychological Well-Being: Holistic Self-Realization with Depth and Range
Process philosophers and theologians believe that the divine reality is continuously present within each person as an inner lure toward goodness, truth, and beauty, with the "lure" consisting of fresh possibilities for responding to the situation at hand, relative to that situation. This lure has magnetic power, but is by no means all-determining. Sometimes, many times, other influential factors are more determinative. "Lures" from society, from one's personal past, from the body. These non-divine lures may sometimes be quite good, profoundly consonant with the divine lures. We meet "God's will" through the example and presence of others. But they can also be neutral or, in some circumstances, quite destructive. We learn how to hate from our societies and, unfortunately, our religions. In any case, the indwelling yet ever-adaptive lure toward truth, goodness and beauty never abandons us and is always within us, as a non-coercive pull toward those qualities and, accordingly, a fulfillment of our own better potential. Sometimes we respond and sometimes we don't.
We are led to wonder, and what does a life look like that is responsive to these lures in a relatively consistent way. What qualities of heart and mind are at work are the “fruits” of responsiveness?
Here there is no single answer but there are powerful suggestions. Our thought is that Muslims and Christians alike can rightly see “psychological well-being” as combining a sense of creative autonomy (self-realization, self-actualization) and a recognition of the relational character of all life. Psychological well-being can be understood as both individualized and sensitive to community (human and ecological), neither to the exclusion of the other. We might call it holistic self-realization with depth and range.
A Soul with Depth and Range
And what might a soul with depth and range look like? One images comes fro the process philosopher and theologian Bernard Loomer who speaks of our human need to grow into sizeable souls. For Loomer, a soul with size is described as follows:
By S-I-Z-E I mean the stature of [your] soul, the range and depth of [your] love, [your] capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature."
If we unpack Loomer's paragraph we find that a wide has at least six characteristics:
- Capacity for Loving Relationships: A self-realized person enjoys range and depth in its capacity for loving relationships, helping others to become freer in their diversity and uniqueness.
- Open-Mindedness: A self-realized person can understand a variety of outlooks on life without feeling defensive and insecure. He or she is open-minded.
- Openness to Complexity: A self-realized person has the power to sustain complex relationships and enriching tensions. He or she does not lapse into either-or thinking but is inclined toward both-and thinking.
- Tolerance for Enriching Tensions: A self-realized person can live with enriching tensions without being overwhelmed. He or she does not flee from constructive conflict.
- Personal Integrity: A self-realized person does all this while maintaining a sense of integrity. He or she sticks to its principles and enjoys a sense of individual freedom.
- Individuality: A self-realized person does not lose his or her agency or self-creativity. He or she celebrates diversity and delights in uniqueness, and it enjoys unique agency itself.
The second image is that of a spiritually alive person. Process philosophers and theologians do not have a single way of understanding “spirituality,” and we recognize that the word can be misleading if it suggests and escape from the world, an abandonment of reason and critical thinking, or a denial of all things physical. But we use the word to name qualities of heart and mind that, in different circumstances, help a person feel and become fully alive and awake, relative to the circumstances at hand. And we find the “spiritual alphabet” of Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat very helpful for recognizing these qualities. Their alphabet is helpful because it includes ethical impulses such as kindness and compassion and a sense of justice but also aesthetic impulses such as imagination and play and wonder. It also includes ways that we humans can be positively related with other people and the earth: respect for teachers, hospitality to strangers. In short, it is deeply holistic. Below is the list:
attention - beauty - being present - compassion - connections - devotion - enthusiasm - faith
forgiveness - grace - gratitude - hope - hospitality - imagination - joy - justice - kindness - listening-love - meaning - nurturing - openness - peace - play - questing - reverence - shadow - silence
teachers - transformation - unity - vision - wonder - x, the mystery - yearning - you - zeal
In short, we suggest that God-inspired people have souls with size and that, relative to different circumstances of their lives; they partake of the various “letters” in the spiritual alphabet.
Psychological Well-Being is Individualized and Fluid
Are they, then, psychologically whole? We believe so, and then quickly add “each in his or her own way” and “always in a fluid, flexible, and dynamic way.” We add “each in her or her own way,” because we recognize that sizeable souls with life-giving qualities of heart and mind (the alphabet) come in different “shapes,” as it were. What psychological well-being means for one person may be very different from what it means for another, relative to the social context and circumstances of their respective lives. These contexts include matter of race, class, gender, sexuality, biological chemistry, past personal decisions, and life-circumstances. Moreover, we add “always in a fluid, flexible, and dynamic way,” because psychological well-being is never a state of affairs achieved all at once or once and for all. It is always in a state of perpetual becoming, of formation, of process.
We also want to celebrate the emergence in psychology of the fields of “emotional intelligence” and “positive psychology,” both of which offer evidence-based approaches to what we mean by psychological well-being, from which the general public can benefit. See the work, for example, of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, California and the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale.
We add as well that there is a pre-reflective and subconscious dimension to the journey toward psychological well-being in human life, an understanding of which can be enriched by insights from depth psychology and transpersonal psychology. See, for example, the pioneering work of Sheri Kling in Whitehead, Jung, and Psychospiritual Wholeness.
And, finally, we add that, for us as process thinkers, concerns for individual psychological well-being are insufficient and problematic unless conjoined with concerns for a more whole world: that is, a world in which all people learn to live together, take care of each other, and take care of the earth. An overemphasis on personal psychological well-being can be a problematic in its way, if neglectful of the need for ecological civilizations, as is a concern for ecological civilizations alone, if neglectful of needs for individual well-being. Whole people in a whole world; that is, for us what God seeks for the world.
Can Islam and Christianity help us live in this holistic way? The question is not one of religion or not, but rather which form of religious experience needs to be fostered and developed. If individual believers are socialised into a culture based on blind obedience, fear and dogmatic certainty, the individuality will be stunted, and her/his religious experience will come to be unhealthy and destructive. However, on the other hand, within cultures conductive to personal freedom and the positive use of their individual capacities, believers will develop a life-enhancing, psychologically healthy religious experience.
Authoritarian and humanistic religion
In his illuminating book Psychoanalysis and Religion, Erich Fromm distinguishes between two forms of religion: the authoritarian and the humanistic. He unpacks his definition of an authoritarian religion and experience thus:
“The essential element in authoritarian religion and in the authoritarian religious experience is the surrender to a power transcending man. The main virtue of this type of religion is obedience; its cardinal sin is disobedience. Just as the deity is conceived as omnipotent or omniscient, man is conceived as being powerless and insignificant. Only as he can gain grace or help from the deity by complete surrender can he feel strength. Submission to a powerful authority is one of the avenues by which man escapes from his feeling of aloneness and limitation. In the act of surrender he loses his independence and integrity as an individual but he gains the feeling of being protected by an awe-inspiring power of which, as it were, he becomes a part.”
On the contrary, humanistic religion and humanistic experience is
“centered around man and his strength. Man must develop his power of reason in order to understand himself, his relationship to his fellow men and his position in the universe. He must recognize the truth, both with regard to his limitations and his potentialities. He must develop his powers of love for others as well as for himself and experience the solidarity of all living beings. He must have principles and norms to guide him in this aim. Religious experience in this kind of religion is the experience of oneness with the All, based on one’s relatedness to the world as it is grasped with thought and with love. Man’s aim in humanistic religion is to achieve the greatest strength, not the greatest powerlessness; virtue is self-realization, not obedience. Faith is certainty of conviction based on one’s experience of thought and feeling, not assent to propositions on credit of the proposer. The prevailing mood is that of joy, while the prevailing mood in authoritarian religion is that of sorrow and of guilt.”
In other words, we must be intellectual honest, and realistic about religions as both psychologically destructive and constructive potentialities. Religions at their worst are conduits of superstition, arrogance, escapism, self-negation, violence and divisiveness. Religions at their best can be contexts for respectful and healthy living, the formation of wisdom and compassion, and creativity in daily life. We want to talk about religions as humanistic potentialities. That is to say, at their best, Christianity and Islam are conduits by which Christians and Muslims can rightly find the God, the object of devotion, who thus seeks. At their worst, they are obstacles to the seeking. God’s lures operate within, but also independently of, organized religions. The freedom of God to operate within and beyond religion is good news for all, Muslims and Christians, Jews and Buddhists, Secularists and Spiritual Independents. We seek to live faithfully from, and celebrate, that good news.
Farhan Shah, Muslim academic and Islam-advisor at the Center for Process Studies, Claremont, California
Jay McDaniel, professor, writer and Christian process theologian