They had finally arrived. No more war, no more wandering and wondering what might happen to them. The Syrians were safe in Canada now and in our neighbourhood. We wanted to welcome them in and so a tour of our school seemed appropriate. The Vice Principal, accompanied by a translator, and a few local parents gave these families the full tour. At the end of the tour, the Vice Principal asked the Syrian children for feed back. One of the older boys whose head had been on a swivel for the entire tour remarked that he thought it odd that he had seen no children being beaten.
There was a pause, as the shocking contrast of culture & worldview was realized in this simple observation. Finally the Vice Principal sputtered out a response “You are safe here, if I or any of the teachers beat you we go to jail.”
The boy might need more convincing then that, but it was good enough to coax a smile out of him. Canada is going to be all right after all.
Some paper, some pencil crayons and a chance to give some refugee kids a bit of fun. That was the plan. The drive down to southern Turkey was uneventful, and upon arrival at the camp there was no shortage of kids. After John* had distributed his stockpile he began to make the rounds to see what everyone had drawn. One set of pictures left John and his colleagues stunned.
A small boy produced his first picture. It was his family together in their house, everyone was smiling and the sun was shining, but in the top left there was something ominous. A plane has been sketched in, with a bomb dropping out of it.
In the next picture, the smiles have turned to frowns and tears can be seen on the faces of the children. The mom is no where to be seen, the house is on fire and an army tank approaches. This was the boys story, the same tragic story of millions.
But that wasn’t the last of the pictures. The little boy produced a third picture. A picture of a man hanging on the cross.
John, a follower of Jesus, asked the little muslim boy who the man on the cross was. The boy, stared back at John and stated matter of factly; “This is the man who is going to stop the war.” The boy however, had no idea who the man on the cross actually was. Somehow in those dark moments of terror, death, and destruction, Jesus had revealed himself to this little muslim boy, and given him great comfort and hope. John explained that the man to stop the war was Jesus and for the first time the boy heard the name of the person he was already hoping in.
*I’ve changed the name
It’s costly to convert — I always feel that anyone who writes a book like this must be very brave. Muslims don’t really have the option to change their religion. It’s one of those unthinkable things, something that still warrants capital punishment in many parts of the world. The cost of leaving the Muslim faith is immense. If physical death is somehow avoided, there is certainly the death of relationships, career opportunities and social standing. Nabeel was not just a cultural Muslim, he was a devotee to his Ahmadiyya sect of Islam. From the time of his birth he was indoctrinated in his faith, as he grew up in the west, his parents were delighted to see their only son become a staunch defender of Islam. In the Western world, preconceptions are freely and regularly challenged but Nabeel met these challenges with apologetic fervour. Eventually, over the course of many years, Nabeel left Islam to embrace Christianity, the price for him, even in the west, was tremendous.
Sharing ones faith is best accomplished in the context of a relationship — The book is about Nabeel’s story but it certainly could be David’s story as well. They were best friends through high school and university, the two were inseparable even though David was a committed Christian. Regarding evangelism Nabeel points out that
“Effective evangelism requires relationships. There are very few exceptions, the discussions that we had about faith arose naturally after we became friends and in the context of a life lived together. In fact I was the one who brought them up.”
I could not agree more.
Historical probability, truth and faith. — David and Nabeel were debaters in high school and university, they constantly challenged each other to find out the truth about whatever topic they were debating. Rational and reasonable argument became the norm for discovering truth. When it came to historical discussions the highest amount of probability based on the historical method was the criteria for distinguishing truth form error. One day David asked Nabeel the following question.
“Nabeel, stop trying to win the argument instead look for the truth — If the truth could be known, would you want to know it?
Nabeel’s answer was both “Yes” and “No” because he knew full well the cost if truth was not on his side. This launched his intense search for truth about the Bible, Jesus, the Quran, and Muhammed.
What about Jesus, the Bible, the Quran and Muhammed? Acknowledging the possibility of truth based on historical probability, Nabeel set out to undercut the claims of Christianity. Christians claim that Jesus died on the cross, Muslim’s say he didn’t. Christians claim that Jesus rose from the dead, Muslims say he did not. Christians claim that Jesus is divine, Muslims say that he is not. Looking at the evidence by use of the historical method the goal was to set the two stories side by side and determine which one is more likely the true one. This book settles into a relentless search for truth, but never does it disconnect from the humanity of this story or the cost of this search. It’s way more than just straight up apologetics.
The book reads like it might feel to be on board a ship that’s sinking. Nabeel doesn’t want the boat to sink, you as the reader can feel his anxiety and alarm, he writes in such a way that you don’t want the boat to sink either. After all, the boat of Islam is all he has known, it’s been a good boat for him. But the holes in the boat he discovers are real holes. They are undeniable. To leave the boat is the right course, if truth matters, but oh the struggle.
Faith more than just facts — Towards the end of the book Nabeel is broken, Christianity has withstood his withering scrutiny and his own faith has fallen. Muhammed is not the man Nabeel thought he was, the perfect preservation of the Quran is a myth. The ancient Muslim historians upon whom he depended for vindication of his faith, revealed the truth, and the truth was far from the story upon which his faith was built. Even still, it was too costly to leave his faith. If Jesus was real, If he was who the Christians claimed then Jesus would just have to show up and tell him directly. In three successive dreams, Jesus did. Nabeel knew the truth. To embrace Jesus as Lord would cost him everything, but hanging on to a lie would ultimately cost him more.
Serious Study — Nabeel is not like most people in the Western world who are content to embrace at a minimal level whatever cultural and religious back drop they are born into just so long as it doesn’t interfere with their personal freedom to do and be whatever they want. Truth was all that mattered to Nabeel he had to find it and align himself accordingly. In the end It was Christianity that was true not Islam.
What is spirituality?
A personal relationship with the transcendent.
Whats the worst thing you can do for your child?
2 decades of scientific research has convinced Lisa and her colleagues that spirituality is part of humanity’s natural endowment just like seeing, thinking or smelling. The universal assumption of all children is that there is an afterlife and a non material world. This is true because the human brain has a hard wired spiritual component found in the occipital lobe, it’s there, it’s physically present and when we don’t use it or when its potential is socialized out of us it atrophies with devastating consequences. According to the science to cut off spirituality from a child is to cut off life. To neglect the development of natural spirituality from a child is like preventing a child that loves to sing from singing. This “root of wellness” as she refers to it, must be allowed to grow in the first two decades of human life.
So what happens when parents fail to help their children use their occipital lobe to connect personally with the transcendent? Bad things. The research is incredibly troubling.
- Young people are 70-80% more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use and risky sexual behaviour when they do not have a personal relationship with the transcendent. Lisa is convinced that unmet spiritual needs is the explanation for this dramatic contrast. When the natural course for connection to the transcendent is not available young people will take destructive short cuts in an attempt to get there.
- Young people are up to 60% more likely to suffer from depression when they do not have a personal relationship with the divine.
- Humans who do not draw strength from a spiritual connection consistently heal slower, work less, and experience more stress than those who have a strong connection with the transcendent.
- The greatest predictor of popularity among girls in a spiritually severed environment was looks and “mean girl” qualities.
Even if Lisa is 20% off on her research these statistics should give everyone in the secular western world some serious pause. Need less to say this book is very critical of our secular societies embrace of materialistic naturalism and it’s gross negligence in fostering the growth of what Lisa refers to as natural spirituality.
Does this mean I have to become religious?
No. numerous times in the book, Lisa attempts to reassure the reader, that her book is not an attempt to proselytize anyone towards any specific religion. In fact her research points out a disconnection between spirituality and religion. Anytime that dogma, traditions, or rules were held without a personal connection to the divine there proved to be no measurable difference in preventing the abuses and unhealthy perspectives described above.
Lisa acknowledges that organized religion is far from unhelpful however. It can and often is an excellent road map that leads people into a personal connection with the divine, but so can a connection with an oak tree, a deceased relative, or any number of other non-traditional means.
What’s the science on this?
- Scientists have been able to locate the exact part of the brain that manages cravings. Extensive data from MRI studies show that when people meditate or pray the blood flow actually shifts from the craving faculty to the faculty of the brain responsible for transcendence decreasing the concession rate to unhealthy cravings.
- Science shows that cynical people have higher occurrences of dementia and cancer as well as shorter life expectancies. Humans are naturally spiritual and communal, but a cynic is unable to live comfortably in his natural state because of a deep lack of trust for both human and divine relationships. This severing from ones natural state is what leads to ill-health and death. We are not meant to be cynics.
- The frontal lobe of the brain, registers perception, cause and effect & reality. It serves as command and control for what to do. The occipital lobe is about feeling, morals, and transcendence. Healthy brains have healthy dialogue between the regions. When natural spirituality is socialized out, or hindered in some way, the pathways between the regions actually become thin, These untraveled pathways atrophy from lack of use. In this way the brain becomes unhealthy and moral sensitivity actually decreases.
- Thickened cortical walls and increased amounts of dopamine and serotonin are the bodies ways of resisting depression. It comes as no surprise to Lisa that higher levels of these natural compounds as well as a thickened cortex are found across the board in people who regularly pray or practice meditation.
Is Lisa dropping some wisdom on us?
Yes, lots of it. Perhaps we are paying to high a price in our mad rush to expunge the transcendent from our daily lives. This book is meant to sound a warning siren for our secular culture. — I think it does. Our kids are wired to look beyond the material world, for what really matters, we should both encourage them and join them as they explore.
Is Lisa off on a few things?
All religions are the same. Any road that leads to a personal relationship with the transcendent is a good road to be on. All roads should be considered equally valid. I think its good to teach our kids about the different religions, and to teach them to have great respect for all the various points of view. I do think, however, that it would be untrue to teach them that all religions are essentially the same. They are not, that is a false statement. You never want to teach your child something that is false. If all religions are not the same, then thinking persons will draw conclusions about them. Conclusions that will undoubtedly place some religions in front of others. —Lisa calls this “tribalism” and suggest’s that we should socialize this out of our kids. I understand her desire to get rid of unhelpful “mine is better than yours” rhetoric. However, I believe it is more damaging to teach children what is actually false. Preference, while having mutual respect, and open dialogue about the differences is not “tribalism” It’s life in the free world of ideas, belief, and choice.
All children are fundamentally good. She sites a few studies where young children were observed making unselfish choices. From this she concludes that everyone is fundamentally good, and that it is only when we stunt the growth of children’s natural spirituality that they go bad. This is clever, but the research is anecdotal at best. All humans young and old share a fundamental brokenness. Certainly we are capable of doing nice things, even at very young ages, however, one never has to be taught to have a tantrum, or lie, or steal, or be selfish, those traits come naturally – they are inborn. Goodness must be taught. I believe that goodness’ best teacher comes through a personal relationship with the divine, but I can’t start out with the presupposition that humans are fundamentally good, we are not.
- A shared ritual is a bond of love.
- Ritual creates a special bond that actually physically holds the transcendent.
- Ritual invests a moment with meaning
- Symbolism connects mind and heart.
Perhaps its no accident that organized religions have been using symbols and rituals for millennia.
There is a difference between clinical and developmental depression. Developmental depression happens as the young person becomes attuned to the world. It’s “The dark night of the soul.” In these cases a rush to medicate is a terrible idea. Rather these times should be embraced as opportunities for deeper spiritual growth. Spirituality is most effective in combatting depression when it’s shared in a group.
I will make Pharaoh’s heart stubborn so I can multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. 4 Even then Pharaoh will refuse to listen to you. (Ex 7:3-4
Here we have another example of paradox. On the one hand God is going to harden Pharaohs heart and on the other Pharoah himself is going to refuse to help the Jews. So which is it? Is it God controlling Pharoah or is it Pharoah making his own decisions?
The inability to live with tension, I think is what leads to mental disorders, heresies and cults.
I’ve met numerous people through 20 years of ministry that simply cannot live with these kinds of tensions. They have to resolve them and so they go in extreme directions. It’s these kinds of tensions that bring out the obsessive-compulsive in people.
On many things in life and faith it seems to me that a more generous “both and” perspective will lead to greater mental health and balanced living and belief then the inflexible “either or” position.
We must learn to live comfortably with a Bible and a life that is full of tension, mystery and paradox. We should work hard to find answers to life’s big questions, but we need to take a deep breath and relax and realize that some aspects of life and faith don’t fall neatly into place. All the theological loose ends don’t tie up in nice bows, and that is ok. Resting in God is not permission to shut your mind off to difficulties and tensions, but it does create the necessary softness for us to say “perhaps” “maybe” and “I don’t know”.
They agreed that anyone who refused to seek the Lord, the God of Israel, would be put to death—whether young or old male or female — 2 Chron 15:13
Then when the Sacred months have passed, kill the Mushrikun (Idol worshipers including trinitarian Christians) wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them and prepare for them each and every ambush. — Surah At-Tauba 9:5
But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! — Matt 5:44
With the exception of Jesus’ counter cultural words in Matthew 5, the two passages from the Bible and the Quran above are perfect examples of what religion was capable of prior to the Enlightenment.
For some in the religious community the coming of the Enlightenment will be seen as a disaster for faith. I don’t see it that way. Thanks to the enlightenment in the west, Religion was transformed from an involuntary truth to a voluntarily accepted possibility. The movement from involuntary to voluntary transformed how the vast majority of the Western world understands religion today. I believe the shift from involuntary to voluntary is a good one that the entire world should embrace.
As crashing waves slowly erode a shore line, the enlightenments steady pounding of “question everything, believe nothing, human reason above all” began to fracture the steady shorelines of Europe. Nothing could stop this tide. The mantra of “human reason first of all” created healthy (and unhealthy) scepticism which eroded irreversibly so much of what was involuntarily accepted as true in that day, no place was left untouched by this rising tide, most especially religion. The firm shorelines of religion in Europe began to crumble for some very understandable reasons:
There had been a couple hundred years of religious war between Catholics and Protestants which had ended in stailmate with all sides exhausted, and beginning to think “there has to be a better way”. In addition the development of dozens and dozens of denominations since the reformation was enough to cause even the most religious of people that niggling feeling in the back of their mind that the right path to God might be little more than a best guess. Then it happened, science slipped passed theology in the race for supremacy. God no longer informed us about science. Science informed us about God. Eventually, sufficient amounts of doubt took the fight out of religious zealots. Was there really a need to clobber someone over the head just because they didn’t believe as you did? The answer was becoming increasingly clear: No.
If one wished to journey towards God that trip would have to be a voluntary trip based on all sorts of information, evidence, tradition and experience. Before the enlightenment, the idea of voluntary religion was unthinkable. Theology was at the heart of knowing. Ones understanding of God was all that mattered everything else in life was just details. People were born into certain systems of belief and these systems were true and unquestioned. To wander from the truth for any reason was dangerous to the community and damning for the soul. Thus responsible leaders both political, military and religious embraced their duty to stamp out heresy and false belief. The eternal destiny of their people mandated aggressive action. The assumption of meta-physical truth being known conclusively is what the enlightenment destroyed.
Many parts of Islam have not yet gone through any sort of enlightenment. Unlike Western religions, Islam is not a voluntary belief system yet, that means it’s adherents are not free to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their faith. For many Muslim systems, the Quran (and Hadith in some cases) is still the diffinitive truth that must be believed at all costs. Life both now and forever depend on it. Any threat to this belief must be destroyed.
- Ancient Jews were part of an involuntary system of religion. (Hence the verse above)
- Middle age & post reformation Christians were part of an involuntary system of religion, (Hence the religious wars in Europe during that era) — Sadly, Jesus’ call to love those in opposition was pushed aside in this era. The most important thing in order to maintain law and order was to punish someone whose belief system was not in accord with everyone else’s.
- Many modern day Islamists are still a part of an involuntary system of religion. (Hence the never ending gruesome news reports coming from many Muslim countries around the world) as long as a belief system remains a compulsory non optional reality, for it’s followers, there will always be bloodshed. Protecting the absolute truth of ones belief system will always be infinitely more important than the life of ones enemy or even ones own life as the seemingly endless line of suicide bombers testify.
Granted, it’s disconcerting for a faith position to be relegated to optional. Jesus for example, claimed that he was “the truth” such definitive statements don’t leave a whole lot of options on the table. How must a doubt soaked post enlightenment Christian come to grips with this claim? How must he share this claim with others?
Let healthy doubt create humility. What would be wrong with saying “Jesus might be the truth, and this is why I think he is”? Nothing in my estimation. We will never go back to involuntary religion, so the verbal bluster that comes from that era should be dropped. I also think we should take seriously, the words that Jesus gave us about loving those who oppose us. In the post enlightenment scientifically based world it will be impossible to know with clinical certainty existential truth based on ancient historical narrative, therefore we simply can’t have an arrogant swagger when it comes to presenting what we believe to be true. Faith is the confidence we have in what we cannot see, but our senses will more easily grasp what cannot be seen, if everything we do is wrapped in love. This is good advice for all the religions of the world.
This less dogmatic, more unsure stance will be completely unpalatable for some strong believers who have managed to avoid the doubt that comes with the enlightenment. For me, letting go of some certainty regarding my faith is a tremendous step forward in developing a world of peaceful coexistence, and even peaceful cooperation. Easing up on personal certitude in order to embrace the free will that comes with voluntary religion is infinitely better than the shallow benefits of confidence, conformity, and security that come with involuntary religion.
Jeffrey Lang grew up in an abusive home, his nominal Catholic faith provided him no solace for the suffering he endured. By his mid teen age years he had become a convinced atheist. In his 20’s a friend handed him a Quran, he started reading, over time he left atheism and embraced the way of Islam. Why?
According to Lang, Islam is better because unlike Christianity, human suffering is not a result of God’s angry judgement. In the beginning according to Lang’s interpretation of the Quran, there is no great sin that brought condemnation to the human race. There was only a little “slip up”. God didn’t get angry or feel threatened by this inconsequential eating of unauthorized fruit.
The big idea of the ancient Adam and Eve narrative is not one of divine judgment and human brokeness, rather divine mercy and human preparation. God does not punish Adam and Eve, rather he blesses them and tells them not to be afraid or sad. The “slip up” was part of their training. Now they must use their reason to choose God in the midst of suffering.
The choice between right and wrong is always a struggle (Jihad), but by using the facility of reason & intellect the right choices can be made and the relationship with God strengthened. Salvation comes through the work of the mind. Lang confesses that the greatest problem with unbelievers (non-muslims) is their inability to think properly “Unbelief in Islam, is an infirmity of the mind” Lang says.
The point of Islam is to have a close relationship with God. Since God is transcendent how is that even possible? The Quran describes God as compassionate, merciful, forgiving, just, protective, wise, generous, truthful, and peaceful. All of these attributes are the seeds of God that reside in every human. When we love God by living out these attributes in the everyday God loves us back. These seeds of divinity grow into full flower as we yield to the will of God and this is how we find ourselves in close relationship with him.
Suffering is good because with out it, we could never learn to use our reason and make the right choices to live out the attributes of God. When we fail to water the seeds of divinity in us, we destroy ourselves, thus sin is simply self destruction. Hell then is not so much a punishment from God, as it is the ultimate self destruction
I’m happy for Lang, in that he certainly seems to have found the solace he was looking for. I think he misunderstands the Christian story and I am not entirely sure he’s got the Muslim story right either. But lets assume for the sake of this article he has the Islamic story correct. What are the big differences?
- Christianity emphasizes human brokeness, Lang’s Islam does not. At first, this dismissal of sin and all of it’s attendant guilt and shame might seem to be a great idea. But for me, it does not ring true. We all swim in oceans of guilt and to shrug off our bad choices as insignificant “slip ups” doesn’t actually help us understand justice or even address what is wrong in our lives. Through the cross we understand clearly both the justice and mercy of God.
- I appreciate Lang’s emphasis on the need for human reason and choice, however, as a Christian I know that even the deep thoughts of my heart are often corrupted. Even my virtue in the blink of an eye can become vice. I need a Saviour to redeem me. In the Christian story it’s not the long hard climb upwards towards God through rational thought that’s beautiful, It’s God’s condescension to me. In my blindness he gives me sight, In my sickness he makes me whole, in my weakness and inability he empowers me. I love the idea of God coming to the rescue, and that’s what happens in the story of Jesus.
A curious observation: I agree with Lang about the need for the human to choose. Islam is the better story to him and he has chosen it, it makes the most sense to his mathematical mind. I respect that choice, even though I don’t agree with it. I wish all Muslim’s would be so generous when it comes to the matter of religious choice. Let’s turn the story around a little bit. Is there any doubt as to what would have happened to Jeffrey Lang, if he had been born Mohammed Al Ghamdi in Saudi Arabia? Let’s imagine, for a moment, that someone gave him a Bible in his mid twenties and through secret study he decided that Christianity was the better story. In his enthusiasm for his new religion he begins to speak out in his home town of Medina that Jesus is his Saviour. I am certain we wouldn’t be listening to his speeches for long, we would be visiting his grave site instead. In our pluralistic world of today, something is wrong when a religion forces it’s adherence to believe on pain of death. I hope Lang’s message of free choice goes a long way in the house of Islam.
Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ (Luke 7:22-23)
It is not the glamorous & popular things that you do in the name of Jesus that impress God. Miracles? Demon hunts? Prophecy? God yawns. There are plenty of religious showmen in this world, God is impressed with none of them. God, on the other hand, sits up and takes notice when he sees a person on the long, slow, faithful walk of obedience in the every day. There is talk in heaven when you quietly put others in front of yourself, and serve in the shadows. God is standing now, applauding wildly. “Yes!” says God as he high fives the other members of the Trinity. The roar of the angel crowd in heaven can be heard when you are in a quiet corner praying fervently for others and resisting temptation during rigors of daily life on planet earth. Can you hear them cheering? Despite doubts, you’ve continued to love and worship the unseen God. That’s what they call “Big time” in heaven.