How to be forgiven and reconciled in light of sin has been a central focus of the major Abrahamic religions. Focusing on two of them, Christian and Muslim religious groups along with their pivotal differences and shocking similarities, have wrestled with this theme and their conflicting viewpoints for centuries. More recently, scholars of the subject have gathered yearly at Georgetown University for a discussion and intensive examination of pertinent religious texts. Written by Lucinda Mosher and David Marshall, Sin, Forgiveness, & Reconciliation: Christian & Muslim Perspectives records and analyzes the proceedings of the thirteenth annual “Building Bridges Seminar” at Georgetown University.
Mosher and Marshall begin by recording the opening lectures, which gave Christian and Muslim overviews of the key concepts underlying the rest of the seminar’s discussion. The bulk of the book consists of both religions viewpoints on sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation, respectively. Text references, quotes, and inserted stories are included. The book concludes with Mosher’s compilation of the “Conversations in Virginia”, an essay of insights based on engagement with the seminar’s participants.
In the book, sin is universally defined as the fallen nature of humanity, something gone wrong with the world. While Christians and Muslims disagree on the origin and identity of this fall, God’s grace is offered nonetheless (p. 15). The retribution principle certainly holds true in Islamic canon, but it has lost its grip in the Christian West due to the influence of Pauline doctrine. Duties for the Christian, such as forgiveness (Luke 17:1-4), do not necessarily warrant a reward (Luke 17:7-10), while Muslim doctrine teaches that God has loving mercy for those who do good deeds (Sura 103).
The authors take a generalist view of human sin. While the variety of Christian traditions is insufficiently delineated, they present the Western tradition of original sin inherited by all through the ultimate representation of Adam but saved through the final representation of Christ, contrasted by the Eastern belief in human mortality before the Fall and inherited consequences of sin rather than sin itself. The Christian viewpoint predominantly used perceives sin, a deviation derived from unhealthy human efforts to grasp at the status of their Creator, as a theological, covenant-breaking distortion of the relationship between man and God. It can, nevertheless, be cured through the redemptive process of Christ. In the Gospel of John, Jesus does not change contemporary Christian views of the nature of sinners, but rather the method of dealing with sinners by inviting them into communion and “taking away the sins of the world”. Refusal of this cure is the only fatal sin. Paul’s biblical theology emphasizes grace. Christ, as God incarnate, raises the expectations of the law, creating more frequent covenant-breaking sin, which opens up more room for grace. In response to the apparent incompatibility of free will and spiritual liability due to inevitable sinful behavior, it is said that all humans have knowledge of sin, but also of the inability to free themselves from it. Thus, they can acknowledge both their free will and their saving by grace alone (p. 36).
From the Qur’an, Mosher and Marshall correctly represent varying beliefs on things such as the nature of Iblis (Devil), prophet infallibility, and more prominently, the marriage between sin and belief. Sin is inherently defined in the Qur’an as disobedience that brings about punishment or eliminates potential reward for the Muslim. Though it is debated, Muslim doctrine declares all monotheists will one day enter paradise after the torments of hell have burned their sins away (p. 60, 16). But how does someone who believes negate his or her previous unbelief, and exactly how does the believing sinner suffer righteous retribution from God? Overall, the authors declare it’s an eternal struggle for the children of Adam, whether in the judgment of this life or the next.
The forgiveness and reconciliation discussions go hand in hand. What is forgiveness? Is it reconciliation, or deliverance, or redemption? Or is it all three? Paul and the gospels highlight links between each one. The book says forgiveness precedes repentance because “the [prodigal] son does not even have a chance to speak his words of contrition before the father welcomes him back” (p. 77). Yet we know from other passages (Matt 6:15, 1 John 1:9) that God occasionally withholds forgiveness on account of un-repentance, although He is always willing to give it. Could the return of the prodigal son have been the repentance in and of itself? Could the father’s hug have been a sign of love, something our Father always gives unconditionally? The relationship between repentance and forgiveness needs development here, distinguishing between attitudinal forgiveness and transactional forgiveness, between repentance and a mandated result of divine forgiveness. Nonetheless, forgiveness is intertwined with reconciliation.
Muslim theology does not seem to disagree. “Indeed, God does not change people’s circumstances unless they change what is in themselves” (al-Ra’d :11). Allah chooses to pardon the sinful if they are repentant. A common belief of salvation after damnation for all but the very wicked was mentioned throughout the book, although many reject idea. Either way, the spirit of forgiveness inspires and allows Allah’s servants to show the same to others.
Paul’s letters and the Sermon on the Mount show that reconciliation is dependent upon our ability to authentically forgive other people. “Reconciling” is not abstract, but a concrete doctrine that, according to Mosher and Marshall, means “to exchange for”, “to become one with”. This is not only in order to reconcile with other humans, but ultimately, to utilize the greatest gift that humans have been given: their capacity to respond to God (p. 28).
The Qur’an commands an attitude of love and reconciliation towards all fellow believers as well as anyone who would be of the same inclination. God does not prohibit one from being kind to all, and if kindness exists between enemies, it’s from God. However, Surat al-Mumtahina (60):7-9 is problematic at times. “God forbids you, however, from making common cause with those that fight you on account of your religion… Those who make common cause with them are wrongdoers”. This has led to the emergence of both radical and conservative doctrines, and thankfully, Mosher and Marshall did not entirely leave it out, although they neglected to include helpful context and various interpretations on the application of the specific verse.
At a Providence event last month, Chris Seiple gave a talk about the approach to a post-ISIS Iraq. Sectarian atrocities against both Muslims and Christians, such as executions and the eradication of religious iconography and holy sites like Jonah’s tomb, are proliferating. Yet, both Christians and Muslims are called not only to abstain from sin, seek forgiveness, and be reconciled, but also to pursue the development of the same goals in their brothers. What sort of American foreign policy can conform with these theologies while presenting a sensible and plausible approach to long-lasting peace in the Middle East? Politically, most are skeptical about the post-war peace between locals. But could political forgiveness look differently than individual forgiveness? As Americans, the first step starts with the 800-pound gorilla getting off the sofa. While national security is the priority, faith is at the heart of the war, and so it should be part of the discussion. In the words of Seiple, we can “agree to disagree on all traditional issues, but we can agree that the right of people to choose their faith, or no faith at all, reflects the best of our moral departure.” An attitude of forgiveness does not negate judicial un-forgiveness, punishment, albeit as an act devoid of bitterness, implacable hostility, and rage. Post-ISIS, particular leaders that have committed horrific crimes or commanded others to carry out atrocities need to be tried, found guilty, and, perhaps, executed. In other cases, forgiveness might have a more practical expression: we ought to endeavor that simple entrants—such as many foot soldiers—be reintegrated into society, even if after a period of appropriate punishment.
Mosher and Marshall spend a third of their book’s content recording dialogical sessions, speeches, and each holy text referenced at the seminar. The rest of the 130-page book presents exegetical and eisegetical interpretation saturated with Latin phrases, references to classical thinkers, and often overly complex terminology. Despite its dryness, this book is a great reference tool for the enthusiast interested in lengthy summarizations of fundamental Christian and Muslim topics. For anyone researching or studying previous Building Bridges Seminars, this book will do them more justice than a podcast or live streaming. Cover to cover, the leisure reader will lose the main points amongst exhaustive discussions, thoroughly cross-referenced material, and theological debates.
The text comprehensively applies the discussions and their results to potential uses for the reader. For someone who is not teaching or researching on the subject but is, instead, looking for a more general, and readable, comparison of Muslim and Christian views on forgiveness, this is not the appropriate resource. But while limited in scope, this book would be a useful tool for more research-minded Muslims and Christians of any denomination to pinpoint doctrinal congruencies and disparities and to explore alternative methods of reconciling them.
Ryan McDowell is an intern for Providence. He is studying Business Administration and Economics at Pepperdine University.
Image Credit: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667 –1670. Via Avalon Foundation and the National Gallery of Art.