Saturday, October 03, 2009

Should Christians observe Ramadan?

Author Brian McLaren has joined with some of his Christian friends in observing Ramadan. McLaren says:

"Ramadan is the Muslim holy month of fasting for spiritual renewal and purification. It commemorates the month during which Muslims believe Mohammed received the Quran through divine revelation, and it calls Muslims to self-control, sacrificial generosity and solidarity with the poor, diligent reading of the Quran, and intensified prayer.

This year, I, along with a few Christian friends (and perhaps others currently unknown to us will want to join in) will be joining Muslim friends in the fast which begins August 21. We are not doing so in order to become Muslims: we are deeply committed Christians. But as Christians, we want to come close to our Muslim neighbors and to share this important part of life with them. Just as Jesus, a devout Jew, overcame religious prejudice and learned from a Syrophonecian woman and was inspired by her faith two thousand years ago (Matthew 15:21 ff, Mark 7:24 ff), we seek to learn from our Muslim sisters and brothers today."

Some have commended McLaren for reaching out to Muslims, while others, such as Mark Driscoll, have condemned him. So is this a good or bad thing?

The tension that any true missionary faces is the tension between a) being incarnational and translating the gospel into a language that people can understand; and b) syncretisim, or the mixing of religions and faith systems.

Frankly, those who are not on mission do not understand this tension at all. When you are sitting in the safety of a church building or Christian circle, it is easy to rail against any "translation" of the gospel as being a violation of Christian faith or practice.
So what about observing Ramadan?

Can one fast or pray (prayer always goes with fasting) with someone who has a different understanding of God? To this I would respond:

1. None of us has the exact same view of God, though of course there are some understandings (such as the Trinity, God's goodness, power, etc.) that would seem to be essential to a biblical understanding of God.

2. Yes, Muslims deny that Jesus and the Spirit are God. But so do Jews. And Paul continued to worship at Jewish synagogues after his conversion. He did so on mission, going to where people were both physically and spiritually.

3. Jesus taught the disciples to pray--and they did not have a good understanding of who he was. He took them where they were, and they came to a fuller understanding later.

4. God apparently adopted the Canaanite's name for God--El--and reshaped it, calling himself El Shaddai, among other forms of El.

5. Paul took the altar to the Unknown God in Acts 17 and said that this God that they worshipped unknowingly was the true God of heaven.

6. Cornelius' prayers went up before God as a sweet aroma, though he was a God-fearer and not a Jew or a Christian. Would it have been wrong for Peter to pray with him prior to his baptism? Would this cause the sweet aromas which existed with Cornelius to turn sour when a Christian prayed with him?

7. When I pray with my children, do they fully understand God? No, but the act of praying together helps shape their understanding of God.

If I were praying with a non-Christian (or fasting, though it is hard to fast "with someone," since fasting seeks to abstain!), I would want them to know where possible and appropriate that I pray in Jesus' name. I do want to share Christ with them! In fact, however, I pray with people prior to their baptism all the time in Bible studies. We probably think nothing of this because we have lived in a nation with a generally Christian worldview. We have never contemplated praying with someone who has a different worldview, so fasting or praying with a Muslim sounds jolting to us.
Obviously, our intent should always be to reach people for Christ, never to give up our faith. If the intent were to say that there was no difference between Christianity and Islam, this would be wrong. But when we show respect for people, this can open doors for dialogue and faith sharing. And who do you think will have more opportunities for faith sharing--the one who fasts or prays with a Muslim, or those who do not do so?
These are the initial thoughts that I have, but I am open to other ideas and discussion. If you can interact with the passages I have brought up and point towards other relevant passages, this would be great.
What are you thoughts?


Kevin M said...

Very much a minefield topic. I do have some thoughts.

I think one place Brian dropped off the wagon was when he stated that Jesus learned from the Syrophonecian woman. I'm not sure I would subscribe to the idea that Jesus overcame any prejudices since he is God and does not have any prejudices. Kind of sounds like Brian is saying Jesus was just a man? Am I reading that correctly?

As for Paul with the Athenians he used their belief in an unknown God to place the Gospel in a cultural context they could understand. He was not learning from them but teaching them. As for sharing a cultural experience like Ramadan if it is used to help explain the Gospel I can't see any argument. If it is used to gain some insight and learn from the Muslim religion I'm not so sure. The scriptures say that they are sufficient. Also comparing an inspired revelation with a non-inspired revelation (like the Koran) won't give any additional insights into God's plan.

James Nored said...


I'm not sure if McLaren is saying that Jesus had been prejudiced in a negative, sinful way. He may have just been expressing that Jesus was surprised at the faith of this woman. Any implication that Jesus had had sinful thoughts before this would of course be incorrect. I definitely agree with that.

However, it would not be wrong to say that Jesus learned something. There are of course passages which speak of Jesus growing in wisdom and stature before God and men. See McLaren's followup post on this.

While the Scriptures are primary, I do think that we can learn about God from other people. God's Spirit is out in the world, touching hearts and moving people even before they fully understand or accept Christ.

Kevin M said...

I'm glad he cleared up his view on Jesus in the follow-up post. His statement that Jesus overcame prejudice may have been just a poor choice of words? Since the church is struggling with a lot of liberal apostate views on Jesus in this day and age it's got to be tough picking words that don't get taken out of context.

I agree we can learn about God's character from any place at any time from any person. However, I think the danger is any syncretic tendencies we may have as christians to be more politically correct towards other beliefs by trying not to offend. If the gospel offends so be it.

A final thought is that any Western Christians who get offended by Christianizing different cultures beliefs should look in the mirror. Christmas is a prime example of a pagan holiday that has been given a Christian slant in the west. Many traditions associated with christmas are very much pagan in origin (see yule-tide). So we don't really have a leg to stand on when being offended by using other cultural views to extend the reach of the gospel.

It is really hard to step out of a cultural reference to see things as the "other" sees them. No human is good at that from my perspective.

These kinds of topics always come out more offensive than they should. It's full of loaded topics that get everyone fired up. Perfect for a blog post.

Kevin M said...

I found another quote by McLaren that is interesting:

"It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts"

It looks like this sheds more light on what he is saying with Ramadan. If he is taking this from a cultural view and not a religious syncretic (my new favorite word) way then I'm all for it. I as a western christian don't take my cultural celebrations that have been christianized (like christmas) and make others celebrate them, since they would have no meaning to a converted hindu or muslim. But, holiday's like christmas are not sinful as long as they are not taken to excess (ie presents are the reason for the season).

Am I totally off base here? I'm kind of free-forming my thoughts and they are definitely not fully formed so please somebody correct me if I'm heading off down a rabbit hole.

Anonymous said...

Would you pray with the goddess worshippers in San Francisco who worship the "Great Feminine" ?

Kevin M said...

@ -> westcoastwitness

Good point. I don't know.



Going back to Paul's example we could use the goddess worshiper's beliefs to illustrate the gospel to them. Not to show that the gospel gets truth from other beliefs but that other beliefs get truth from the gospel.

My personal opinion is that since the gospel is true all false religions will have some of that truth as that is where our human minds get their ideas (from being created by God).

I think where many Christians get sidetracked is in thinking that all religions have some part of the truth we (as Christians) can learn from. In actuality Christians should believe that we have all truth and other religions just reflect some of that truth simply by being in a world created by God.

The created can't help but be a reflection of the creator.

Neecie said...

I was also offended by Mr. McLaren's statement that Jesus "overcame religious prejudice" and "was inspired by her faith." I read his follow up post and found it sanctimonious. He spent more time expressing his righteous indignation at the people who supposedly misunderstood his words, than he did explaining what he meant.

He never clarified the comment that Jesus had to overcome prejudice. Being prejudice is a sin and thus Jesus could not be prejudice. If McLaren meant that Jesus was overcoming other people’s prejudice then he should have never included the descriptive phrase that Jesus was “a devote Jew.” By emphasizing that Jesus was Jewish, it implies that what follows , the religious prejudice, applies to Jesus personally. If he did not mean this, then for someone who so proudly claims to be an author and speaker, he is a bad writer and cannot communicate very well.

However, McLaren does go on at great length defending his idea that Jesus had to learn that he was sent for everyone, not just the Jews. I think he is wrong. I can see nothing in this story that supports this theory. Although by the time this story occurs, Jesus has not stated to the disciples that he has come for all mankind, he did in Matthew 13:54 say that, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor”(NIV). I think it would be simplistic to think he was referring to just the town or the building in which he grew up.

In any case, it is also revealed in an earlier chapter that Jesus can read thoughts (Matthew 12:25). Thus he knew what this woman would say before she answered him. So, who is this conversation for? It is for the woman so that she understands that her daughter is healed because of her faith and not because of some magic words. And it is for the disciples who were grumbling and telling Jesus to send her away, preparing them for their future mission to spread the gospel to the entire world.

Thus, I do not think Jesus was in any doubt as to who He was and what He was supposed to do. He is fully man and fully God by the time this story occurs. He does not need this woman to tell him what he was sent to do.

As to the question "Should Christians observe Ramadan?” it is not a matter of whether we should pray with those who have a different understanding of God. Of course we should pray with folks. The question that McLaren raises is “can a Christian observe Ramadan?” I don’t think so.

Ramadan is not just a time for prayer and fasting for Muslims. They believe that if they correctly observe Ramadan, then their all sins are forgiven. As Christians, we do not believe there is anything we can do to erase our sins. Thus, I don’t think a Christian can observe this holiday in a way that wouldn’t either betray his own faith or belittle the Muslim faith. If you just fast when they do, pray to Jehovah (not Allah), and read the Bible (not the Quran)—then you really aren’t observing the holiday, are you? You are just going through the motions. McLaren says that his Muslim friends are okay with this; however, I think many Muslims would find this insulting and demeaning. We must respect people—people of other religions, other countries, etc. I think it is much more respectful to allow people to observe their religious practices without interference than to have people jumping in and saying, “I want to do that too—even though I think it’s all a bunch of hooey.”

James Nored said...

Hey Wes. You asked, "Would you pray with the goddess worshippers in San Francisco who worship the 'Great Feminine'?"

Not to pull a Jesus here, but before I answer this, let me ask you about some of the situations I mention in the post. Would you pray with a Jew? Would you have prayed with Cornelius? What about a Muslim? Do they have to be baptized and have a full understanding of the Trinity before you would pray with them? What about children? Do they have to understand the Trinity before they can pray or you can pray with them?

I would be interested in these answers, which might help us clarify our thinking on this and why and where we draw the line on this subject.