Cross or Crescent: Christianity and Islam

Published 8:31 am Friday, February 3, 2017

Part I of III: The Essence of Christianity and Islam


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Pastor of  Our Savior Lutheran Church


         G.K. Chesterton claimed that if one wishes to understand the essence of a religion, then one should attend to its images.  What a person believes to be ultimately true will be given expression through those forms used to express what is true. To illustrate the difference between Christianity and Buddhism, for example, Chesterton reflected upon the difference between the figure of the Buddha and that of the Christian saint. The Buddha is corpulent, at rest, and is smiling like he knows something that that you don’t but you wish you did! The figure of Christianity is that of the saint, gaunt, tired, and worn from struggle with the devil, fingers often folded in the plea for assistance and rescue.

We might ask how does the Christian and Islamic understanding of God express itself through the posture of prayer? Indeed, one of the common images of Islam is the Muslim praying on his rug prostrate to the ground. In Islam, the transcendent otherness of God is emphasized. There is no knowledge of God himself. God gives knowledge only by his will, and that is given in the book of the Quran (the sacred book of Islam.) In the words of “Verse of the Throne” in the Quran, God is “sublime, the Exalted.” And it is this sublimity of God that separates him from all others. The exalted status of God is coordinated with the submissive obedience of the believer. As is well known, the term “Islam” comes from the Arabic verb, which means “to submit.” A Muslim is thus one who submits. The word “mosque” (The Islamic house of prayer) means the place where one submits.  

At this point it is helpful to compare the posture of prayer assumed by the Muslim and by the Christian. Corresponding to the high majesty of Allah, the Muslim worshipper assumes the posture of submission, indeed, of abject submission. This posture is that of placing one’s forehead upon the ground, an indication of total submission to the will of Allah. This posture of prayer signals the distance between Allah and those who pray to him. Of course the distance is not one of space but of relation. At every point the Muslim worshipper assumes the posture of submission. As the Verse of the Throne” puts it, “He is sublime, the Exalted.”

Of course, the Christian also knows the righteous God before whom he must ask mercy perhaps on bended knee. (In my own Lutheran church, churches may or may not have kneelers from which they may confess their sins.) It is, however, as sinners repentant that Christians fall upon their knees. As sinners forgiven through the cleansing waters of Baptism and the words of absolution, Christians pray standing, a mark of their status as children of God addressing their heavenly Father. As we know from early Christian art, the primitive posture of Christian prayer was that of standing with arms outstretched in the form of the cross. The event of Christ’s cross had freed the sinner of guilt and shame and from the bondage of sin. One united to Christ in his death was no longer a slave but a son.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) is the well known parable of this new status in the household of God. After the prodigal son had misspent his life in a faraway land, he returned to his welcoming father confessing his sin: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father told his servants to immediately put the best robe on him, a ring on his hand, and to slaughter the fatted calf so they could eat and make merry.  The father explained, “for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” And they began to make merry.

One cannot imagine this restored son bowing down before his father with forehead to the ground. In the midst of festive celebration, such a posture would simply be out of place and inappropriate. In my own Lutheran church, this merriment is expressed in the Lord’s Supper or the Communion. It is the feast whereby real sinners are smothered in God’s redeeming love. And it is the place where we most profoundly realize the great truth of Christianity — that in Christ we are no longer slaves, but sons  (John 8:32-36).

Throughout 2017, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod will celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. We will eat salty pretzels and sing “ A Mighty Fortress” with gusto. Join us for our festivities throughout the year. Our first event will be Saturday, March 18 with Adam S. Francisco speaking on Understanding Islam from a Christian Perspective. Dr. Francisco is currently Professor of History and Political Thought at Concordia University, Irvine, CA.  Look for more details.

Learn about the Lutheran faith. Join us for 9:30 a.m. worship on Sundays (Our Savior Lutheran Church, 285 Hill n’ Dale, Danville)   Contact Pastor Witten at (606) 365-8273. Or reach us through Facebook: