Coming to the Table

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on April 18, 2014.

How does one unify a religion that has split into factions?

Abu Hanifa, the highly influential Muslim scholar who lived from 699 to 767 C.E. and founded the Hanafi school of theology, once considered that topic. Muslims were split between the Sunni and Shia factions, which disagreed about how to select the caliph, the leader for the faith. The Shia argued that the Islamic caliph should be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, such as the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali. Conversely, the Sunni argued that the caliph should be popularly elected, such as the third caliph, Uthman.

Abu Hanifa noted the complexity of the conflict and the logical arguments offered by Sunni and Shia alike. He also sympathized with the Mu‘tazila, a group of Muslim apologists who “[tried] to withdraw (i’tazila) from political quarrels.”[i] Taking inspiration from the Mu‘tazila position, Abu Hanifa proposed a theological and political truce between Sunni and Shia, in the hopes of reunifying Islam:

“We leave the question of Uthman and Ali to God, who knows things secret and hidden…. Insight in matters of religion is better than insight in matters of knowledge and law. Difference of opinion in the Community is a sign of God’s mercy.”[ii] In other words, Muslims could agree to disagree about the historical origins of the caliphate, while still celebrating their shared faith in Muhammad’s message.

Unfortunately, Abu Hanifa’s proposed truce didn’t work; Islam remains divided today. Nonetheless, Abu Hanifa’s thoughts on reconciliation provide an interesting model for returning a degree of unity to religious factions. In fact, this ancient Islamic model has implications forreuniting the many Christian denominations on the planet.

Modern Christianity is divided into several factions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, mainline Protestantism (Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed, etc.), evangelical Protestantism, fundamentalist Protestantism (which overlaps with evangelicalism), the Latter-day Saints, and various other groups (Christian Science, Unitarians, etc.). These groups have a wide range of political structures, ranging from the imperial Catholics to the bishop-led Orthodox and Lutherans to the council-of-elders-led Presbyterians. They all have different sacraments. And they all have longstanding political and doctrinal disagreements with each other. Since they’ve been separated for so long, each church has its own hymns, its own architecture, and its own philosophers – and therefore each church is a small culture unto itself.

With that said, all of these groups profess faith in a church that is catholic – that is, universal(note the lower case “c”). All of these sects value the idea of a reunited Christendom. However, given the many issues keeping these churches apart, how can they be brought back together, while still respecting the historical and cultural differences that have accumulated over centuries? The answer for limited Christian reunification – a Mu‘tazila mindset for the modern era –lies in a theological truce involving, oddly enough, food: opening up the Christian sacrament of communion, so that any Christian might partake of any other denomination’s communion service.

In virtually every Christian denomination, near the end of a Mass or service, Christians will eat bread and drink wine in memory of the death of Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, each denomination has a different notion of what the ceremony means. Catholics and Orthodox Christians say that the bread and wine are actually the body and blood of Jesus in a literal sense. Lutherans and Anglicans say that the bread and wine are both literal and symbolic manifestations of Jesus. Most other Protestants just say that the bread and wine are symbols. Still, all Christian groups place great religious importance on the ceremony, regardless of the ingredients’ mystical composition, and viewing communion as a way to reinforce the whole of the Christian community. Rather than keeping the communion altar closed to everyone but members of each denomination, Christians should open up their altars, allowing everyone who professes faith in Jesus to come to the table. This way, the various denominations can retain their individual political, liturgical, and doctrinal differences, but still show their religious unity by sharing the most sacred Christian rite with each other.

There has already been considerable experimentation with open communion. Many Protestant denominations maintain open communion policies with each other. The Catholics (with over 1 billion followers worldwide), Orthodox, Mormons, and quite a few Protestant groups remain holdouts. However, it is notable that, in recent years, the highly conservative Pope John Paul II and Pope agreed to give communion to a famous Protestant monk, Brother Roger, who had privately made his peace with the differing Protestant and Catholic definitions of communion. If these individuals can open up their celebration to each other, why can’t more Christians do likewise?

There are some groups that may never support a global push for open communion. The Latter-day Saints, certain evangelical denominations, and Christian fundamentalist groups – groups that claim to teach the full Gospel and/or the only correct path to Heaven – are not likely to open up their rituals to other denominations. Additionally, due to respective historical claims of imperialism and independence, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches would likely resist a reform that involves giving up some authority and exclusivity. (It’s possible that the Orthodox and Catholics might be open to communion with each other, since their worship services are extremely similar.) Nonetheless, a push for open communion on a global scale, with as many Christian sects as possible participating, remains, in my view, the best method for limited reunification of the Church.

The historical Jesus lived 2,000 years ago. Based on the records we have of his egalitarian, radical social teachings, it seems highly unlikely that the historical Jesus would approve of the barriers erected between groups of his followers. It’s time for Christians to start disassembling those barriers and come together to celebrate their shared beliefs, while still acknowledging their complex theological disagreements, and agreeing to disagree. At the end of the day, none of theology can be proved. Esoteric speculation is not worth keeping apart billions of people who share the same God.To quote Abu Hanifa: “… if you say, ‘God knows best,’ then you have hit the mark.”[iii]

 

For further reading on the concept of open communion, click here.


[i] John Alden Williams, “The Statement of Theologians: Kalam,” in: The Word of Islam, ed. John Alden Williams (1994; repr., Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009), 140.

[ii] Abu Hanifa, “The Fiqh Akbar I,” with parenthetical commentary by John Alden Williams, in: The Word of Islam, ed. John Alden Williams (1994; repr., Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009), 141.

[iii] Abu Hanifa, “The Epistle of Abu Hanifa to Uthman al-Batti,” in: The Word of Islam, ed. John Alden Williams (1994; repr., Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009), 144.

The cover photo is archived from the Daily Pulp layout, but originally is from here:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/franciscoantunes/

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