It was Tuesday evening and time for my World Religions class. There were twenty-four students, half of them adults and half of college age, with a good ethnic mixture.
Two students sat together in the middle of the front row: ‘Isa, a Muslim, and Zvi, a Jew with a black beard, dreadlocks and a yarmulke. These two asked most of the hard questions and made most of the trouble, and I loved them for it. The other twenty-two were all Catholics, in varying degrees of assent or dissent. (Dissent is the nice, new word for what they used to call “heresy.”)
‘Isa and Zvi had become good friends because they were good enemies, constantly arguing about Zionism and Palestine and the PLO. They were like spouses, arguing and then reconciling and then arguing again.
I think ‘Isa’s first impression of me was that I was a bit wimpy, because I played Socrates and asked questions rather than giving answers. I took both sides of every issue to deliberately confuse the students and force them to think for themselves. But ‘Isa stayed with the class because (as he told me later), “On every issue I heard two opposite arguments come out of your mouth, but I also saw a single passion for truth in your eyes.”
One Tuesday evening, the class was beginning their twenty-minute break in the middle of the long, three-hour class, and most of the students were staying in their seats, some munching snacks and drinking sodas. This was a time for more informal conversations. Suddenly, Zvi asked me, pointing behind my chair, “What is that cross on the wall behind you?”
I turned around to look. On the pale blue cinder block wall behind my desk, six feet above the floor, there was a foot-high cross of paint that stood out in darker blue. I knew what it meant, and I opened my mouth to answer Zvi’s question, but the Holy Spirit interrupted me in the form of a friendly, fat Irishman who was sitting next to Zvi, who explained, “Oh, that’s where the crucifix used to be. They used to have one in every classroom. And then they took them down. And they haven’t repainted the walls yet.”
Zvi turned to him. “When did they take them down?”
I wondered why he said “when” instead of “why.” I soon found out. “Just last year, I think,” was the answer.
“I thought so. It was the Bundy money,” said Zvi.
No one understood the reference, and when the class asked him about it, Zvi explained that not long before, President Johnson’s secretary of state, McGeorge Bundy, had negotiated a compromise on the divisive issue of federal funding going to religious schools so that the issue would not have to go to the Supreme Court. The compromise was that these schools could get federal grants as long as they were not “sectarian” and “exclusive.” What that meant was deliberately left undefined. Zvi pointed out that in
the year following this ruling, almost all of the twenty-one Jesuit colleges in America, including Boston College, had taken down their crucifixes from the classrooms.
The Irishman protested this explanation as much too cynical. “We wouldn’t do that for money.”
Zvi replied, with a wicked little grin, “Of course not. But I hope you got more than thirty pieces of silver this time.” Zvi then had to explain to the biblically illiterate class that Judas Iscariot was the first Catholic to accept a government grant.
“No way,” protested the Irishman. “We did it to be ecumenical.”
At this point ‘Isa chimed in. “What does that mean, ecumenical? Can you define that term?”
He directed the question to me, and once again I opened my mouth to answer, and once again the Holy Spirit interrupted, this time from the mouth of a nursing student in white stockings sitting behind ‘Isa. (I remember both her face and her papers as resembling each other in being overweight and sloppy-looking.) She said something vague like “Ecumenical means we reach out to everybody, everybody’s welcome here, and we don’t want to offend anybody.”
“Offend anybody?” ‘Isa asked sharply. “Who? Who did you fear to offend?”
The girl was clearly offended by the question. “Why, non-Catholics, of course.”
“You mean people like me? A Muslim? And my friend the Jew?”
(“My friend the Jew” smiled at ‘Isa. They were not enemies now, fighting over Palestine, but common “outsiders” in Christian America and Catholic Boston College.)
The class hushed, sensing a confrontation. They seemed to be offended by the two impolitely concrete words Muslim and Jew, two of the only words in our language that still have teeth in them.
“Yeah, I guess so,” the girl replied.
“Well, I for one am very much offended,” ‘Isa declared. The class hushed even more.
“For goodness’ sake, why?” asked a voice from the rear.
“Because you have called me a bigot.”
“No, no, no, we would never do that. We hate bigotry. When did we ever call you a bigot?”
“When you took down your crucifixes.”
“That’s ridiculous. We took them down because we hate bigotry. We took them down because we didn’t want to look like bigots. Why in the world do you say that was calling you a bigot?”
“Let me try to explain it to you,” answered ‘Isa. “Suppose you came to a Muslim country and enrolled in a Muslim university. Would you be offended by the quotations from the Qur’an in Arabic that you might see on the walls?”
“Of course not.”
“And would you be offended by a Star of David if you saw it in a Jewish university?”
“Of course not.”
“Why not? Because you are not a bigot. Only a bigot would be offended by a Muslim symbol in a Muslim university, or a Jewish symbol in a Jewish university, right?”
“So why did you expect me to be offended by a Catholic symbol in a Catholic university? Only because you expected me to be a bigot.” ‘Isa was silent for five seconds to let the logic sink in. Then he drew the logical corollary: “And I think that’s being a bigot: expecting the other person to be a bigot. So I am offended.”
The class just didn’t know what to say, or to think. Zvi and I were the only two who were smiling.
‘Isa didn’t let it go at that. He went on. “You know, we Muslims don’t have statues or pictures of any person, not even the Prophet Muhammad (blessed be his name!) or the prophet Jesus (peace be upon him!). We believe that is forbidden by God’s commandment against making graven images. But if we did have pictures of our prophets, we would never take them down—not for money, not for anything, and certainly not for fear of offending some bigot.
“In fact, if we had pictures of our prophets, and soldiers came into our classroom with guns and demanded that we take down the pictures of our prophets because there was a new law and a new regime in power that demanded it, we would never do it. Every good Muslim in that class would run to the pictures and defend them with his life. We believe that martyrs, who die for Allah’s honor, will go to Paradise. We would consider it a great privilege to die for the honor of one of our prophets, especially for the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him!) or for the Prophet Jesus (blessed be his name!).”
‘Isa had everyone’s total attention. He was turning around and facing them. He was the teacher now. “Tell me,” he asked, “how many of you are Christians?”
Everyone’s hand went up, except Zvi’s. “So tell me, do you really believe that Jesus is the Son of God? How many of you believe that?”
Again twenty-two hands went up, most of them hesitatingly.
“Well, we Muslims don’t believe that. We believe that that idea is pagan and idolatrous and blasphemous and ridiculous. But we do believe that Jesus was a great prophet, and he spoke the Word of God, and he was virgin born, and he performed miracles, and he even raised the dead, and he will come again to judge the world at the end of time. The Qur’an says all that about Jesus.
“So we revere him and we honor him, and we would never remove his pictures, if we had them, not for money or for fear of offending anyone, not even for fear of death. And you say you believe he is the Son of God, yet you take down your pictures of him just for fear of offending us.”
At each step of ‘Isa’s sermon the silence had grown more intense. He paused, then concluded: “So I think we are better Christians than you are.”
The unavoidable logical conclusion felt like a blow to the gut. Everyone was profoundly uncomfortable. It was the most memorable lesson of the whole course. I silently thanked God for sending a prophet to us.
After I got to know ‘Isa better, I asked him whether I could attend Friday prayer services at his mosque, since I had never experienced a Muslim service before. He was of course happy to take me. I understood only a few words of Arabic, but the palpable sincerity, devotion and single-mindedness of the worshipers impressed me. There was no whispering, no gossiping, no relaxing, even. The congregation’s attitude during the whole service felt almost like a Catholic congregation’s attitude at the moment of the Consecration at the Mass.
Afterward ‘Isa asked me whether he could attend Mass with me on the Boston College campus, and I of course was happy to take him. We both understood that there was no hidden agenda of proselytizing, on his part or mine, just respectful listening.
We went to the noon Mass at St. Mary’s, a beautiful little old stone chapel in a corner of the biggest, oldest and most Gothic building on campus, St. Mary’s Hall, where all the Jesuit priests live. The Mass followed the new, modern, streamlined, simplified, unpoetic, flat-sounding, vernacular, post-Vatican II rite, and the priest added even more informality with a few of his own additions and editings, as is often done in America nowadays.
On the way out, ‘Isa said something to me that struck me so suddenly that I still remember the single yellow dandelion in the grass just outside the chapel door, which seemed to open its eye like a tiny sun and shine a beam of light at me as ‘Isa spoke: “The people who designed this building, this architecture—they are very old, are they not?”
“Yes,” I answered. “The building was built over one hundred years ago, and the style of Gothic architecture goes back to the Middle Ages.”
“And the people who designed the words of your service, the words the priest said today—they are not very old, are they?”
“No. What you heard is a new, modernized version of a liturgy that is much older. Some Catholics still use the old liturgy, in Latin.”
“I would like to hear that some time,” said ‘Isa.
“Why?” I pressed him.
“Because I think the minds of your ancient ones rush up to heaven like those Gothic spires, but I think the minds of your modern ones run forward on the ground, horizontally, at about eye level. Do you know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I replied, neither attacking nor defending nor apologizing for the new rite. Then came an even more striking line of questioning: “You Christians believe that Jesus is literally God, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied. “God become man. One divine person with two natures, a divine nature and a human nature. We believe he is fully human and fully divine at once.”
“I don’t understand how you can believe that.”
I replied, simply, “It is a great mystery.”
“And Protestant Christians believe that too, don’t they?”
“Yes. The ones who still believe the Bible do.”
“And you Catholics have the Mass, but Protestants don’t, is that
“And do you Catholics believe that in the Mass, that little round piece of bread that the priest held up actually becomes Jesus?”
“Yes. The bread and wine become his body and blood.”
“It’s not just a symbol? It’s literal?”
“It’s not just a symbol. It’s literal.”
“So that’s why everyone was so very quiet when that happened.”
“I don’t understand how you can believe that.”
“It is a great mystery,” I said again.
‘Isa just shook his head. He seemed reluctant to argue with me, but he was apparently trying very hard to comprehend how I could possibly believe that. I thought I understood what he was thinking (but I was wrong), so I said, in an attempt to be sympathetic: “You must be thinking something like this: I don’t understand how all these intelligent people can get down on their knees and worship what looks like a little piece of bread. It’s bad enough that these Christians all worship a man, but it’s even worse that Catholics worship a little piece of bread.”
“No, that’s not quite what I am thinking.”
“What are you thinking, then?”
“I am trying to imagine how you feel.”
“And I just can’t imagine it. It’s hard enough to imagine what it would feel like to be a Protestant, but I can’t imagine what you Catholics feel at that moment in the Mass.”
“I think I understand what you mean,” I said, but I was wrong again. “You mean you can’t even imagine yourself ever bowing down to that.”
“No, that is not what I am thinking. I am thinking that if I believed that—if I believed what you say you believe, that God himself was there in person right in front of my eyes—I can’t imagine myself ever getting up again.”
I suddenly realized my mistake. I thought ‘Isa was merely skeptical of this hard-to-believe Catholic teaching, but I had confused a skeptic with a saint. A skeptic is someone who cannot get down on his knees, but a saint is someone who cannot get up.
‘Isa added, “And I think that if I believed that—if I believed that that little piece of bread that goes into your mouth is really Jesus, and that Jesus is really Allah—I would certainly not be able to sing a hymn after he entered my mouth, as you people did. I would not be able to speak. I think I would just collapse and faint dead away. Or else I would just dissolve like smoke.”
I don’t know why, but I cannot forget that single little yellow dandelion that smiled up at me ironically as ‘Isa spoke.
Taken from Between Allah & Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims by Peter Kreeft. Copyright(c) 2010 by Peter Kreeft. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515.