How Christmas unites Columbanus and Muhammad

Some thoughts that I never got round to recording before Christmas, having just finished a month studying Columbanus’ life. It ties in loosely to travel, to why I enjoy having a travelling God – a God who comes down to us. Much lies incomplete but I hope the gist is there:

Columbanus: Irish monk, traveller and missionary to Europe in the 5th/6th century, spreading the Christian message and bringing higher education standards, challenges to those abusing power, rebukes to  religious leaders not living out an authentic message and much more – to everywhere he went.  Believing that God came down and walked earth as a man (Jesus) was foundational to his message.

Muhammad (Peace be upon him – PBUH): Arabian leader, traveller and missionary to swathes of Arab territory in the 7th/8th century, spreading the message of Islam largely by force, rebuking polytheistic practice and laying down a firm moral standard for all to follow.  Believing God came down to earth as a human, was an abhorrent and heretical impossibility, that was worthy of punishment.

Christmas: a time when a few people in the world still gather to celebrate Jesus’ incarnating Himself on earth, born of a virgin, as the God-man – fully God and fully man.  (Most of Christmas celebrations, not being anything to do with that at all, and in fact, directly contrasting to the good news of Jesus)

Given this contrast, how on earth (pun unintended) does Christmas unite our two travellers: Columbanus and Muhammad (PBUH)?

To follow this next bit, I’ll try and keep it simple, but for those who want to push into the finer complexities of theology, please don’t be put off by that – drop me a line or leave a comment.

Columbanus perhaps unlike some other Irish missionaries of the time, seemed to have little hope for the eternal future.

“The things we ought to have loved are so remote and undiscovered and unknown by us, that while we are men and situated in this prison of the body, the things that are truly good and eternal are utterly incapable of being seen or heard or thought by us.”

(Sermon 3: how the monk should please God)

But in case that wasn’t firm enough grounding to conclude Columbanus’ theology, we’ll see that Columbanus everywhere he went, was known for introducing daily (or regular) confession to one’s “Anam Cara” (soul friend) or priest.

And who could disagree with a rhythm of repentance and faith in the Christian life, right?  Keeping short accounts before God and with each other is a beautiful thing.  But why did Columbanus do this?

Well sadly, because he had little hope of standing before a holy and perfect God one day, without it.  He thought that if you could only ask for forgiveness once (as was the tradition at the time), and have your slate wiped clean once, then it left you trying to second guess when you are near your deathbed, and then trying to live an incredible life after that, to merit your way to Heaven.  Columbanus thought this very dark and hopeless, because one didn’t know when one was going to die, and it was nearly impossible to live a good enough life for a perfect God, if you lived any longer.  The slate was never going to be clean.

And so regular penance would solve this.  A daily wiping of the slate and starting again.  Good news?  Well, it would certainly seem so to those who had no eternal confidence.

But that’s where I don’t agree with Columbanus.  The gospel writers seem to have great confidence in the eternal life that is theirs, and not because they were good people. 

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye witnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1-4

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.

1 John 5:13-15

This confidence comes from a realisation that wiping the slate clean, will never be good enough.  If that’s what forgiveness is, then we’re screwed.  A holy God awaits us, and a new Heavens and new Earth where nothing impure can ever enter.  Should we have the slightest moral failure, we would be out.

And that’s where Patrick (around at a similar time to Columbanus) seems to have understood things slightly better by his emphasis on receiving everything from God in Christ by the Spirit.

I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop. I am certain in my heart that “all that I am,” I have received from God. So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God. He himself testifies that this is so. I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply. Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has aroused me.

The Confession of St Patrick

It would appear that a naughty chap called Pelagius, who was branded a heretic by most people (Roman Catholic and not) for his perceived views on being able to work our way up to God by our goodness, actually impacted Christianity more than some might want to admit.  Following on from his time, swathes of people adopted semi-Pelagianism, claiming that by God’s grace, we are able to obtain merit by our works in this world, because God will empower us to do it.  Thus we have hope for eternal life, if we work hard and are good enough people (by God’s grace).  Columbanus, I would argue, seemed to live this out, and it drove him to flagellation in ascetic communities across Europe.  Much of European Christianity (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) has since followed him in living this way.

So what’s this got to do with Muhammad (PBUH) and Christmas at all?

Well everything.  Let me explain. 

You see the problem with not knowing whether you’re in or out of eternal life with a perfect God, is that He immediately becomes the distant God who awaits you in another realm, and is very hard to know, because you are impure, and He is not.  This is where the scary god of the New Atheists comes in, who watches you like a hawk in the sky, and will pounce on you to make you feel guilty at many times and in various ways.  Perhaps if you say sorry enough , and live a good enough life, you’ll be ok.

This is a stark contrast to the God, in Christ, by His Spirit, is said to dwell in the hearts of all those who believe in Him.  Somehow, the most Holy and infinite God, claims to dwell in our hearts, and not obliterate us.  This would be opposed to the times when God and His glory showed up in the Old Testament and completely destroyed all those who dared approach without permission.  No-one could look at the face of God and last.

So the God who we’re not sure whether we’ll meet his eternal life standards, is actually the same God who we hope is empowering us, within us, in our life here on earth.  And because that seems either impossible or a fearful thing, we make him into a god who is far off.  Nearly unknowable.

We say in our creeds, confessions and liturgies that we believe in a Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) but in reality, we wonder whether the Father is angry, we thank the Son for all he’s done at the cross but ultimately think we’ve to work hard to top it up, and we’re not sure whether the Spirit is really within us, because it doesn’t feel like it, and how can God be in us if we don’t know whether we could even be with Him in the future?

We deny the fact that (for those who trust in Jesus) we’ve already been adopted in a heavenly family with a Heavenly Father better than any a=other.  We can’t be un-adopted.

We deny the fact that (for those who trust in Jesus) we’ve already been declared righteous in God’s sight, and given new clothes to wear by Him.  It’s far better news than having a slate wiped clean – we are legally innocent, completely free from punishment, and have been given everything we could ever need (spiritually) for life with God (both for here and the life beyond).

We deny the fact that (for those who trust in Jesus) we’re indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, God Himself, who is not just our prize for the end, but our joy and peace in the trials and turmoil of this world, as He changes us more into His likeness – what we were created to be!

We deny our Triune God.

And that’s where we essentially deny the good news of Christmas – that Jesus came into this world with news of great joy, that would tell shameful and guilty people to “not fear”.  We instead, join our Islamic friends, in believing in a Holy God “up there” somewhere, who might (if we’re lucky) allow the best of us in one day.

And in practice, that’s what we see across Ireland amongst many of the older, pious, religious people.  Many of them that I’ve spoken to recently, fascinatingly (and contrary to our Mormon and JW friends who deny Christ’s deity) will go as far as denying Jesus’ humanity (what we celebrate Him taking on in His incarnation) – that he ate, slept, pooped, cried etc – because they’re horrified by a God who comes down to our level.  “God” for them by very definition, is something we work up towards.  The emphasis of their religious traditions leaves more still to be attained in the strength of what Christ has done, and therefore, it devalues His works (on the cross) and His words (in offering certainty).

Similarly my Muslim friends are also horrified by such a “crude and condescending” view of a God who would take on the shame of human flesh.  But they take the option of denying his deity, rather than his humanity, as their get-out clause.  For them, a rescuer who dives into a muddy and filthy river to save someone drowning, is not more of a hero (compared to a clean river), but is actually now impure.

So now, although one (Columbanus) still professes a Triune God with his lips, you see how the consequences of his belief for others, end up looking altogether Islamic.  Which is why I’m not surprised that his monastic rules are so obsessed with the outer appearance and practice, or on a completely different spectrum, why some churches in England have no problem with Muslims reading the Qu’ran from Christian pulpits.

In fact, I nearly applaud them for making logical steps and realising that Columbanus, is not so far away from Muhammad (PBUH) at all, in that they both minimise the emphasis of God coming to us, and instead throw weight on us going to God.

It’s why I’ll take a travelling God anyday, over one we have to travel towards.

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