THE BLOG
04/04/2014 04:48 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

Jesus a Muslim? Fail

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner got himself in beaucoup trouble with his notion of the "anonymous Christian." His intentions were pure. But he was dead wrong, and he deserved the censure he received.

Rahner argued that anyone who exhibits a Christ-like spirit of faith, hope, and love but hasn't explicitly identified with Christianity is nonetheless a de facto "anonymous Christian" -- that is, a Christian without knowing it. What he intended to say is that folks can be filled with the spirit of Christ without necessarily belonging to the Christian faith. But what he wound up doing is gravely insulting members of other faith traditions, not to mention folks who repudiate all faith, by claiming them willy-nilly for Christ.

He didn't mean it to be so, but Rahner's "anonymous Christian" doctrine was a subtle form of forced baptism. Faith traditions have their own identities, and those identities need to be respected rather than appropriated. Failing to do so isn't just insensitive or disrespectful. It's also a species of spiritual colonization.

I bring up this theological debate from a generation ago because of a recent billboard, put up by Ask-a-Muslim.com, that proclaims "Jesus is a Muslim." I'm happy to assume that the motive behind the billboard is as pure as Rahner's was when he defended his notion of "anonymous Christian." But it's also just as wrong-minded, and equally deserving of censure.

Perhaps the intent behind the billboard was to assert that there's only one God, and that the world's various faith traditions are bound by their common longing for God. True enough. But it's quite a leap to infer from this shared goal that there are no real and fundamental differences between faith traditions when it comes to envisioning what God is or what God expects from us. There are, actually, huge differences, and to deny them is both to dishonor and to distort the faiths of the world. To deny them, in fact, is to nip in the bud any possibility of meaningful interfaith dialogue.

Perhaps Ask-a-Muslim's billboard is intended to point out that Jesus (or Isa, as the Qur'an calls him) is accepted by Muslims as a prophet. Fair enough. But calling Jesus a Muslim entails that Jesus embraces doctrines in both the Quran and Muslim oral tradition which are antithetical to what he preached in the Gospels -- for example, his unconditional condemnation of violence. This isn't just saying "As a Muslim, I admire Jesus as a prophet." This is a forced appropriation, turning Jesus into something other than what he's portrayed as being in the New Testament, the book venerated by Christians. In terms of shock value, it's tantamount to a Christian who admires Muhammad baldly asserting "Muhammad is a Christian," rather than "I think Muhammad was a great man who has something to teach Christians." In a culture as deeply sensitive to the importance of respecting cultural diversity as ours is, this kind of spiritual colonization is shocking -- or at least ought to be.

Finally, calling Jesus a Muslim is a clear denial of his divinity, since the Quran unequivocally states as much, and this of course suggests, whether or not Ask-a-Muslim intended it, that the Christian understanding of Jesus is foolishly false. In what possible world would this not be insensitive?

So, sorry. The Dalai Lama, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, and Richard Dawkins aren't "anonymous Christians." Rahner was wrong about that.

And by the same token, Jesus isn't a Muslim, anonymous or otherwise.