Interview by Kourosh Ziabari
Craig L. Blomberg is the Distinguished Professor of the New Testament, and has been a New Testament scholar since 1986 at the Denver Seminary in Colorado. Denver Seminary where Prof. Blomberg teaches is an evangelical graduate-level institution that was founded in 1950. Blomberg delivers speeches and writes on a number of Christianity, religion-related issues regularly. He has published several books on the New Testament of which we can name “From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts Through Revelation” and “The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues and Commentary”. He specializes in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts.
Prof. Blomberg joined me in an interview to answer my questions on the recent incident of Quran burning in the United States, the inter-faith dialogue of the followers of Islam and Christianity, the contribution of religion to the global peace and stability, the role of religion in solving the problems of contemporary man and the dissolution of the basis of traditional family in the 21st century.
Kourosh Ziabari: Over the past weeks, an intense controversy over the burning of Holy Quran was sparked all around the world. Several copies of the Holy Quran were burnt on the anniversary of 9/11 attacks. What’s your viewpoint about this action? Is it compatible with the teachings of Christianity to insult the holy books sacrilegiously?
Craig Blomberg: No, it is not compatible, not in any way, shape or form. It is very sad that even a few copies of the Quran were burnt. But we can all thank God that something much more inflammatory, literally and figuratively, did not occur. One of the most distinctive and important teachings of Jesus was love for one’s enemies. Muslims as a whole are not Christians’ enemies, but even if a few Christians think so, that gives them no reason to violate their Lord’s teaching on loving the people they think are their enemies. Burning another person’s or group’s holy book or books can in no way be construed as love.
KZ: We’re witness to a growing wave of Islamophobia in the West, fueled and intensified by the Western governments. Muslims are being deprived of their civil rights in the European countries and their sacraments are being challenged by the Western governments in a blasphemous way. What’s your take on that?
CB: Tragically, throughout the history of the world, members of minority cultures and religions in countries whose prevailing worldviews are quite different have seldom received good treatment. More Christians were martyred for their faith worldwide in the twentieth century than in all previous nineteen centuries of church history put together, with the atheist regimes of the Stalin era in the former Soviet Union and the Maoist era in China being the perpetrators of the largest numbers of atrocities. Six million Jews were killed in Nazi Germany, which is a documented historical fact. Although claiming a veneer of Christianity, Hitler was more influenced by the radically atheist philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin than by any truly Christian beliefs. In Africa more recently we have seen one tribe attempting genocide over another in Rwanda, Congo, and elsewhere, often appealing to a facade of the Christian religion to hide what are truly political and tribal conflicts. In the many long years of the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s it was politics that exploited alignment with Shi’ite and Sunni Islam for their own ends. The patterns of behavior seem to repeat in almost every generation, only the parts of the world and the given “players” may vary. The more secularized Western Europe becomes, the more overt persecution of Muslims seems to appear and the more covert persecution of Christians seems to appear, even if more selectively and subtly. Once again, any appeals to Christianity to justify any of this are completely misguided and misrepresent the spirit and teachings of Jesus and all his first followers.
KZ: There are people who advocate the existence of a division between Islam and Christianity. Are they right in their stance that Islam and Christianity have nothing in common? What’s the straightforward say of Christianity in this regard? Should there be any separation between these two monotheistic religions?
CB: I’m not entirely sure how the word “division” is being used in this question. I do not believe that all religions teach exactly the same thing. That is simply factually untrue. So, of course, it makes sense to say that Islam is not Christianity and vice-versa. I doubt many Muslims would say that Christians would be welcome to participate in every aspect of their worship without converting to Islam; indeed, non-Muslims can’t even go to the Kaaba in Mecca. So there should be no surprise that there are portions of Christian worship, such as its sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, which are reserved for Christians. But it is equally untrue that the two religions have nothing in common. Your first question has already mentioned the common biblical ancestors that both religions share, and textbooks on comparative religions can compile long lists of similarities as well as differences, both in beliefs and in practices.
KZ: How can a sustainable integrity and solidarity between the followers of divine religions contribute to international peace? Is it possible to establish a coalition on the basis of commonalities of Islam and Christianity to serve the interests of international community?
This is probably your hardest question for me to answer. Over the centuries, and even in our day, only a fairly small minority of any of the world’s religions have ever shown much of an interest in inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. I have no doubt that it is possible to establish the coalition you describe; the more significant question is how many people would participate in it and would they be numerous enough and influential enough to truly make a difference. Sadly, it is often only after atrocities far worse than 9/11 that people across major religious boundaries are motivated to work with each other. It happened between Christians and Muslims in a remarkable way in Sierra Leone, West Africa, after the Civil War decimated that country in the 1990s. And it happened because there was already a history of some cooperation among the leaders of the two religions–pastors and imams–and because people recognized that the war had been about tribal conflict that cut across religious lines. But now, a scant ten years later, as rebuilding after the war continues and has met the most desperate needs of the people, many construction, educational and medical projects are being funded by Saudis who are offering the services in the context of an aggressive campaign to convert non-Muslims into Muslims. Something similar is occurring in Liberia, whose recent history has been very similar to that of Sierra Leone. More well known are the recent slaughters of Christians who were not even involved in proselytizing but solely humanitarian work in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban. So, as much as I personally would be thrilled to see such efforts come about as you have described, it is hard to be too optimistic about their chances of success.
KZ: What’s your viewpoint regarding the peaceful coexistence of the followers of divine religions? How should we come to a point at which there would be no conflict and divergence between the Muslims, Christians and Jews?
CB: Conflict and divergence are two quite different concepts. As I said above, in replying to question 4, there are many topics on which each of the world’s major religions diverges considerably. The only way to avoid divergence, disagreement and differing views on important topics, would be to dramatically rewrite all of the religions’ holy books and then get all the people of the world to follow them perfectly! This, obviously, will never happen. But peaceful coexistence is very much the ideal of Jesus’ teachings. It is also part of the genius behind the original goals of the American constitution and democracy as it came to exist in the U.S. Unfortunately, in some Americans’ minds today, freedom “of” religion should be replaced by freedom “from” religion. Usually it is atheists who lobby for this. Short of that, many argue that people should just not talk about or practice religion in the public. Here both Islam and Judaism, I think, have done a better job than Christianity at resisting such notions. Peaceful co-existence, whether from a Christian perspective or just from a politically democratic perspective, should allow and even encourage all people to be free and to feel free to share their deepest religious convictions with any who will listen, but they must always do so in a non-coercive way and respect the rights of others to say “No, thank you.”
KZ: The secular world which advocates the separation of state and church/mosque claims that religion does cannot provide sustainable and effective solutions for the world’s current problems and predicaments. They believe that religion should be limited to personal practices and disallowed to enter the public sphere. What’s your viewpoint in this regard?
CB: At least in the U.S., that was not the idea of the framers of the Constitution at all. They did not want one particular religion or one particular branch of a particular religion to be able to impose itself as the only legal religion or denomination in the country. They always assumed that religious people would take part in the public arena, voting, proposing legislation, and so on, according to their own religiously informed consciences. Even as recently as my childhood years in the 1960s, this was widely recognized. It’s only been in about the last forty years when the opposite viewpoint has become widespread, and it goes directly against the spirit and intention of the founders of the American democracy.
KZ: How is it possible to employ religion to draw an end the world’s conflicts? We’re witness to several painful, agonizing wars around the globe in which innocent civilians lose their lives unjustifiably. What’s the prescription of religion for these wars and bloody conflicts?
CB: I think it is important for the religions involved to go out of their way to dissociate themselves from the warfare. Of course, a given Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, etc., may voluntarily choose to enlist in the military of his or her country, or may live in a nation where all people of a certain age must take their turn serving in the military. But the church, mosque, synagogue, temple, etc., as a religious institution must find ways repeatedly to stress that they are not endorsing any particular war, battle or terrorist activity and model peacemaking, humanitarian aid, rebuilding after warfare, and the like.
KZ: Morality is gradually losing its influence in the tumultuous era which we’re living in. The foundation of family is becoming shaky and unstable as the codes of ethics are being faded away in oblivion and negligence. Doesn’t the dissolution of morality propel our world toward social, political and economic meltdown?
CB: I suppose you want a longer answer than just “yes.” But that is the straightforward answer. No other period of world history has seen so many separate societies around the globe abandoning traditional family values and promoting personal “self-realization” and independence above working for the common good or demonstrating loyalty to biological and spiritual families. But none of the world’s great religions promotes such individualism, and the track record so far of what it has been doing to the planet is an abysmal one.
KZ: Let me pose my final question. There are thinkers and scholars who predominantly emphasize the differences of divine religions and amplify the divergences between them. How is it possible to derive benefit from the commonalities of divine, monotheistic religions to serve the interests of the international community and contribute to global peace, stability?
CB: Most religions make some kind of distinction between theology and ethics. Theology has to do with what people or religious groups believe about God, about the human condition, and about how God relates to humans and how we are to relate to God. Ethics has to do with how we treat each other, indeed, how we treat all of creation. While the major world religions at times differ considerably on some of their answers to the first set of questions (the theological ones), there is often greater agreement on the second set (the ethical ones), especially when it comes to the centrality of loving one another. I do not have to agree with everything in Jewish, Islamic, Shinto, or Sikh theology to co-operate with them in the ethical undertakings we all agree will help make the planet more caring, compassionate and just. Indeed, I should want to cooperate with anyone who will help in such endeavors against those who, for whatever reason, are bent on destroying people, places, and planets!
Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian freelance journalist and media correspondent. His articles and interviews have appeared on a number of media outlets and news websites including Tehran Times, Press TV, Global Research and Foreign Policy Journal.