The Dutch theologian Bernhard J.G. Reitsma has recently published a book entitled “Vulnerable Love: Islam, the Church and the Triune God” (Langham, 2020).
Since the topic of the book is important on several levels, it is worth looking at it more closely. Here are some thoughts and questions on this book from the perspective of a biblical scholar who has taught Islam for many years and has first-hand experience of the changes brought to Europe through Muslim mass-immigration.
The book’s main thesis
Reitsma’s book consists of four main parts, entitled “Framework for Thinking Biblically about the Church and Islam,” “Islam,” “The Church,” “The Church and Islam.” The background of the book, as its author indicates, are personal experiences that he collected during his teaching assignment at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. The main thesis of the book is that the right posture in the encounter with Muslims and Islam is one of “vulnerable love.” This implies, according to Reitsma, a conscious and humble recognition that the church is no different from the Muslim community in being an imperfect gathering of people trying to connect to the one God, as well as a renunciation of the use of any means of force in the encounter with Muslims and Islam, including for the most part also a renunciation of apologetics. Reitsma still sees inviting the Muslim other to consider Christ as the ultimate goal — but the main focus for all practical purposes is on co-existence.
Much about the general thrust arguing for the importance of “vulnerable love” is relatively uncontested. However, in my view there are very serious problems in Reitsma’s work. It is not possible to look at all of them in the present context; the following examples need to suffice.
Question 1: The concept of love
We begin with the concept of love itself. Is it not a reductionist view of biblical love to define it exclusively or primarily in terms of vulnerability? For example, Israel as a model also includes aspects of robust defense, both on the internal level and in external relationships. Jesus’ own example of a life marked by love cannot be reduced to the cross; rather, we read in the New Testament that he also verbally exposed enemies and argued in ways that can be described as “apologetic.” The same is true for the New Testament concepts of church, which include separation from and exclusion of others. Generally, love in the Bible is not just about giving in, submitting, offering the other cheek. Where these notions are advanced, this is strictly limited to the personal/private level.
Question 2: The natural realms of life (or: life is more than spirituality)
Reitsma's argument focuses to a large degree only on the spiritual realm, ignoring the natural realms of life, including the importance of culture. Such a reductionist view is a problem not only in the context of the special question concerning Christian-Muslim relations, but more generally when it comes to dealing with topics of (im)migration and inter-ethnic relations. By employing such a narrow focus, Reitsma leaves out as irrelevant a vast amount of rich biblical teaching that informs a solid Christian approach to culture and related issues of importance in Christian-Muslim relations.
Question 3: The analysis of Islam as an ideological system
Reitsma’s analysis of Islam as an ideological system is very selective and lacks in academic rigor. It seems to me that without a thorough analysis of all aspects of the fundamental tenets of Islam, it will not be possible to come to sound conclusions about how to shape the relationship with Muslims. To amend this deficit, readers will benefit from studying, for example, the works of Johannes (Hans) Jansen, Mordechai Kedar or Tilman Nagel, besides reading the Qur’an. In particular, Reitsma seems to not fully understand that Islam cannot be compared with Christianity in the sense that the former is a complete civilization in which the religious aspects cannot be isolated from the social, legal, and political ones. He also does not clearly recognize that this civilization from its outset was not created to co-exist on equal terms with any other civilization; rather it is meant to replace them, if necessary by force, and contains the explicit rejection of Judaism and Christianity as part of its DNA. Can we really ignore this? Moreover, those aspects of the Muslim civilization that most of us would see as negative (for example: jihad, subordinated position of women and non-believers, death penalty for apostates) are not unambiguously confronted by Reitsma; even the distancing from terrorists remains half-hearted. Is that really the way to go?
Question 4: The importance of history
There are almost no references to the history of Islam and its encounters with Christianity, from its beginning to the present, apart from very general remarks that basically reflect the Muslim criticism of the West. While this is perhaps related to the noble intention not to render conversations with Muslims more difficult, in my estimation none of these remarks can stand the test of in-depth historical research. Reading Rodney Stark's book on “God's Battalions” will be a helpful corrective as far as one of the most salient historical topics is concerned — the Crusades. Ignoring the history of Islam and of Muslim-Christian encounters in the past creates the wrong impression that history does not really matter and that Christian-Muslim relations can be invented from scratch, as if the members of the two groups were only just human “monads” (to use a Leibnizian category) without any cultural-historic roots and stamps.
It is especially bewildering that a special feature of Islamic history that is also very relevant today, the persecution of Christians by Muslims, while not negated by Reitsma, is downplayed in ways that must be disturbing for the millions of Christians who experience it. Is this a price worth paying to advance dialogue and co-existence?
Question 5: Islamophobia
It is quite remarkable that generally Reitsma is not willing to engage with Muslim or post-colonial stereotypes critically. One specific element of this approach is the uncritical buying into the notoriously ill-defined concept of “Islamophobia” – a concept which is time and again used to stifle debate about and criticism of various parts of orthodox Islamic ideology, is it not?
Question 6: The assessment of the religious aspects of Islam
As far as the theological assessment of the religious aspects of Islam is concerned, the picture is somewhat ambivalent. Interestingly, Reitsma cannot bring himself to designate Mohammed as a false prophet, although the message of the latter explicitly rejects core tenets of the Bible. In this respect, he has left the generally accepted view held in practically all branches of Christianity until about 70 years ago. Among the alternative sources that deal with questions of a Christian biblical/theological understanding of Islam, authors like Mark Durie or Nabeel Qureshi (a Biola graduate) can be recommended to the reader. It is also telling that Reitsma distances himself to some degree from Muslim converts to Christianity, stressing that “their view cannot be seen as the final authority on what Islam is” (p. 170). How can we be surprised that Muslim converts do no longer find a safe haven in the West (at this point especially in western Europe) when even Christians are not willing to fully support them?
The value of the book
In the eyes of the present reviewer, Reitsma’s book cannot be used as a reliable source about Islam. As for questions related to the interaction with Muslims, there is certainly common ground in that Muslims must be loved like anyone else. However, this love cannot, in a traditional Christian understanding, be extended to Islam as a (however complex and diverse) ideological system. The main value of Reitsma’s book is perhaps to encourage us to think deeper about the issues dealt with in his book, in ways that prevent us from unnecessarily aggravating a situation that is already difficult. Another value of the book may be as a historical document that shows how evangelical Christianity in the West is moving away at this point in history from traditional views not just on moral issues like homosexuality, but also on issues related to interreligious relations. With respect to the latter, it is interesting to note that there are parallels between Reitsma's views and the dominant position in liberal Protestantism as well as official Roman Catholicism, especially as embodied by Pope Francis (who routinely calls Muslims “brothers and sisters,” a use of language not covered by biblical precedent, much like his repeated exhortation to the West to build bridges instead of walls).
Reitsma's book is an interesting historic document also from another angle: Until only a couple of years ago, elites (especially in governments and media) in western Europe vehemently rejected any suggestions that Europe is in the process of being Islamized, heavily ostracizing those who would entertain such a notion. More recently, however, the argument has changed, because the massive demographic shift can no longer be denied (for statistical data see my forthcoming monograph on “The Bible and Immigration”). Thus, now the growing weight of the Muslim community is depicted by the same elites as both positive and inevitable — though selling this narrative needs some efforts because of the constant demands for special treatment by the Muslim communities and (in many parts of western Europe) frequent acts of violence committed by members of these communities (for statistical information see again the numbers collected in the forthcoming monograph on “The Bible and Immigration”). Reitsma's book fits this new stage of the debate well, advising Christians how to accept the new situation (which is slowly taking shape in the U.S. as well) in what he thinks is the best possible way.
Final Question: Where do we go from here?
As far as I can see, there will not be any easy solutions for the challenges raised by the existence of larger Muslim communities within Western societies. In my view, distinguishing three levels will be important: 1) The level of personal encounters with Muslim neighbors. Here neighborly love, embedded in a missional attitude, is a key ingredient. 2) The level of public intellectual debate. Here a rigorous exposure of the realities of the dominant versions of the Islamic ideological system and its practical history is in place. 3) The political level. Here resistance against any attempts to accept legal changes that are in accordance with Shari'a law is necessary. Politicians who routinely deny the problems related to the growing Islamic presence in the West should not be supported. Perhaps there are additional levels? How can these levels be combined in a helpful manner? This three-dimensional approach is, by the way, quite similar to how the U.S. has dealt with questions raised by the teachings of the LDS (“Latter Day Saints”), and to how ethical issues like abortion, homosexuality, and transgenderism can be addressed.
What is important at this point in the American debate is to finally wake up to the fact that problems related to Islam do exist, and bid goodbye to the idea that these problems can be addressed, let alone solved, by simply having recourse to the concept of religious liberty and the First Amendment. For how could this approach be adequate, given the fact that Islam is — as mentioned above — more than a religion (or a spirituality), but rather a comprehensive system that regulates all areas of life, including the social, legal, and political dimensions of life?