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Description:

In approx. 782 CE, the Caliph al-Mahdi invites the Christian Patriarch Timothy I to a theological debate in Baghdad. The two debate the way language about God and God’s nature can be derived, or not, from creation.1 The Caliph accuses Timothy of introducing composition into God, since Timothy defends the Christian Trinity using analogies of humanity, kingship, money, and the sun. The Caliph insists, “It is never allowed to draw a demonstration from the creatures concerning the Creator.” Timothy responds that such a principle would disallow knowledge of God, since “all that we say about God is deducted [deduced] from natural things that we have with us.” The Caliph, with characteristic rigor, responds, “We call God by these names, not because we understand Him to resemble things that we have with us, but in order to show that He is far above them, without comparison. In this way, we do not attribute to God things that are with us, we rather ascribe to ourselves things that are His... Words such as: kingdom, life, ... [etc] belong truly, naturally and eternally to God, and they only belong to us in an unnatural, imperfect, and temporal way.” (Coakley 236)

Analysis:

This exchange illustrates a long-standing debate of Christians and Muslims (both within each tradition and between the traditions) about the extent to which the natural order of the world does or does not image the nature of God. At stake is the derivability of the natural order from God’s being or God’s will, the similarity (if any) between creation and God, and the role of the individual’s intellectual and conscientious responsibility to the will of God as laid down in creation. For Christian and Muslim believers, what is “against nature” depends on how God’s determination of “nature” is understood. Nature does not mean the same when used of God and humans (as indicated by the tawhid [ديحوت] or oneness and incomparability of God). Indeed, Ibn-Sina [Avicenna/ نبا انيس] denied that God has a nature for this very reason. (Burrell, 40) The idea of “nature” thus becomes complex and contestable. Human beings may image the infinity of God by nature in their openness to the world, for instance. Human nature may itself be a distant reflection of the way God is beyond determination by nature. The very determination of humankind in relation to God takes place in an “unnatural” way, according to the Caliph.

References:

“Apology of Patriarch Timothy of Baghdad,” in John Coakley and Andrea Sterk, eds., Readings in World Christian History (Orbis, 2004); David Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (University of Notre Dame, 1986); Martin Heimgartner, Timotheos I, Ostsyrischer Patriarch: Disputation mid dem Kalifen Al-Mahdi, 2 vols. (Peeters, 2011).


text

  • Linn Tonstad

date

  • 782

location

  • Baghdad, Iraq

resides in New Haven, USA, where she is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. Her work integrates Christian systematic theology, feminist, and queer theory with notions of embodiment. Her forthcoming book is titled God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude. She has contributed to the blog Feminism and Religion (FAR), a forum for feminist scholars of religion investigating “the F-word in religion and the intersection between scholarship, activism and community.”

— ARTICLE: Case #9: God, Nature, and the Nature of God
— EVENT: The Manufacturing of Rights
More information: Web page at Yale Divinity School

voice

  • Linn Tonstad

recording and editing

  • Linn Tonstad

resides in New Haven, USA, where she is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. Her work integrates Christian systematic theology, feminist, and queer theory with notions of embodiment. Her forthcoming book is titled God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude. She has contributed to the blog Feminism and Religion (FAR), a forum for feminist scholars of religion investigating “the F-word in religion and the intersection between scholarship, activism and community.”

— ARTICLE: Case #9: God, Nature, and the Nature of God
— EVENT: The Manufacturing of Rights
More information: Web page at Yale Divinity School

resides in New Haven, USA, where she is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. Her work integrates Christian systematic theology, feminist, and queer theory with notions of embodiment. Her forthcoming book is titled God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude. She has contributed to the blog Feminism and Religion (FAR), a forum for feminist scholars of religion investigating “the F-word in religion and the intersection between scholarship, activism and community.”

— ARTICLE: Case #9: God, Nature, and the Nature of God
— EVENT: The Manufacturing of Rights
More information: Web page at Yale Divinity School

resides in New Haven, USA, where she is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. Her work integrates Christian systematic theology, feminist, and queer theory with notions of embodiment. Her forthcoming book is titled God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude. She has contributed to the blog Feminism and Religion (FAR), a forum for feminist scholars of religion investigating “the F-word in religion and the intersection between scholarship, activism and community.”

— ARTICLE: Case #9: God, Nature, and the Nature of God
— EVENT: The Manufacturing of Rights
More information: Web page at Yale Divinity School

1. Joscelyn Gardner, Eryngium foetidum (Prue), 2009
Hand-colored lithograph on frosted mylar
36” x 24”
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