In my pantheon of patron saints, among Sunday School teachers, seminary professors, family, church members, and passing strangers; you will find my Muslim college professor. He helped me to love the Church at a point in my life where I didn’t think I wanted anything to do with Christianity.
When I met him, I was at a point in my spiritual life where I was frustrated with the Church. My second day in college was September 11, 2001 and I was increasingly aware of the ways that religion, including Christianity, authorized and encouraged hate and violence. Perhaps even worse, I was at a place in my spiritual life where I didn’t want to be challenged in my faith.
All that was about to change. He was a Pakistani man with a New Jersey accent, who started teaching religion at Concordia College my sophomore year. I’d like to say I took his class because I wanted to, but the truth is I made my way to his class on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—because I had to for my religion major.
Over the next three years I would take many other classes from this Muslim man who could effortlessly talk about the similarities and differences between religious traditions, holding each one in awe and respect. With him I learned names like Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche weren’t people or ideas to fear or hide from, but critics of religion who needed to be heard. More significantly, that you could hear them and not lose your faith.
Anyone working on their second PhD has my respect, especially when they are also real people. He was someone who was just as excited about his kid’s first soccer goal and disappointed in his New York Jets, as he was about religion and philosophy.
I remember one particular conversation when I was sharing my frustrations with Christianity. How exclusionary it could be. How it was the cause of so much violence. How I was embarrassed to be a Christian.
It was then that he said to me, “You can’t dismiss an entire religion because of a few ugly examples and dozens of poor adherents.”
“The beauty of Christianity is in the incarnation,” he went on to say, “your religion believes that God is as close to you as another person. The last thing you want to do is cut yourself off from people, to do so is to cut yourself from God. There are many people in your religion and mine who claim to be the most devout, the most religious, but who do the most evil deeds. They too are people. They too offer a glimpse of God beneath their hate and destruction.”
In these times of hate and violence, I have to remind myself not be too quick to cut myself off from others. I have to remember that my Christian faith gives me a lens to see other people in the light of Christ’s love. And I hope others will see me with lens of Christ’s love.
“Hold fast to what is good. Have Courage”