A worldview is something you look through, not something you look at.
N. T. WRIGHT
I’ve read quite a few books on worldview. Whether James Sire’s classic The Universe Next Door or Worldviews in Conflict by Ronald Nash, the excellent Dissonant Voices by Harold Netland or the formidable Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey, all these (and more) have helped me immensely when engaged in discussions about religion. Therefore I was delighted when InterVarsity Press invited me to read and write a review of Abdu H. Murray’s Grand Central Question: Answering the Critical Concerns of the Major Worldviews. What especially piqued my interest is that the book’s author is a convert to Christianity from Islam. I encourage you to watch the brief video below and hear from him. He has a winsome way of showing the importance of affirming those who ask questions while providing answers rooted in the Gospel.
My first inclination was to skip not only the foreword but also the prologue. But I’m glad that I did not because Josh McDowell says in the forward “If you miss what Abdu says there, you’ll miss something critical to understanding how everyone struggles with the questions that matter most and how the truth can get lost in the struggle” (p 12). He was right. The prologue is a goldmine of insightful and practical ways for navigating meaningful discussions with others. In some ways it sets the tone for the entire book, weaving together Abdu’s personal stories with Jesus’ encounter before Pilate (Mt 27) illustrating that “disbelief was not a matter of the mind, but a matter of the heart and will” (p 21). Many (if not most) reject truth, not because it makes little sense, but because the consequences of truth are too much to bear. This motif runs throughout the book and is one of the features that makes this a unique apologetics text.
Each of the major worldviews stress a “grand central question,” according to Murray, and this provides the blueprint for the book’s subdivisions. Part I: Secular Humanism or the Gospel, raises the question of human value asking “Do humans have intrinsic value and objective purpose?” Part II: Eastern & Western Spirituality or the Gospel addresses the perennial struggle of all world religions by asking “which worldview gives us real answers to suffering and pain?” Part III: Islam or the Gospel raises a theological question “What about God’s greatness?” Murray convincingly concludes that only the Gospel provides the most satisfying and persuasive responses to these questions.
Chapter 1 demonstrates that Murray has a solid handle on what counts as a worldview. Our allegiance is earned if a worldview is comprehensive—addressing “all facets of life’s questions,” consistent—insisting that “answers to one set of questions…should not contradict its answers to another set of questions,” and cohesive—“directly address[ing] a particular question while consistently cohering to the answers it gives to other questions” (p 31). This chapter rightly concludes with a warning for Christian apologists to provide a “balanced search that seeks to satisfy our emotions and our intellect in person-specific ways. How we view the questioner—not just the question—is crucial” (p 41). Equally important is Murray’s insistence upon promoting the commonality found in the questions that every worldview seeks to ask, but not insulting worldview practitioners by ignoring the differences in the answers they provide.
Part I: Secular Humanism or the Gospel
Chapters 2-4 raise the question of human value and purpose. The central assumption that informs secular humanism is that “humanity has dignity, value and purpose” (p 45). And so the “Grand Central Question” is a matter of “how” and “why” this is objectively true. Murray notes that theists and secular humanists both affirm the same “what” of this central assumption, but the justification is what marks the difference. It is the source of human dignity that drives a wedge between Christians and secular humanists.
For instance, both camps would agree that racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination is wrong. But the Christian can affirm it is wrong because human value and worth is “sacred,” being grounded in a purposeful God who creates humans with meaning and value. Secular humanists, however, “live in a state of cognitive dissonance. They want to affirm purpose, value and morality as objectively real, but they are confounded by the logic of their view that tells them they are merely convenient fictions” (p 65). After carefully detailing the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic value, Murray takes on the loudest voices of the secular humanist mantra (e.g., Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris) showing the incongruity of their positions. And the schools of pragmatism and rationalism offer little refuge, since they can only give subjective meaning, value, and purpose to our human existence.
Drawing from design and fine-tuning arguments, Murray convincingly shows that a Creator God is the best answer to the “how” and “why” of humanity’s value, dignity, and purpose. It is this conviction that is the real humanism because…
humanism—by its very name—is an endeavor to find objective purpose and intrinsic value for every human. For the humanist who truly wants to find the source that grounds her affirmation that we are invested with intrinsic value and purpose, the fact that God serves as that grounding brings her home. It brings her to true humanism (p 104).
In fact, the true humanism is found in the cross of Christ and the Gospel itself, firmly established in a Trinitarian-relational God. Murray asks…
How can we know that we are intrinsically valuable, and not just means to one of God’s ends? Because at the cross God paid an infinite price to show our infinite value. As a triune being, he does not need relationship with us to have relationship. He has it within himself in the eternal community of the Trinity. And so relationship with him does not benefit him or satisfy some need he has. He offers us relationship through the cross, not for his sake, but for our sake. And in that, we are an end in and of ourselves….If something’s value is determined by its price, what more could we ask for in the cross to see how precious humanity is? (p 112, 115)
Part II: Eastern & Western Spirituality or the Gospel
A pantheistic worldview is the subject of chapters 5-6. In many ways the question raised by eastern spirituality is an existential one; namely, how can humans escape the reality of pain and suffering? Murray concludes that the question is wrongly posed, since the answer lies not in the “how” but in the “who”.
Using the well-known historic address by Vivekananda in Chicago, September, 1893, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Murray challenges some basic tenets of the pantheistic religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and their Western counterparts, popularized in the writings of Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, and the teachings of Scientology. Monism (all of reality is an impersonal divine essence), maya (existence is illusion), karma (blind cause and effect), samsara (endless cycle of death and rebirth), moksha (freedom from the cycle of rebirths) all fail to satisfy the fundamental problem of escaping pain and suffering.
Ironically, pantheism argues that the cause of pain and suffering is within humans, yet it is from within humanity that the solution lies (p 123). The incoherence of pantheism is not hard to grasp. It hardly makes sense to affirm that humans are “beset with the illusion that we are finite,” while also being one with the infinite (Hinduism). It hardly makes sense to argue that humans must be “emptied of self” while also being guilty of attachment to desire (Buddhism). Murray boldly claims “the idea that our most intense pains and sufferings are just in our heads isn’t mystical or deep—it’s offensive” (p 142).
The gospel of pantheism insists that it is we who must work to achieve our liberation and enlightenment. Yet, our deeds are most troublesome because…
Our deeds portray only the illusion of altruism, but they are really the shadows of self-interest. And so the illusory prison of samsara leads to the very real prison of selfishness, because one is not truly free to act in someone else’s best interests for that person’s sake. That is ironic, because in Buddhism the only way to escape is to be free of desire. But the entire system is set up so that every action is done out of the desire to be free. The lack of distinctions between God and self in Hinduism and the total denial of self in Buddhism are what imprison the self to an existence of self-centered conundrums (p 152).
In the end, the pantheistic position is not tenable intellectually nor existentially. It simply cannot make sense in one’s head nor in one’s heart and life. Although Christians must affirm with the pantheist that pain and suffering should be removed, this is not the primary task for those who sincerely seek relief. There is a much deeper quest to which the reality of pain and suffering point; namely peace. And the Gospel provides this in the person of Christ. “Pain and suffering are central to all worldviews, but no worldview puts its God in the midst of pain like the gospel” (p 135). And “the cross is where we find the Powerful One who took suffering seriously by taking it upon himself so that we would not have to and so that one day we will be totally free” (p 151).
Part III: Islam or the Gospel
Chapters 7-10 sum up the book and take the claims of Islam full on. This last section was, for me, the highlight and strength of the book; no doubt having much to do with Murray growing up a Muslim. Here he reveals most clearly his grasp of and love for the Triune God of Christianity and the central figure of faith, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God.
Chapter 7 lays down the background behind the foundational belief of every Muslim, “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) showing why this is so critical for understanding Islam both historically and apologetically.
Chapter 8 contains a solid apologetic case against the Muslim claim that the Bible has been corrupted. By using the Qur’an itself, along with his own personal journey, Murray skillfully highlights the real tension between a) The Bible has been corrupted yet b) The Qur’an insists that Muslims trust the Bible. Moreover, lest a wedge be driven between Jesus and Paul as some Muslims allege, Murray helpfully shows how Paul draws from Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel.
Since the Qur’an teaches Muslims that the Bible is God’s Word, then a theological dilemma for Islam obtains. Either “(1) God was unable to preserve the Bible, or (2) God was unwilling to preserve the Bible” (p 187). The first option defies the basic tenent of Islam “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great), so Murray zeroes in on the second option.
If God’s revelations could be easily corrupted because he does not care to protect them, then he would be impossible to obey or to follow with any certainty, and we would therefore have no trustworthy source for spiritual truth. To believe such things would be to do something no Muslim would do. It would be to deny that God is great.
However way the pie is sliced, one ends up denying God’s greatness.
Chapter 10 focuses upon the Trinity showing the irony in rejecting a Triune God actually reduces God’s greatness. The attack by Muslims on the Trinity is rooted in a misunderstanding of it. Murray competently shows that the Qur’an is denying something the Bible never teaches. In briefly defending the biblical data and an orthodox position, Murray insists that a modest goal is to show that reason is not violated when affirming the transcendent nature of a Triune God. In his words “we can find great comfort in the fact that the Trinity comports with our logic while at the same time exceeding it” (p 198).
Insightfully, Murray illustrates the nature of and limitations to the language used when speaking about the Trinity. Both Islam and Christianity make use of language constructs to define qualities of God (e.g., the via negativa, univocal, equivocal, analogical models, etc.). And, when dialoguing with Muslims, acknowledging these shared usages is helpful. However, the Trinity best fits the Islamic requirement to affirm God’s differentness while at the same time a Triune God affirms the personality and relational nature of God.
Most importantly, a being who exists from eternity who himself is not in community cannot love. On the other hand, a being who exists from eternity who himself is and has always been in community is capable of expressing love. This, for Murray (and I would argue for all), is the solution to understanding God’s greatness.
The final chapter is a defense of the Incarnate Word of God in Jesus of Nazareth. I was pleased to see his reliance upon Tom Morris’ work The Logic of God Incarnate, which I leaned upon heavily for my thesis against John Hick. There’s no doubt that Murray has a solid, orthodox grasp of the Incarnation of God in Jesus.
True to his target audience, Murray takes on the notion that God becoming human shows some kind of weakness or limitation to God’s greatness. Yet ironically the Incarnate Son shows God’s greatness by not holding back his intimacy with and love for his creation by disclosing his presence (p 218).
The last half of this last chapter carefully and thoughtfully makes an appeal to the Muslim heart. It’s an appeal to embrace the cross of Christ, not as a defeat but as a display of God’s greatness in achieving victory of sin’s penalty. It’s an appeal to embrace the love of God in dying, not for those who love him, but for those who hate him.
The book’s epilogue shows the interrelatedness of the questions each worldview asks and the answers provided. It nicely threads together a cohesive tapestry culminating in one Grand Central Question: “Does truth matter more than comfort?” (p 244).
In sum, I would highly recommend Grand Central Question. The comparison of Christianity with a variety of alternative beliefs make this an important read for anyone seeking an entry point to worldview thinking. Murray’s personal touch added throughout is endearing while he skillfully and effectively demonstrates how to bring clarity to religious dialog. Capitalizing on common truths that can be found across the spectrum of religious confusion, he is both engaging and uncompromising on the message of Gospel while remaining fair and charitable to secular humanism, pantheism, and Islam.
To learn more about Abdu Murray and his ministry focus visit the website Embrace the Truth International.