“I am who I am…and I cannot deny who I am” – paraphrase of G0d’s words as found in Exodus 3:14 and II Timothy 2:13
I am a Christian. As a Christian I wonder, do my Muslim and Jewish friends worship the same God as me? Is the Christian God free to be “Himself” in Judaism and Islam? Can Jews and Muslims welcome the God of Christianity into their midst and vice-versa? Should they? Would the Christian God recognize Gods’ self if God were described by a Jew or Muslim? These are all slightly different versions of the same very important question: Do we all worship the same God, only differently?
Why is this question important? Miroslav Volf believes that “To ask: ‘Do we have a common God?’ is, among other things, to worry: ‘Can we live together?'” (vii). Muslims and Christians increasingly share common spaces and are both “socially engaged” and “world-transforming religions of a prophetic type…so tensions, even conflicts between Muslims and Christians are unavoidable”” (viii). This is not simply semantics or just a frivolous theological debate about a divine name. It is a debate about THE divine identity and thus is a debate about our own identity as Jews, Muslims and Christians. Do Muslims, Christians and Jews pray to two or three different deities making one or the other an idolater?
I recently read a book on this topic. It was titled “Do We Worship the Same God? Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue,” Edited by Miroslav Volf. This book is a compilation of a few essays previously presented by religious experts at Yale university and these and other papers were the stimulation for Volf’s own work, “Allah: A Christian Response,” published this last year. In this post I want to simply highlight and summarize a few of the contained arguments:
Reasons for believing that we worship the same God:
- It seems that at the least we are all TRYING to worship the same God. There is a common fundamental aspiration in all J’s, M’s and C’s to worship the one and only God who is the objective, transcendent, unique and ineffable Reality. For J’s, C’s and M’s there is in fact only one God and so the God we are serving is that precise One. Perhaps this is why we as Christians experience “holy envy” (Stendahl) when we watch Jews or Muslims worship. Are there not indeed “traces of the living God in all religions”? (Alon-Goshen-Gottstein, 74) The Muslim scholar Reza Shah-Kazemi believes that the fact of the oneness of the divine Object takes precedence over any other particular formulation we may give to God (105). Since we all believe in one God, then we necessarily believe in the same God. Kazemi goes so far as to say…”One can and must accept that there is an irreducible theological incompatibility between Islamic and Christian conceptions of God, but one need not go further and claim that this incompatibility permits the Muslim theologian to say that Christians worship something other than God” (106). He continues, “Although the divine nature or Essence is absolutely one and noncomposite, it is conceived by the intellect in inescapably multiple ways…He is one in reality, and yet multiple in idea.” (136). The fact of difference shows not that we worship a different God but that we worship a comprehensive God who is willing to speak to us in our own culture and according to our own specific needs. We realize we worship the same God when we move “beyond theology” and move we should.
- We all serve the same God since all J’s, C’s and M’s have one common origin (God), goal (God’s presence) and share common ethical aims (Christoph Schwobel, 1-6). So within these three religions we see that God’s oneness is equally “asserted in different ways from different perspectives.” (8) Essentially we have differing perspectives on the same reality. Schwobel also argues that since we cannot create our own faith or those of others, when we see others have faith in a different understanding of God we must allow the option that maybe this is how God created faith for them.
- God is the creator of all so therefore we all worship the same God (Amy Plantinga Pauw). God’s oneness should be seen “less as a numerical observation than a confession of God’s radical otherness.” (Pauw, 39) This is the theological precondition for J’s, C’s and M’s as all J’s, C’s and M’s believe God is the source and sustainer of life. For all of us, our God is a creator of ALL and thus the worst someone can be is a heretic. That is, someone who worships the one God in fundamentally flawed ways. The distinction between Creator and creation in all three religions shows no one religion can perfectly capture God’s reality in their own theological conceptions. (Pauw, 40) After all, “God’s generosity exceeds our own theological understandings.” Therefore, Christians should affirm the “stammering(s) and groping(s) for truth” that is happening in Judaism and Islam (Pauw, 40) as a true and worthwhile alternative to worshipping the same God.
Reasons for believing that we could never know whether or not we worship the same God:
- Until the visio beatifica, there is no such thing as a supra-religious perspective. After all, what sort of J, C, or M could come up with an adequate generalized metaphysical or quintessential understanding necessary for answering such a question in the first place? What are we supposed to do – make neutral side-by-side comparisons? Of course one main problem with this Lowest Common Factor standard of comparison is that the minimum that is common to all “religions” is almost certainly going to be what is least interesting in any of them” (23). Besides, Frithjov Schuon has shown in his book Logic and Transcendence that this is impossible to do. It is “self defeating in practice” (5). Because all J’s, C’s and M’s are stuck in their own perspectival horizon we are all unable to answer this question. We should leave this question unanswered.
Reasons against believing that we worship the same God:
- In his Large Catechism, Third Article, Luther states that everyone has the same God, but not everyone knows this (13). Luther says that of course all non-Christians have the same God as Christians because there is only one God. However, because non-Christians do not believe in Christ and the Holy Spirit they don’t recognize the true character of God (13) so they are not worshiping the same God the Christians worship. This means their knowledge of God is in a deficient form. Jews and Muslims are not in a proper relationship to God and thus don’t know exactly what to expect from Him or how to serve and love Him. Someone worships the Christian God only when they are in a proper relationship to Christ as defined by the Christian canon. If God is not known in the way He wants to be known… then there is no knowing at all. Essentially, J’s, C’s and M’s worship One God, but not the SAME One.
- We all worship God differently thus we worship a different God. Amy Plantinga Pauw points out that God “is known most deeply in worship.” (46) As Pauw states, in worship, “The thin convergence around God as creator is embedded within the thick theological traditions of each community of faith” (47).Doesn’t this mean when we deal with the deep paradoxes and differences between worshipping traditions we should realize that these differences exist because the deepest components of God in each religion are vastly incongruous? Worship is where the particularities of each faith is brought to the fore. In worship we realize we are very different from one another.
- When we say that we all affirm the oneness of God we are not saying much. This minimal agreement is much too “thin” to convince. Especially because we know that although C’s, M’s and J’s all believe that God is unity – we all conceive of that unity very differently (100ff). As well, when we venture to move from the straightforward monotheistic postulate and enter into theological discussions on the nature of this God with our Muslim and Jewish neighbors, “we encounter major problems” (77). We see this in theological debates all the time where it is all but inevitable that “Fundamental disagreements about the nature of God will prevail, overshadowing or even undermining the elements of commonality in beliefs held by Muslims and Christians.” (79). We encounter “major problems” (77) with other theologies because our core beliefs “fly in the face” of each other (80) leading to a “theological impasse” and “fundamental incompatibility” (80). This is especially true as concerns the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation. These can’t just be “symbolic expressions” which we are to see through. These doctrines are core aspects of our Christian faith and cannot be ignored. Although it is a stretch – one may say we all worship the same God objectively and maybe even metaphysically. But our subjective and theological experiences tell us otherwise. All three religions postulate God as the transcendent Object or referent of belief but none of us stops there. In moving forward in authenticity we realize we are authentically different.
So, what do you think? Where do we go from here? How would you answer? The most interesting answer for me in this book was from Amy Plantinga Pauw who states we should “march together for a while, and then return to our own parades” (47)… In the thinness of the other one is justified to return to the thickness of his/her own. (Walzer, Thick and Thin, 11). How is that for a plan?