Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God? The best answer might be: “It’s complicated.” Although all three profess monotheism and claim to be children of Abraham, that doesn’t mean they all are on the same page. Here’s the important question – is agreement on the nature of God necessary for productive interfaith conversation?
This book, which is being highlighted at the Patheos Book Club during December 2012, offers Jewish, Christian, and Muslim responses to the question raised in the title. The respondents are all noted scholars and practitioners of their respective traditions. They understand the importance of interfaith dialogue, but warn against ignoring differences in order to achieve peace among the religions. We read in the preface that “depending on the vantage point, the possibility that these religions do not worship the same God must be initially conceded in order to provide integrity to the entire enterprise” (p. viii).
As one who has engaged in this conversation for more than a decade, I can affirm this premise. Our conversation will not be productive if we ignore our differences and agree to a lowest common denominator definition of faith. It might provide some initial peace, but likely it won’t get too many converts.
One of the premises of this book that needs to be debated and isn’t given sufficient attention here is whether affirmation of monotheism is essential for conversation to occur. Even if we agree there is a common origin or source to the Abrahamic faiths, how do we extend the conversation to include faith traditions such as Hinduism or Buddhism? This question, at least in this context, remains unresolved, but it’s an important one nonetheless – as my Hindu friends have reminded me.
Responses to the title question are offered by two Jewish scholars, a Christian, and a Muslim. Each offers a different vantage point, and the answers of some might be more satisfactory to the reader than others.
The first response comes from Baruch Levine, Skirball Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University. Levine’s answer is simply this – “yes, but.” He opines that all three faith traditions have affirmed monotheism and their Abrahamic origins, but they have competed with each other as to who best or most fully represents that tradition. Judaism has historical precedence, but Christianity and Islam have, each in its own way, has spread this belief system across the globe. In order to answer the question of origins, Levine looks to the biblical story, offering a historical examination of the development and survival of monotheism in the life of Israel. He notes that the primary emphasis of the story is the prophetic warning to submit to empire in order to survive and remain true to one’s faith.
The second response comes from Jacob Neusner, a well regarded interpreter of Judaism who teaches at Bard College in New York. Whereas Levine looks at the question from a biblical perspective, Neusner offers the perspective of Classical Judaism, which is the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. In my reading of this chapter, I found Neusner’s perspective on this question to be narrower than Levine’s. Levine is more hopeful, whereas Neusner offers a vision of the conversation that at one level requires Christians and Muslims to become Jews in order to answer in the affirmative. Reading from Rabbinic sources, it seems clear that historically Jews have understood themselves to be the guardians of true monotheism. One must affirm and abide by the Torah to truly worship God. Therefore Christianity and Islam are not true expressions of monotheism. That said, Neusner offers this way out of the conundrum – logic assumes that if all three systems affirm the unity of God then they are essentially speaking of the same God. Still, Judaism will stand as the judge over what defines this monotheism, and on this basis the dialog can continue.
Bruce Chilton, Neusner’s colleague at Bard College, offers a Christian response. He is open to the conversation, but he too is guarded about the degree to which there is unanimity among the religions. He also raises the question about the broader conversation, if monotheism is its theological foundation. Chilton asserts that the concepts of God being Creator and Redeemer offer the opportunity for comparison, but doesn’t mean that the three religions are talking about the same God. Using the Logos doctrine of John and Justin Martyr, along with the doctrine of the Spirit, Chilton offers his reflections on the possibilities of dialog and agreement. In the end, he questions the productivity of claiming sameness. There may be similarities, but sameness isn’t necessarily an accurate description. It’s important to recognize the differences, including the Christian belief in the incarnation, as well as Islam claim that prophecy is sealed in Muhammad, as well as Judaism’s claim to an eternal covenant. There are foundations for conversation, and this is important, but the distinctions must be recognized and lived with. Each claims God to be one, but not the same, thus, he concludes “believers need to acquire a taste for the fruits of difference.
Vincent Cornell, a Muslim and professor at Emory University, offers what I found to be the most interesting and helpful response. Since it’s clear that he had read Neusner’s piece before writing his response, I sensed that he had the advantage of engaging in a tighter conversation with the dialogue partners. He seemed to understand my questions and concerns better than his partners in the conversation. Cornell lifts up the question of sameness and similarity. To affirm similarity doesn’t mean sameness, and the differences though at first sight might seem minimal are upon closer examination much greater than we might be willing to admit. In offering a comparative response, Cornell l notes that for Muslims, the distinctions with Judaism are less about theology and more about practices and ownership of this monotheism. Both claim ownership of what it means to be monotheist, and each is rather unwilling to grant to the other the right to define the terms. The relationship with Christianity is much more difficult, because one must deal with the doctrine of the Trinity and with Christology. Cornell engages the proposals offered by Miroslav Volf in his important book Allah, suggesting that Volf’s claim of sameness doesn’t sufficiently deal with the question of Jesus’ identity. Pointing to the definition of God’s nature offered by evangelical theologian Millard Erickson, Cornell says that Erickson’s declaration that Jesus’ divinity is of the same order as the Father’s is unacceptable and a conversation stopper. The more nuanced Trinitarianism of a Geoffrey Wainwright, which suggests that Christians worship the Father through the Son and in the Spirit, offers more possibilities of conversation – but who defines what orthodox Christology is for Christians? So, while logic might suggest that the three worship the same God, upon closer examination the differences are much greater than many who are involved in interfaith conversation are willing to admit. So, what is the solution? Perhaps the greatest opportunities for dialogue will be found not in comparison, but in counterpoint – recognizing and respecting our differences.
As I read the book I found it at times frustrating, and at others challenging. But ultimately, it should stimulate conversation. It calls for recognizing and affirming the reality of our differences. At the end of the day the God we worship might be the same God, but the way in which we envision that God is different and those differences are important. We can’t simply slough them off and agree to a philosophically acceptable common denominator definition and call it a day. The God that emerges from such an agreement will likely find few takers. At the same time, to simply live within the boundaries and not engage with the other, to fail to show hospitality is also a non-starter. Let us not ignore our differences or try to shoehorn our own theologies into narrow boxes so we can all agree.
As I noted earlier, I’m a regular participant in interfaith work. I have made good friends with those outside my faith tradition. I affirm the pluralistic context of our conversations, but I do have my differences with my partners in the conversation. Perhaps they are fewer with my Abrahamic friends than my Dharmic friends, but these differences are real. That fact, however, doesn't prevent fruitful engagement -- just a richer conversation. Indeed, as Martin Marty concludes, the respondents have “given us reasons not be paralyzed even by distinctions with which they leave us when, in effect, they say once more, ‘Even so, look at that . . .’” (p. 146). The way forward isn’t easy, but that needn’t keep us from engaging in this work.