At recent dialogue event, Faiths in Coversation on April 28th here in Dallas, Doug Skinner, a Christian pastor, and Imam Zia, a Muslim leader, and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger spoke about the relation between faith and works. It was an enlightening discussion, and again demonstrated how similar these three religions can sound while being quite different.
The Christian presentation noted, conventionally, that faith and works go together. One cannot have faith in God without being obedient to God. This is rooted deeply in the Christian meaning of faith as a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And this in turn is based on the Christian understanding of God as Trinity.
Through faith in Christ Christians participate in the inner life of God, because Christ, the Son of God, is part of that inner life. And if one is participating in God’s life then one’s actions are shaped by God’s desires. One becomes an instrument of God’s will. Faith inevitably bears fruit in good works.
The presentation on Judaism eschewed any mention of faith as a means of participation in the inner life of God. Faith was associated with belief in God. And thus faith has a reciprocal relationship with obedience to God’s law and doing good works. If you believe in a God who instructs people in how to behave then you are likely to be obedient to God’s instructions. And even absent such faith, ethical action draws one into God’s intention for human beings and thus closer to recognizing God’s existence as creator of human beings.
The imam’s presentation focused on faith as the orientation of intention. If you do good works because they are good for your fellow humans and yourself then your intention is focused on earth, and on earth you will receive your reward. If you do good works out of faithful obedience to God then your reward will be in heaven.
What became clear in the conversation is that these three religions, or at least these three religious leaders, do not agree about the meaning of the words “faith in God.” This is not so much because they disagree about the word God, but because they disagree about the meaning of the word faith. Their understandings, if broadened across their traditions, are not mutually exclusive. But basically they are different.
Exposing these differences in the meaning of basic religious terminology is one of the most important reasons for dialogue, because it sharpens our ability to find the places where we have real common interests. Then whether or not we can think alike, we may find ways to work together.