I posted here on this question some months ago, but since then I was invited to deliver a version of that blog post as a paper presentation at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio (November 22, 2016). This was a joint session of two program units: Constructive Theology and Evangelical Studies. Here (below) is what I said in answer to the question in the title of this blog post. The specific “Abrahamic faiths” referred to in the session description are Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith.
Do Adherents of the Abrahamic Faiths Worship the Same God?
When attempting to answer a question asked by others, nothing is more important than getting the question right. So please be patient as I re-state the question, as I understand it, or as I state the question I intend to answer—whether that is the question assigned for me to answer or not.
Here is the question I will attempt to answer: Do faithful adherents of the mainline, historic branches of the great Abrahamic faiths of the world worship the same God as each other worship? Put another way: Do Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is worship the same God?
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This is, of course, a very old question that has been discussed and answered in various ways before, but, obviously, no consensus has been reached by Christians. Baha’is generally answer that they do. Jews are not in agreement about the right answer but mostly answer that they do not. Muslims generally answer that they do not. Christians, of course, give different answers—dividing usually along the conservative versus progressive line.
The issue has become heated again in recent years and months due to several Christians publicly claiming that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I’m not aware of any Christians claiming that about Baha’is—which is strange because the latter are the ones who, theologically speaking, have the greatest consensus about the matter.
The question has many facets and even asking it raises several related and important questions. It is not a simple, straightforward question by itself amenable to a simple, straightforward answer. For example, what is meant by “worship?” Also, what does “the same God” mean? Also, and finally, who are these Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is? Each religion is divided into numerous factions often with very different ideas about God. The questions seem irresistibly to push themselves forward: Do all Jews worship the same God? Do all Christians worship the same God? Do all Muslims worship the same God? Do all Baha’is worship the same God?
Underlying all else in this conversation, which often takes the form of debate, is the assumption that “same God” would be recognized by cognitive, that is, doctrinal, similarities. What do all the Abrahamic faiths’ ideas of God have in common? Well, at least in their mainline forms, they share a common belief in monotheism. Or do they? Many Jews, Muslims and
Baha’is would deny that classical, orthodox Christianity is authentically monotheistic. We could perhaps also list a number of attributes of God shared in common by the four great monotheistic, Abraham faiths. Miroslav Volf has done an admirable job of describing these similarities between especially the Christian idea of God and the Muslim idea of Allah in his 2011 book Allah.
Where do these Abrahamic faiths diverge in their concepts of God? The most obvious divergence has to do with the Christian doctrine of the incarnation—that God became human in Jesus Christ. But one could also mention, especially from a Christian point of view, divergence between the faiths with regard to God’s moral character as love. But, of course, one could also claim that that divergence appears within Christianity itself.
Obviously the question is complicated and fraught with problems. The great mid-20th century Dutch missiologist and ecumenical theologian Hendrik Kraemer wrestled with it long and hard in his several books on Christianity and world religions, such as The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (Third Edition, 1956), without ever coming up with a definitive answer. However, unlike Volf, Kraemer seems to have leaned toward the view that Christians do not worship the same God as even other Abrahamic faiths.
I believe the question really divides into two questions upon deep reflection. They are: Are faithful adherents of the great Abrahamic faiths thinking about the same God when they worship? and Does God accept the worship of faithful adherents of the great Abrahamic faiths as worship of himself in spite of their cognitive, doctrinal differences? I think the answer to the first question is No. I think the answer to the second question is Maybe.
When someone says, as a Wheaton College professor recently did, that Christians and Muslims worship the same God I want to know which she means. Does she mean they are thinking of the same being as they worship? Or, does she mean the one true God is accepting their worship as worship of him? Those are possibly very different claims.
My own study of the Abrahamic faiths leads me to believe their crucial ideas of God are sufficiently divergent that they are not thinking of the same being when they worship. This is especially clear to me with regard to Christianity’s concept of God as triune—Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three distinct persons or modes of being of one indivisible divine reality. While I do believe orthodox Christianity, properly understood, is monotheistic, I also believe that anyone who denies that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, equal with the Father, is not thinking of the same God I, as an orthodox Christian, think of when I worship God. To me, the incarnation, the humanity of God in Jesus Christ and the divinity of a man in Jesus Christ, is crucial to the Christian concept of God and distinguish Christian worship of God as worship of a different being than even worship of other monotheistic “gods.”
On the other hand, my study of my own Christian faith, and especially of the “wideness in God’s mercy,” leads me to believe that the God I worship as a Christian very well may accept worship of other gods as worship of himself insofar as he knows that, if the devotee encountered Jesus Christ in person, he or she would bend the knee and confess him as Lord. This seems to have been C. S. Lewis’s implication in The Last Battle where Aslan accepts Emeth’s worship of Tash as worship of himself.
While hopeful that God accepts at least some monotheistic worship of other gods as worship of himself, I would never personally participate in worship that does not include, at least implicitly, Jesus Christ as God and Savior. Some ask whether Christianity is God-centered or Christ-centered and, in my own humble opinion, for whatever it is worth, the answer is both. 1 John 2:23 and 5:12: “Whoever does not have the Son does not have the Father.” Christianity is God-centered and Christ is God for us.
A few years ago Volf interviewed Jürgen Moltmann about “Joy.” You can see segments of that interview on Youtube. One segment is entitled “Who Is God?” Volf puts that question to the elderly Moltmann who responds simply “Jesus Christ.” Then Moltmann adds “If it were not for Jesus I would not believe in God.” Implicit in that response is a “no” to the question whether Christians and adherents of other religions worship the same God even though, I suspect, Moltmann believes God very well may accept worship of other gods as worship of himself. I agree with Moltmann on both counts.
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