Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

How wonderful of Miroslav Volf, a native of Croatia, distinguished author and professor of theology at Yale, and friend of Christian and Muslim thinkers around the world, to write such a thoughtful, helpful book: Allah: A Christian Response. Understanding from personal experience and astute observation all that is at stake in the conversation between Islam and Christianity, and grasping why it breaks down most of the time, Volf declares that his book “is about the extraordinary promise contained in the proper Christian response to the God of Muslims for easing animosities and overcoming conflicts.”

Acknowledging what many in the public may not realize – that “most conflicts between Muslims and Christians are not of a strictly religious nature,” that much of the violence is about oil, politics, rage, economics, and race – Volf notes that religion does play an important role in what’s tense in our world. Holy sites pose problems, as do evangelistic efforts by both parties, and legal and moral issues in places where Muslims and Christians live side by side.

Volf’s primary question is: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” His firm, and brilliantly fathomed answer, is Yes. And he isn’t a simplistic pundit blandly declaring that all paths to God are valid, or that all religions are really the same. He writes as one of Christianity’s wisest, most faithful theologians, who embraces classical, orthodox expressions of the faith. He also doesn’t allow that extremist versions of Islam or of Christianity speak for the faiths as a whole. Let me restate some of his argument with some block quotations:

“Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God, the only God… What the Qur’an denies about God as the Holy Trinity has been denied by every great teacher of the church in the past and ought to be denied by every orthodox Christian today… Both Muslims and Christians, in their normative traditions, describe God as loving and just… The God Muslims worship and the God Christians worship – the one and only God – commands that we love our neighbors… Christians and Muslims have a sufficiently robust moral framework to pursue the common good together… Christians should see Muslims, who give ultimate allegiance to God as the supreme good, as allies in resisting the tendency in contemporary culture to see mere pleasure, rather than justice and love, as the hallmark of the good life… What matters is whether you love God with all your heart.”
Some common distinctions observers make between Islam and Christianity turn out to be off the mark. The idea of Christianity as “reasonable” and Islam are “pure will” is faulty. Islam’s God, Allah, has many names, none of which permit a capricious, sheer violence; Allah’s names include the Merciful, the Just, the Seeing, the Hearing, the Knowing, the Loving, and the Gentle. We see in Islam “the self-binding of God to mercy, justice, truth, and reason.”
Volf muses on the two greatest commandments as Jesus Christ formulated them in the Gospels. Muslims need some convincing that Christians believe in just one God; Christians need some convincing that Islam is about love of God and neighbor. He strives to explain the true unity in the often-misunderstood doctrine of the Trinity, and in the divinity of Jesus. Regarding Islamic love, Volf reminds his readers the “only a minuscule fraction of 1.6 billion Muslims are suicide terrorists and only a small minority of Muslims approve of their acts… Normative Islam condemns suicide as well as the killing of innocent.” Citing the Qur’an and many Islamic theologians, Volf concludes: “Like Christianity, Islam is a religion of love. Indeed, many Muslims might even argue that in practice Islam is much more a religion of love than Christianity because, over the course of its history, they believe, it has been less violent than Christianity… When some Christians, for instance, insist that Muslims worship a violent deity bent on war whereas they worship the God of love, this may be true with regard to a specific group of Muslims (say, the takfiris and the jihadists). But this is not true with regard to the God of the Qur’an as interpreted by the great Muslim teachers throughout history.”
As a footnote to his lengthy case that Islam is a religion of love, Volf does allow a slight distinction: “Christians affirm unequivocally that God commands people to love even their enemies. As God loves the ungodly, we should love our enemies. Though Muslims insist that we should be kind to all, including those who do us harm, most reject the idea that the love of neighbor includes the love of enemy.”

So do we believe in the same God? Obviously what we believe about God has similarities, and yet differences. Volf points out that “we don’t need to subscribe to identical descriptions of God to be referring to the same object.” Quite obviously, “Muslim and Christian descriptions of God are clearly not “completely identical.” But Volf, probing whether we focus on differences or similarities, asks where our hearts are: “Those who take the ‘differences’ approach are a bit like those who rejoice in wrongdoing. Those who take the ‘commonalities’ approach are a bit like those who rejoice in the truth.”
What do we have in common? Many things, as it turns out. “The oneness of God (tawhid) is the principle at the very heart of Islam – and Christianity, once we grasp the essence of the Trinity. God is good in God’s own being and beneficent toward creatures. As it turns out, Christians and Muslims agree on this. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). In the Hadith (authentic sayings of Muhammad): “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”
We begin to notice “quite a few things on which we agree: 1. There is only one God, the one and only divine being, 2. God created everything that is not God, 3. God is radically different from everything that is not god, 4. God is good, 5. God commands that we love God with our whole being, 6. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.”
What about language? “Should Christians reject ‘Allah’ as a term for God?...They should not. ‘Allah’ is simply Arabic for ‘God’… Thus all Arabic Christian Bible translations of John 3:16 say, ‘For Allah so loved the world…”
Volf tries to answer common Muslim objections to Christianity – such as the idea that God might “beget” a son. “The issue here is the meaning of the word ‘begotten,’ not the substance of our understanding of God. Christians do not think of ‘begetting’ when applied to God as a physical act…. The divine is neither male nor female (for how could such a thing be contemplated in divinity)? Moreover, ‘begetting’ in God does not result in an offspring spatially distinct or in any way independent from God, a godlike being or another god. ‘Begetting’ is a metaphor used to express the idea that the Word, which was from eternity with God, is neither a creature nor some sort of lesser divinity...” “Christians reject worshipping Christ or anyone else in place of God… The Christian creeds and the great Christian teachers reject dividing the divine essence no less adamantly than do Muslims and Jews… The beliefs of some Christians can be contrary to what Christian creeds and the great Christian teachers advocate… In statements that address the doctrine of the Trinity, the Qur’an may well be targeting the beliefs of such Christians, for what the Qur’an rejects in this regard, Christians ought to reject as well.”
Volf urges Muslims, and Christians, to remember “how different God is from any creature, how profoundly mysterious God is…but also beyond numbers. ‘One’ and ‘three’ do not apply to God the way they apply to human beings or to any other thing in the world… God’s oneness is not such that God is one more in any numerable series whatever. God is not one thing among many other things in the universe…”
In all these matters, Volf makes a careful distinction between the God in which we believe and the way we understand, describe, or worship that God. We do not often reflect on Christianity and Judaism when thinking of Christianity and Islam – but Volf correctly reminds us that “the New Testament writers, mostly Jews, assumed consistently that the God of the Hebrew scriptures and the God of their fellow Jews was the very same God they worshipped… The debate with Jews was about how to describe God properly…and how to worship God truly… The debate with Jews was never whether Jews and Christians worshipped the same God.”
Within Christianity, there has been and is intense disagreement about how to speak of God. Volf roams through the annals of history, assessing Sabellius’s God, Arius’s God, Athanasius’s God, Luther’s God… all of whom differ even in crucial respects, yet we never have thought they were describing different Gods, or even an idol or a false God. “The debates were not about which god was the true God, but which description of the one true God was correct. I suggest that we understand the debates between Muslims and Christians about the nature of God in a similar way. They are about how to describe truthfully the one God in whom both believe.”

Volf’s largest interest is in us learning to coexist peacefully on this planet. He calmly suggests that “if Christians and Muslims (along with other religions) are to live under the same roof, it is important for them to affirm political pluralism and not just democracy… The world God created is one as well, the defenders of monotheism rightly insist… A single unifying truth binds all human beings, and the same demands of justice apply equally to all.”
Volf believes we can be passionate about our own faith, even downright evangelical about it, and still coexist peacefully with those of another faith who also are passionate and evangelical. “Some Muslims and Christians are committed religious pluralists. Most of them, however, are religious exclusivists… Can religions exclusivists be political pluralists, however?... I mean the view that all religions, though not considered to be equally true by those who embrace them, are equally welcome in a given nation or state. A state like Britain, for instance, where Christianity is an established religion, may prefer one religion to all others for historical or practical reasons and yet give full freedom to others and seek to be impartial toward them within these constraints. From my perspective, such a state would count as politically pluralistic… It is an uncontested fact that many Christian and Muslim religious exclusivists endorse the impartiality of the state toward all religions and the right of each to engage in public debates… Nahdatul Ulama, the largest Muslim socioreligious organization (with over 40 million members)… avowedly pro-democracy and pro-pluralism.”
There is a message Christians need to hear: “The church is not the church of any nation or people. For both Christians and Muslims, God is not a tribal deity; since God is one, God is never ‘our’ God as opposed to ‘their’ God. If possessive pronouns are appropriate at all, ‘our’ God is as much ‘theirs’ as ‘ours.’ Both Muslims and Christians agree that their common God is just and merciful and requires human beings to be just and merciful in all their dealings.
Volf even speculates about the way to discourage extremism – in Islam or Christianity. “Extremism thrives where reasoned debate about important issues of public concern is absent… Religious truth claims, like any other truth claims, invite counterclaims and encourage public debate. Respectful debate about the truth claims of religious groups is one of the best antidotes against religiously motivated or legitimized violence. Acknowledgment of a common God: For Muslims and Christians each to worship a different God would mean that one group is made up of idolaters while the other worships the true God… Adherence to the command to love neighbors… a stand against prejudice: Prejudice and demonization are forms of falsehood… We don’t need to agree with the views of Muslims; we just need to be civil rather than mean-spirited as we disagree.”

Volf's deft negotiation of unity and difference, otherness and sameness, is consistent with his earlier work for which he has become duly famous. In this case, his generous but rigorous assessment of the connections and differences between Christianity and Islam help us know ourselves and others better, and might stand a chance at bringing a little peace...