Do We Worship the Same God? Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue

Miroslav Volf, editor Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids November 9, 2012
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As the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, Volf is renowned as a Trinitarian ecumenist at the forefront of interfaith dialogue. The chapters in this work are drawn from two consultations under the auspices of the “God and Human Flourishing Program” at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture (www.yale.edu/faith).

In chapters 1–3 Christian theologians discuss the question of the same God, and in chapters 4–6 two Jews and a Muslim respond. This is not a volume for beginners. As Volf comments, “The discussions touched on matters of ultimate concern (and highest complexity) . . . against the backdrop of mutual enmity and violence, of conflicts with a centuries-long history that continue still today” (p. x).

In chapter 1, “The Same God? The Perspective of Faith, the Identity of God, Tolerance, and Dialogue,” Tübingen University theologian Christoph Schwöbel critiques Vatican II’s primary document on other faiths Nostra Aetate. Affirming the unity and common concerns of the human race, the document asserts on the one hand the election of some (presumably the nonelection of others), and on the other hand that in the eschaton all peoples will “walk in the light of God’s glory.” Nostra Aetate assumes a convergence of understanding of God on some higher level, a tenet Schwöbel finds impossible to sustain. He notes that since faith is a gift of God, as Luther taught, it is a “passively constituted” gift. Therefore to some degree non-Christians may also experience the revelation and presence of God.

Denys Turner, Yale University Professor of Historical Theology, wrote chapter 2, “Christians, Muslims, and the Name of God: Who Owns It, and How Would We Know?” Observing the evolving religious identity of each monotheistic religion, Turner cites eleventh-century Pope Gregory VII’s Letter to Anzir, King of Mauritania that Christians and Muslims worship “the same God,” though “in different ways” (p. 19). This leads to Turner’s question, How would “the same God” ever be defined? Turner dismisses John Hick’s proposal that all religions worship the “ultimate reality” as defined by the lowest common factors. Such a perspective empties the concept of God of any real content, nor can it be replaced with medieval mysticism. Turner focuses on the distinctions between Islamic and Christian beliefs that “God is one” versus “God is three in one.” If Trinitarians struggle to explain how God can be one, Muslims struggle with how to believe that Allah can be personal. Turner insists on the eternal undividedness of God and that the “persons” are “nothing but relations” (p. 30). As to harmony in understanding God, Turner is skeptical.

In chapter 3 “The Same God?” Amy Plantinga Pauw of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary appeals to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and maintains that there are no universal grounds of rational criteria for beliefs by either Christians or Muslims. “Good grounds” for one’s beliefs do not count as good grounds for someone else’s. “Such a confession cultivates humility, generosity, and hopefulness in our interreligious dealings” (p. 40). She sometimes finds more affinity with the God of other traditions than that of Tim LaHaye, for example. Yet when other faiths claim to know and love the one God, Christian acknowledgement of God’s otherness and freedom “leads us,” she says, “to trust their claims” (p. 42). Recognizing differing grounds for belief in a common God, Pauw finds significance in the fact that Jews and Muslims as well as Christians worship, pray, and confess sins.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the executive director of The Elijah Interfaith Institute. Rather than address Muslims, he prefers to address only Jewish-Christian possibilities in chapter 4 “Is It the Same God?” Through various periods and schools of thought Jews have had no single understanding of God, thereby allowing theological flexibility. In light of this diversity Goshen-Gottstein asks, Why cannot the Christian God be considered another Jewish option? Recently a team of Jewish scholars responded to Christianity in the document Dabru Emet (2000). The work begins by affirming that Jews and Christians worship the same God, but then paradoxically it states that Judaism rejects the Christian claim that the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old. He says the Torah’s prohibition against worshiping “other gods” or engaging in “foreign worship,” if taken seriously, precludes New Testament claims. He suggests that the most fruitful path toward rapprochement is not doctrinal but based on whether there are “signs of God’s presence in the lives of the faithful” (p. 74). He suggests that if Jewish-Christian relations could go beyond attempts to convert Jews, the two religions might help each other rather than compete.

Two-fifths of the book is chapter 5, “Do Muslims and Christians Believe in the Same God?” by Reza Shah-Kazemi, research fellow of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. After noting the common confession that God is one (1 Cor. 8:4) and the Qur’an’s “Our God and your God is one” (29:46), he steps into the “insurmountable” problem of the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity. He opines that instead of being bound by the limits of theology, one should focus “on the higher plane of metaphysics and the deeper plane of mysticism” (p. 78). He says theology is bound by the data of revelation, whereas metaphysics is a rational expression of intellect, intuition, and divine reality. Shah-Kazemi notes that the Qur’an denies the deity of Christ, but he also says that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. Negotiating this apparent contradiction, he presents a sophisticated discussion of the divine attributes and from the Muslim perspective the inherent irrationality of Christians claiming divine simplicity while also believing in three divine relational persons. Nevertheless God is free to appear in theophanies; “it is ‘improper’ to deny God such as He is conceived in the beliefs of others” (p. 108).

The last chapter “Do We Worship the Same God?” is by Peter Ochs, professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia. Ochs offers several responses to the question in his chapter title. He notes that adherents of the three Abrahamic faiths should recognize they worship the same God, though in mutually exclusive practices. He adds that Jews should recognize that Muslims and Christians worship a common God.

Readers are challenged to consider how to speak of God with those of other monotheistic faiths who together constitute well over half the world’s population. An obvious theme throughout the work is that of a generic monotheistic God to which all can appeal, as this is corroborated by certain Jewish-Christian-Muslim interactions down through history. Christians will especially find challenging the insightful, extensive chapter by Reza Shah-Kazemi (over 70 pages), the most substantive, well-informed contribution in the book.

Among the Christian theologians’ contributions to the question, Do we worship the same God? the posture is openhanded: a yes and a more timid no. Regarding the three monotheistic faiths the yes is based on God as the Creator and ground of all reality with attributes of sovereignty and freedom. The no is based on classical Christianity’s confession of the Trinity. Evangelical readers expecting exegetical responses may find both the Christian and Jewish responses disappointing. None gave more than cursory attention to the Bible, although multiple texts in both Old and New Testaments could have established a framework for discussion (e.g., Acts 14:15–17). No one even mentioned the shockingly exclusivist claims Jesus made: “You are from below; I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He [the Messiah], you will die in your sins. . . . Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:23–24, 58). All authors found reasons either to transcend this statement or to render its interpretation as a mere subjective tradition. Editor Volf states that he wrote Allah: A Christian Response (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011) as his own contribution to this difficult issue. Volf’s agenda and that of all the contributors is not only theological but also political and cultural in an effort to urge tolerance and cooperation among the major Abrahamic religions.

—J. Scott Horrell

April 1, 2013
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2013 vol. 170 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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