Saturday, December 19 2015
I’ve been intrigued by the tenured Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins, who was suspended for saying on her Facebook page that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She was quoting, with attribution, Pope Francis. While the administration suspended her for theological syncretism with Islam, (that is the mixing of theological understandings deemed incompatible,) I would suggest their action was also a denunciation of the Pope – Roman Catholics should take umbrage.
The dispute took me to the scholarship of Yale professor Miroslav Volf, son of a Pentecostal minister who said in the dedication of his book that his father had taught him that Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God. His book Allah: A Christian Response is a careful scholarly work that traces the history of monotheistic theological interpretation. Volf reviews several passages in the Quran and their parallels in Hebrew and Christian scriptures as they describe and attributes of God (Allah). The similarities are striking, but the differences between the three are equally significant. Judaism’s rejection of the incarnation of Jesus and the accompanying renunciation of anything smacking of Trinitarian, could imply that the Christian God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the God of Abraham and Moses, are also different Gods - a statement that would be considered Christian heresy, but many rabbis would concur.
The question first came to me many years ago from a confirmation student. Joey Childs, a bright African American who had encountered many Nation of Islam followers in his neighborhood, asked, “Pastor Jon, if Christianity believes in only one God, and Islam believes in only one God, is it the same God?”
My first reaction was to receive it as another confirmation trick question, (e.g. “If God can do anything, could God make a rock so big He can’t lift it? Or a rope so long he can’t climb it?”) But I realized quickly Joey’s question was sincere. He was grappling with the monotheism of two radically different cultures. Two cultures which held not only religious but racial divisions (something which is a curious backdrop to the suspension of the Wheaton College professor). Joey wanted to know if the Christian Venn diagram of a single circle would logically overlap with Islam’s same diagram. A “yes” might be an easier answer, but smack of fuzzy Unitarianism, a “no” far more complicated but would appear to better defend the faith for young confirmands.
I wondered if Arabic Christian pastors faced the same question from their confirmation Students. The Arabic translations of Hebrew and Christian scriptures use the only word in Arabic for God which is “Allah.” In that context the question would be if the Christian Allah was the Muslim Allah; something which may suggest a more affirmative answer than determining if the Jewish YHWH was the same as the Christian God. This is equally akin to asking if the Mormon Jesus is the same as the Christian Jesus. It may all boil down to trademark infringement.
With earnest Joey I did as most pastors do in that situation, I attempted to reframe the question into one I could actually answer. The issue, and this is handled much more competently in Volf’s book, is not one regarding theological formulation of the divine identity, but a question of how the faithful respond to The Divine through their worship.
When Jesus encounters the woman at the well in John 4, she points out a significant theological discrepancy, we’ll pick up the conversation in verse 19:
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:19-24 NIV).
Jesus calls for a worship that sees beyond ethnicity or location, a worship in “Spirit and truth” that transcend theological debate. Jesus commends a worship that points to relationships rooted in ethics and integrity, regardless of philosophical verbiage or postal address of the holy place. (See also Jeremiah 31:33)
I am absolutely convinced no one is going to hell for bad theology or inaccurate vocabulary. If that were the case, Arabic Christians would be in serious trouble every time they pray to Allah. Jesus does not correct the theology of the Samaritan woman, he steps back and suggests there is a worship that transcends vocabulary and seeks truth in Spirit not formula.
The Samaritan woman is convinced not by Jesus theology, but by his acceptance of her knowing not only her theology, but her failures and weaknesses. Her convincing witness to the members of her village was not theological, but relational, “He told me everything I ever did.” (V39).
Speaking as a Christian, I do not feel it is important to cleave off the identity of our One God, from use by any other group that wishes to suggest they too are monotheistic. My question is not about God’s identity - I’m pretty sure God isn’t suffering an identity crisis because people use different names. My question is about the shape of the worship undertaken by that God’s followers. Do they worship in Spirit and truth?
When a scribe asked Jesus regarding the most important commandment in Mark 12, Jesus responded that meaningful monotheism is not a question of vocabulary, but of neighborly treatment. We’ll pick up the story in Verse 28.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12:28-34 NIV)
With the Samaritan and the Scribe, Jesus focus was not on theological identity, but on love of neighbor. I would suggest the most Christian conversation regarding interfaith definitions must begin, not with the location of God, but with our loving relationships with one another. And at the core of every truly Christian conversation must be the even more radical Christian command, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).
We may or may not be discussing the same divine singularity; but worship of the One True God is only Christian when the enemy is embraced by the Spirit and truth of our love.
If the monotheism of another individual drives that person to love his or her enemies, my response must be, “You may be a long way from retaining tenure at Wheaton College, but ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God.’
Jonathan B. Krogh
December 19, 2015