I’m cleaning out my ‘mailbox’ this week – something I don’t have to do too often, blog-wise. A couple weeks ago, regular commenter Patricio had asked me to follow up on something I said in this post, namely that: “God as understood in both Judaism and Islam is indeed a God of love and mercy, and I firmly believe we all worship the same God…” I do go on to talk about a specific difference in our belief in God, namely our Christian belief that God became man, and how that does radically shape the Christian understanding and experience in a way that is completely different than any other religion.
Patricio wrote: “I think it would be useful for you to write something about your comment that the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same God. What are the key points which make this so for you. Satan would use oneness, love and mercy if it could turn you from Jesus. I have been unable to reconcile the Muslim God as lived in the middle east with God as he has revealed himself through Jesus. It would appear in Africa for example the many Muslims though forbidden under pain of death are converting to Christianity and are literally changing gods if you will as is true with the Hindu converts from appeasing the many to Jesus the one. Inter faith dialogue and getting alone is something else.”
Good question, and I know that it is not such an easy one. Leaving aside the painful history we are living through with the religious extremism and violence that is in fact present in the Muslim world and that is causing so much suffering there and elsewhere, and the consequent emotional climate that makes it hard to discuss these things, there is a genuine philosophical conundrum here.
At what point do two individuals, seeming to be looking at the same reality, conclude that they are actually talking about two different things? If we are both talking about our mutual friend Bill Jones, and I’m talking about his wife Suzy and their four children, and you’re talking about him being a bachelor, I have him living in Toronto, you in California… well at some point along the way we might just conclude we’re talking about two different people, right?
But where is that point? A question for philosophy, and common sense. If you know Bill to be a hard working accountant, and I know him to be also a fun loving dirt biker, you know he has three children, and I’m well aware he has four, you think he probably doesn’t have any religion, I know very well that he’s a practicing Catholic… well, it might still be the same Bill. I just happen to know him better. You’re his co-worker who only sees him 9-5. I’m his spiritual director! But we’re still talking about the same guy, right?
OK, enough about Bill. Our Christian contention would be, at least from the formal Catholic teaching (see Nostra Aetate 4), that we’re talking about the same Guy, it’s just that we know Him a little bit better. Not because we’re such great people—we absolutely and thoroughly are not—but because He’s revealed Himself truly in Jesus, as much of a revelation as we can bear, and we believe this revelation. When you come to think of it, the only way to know a person, or a Person, is if they choose to reveal themselves to us.
So what do we share with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters about God? That there is one God. That He is the creator of all else that is—all things visible and invisible. That He is All Good. That He is loving—Allah, the All Compassionate, the All Merciful. That He is the sole arbiter of morality, the author of the moral law.
Well, for me that is pretty strong overlap – the Venn diagram is starting to look pretty circular in the shared area. Now we believe that this One creator God who is the loving Lord of all that is revealed everything in Jesus Christ, and that this revelation in Christ opens up to us the very great mystery of the Trinity of persons in the One God, and that Jesus reveals all sorts of specific realities about the scope and extent of God’s merciful love, and the radical absoluteness of the moral law and the demands of charity it entails.
That being said, it seems to me that simply on the face of it, the amount we share on the doctrine of God—oneness, sovereignty, goodness, love, mercy—is my basis, and the Church’s, for saying we worship the same God.
Now, I know about Judaism no more than what any student of the Old Testament knows, and I know considerably less about Islam. So I have no intention of beclowning myself by talking about religions of which I know little. It infuriates me when people do that to my religion; I won’t do it to someone else’s.
But it seems to me that it is poor reasoning to base a contrary opinion—we worship different gods—on the basis of poor behavior on the part of some members of this or that religion. I say this knowing full well the real anguish and real problems Patricio refers to in his question, and I hope I’m not making light of them. But nonetheless, if we project onto the God who is worshipped the worst qualities of the worst representatives of the religion who worships Him, how will the Christian God fare? We may not be so much killing people these days for the most part, but… well, do I have to go into all that? We’re not such wonderful people, not all the time anyhow. We would be very quick to say, ‘but that’s not our religion, that’s our failure to live our religion!’ And it certainly isn’t the God we worship – the rampant and terrible failures of Catholic Christians on many fronts. Jesus is much better, we would want people to understand.