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A Feature Review of
DO WE WORSHIP THE SAME GOD? Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue.
Miroslav Volf , Editor.
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2012.
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Reviewed by Bob Cornwall.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims all claim Abraham as a spiritual ancestor, but do these self-proclaimed children Abraham worship the same God? There are those within each of these communities that would affirm this proposition, but many others who would reject this idea. There is a related question – does our ability to live together in peace require us to affirm each other has essentially co-religionists? Granted that each faith community might understand God’s nature differently and worship differently; do we need to find sufficient common ground to overcome any deep-seated animosity?
The question of coexistence is an important one, because adherents of these Abrahamic faiths have a long history of war and conflict. As the world grows increasingly smaller and Christianity and Islam continue to grow and encounter each other across the globe, this becomes an increasingly more important issue. Answers aren’t easy to come by. All three communities claim to be monotheist and claim common roots, but a majority of Christians define God in terms of Trinity, a position that seems at odds with the stricter monotheism of Judaism and Islam, but even Jews and Muslims aren’t necessarily on the same page. The good news is that there is increasing conversation between members of these faith communities, both at an academic level and a more general level. The participants in the conversation contained in this particular book edited by Miroslav Volf are all involved in the academic world, and so the conversation that ensues between its covers is academic in nature. Still, while it’s not easy reading, it can provide the broader faith community possible entry points into a deeper conversation.
*** [easyazon-link keywords=”Miroslav Volf” locale=”us”]Other Books by Miroslav Volf[/easyazon-link]
The debate over whether Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God isn’t focused on the name of God. Allah is simply the generic Arabic word for the divine, and thus is used by Arabic speaking Jews, Christians, and Muslims in worship. The issue then focuses on how each community envisions the one God. Christians complicate the conversation by introducing the Trinity into the definition of God’s oneness. To many Muslims and Jews this smacks of polytheism.
In seeking to answer the question of whether Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God, Yale Divinity School’s Miroslav Volf brought together two different consultations. The first involved three Christian theologians: Amy Plantinga Pauw, Christoph Schwöbel, and Denys Turner. The second consultation brought into the conversation Jewish and Muslim scholars: Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Peter Ochs (both Jewish) and Reza Shah-Kazemi (Muslim). Each scholar takes a turn answer the question of whether we worship the same God.
What we learn is that while Christians assume they worship the same God as Jews (Jesus and Paul were, after all, Jews), most Jews are less than enthusiastic about this embrace. That is, they’re no more likely to accept the idea that Christians worship the same God as many Christians view Muslims. As a result, while Christians may consider themselves true monotheists, neither Jews nor Muslims are quite as accommodating of this self-identification. So, when we try to answer the question at hand we discover that that the answer is quite complicated, but our inability to answer it conclusively doesn’t mean we don’t have common divine referent in mind or that we can’t cooperate for the common good.
The first set of essays is written by Christian theologians. Each of them affirms at one level the idea that these three Abrahamic religions have a common divine referent. At the same time, they acknowledge that there are significant differences of understanding as the divine nature. For instance, Amy Plantinga Pauw of Louisville Seminary notes that all three faiths affirm God to be the Creator, but that there are also “irreducible theological differences,” and that “honesty and respect towards our religious neighbors will not permit ignoring or denying these differences” (p. 40). The stumbling block is centered on Jesus, whom Christians see as the human embodiment of the divine presence. She wants to resist the tendency among pluralists to domesticate the divine by minimizing the differences. Denys Turner of Yale Divinity School, also recognizes the complexity of the issue and admits that coming to a “conclusive demonstration of sameness” is impossible “short of a beatific vision. Thus, he counsels humility. Schwöbel for his part reminds us that agreement as to God’s oneness isn’t “sameness.” Such a conclusion of the complexity of the issue, however, doesn’t preclude cooperation around common goals that are “justified within each tradition by different grounds” (p. 17).
The second set of essays essentially provides a response to these Christian reflections, and for many Christians these responses may catch them by surprise, especially the Jewish responses. While all three contributors express openness to the idea that there is a common ground when it comes to God, they continually stumble over the Christian affirmation of the Trinity. Now, if Christians could jettison this doctrine, then there would be fewer problems, but as the three Christian theologians make clear Jesus is central to the Christian understanding of God’s nature. While they will admit that some Christian understandings of the Trinity verge toward tri-theism, carefully crafted Christian theology seeks to preserve the balance between the confession of oneness and the Trinitarian definition of that oneness. So, there are important questions left unresolved concerning the Christian affirmation of the Trinity.
Two of the participants are Jewish, and one is Muslim. For his part Jewish theologian Alon Goshen-Gottstein offers up the question of whether from a Jewish perspective Christianity is an Arvoda Zara (a foreign religion). Down through the ages there have been many debates as to whether this is true. Some debates have centered on theology and worship practices, while others look at the fact that Christians embrace a common scriptures. Then there’s the question of whether Jews and Christians share a common story or whether Christians seek to replace Jews in the story. Ultimately, the question hinges on the ways in which signs of God are present in the lives of the faithful. This, he believes offers the most promise. It’s also a solution that brings into the conversation Muslims. This tract holds promise because it might help overcome the distrust that has crept into the Jewish-Christian relationship over the centuries. Peter Ochs also offers a Jewish response and suggests that an effect track could be found in the course of reading together their scriptures. As for the Muslim response Reza Shah-Kazemi declares that yes, they worship the same God, but then speaking to Christians asks whether Trinity is an essential belief. In what is by far the longest and most detailed response, Shah-Kazemi suggests that the real question isn’t the divine essence, but human conceptualization. He finds the assumption made by Meister Eckhart and Thomas Aquinas that divine unity (metaphysics) has priority over Trinity (mystery of faith) to be a point of convergence that would allow common ground.
By no means does this book offer a conclusive answer to the question. But the good news is that we needn’t come to complete agreement to join together in pursuing the common good. We can affirm that at least at a metaphysical level there is commonality. At the same time, there seems to be recognition that a path forward cannot be achieved at the expense of our differences. Although this book has an academic orientation, it could serve as a helpful supplement to more popular treatments such as Brian McLaren’s recent book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World (Jericho, 2012). Although not an easy read, those who read this book benefit from Miroslav Volf’s commitment to continuing the conversation and his willingness to draw together conversation partners who ask tough questions. There may not be a definitive answer, but there is hope of overcoming the kinds of misunderstandings of each other’s position that too often end up leading to animosity and even violence.
Bob Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, and author of Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer. He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.