This is part one of a two-part review of Miroslav Volf’s new edited volume, Do We Worship the Same God?
Miroslav Volf has done a great service in bringing together a thoughtful group of renowned thinkers around the question of whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. Each essay offers a penetrating analysis from the authors’ respective faith traditions. They show how the question is not as simple as it may seem on the surface and, more importantly, provide the practical implications for interfaith discourse for how one approaches and answers the question. The volume showcases three Christian voices, two Jewish voices, and one Muslim voice. Here I review the Christian voices.
Cristoph Schwöbel opens the volume with an essay approaching the question by emphasizing perspective, tolerance, and criteria. He begins with an in-depth examination of Nostra Aetate and determines it uses the criterion of Christ who is “‘the way, the truth, and the life’ in whom people find fullness of religious life and in whom God has reconciled the world with himself” (3). Hence, regarding the religions of Islam and Christianity it is quite clear that they worship the same, one, and only, God, yet differently. Further, Schwöbel argues that Nostra Aetate, since it is grounded in a theological anthropology, “states that Christians and Muslims worship the one and only God because there is only one God who is the origin and goal of the whole humankind” (6). However, ultimately it is “only Christians and Muslims [who] can decide from their different respective perspectives of faith” about whether they worship the same God (8). He gives the example of Luther who concludes that even though Muslims may worship the same God as Christians, they do so in wrong relationship and thus “they abide in eternal wrath and damnation” (Luther, Large Catechism). Despite Luther’s harsh conclusion, Schwöbel urges tolerance and openness in encountering the religious other; that is, interreligious dialogue should no longer be about consensus (theological or otherwise), but rather about “gaining better understanding of our differences” (16). Further, Schwöbel concludes that “from the Christian perspective it seems we have to say that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have the same God” (17).
Denys Turner follows with an examination of the name of God in the Christian and Muslim traditions. In particular, Turner examines the Christian claim that “God is three in one” and the Muslim claim that “God is one” and asks whether they disagree about God since what one affirms the other denies. In so doing, Turner rejects John Hick’s solution to the problem of divine sameness, whether it is his reliance on Kantian apophaticism or a misinterpretation of Eckhart. Turner concludes that the answer to the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is ultimately only achievable at the beatific vision and/or in paradise. “Christians do not and cannot claim to know how there could be three persons in one God. But then, the oneness of God is no less beyond our understanding too. And it is just for that reason that it seems impossible to come up with any knockdown way of establishing the identity of the Christian and Muslim Gods” (34). On the other hand, Turner issues a challenge to the faithful in both traditions to provide a way of showing that Malaysian Christians and Muslims, both of whom call upon “Allah,” are not calling on the same God. Turner concludes, “if I am right it cannot be done at all” (34).
Amy Plantinga Pauw rounds out the Christian perspectives with her essay which argues for the same God on the grounds of God as creator of all. She demonstrates well how intra-faith relations can serve as a model for interfaith relations. For instance, she recognizes that it is certainly the case that Christians differ greatly in their understandings of God, but this usually does not entail the belief that they are worshiping different Gods. She writes, “Though we are members of the same religious tradition, Tim LaHaye and I have gone down markedly different exegetical and theological paths, and as a result I often find his portrayals of God puzzling or offensive. But this difficulty does not make me inclined to doubt that Tim LaHaye and I worship the same God” (41). Borrowing from Michael Walzer’s reference of “thick” and “thin” moralities, Pauw applies this to theology arguing that religions ought not yield their robust particularities for the sake of a “thin” convergent consensus theory of God. Rather, they ought to appeal to their thick theological particularities for grounds to reach out towards a thin agreement among religions. She writes, “In this essay I have attempted to support thin theological agreement across traditions by appeal to thicker theological grounds that emerge from within a particular tradition” (47). In her view, this is “both more respectful of genuine theological difference and more reflective of their particular historical trajectories” (47).
Photo courtesy of Eerdmans Publishing Co.