Posted by: hansgustafson | February 25, 2013

Do We Worship the Same God? Part II: Jewish and Muslim Voices

This is part two 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 Jewish and Muslim voices.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein offers the first of two Jewish approaches to the question (the other by Peter Ochs). First, he wrestles with the problem of Avoda Zara (foreign worship) by drawing on Maimonides and Rabbenu Tam, and suggests “one possible aligning of [their] positions would be that if Shituf, [‘the worship of another being alongside God’], is not Avoda Zara, then indeed Jews and Christians do worship the same God, even if Christians understand God differently. If so, Shituf refers to the means of approaching the same God” (57). Second, he suggests that instead of focusing on theological criteria to determine whether or not Christianity is Avoda Zara, the two modes of story and ritual provide a more fruitful approach to this question. “Recognizing a common God through story is best achieved by appeal to the initial foundations of the story,” (66) and Rabbi Yakov Emden rejects Christianity as Avoda Zara on the grounds that Jesus was a Jewish teacher and therefore “Christianity fulfills the obligations of the Noachide commandments, [and thus] the same-God issue does not even arise; it is [to be] taken for granted” (67). Third, Goshen-Gottstein explores the common bridge between traditions as either ethical or spiritual. To do so, he draws on Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri’s “broad Jewish theology of contemporary religions,” (69) which a) declares Avoda Zara to be a thing of the past and thus does not apply to contemporary religions, and b) promotes orthopraxis over orthodoxy as the standard criterion by which a religion can be measured to be approaching the same God or not. Goshen-Gottstein adds that seeking traces of God’s presence via spirituality provides the most promise for this discussion. He writes, “the path I would personally give greatest weight to is the path that recognizes God not through doctrine, but through the signs of God’s presence in the lives of the faithful” (74).

Reza Shah-Kazemi provides the only Muslim perspective in a lengthy (yet substantive) essay composed of three parts. In the first part, he examines the Qur’an in light of Christian Trinitarian claims. In short, he concludes that the nature of theological discourse makes it inevitable that disagreements will result when the question about the nature of God is pressed. He writes, “we can assert that what unites Muslims and Christians – belief in one God and not several gods – is infinitely more significant than what divides them, namely, their respective conceptions of the precise nature, the attributes, and the actions of that God” (103). Thus, a move “beyond theology” is urged. The second part sets out to do just this and embarks on a metaphysical discussion centered on the Qur’anic claim that the God of Muslims and Christians (and Jews) is the same vis-à-vis the Muslim repudiation of the Trinity. Drawing on two mystics from Christianity and Islam, Meister Eckhart and Ibn al-Arabī respectfully, the section appeals to “spiritual intuition” and argues for subverting the subjective variegated concepts of the Object of faith (God) to the metaphysical Object of belief as such. Shah-Kazemi argues, “that it is through understanding this process of radical deconstruction at the conceptual level, grasped as the prelude to an ‘unthinkable’ spiritual ‘reconstruction’ at the transcendent level, that the oneness of God believed in by Christians and Muslims stands out most clearly” (118). In the third and final part, the discussion turns to the practicality of engaging in interfaith dialogue in the contemporary world. In particular, it approaches this move on behalf of Christians and Muslims to claim the worship of the same God by distinguishing between the spiritual essence of the transcendent (about which they can agree) and theological concepts of God (about which they will respectfully disagree).

Peter Ochs closes out the volume with a thoughtful approach by offering an eight-fold response to the question. He begins with a prayerful response which suggests his yearning that indeed “we worship the same God.” His theopolitical response states, “I believe it is God’s will that at this time in our histories we in the Abrahamic traditions declare that we worship the same God, albeit by way of mutually exclusive practices of worship” (149). His eschatological response includes a crucial point which echoes throughout the essay, namely, “we cannot fully articulate, in our self-conscious means of knowing, how we have and do indeed live in [God’s] Presence. We are known by that Presence rather than being individual agents who know that Presence” (150). The rabbinic response offers the most content in its discussion of the multiple warrants for affirming or denying that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and that Christians worship the same God as Jews. Ochs further affirms his skepticism that the question can be adequately answered on the basis of doctrine. He writes, “My skepticism reflects my assumption that the God to whom we worship is known only as He knows us, as participants in worshiping community, so that reflecting on doctrines enables us to see more clearly how He knows us but not necessarily how He knows others” (156). His scriptural response establishes that strong narrative warrants exist for many positions, including “speaking of the Abrahamic religions as sharing a narrative frame for characterizing God’s identity”, “for distinguishing different spheres of God’s self-identity as known in these different traditions”,  and “for identifying different and at times seemingly mutually exclusive subcommunities within these traditions” (156).  Thus, the Jewish philosophic response calls for distinguishing between the plain sense (peshat) and the interpreted sense (derash) of the narrative text. However, ultimately, Ochs states, “if a Christian or a Jew wants to discuss whether ‘a Muslim, Christian, or a Jew’ does or does not worship the same God, the ‘Muslim, Christian, or Jewish’ interlocutors will first have to enter into significant relations, one with the other with the other” (161). Hence, what follows is a Scriptural Reasoning (SR) response which advocates for SR which nurtures “the depth of interpersonal and thus intertraditional relations appropriate to hearing and seeing meaningful aspects of the relations that trace each participant’s ‘knowledge’ of the one to whom he or she prays” (162). In closing, Ochs offers a “prayerful unity of response” which summarizes many of the assumptions that underlie all eight responses. Most notable for practical interfaith discourse is his insistence to not “make judgments about other’s worship until [he has] extended contact with them … until I enter into relationship with them and see how they eat, sleep, and pray, I would not be able to comment on the object and nature of their worship” (163).

The book review in its entirety was posted on and on Feb. 7, 2013.  

Photo courtesy of Eerdmans Publishing Co.


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