Tuesday, May 31, 2011

There is No Other God but God

In Acts 17:22-31 we read about Paul’s preaching to the Athenians, whom Paul acknowledges to be religious, particularly concerning the image they have dedicated to an “unknown God.” Paul’s message, however, is to proclaim to these Athenians that this God is not unknown. Rather, the unknown God to which they have erected this image is the one true God of the universe; “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth.”

Of course, the God to whom Paul refers is the God who entered into a covenant with Abraham. This is also the God who redeemed Israel out of Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. And, although the relationship between God and the people was sometimes rocky because of rebellion, God remained faithful to God’s people.

But wait a minute. The Paul we read about in Acts 17 is not the Paul of Jewish monotheism; at least in the very strictest sense that Jews would understand. Rather, he is the Paul who now follows Jesus as Lord. Although he once persecuted the followers of Jesus for committing what he considered blaspheme, he became a follower of this Jesus, offering to Jesus both allegiance and worship. Does this mean that because Paul is now a follower and apostle of Jesus that the God he proclaims to the Athenians is a different God than the one of his ancestors? Does this mean that because Paul worships and serves Jesus as Lord, he has rejected the God of his own people, the Jews?

The answer is clearly no. At least Paul does not see it this way. Paul remains convinced that he still worships and follows the God of Abraham, even though he now holds to the idea that God has revealed God’s self in Jesus Christ. Though his fellow Jews who did not follow Jesus would accuse Paul of transgressing the very heart of Judaism, that being monotheism, Paul believed that Jesus was the incarnation of God, who was and is in eternal union and oneness with the God of Abraham. God and Jesus were not two separate Gods. God and Jesus, along with the Spirit, are manifestations of the one God.

And from that point, normative Christianity has always believed that Christians and Jews worship the same God. Although there were movements among some Christian sects in the centuries of its infancy that wanted to distinguish the God of Jesus from the God of the Jews, believing they were two separate gods, the view that won out recognized the oneness of God in both traditions. Christians have always believed that they worship the same God as the Jews.

But this raises a question for us concerning the third Abrahamic faith. If we affirm that Christians and Jews worship the same God, but each faith understands God differently, then can we say that Muslims also worship the same God, though they understand that God differently? In other words, while Christians have always believed they worship the God of Abraham, can Christians also affirm that Muslims worship that same God? After all, Muslims affirm not only the oneness of God, but also that they worship the same God as Jews and Christians. Can Christians say the same?

This is a question that I have given a lot of thought to lately, and I have recently been helped in my thinking by theologian Miroslav Volf, whose book, Allah: A Christian Response, offers some fairly persuasive points on this very question. (You can also find Volf’s lecture on his book here.) I have thought along the same lines of argument that Volf presents, but his thoughts are much more erudite than my own.

Volf’s central argument is that the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are sufficiently similar that we would be hard pressed to say that they are different Gods. Despite the fact that Christians and Muslims do not have the same exact beliefs about God, and particularly concerning the nature of salvation, Volf draws the following conclusions about God on which there is agreement between Christians and Muslims:

1. There is only one God, the one and only divine being.
2. God created everything that is not God.
3. God is radically different from everything that is not God.
4. God is good.
5. God commands that we love God with our whole being.
6. God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.
(Volf, Miroslav (2011). Allah: A Christian Response (Kindle Locations 1873-1879). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

Volf suggests that this means that the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are sufficiently similar to suggest that both religious groups are pointing to the same God when they say these things about God and when they offer worship to God. I am in agreement with him.

I could offer more of Volf’s arguments that I find both intriguing and convincing, but I will leave it up to readers to appraise Volf’s book on their own. I do think that how Christians and Muslims understand God is an important question that needs discussing, but a more crucial issue to address in relation to the argument over whether these two faiths worship the same God is how Christians should relate to Muslims.

There is no doubt that our culture has always been suspicious of Muslims, but this suspicion was particularly heightened after September 11, 2001. Even in recent months, faithful Muslims have been challenged and persecuted over the building of Mosques, the misconception most of us have about Sharia Law, and Islam itself has been called a cult and a false religion by more than a few politicians and preachers.

Christians ought to be on the front lines to defend the rights of Muslims to practice their faith. While some may not agree that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, if we claim to follow Christ, and if we claim to understand God as a God of love, then we must be people of love, and we must affirm this belief in our own practice of love toward others. Not to do so is to deny our Christian faith.

Indeed, I would say that those who claim to be Christians who do not love their neighbors and their enemies are following and worshiping a different God than the God of Jesus.

None of what I have said compromises my fundamental Christian beliefs. Indeed, I remain solidly Christian because I affirm that Jesus is one with God, and it is through Jesus that Christians gain our entrance into the knowledge of God. But I can at the same time affirm that the God I seek to serve and worship is also the same God that both Jews and Muslims seek to serve and worship. For although I affirm the revelation of God in Christ, I also affirm the authenticity of experiencing God through the other two Abrahamic faiths.

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