Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?
Allah: A Christian Response
February 15, 2011
336 pp., $22.98
A few years ago, a Southern Baptist leader said he could not pray with Jews because they worshiped a different God. The response of most Christians was one of disbelief: Who was Jesus worshiping if not the God of the Jews?
The question becomes thornier in relation to Muslims, who are adamant that God is one, while Christians are adamant that God is one in three—to note just one remarkable difference between the two faiths. But are these differences as stark as they seem at first blush? Some theologians think they are even starker, and have argued such in Christianity Today's pages.
But Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, is not one of them. Volf, formerly of Fuller Theological Seminary, is the author of many moving and thoughtful books, including Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press) and Against the Tide: Love in a Time of Petty Dreams and Persisting Enmities (Eerdmans). He tackles what he believes is one of the most important questions facing Christians and Muslims in Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne). Mark Galli, senior managing editor of CT, spoke with Volf about the book.
You argue that Muslims and Christians worship the same god. Why is it important to determine whether they do?
They make up two of the largest religious groups worldwide, comprising more than half of humanity. They are at each other's throats, if not literally, then in their imaginations. And we need to find ways we can believe peacefully together.
Both groups are monotheists. They believe in one God, one God who is a sovereign Lord and to whom they are to be obedient. For both faiths, God embodies what's ultimately important and valuable. If our understandings of God clash, it will be hard for us to live in peace—not impossible, but hard. So exploring to what extent Christians and Muslims have similar conceptions of God is foundational to exploring whether we inhabit a common moral universe, within which there are some profound differences that can be negotiated, discussed, and adjudicated.
The paradigm for Christians is God's action in Jesus Christ: God, who is infinite and holy, reaches out to the finite and sinful. There could be no greater difference than that. So from the Christian viewpoint, is it even necessary to have commonalities with others in order to love them?
I agree with the thrust of your question. I don't think we need to agree with anyone in order to love the person. The command for Christians to love the other person, to be benevolent and beneficent toward them, is independent of what the other believes. But will we be able to forge common bonds of social life in some ways? Will we be able to inhabit common space? That is a question distinct from whether I'm able to love somebody.
The American Civil War, one of the bloodiest wars ever, was one in which people actually did believe in the same God and the same Scriptures. This did not encourage peacemaking. Yet you still think it's important to affirm that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Why?
That's true. Some of the worst violence in the world today between estranged religious and ethnic groups happens not on the battlefields. It happens smack in the middle of living rooms and between people who share a lot, who have a lot in common. So my argument is not that having common values will prevent all violence. My argument is that having common values will make it possible to negotiate differences. In the absence of those common values, we either have to live sequestered in our own spaces (which I think is impossible in the modern world) or resort to violence in order to settle disputes.