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.
Okay, then—do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?
First, all Christians don't worship the same God, and all Muslims don't worship the same God.
But I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same.
The description of God is partly different. There are significant differences that are the subject of strenuous debates. Some differences really are foundational to the faith, like the doctrine of the Trinity. At the same time, there's this amazing overlap and similarity. We need to build on what is similar rather than simply bemoan what's different.
What are the most striking similarities between the way Muslims talk about Allah and the way Christians talk about God?
One that shouldn't be forgotten is that God is one in both traditions. That's very important. Two, God is merciful. Also, God is just. God's oneness, God's mercy, and God's justice are significant commonalities. We have different understandings of each of these, but the overlaps are really impressive.
Some theologians argue that when Christians and Muslims say "God is one," they mean fundamentally different things, since for the Christian, God is a Trinity.
I would respond by asking, "Do Christians and Jews worship different gods?" And I would hope the response would be, "No. Jews and Christians worship the same God. They just understand God in a different way—Christians in a Trinitarian way, and Jews not."
Some Jews and Muslims accuse Christians of being idolatrous for believing in the Trinity. My response to both groups is that they fundamentally misunderstand the Christian understanding of the Trinity. It's not that we worship three distinct entities who sit on three thrones next to each other; we worship one undivided, divine being who comes to us in three persons.
I would also argue that the denials of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Qur'an are denials of an inappropriately understood version of the Trinity. My claim is simply that much of what Muslims deny of the Trinity (e.g., that we worship three gods) ought to be denied by every right-believing Christian.
Don't most religions postulate a God who is all-powerful and merciful? Is it possible that we all worship the same God in the end? In that case, maybe there is no such thing as idolatry, only different interpretations.
If somebody postulates the existence of more than one god, I would have to say we don't worship the same god. If somebody says that God is basically one with the world, I would also have to say we don't worship the same god. What binds Muslims and Christians, and what is central to my argument, is that God is one, that God is distinct from the world, and that the one God has created everything that is not God. There is a radical divide between creature and creator. This is a fundamental monotheistic belief. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share that belief. Therefore, they believe in the same God. Polytheists and idolaters do not share that belief.
If Christians and Muslims worship the same God and understand his will as more or less the same—to love God and neighbor—are Islam and Christianity two equally worthy paths to salvation?
I can worship the same God and still not properly, adequately, fully relate to that God or understand who that God is and what God's ways with humanity are. Each of the faiths, Islam and Christianity, has a different way of understanding precisely what God demands and, more fundamentally, what God gives. And I think it's appropriate for each of the faiths—but especially for Christians, who are commanded to do so—to engage in witness, to point to the full reality of who God is and what Jesus Christ in particular has done for the salvation of humanity.
Like many people today, you argue against religious extremism. But weren't Jesus, Muhammad, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others called extremists in their day? Are we really against extremism?
I realize the word extreme is not necessarily the best word. Nobody describes themselves as extremist. In some ways, using the term extremism is already a way of dismissing somebody, and as you point out, there are many great, saintly figures who in terms of their views were uncompromising, radical, and in that sense very much extreme. Jesus is a very good example of that.
What separates benign and malevolent extremism is the use of violent means to achieve ends. It's not how firmly or zealously you hold particular views and claim they are true. It's whether you are willing and feel compelled to compel others to embrace those views, and use violent means in order to pursue your end.
Both Muslims and Christians have good, compelling reasons to have robust convictions about what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false. And I certainly would not call people holding these convictions extremists.
Many Christians will hear your argument and say, "We do not worship the same God. We profess two fundamentally different religions." What reason would you give them for working with Muslims for peace?
Muslims and Christians will increasingly share common spaces. If it is a Christian duty to live in peace with all people, then I take it that includes Muslims. More fundamentally, Christians claim that God is love and that God loves all people, to the extent that Christ died for every human being. The consequence is that Christians are obliged to love all human beings, which includes Muslims, and therefore live in peace with them.
Beyond avoiding violence, are there reasons we should be working with Muslims?
We've come up with this idea that Muslims are our enemy, and that Muslim terrorism and extremism are the most important enemies we should be combating. I think this is bogus. Terrorism is an important issue, but it pales in significance compared to the hedonistic character of the culture we inhabit. To have Muslims as allies in combating de facto hedonism is a very important thing.
To have a robust conversation between Muslims and Christians about what provides for good living, a life that's an alternative to hedonism, is what's required of us at this moment. Just like evangelicals at one point discovered that Catholics can be their allies, I think in a much more attenuated sense (because we are dealing with two religions), Muslims can be our allies in struggles for a proper way to live in the world today.
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Allah: A Christian Response is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles by or about Miroslav Volf include:
An Obligation to Remember Eternally? | Resentment, even in the name of justice, is not for those who expect God's final reconciliation. (May 18, 2007)
Muslims in Evangelical Churches | Does loving your neighbor mean opening your doors to false worship? (January 3, 2011)
The Church's Great Malfunctions | We should be our own fiercest critics, doing so out of the deep beauty and goodness of our faith. (November 10, 2006)
To Embrace the Enemy | Is reconciliation possible in the wake of such evil? (2001)
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