Last week Ekaputra Tupamahu notified me of an article by Miroslav Volf titled “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?” (Read here) He wanted to know my thoughts on the matter, especially since over a year ago we had a lively discussion on this very subject (see here, here, and here). One thing that I have noticed about myself is that I have become more and more comfortable with ambiguity. While I think this discussion is worth having because it does have implications, I don’t know if I am willing to make a definitive statement on a subject like whether or not two monotheistic religions worship the same God in any meaningful sense.
Volf’s article preludes his new book Allah: A Christian Response. I assume that Volf would affirm that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In this article he notes that (1) Christianity and Islam are the two fastest growing religions globally. (2) Globalization will cause there to be an interconnectedness between them. (3) The Muslim and Christian understanding of what it means to live life will come together in the public square and there will be tensions.
For Volf we must ask whether or not we can begin some sort of dialog as monotheistic religions because we believe in the same God to some extent. He implies that if we say we do not share the same God that we “have justification for cultural and military wars”, but if we do share the same God we “have a foundation for a shared future marked by peace rather than violence”.
As I ponder this subject there are some things that come to mind. First, I don’t think Volf’s conclusion is correct. Christians have gone to war with each other. Sunni and Shiite Muslims are often in violent conflict. As much as I would like it to be true that some shared vision of God will result in peacefulness between two groups this simply has not proven to be true over history. Maybe Volf provides further reasons to assume this in his book, but I am going with what he wrote in this article. At this juncture I don’t think it is wise to make these types of theological statements based of perceived pragmatic consequences, especially if the consequences are not likely.
Second, whenever we speak of the “same God” there is so much nuance here. Is “God” determined by categories of theological talk that we share? Even if two people share the same religion there can be two radically different views of God present. Could it be that there is a “Christian” whose view of God radically departs from general monotheism (a pantheistic or panentheistic god, for example) in such a way that a more traditional Christian theist would find more common ground with a Muslim? Also, we must ask what active role God has in revealing himself to people and if God’s activity determines who knows and worships him. Does it really matter what we say about God or what God says about us?
Third, do we worship the same God if there are some similarities but not many? Yes, Christians and Muslims worship one God. Yes, Christians and Muslims see their story as going back toward Abraham. But Christians see God as Trinity, and we believe the eternal Logos has become a human, and we believe that this human is incorporated into what it means for God to be God because of the incarnation. Are these aspects of God or are these things central to what it means to understand who God has revealed himself to be? In other words, do we see the singularity of God as the most basic reality of his nature to the point that Christians, Muslims, Jews, Platonist, Aristotilians, theistic Buddhist, Hindus who believe that the many manifestations of deity come from a singular divine source, and any other form of monotheism as being basically the same? We must think seriously about this.
Fourth, do we make a mistake by speaking too broadly on this subject? Is it a case-by-case basis? Scripture does indicate there has been people who are not part of the common, easily identified “people of God”, yet who knew God (e.g. Melchizedek, Job). What does this mean for people of other religions? Can we know and do we have any right to speculate?
Finally, even if we share belief in one God, what does it mean to worship that God? In Jn. 4.1-26 we have Jesus sharing monotheistic beliefs with the Samaritan woman, but saying, in essence, the Jews have it right doctrinally and there would come a day when both Jew and Samaritan would need to worship in “S/spirit and in truth”. What about Israel in Romans 9-11? They have zeal for God yet Paul saw his own people as apostate because they reject Messiah. Can we say that these Jews “worshiped” God, but that worship was not enough? Does this at least allow us to begin dialog if we think Muslims do the same thing? Similarly, in Acts 17. 16-34 Paul says that the Athenians did worship the God whom they did not know (and he even uses one of their idols to make this point!), but that this was not sufficient because God now demands that people know him through the man through whom he will judge the world, the resurrected Christ. These passages may be sufficient for us to say that some non-Christians do worship the true God, but they also indicate worship alone is not sufficient for salvation.
In response it appears that I have asked many questions without giving any answers. I’d be interested to hear what others think of Volf’s statements and the questions that it raised for me.