Do We Worship the Same God?

"Through A Glass Darkly"

Masham Parish Church, Yorkshire

-Photo by Michael Jinkins

When I meet God I am prepared to stand corrected. This is because, as a Christian, I believe that when I meet God, I'm in for some surprises. I think we all are.

The incomparable Daniel Migliore, for many years professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, was often heard to quote St. Augustine of Hippo, the greatest theologian in the church's history, as saying: "If you understand God, it is not God you have understood." The impenetrable wonder, the utter incomprehensibility, the wholly, infinite otherness of God mean that God defies all of our definitions, exceeds all of our expectations, will not be contained in any of our little doctrines however sincerely or ferociously we hold them. The most ancient of Christian orthodox traditions holds that God is not a thing, that God is not an object, and that God is not one more category among all the other categories within human conception. Or, to put it in terms familiar with Christian theology, we are made in God's image, not vice versa.

Yet, the tendency persists among religious folk to believe that some of us have God in a box, our own little box, and that God belongs to us alone. All others must be mistaken.

There's the old joke about a recent arrival in heaven being shown around the grounds by an angel. He is shown Presbyterians happily playing volley ball with Roman Catholics and Baptists; Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and Hasidic Jews making s'mores by a campfire, even a weathered Neolithic shaman wrapped in elk hides laughing it up with a Buddhist priest and a Muslim imam. As the new arrival and the angel make their way across a vast Elysium field, they come upon a tall stone wall with "Quiet Please" signs prominently posted. "What's with the signs?" asks the new arrival. "Shhhh, that's where the [ ___ fill in the blank with your favorite sect ___ ] live. They think they're the only ones up here."

The inclination to exclude others on the basis of religious beliefs is virtually universal. That doesn't make it any less offensive or puzzling.

Recently I came across a passage in H. Richard Niebuhr's Social Sources of Denominationalism (a book written in 1926!) which posed the conundrum with a wry twist of humor. I'm paraphrasing, but Niebuhr expressed his own bewilderment over the idea that God evaluates our eligibility for eternal salvation on the basis of opinions we hold regarding metaphysical processes.

When you say it like that, it really does sound bizarre.

Again, as a Christian, I believe we live in the two-thousand-year-old afterglow of an encounter with a human being in whom we believe we have met none other than God. We are left with the stunned, often frightened, even sometimes disbelieving, testimonies of those who first met this man. We are left with questions galore about how it is possible for God, the immutable and eternal, to become a human creature, frail and subject to change. But all of these questions about "how" evaporate, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, when in awed silence we meet this Word who is God.

The one thing we are not left with after this encounter is a secure, dogmatic place on which to stand in the presence of the eternal Mystery. We certainly are not left with a divine mandate or even permission to judge who has the right answers. As a Christian, I just don't have the option to judge, not if I want to follow the Palestinian Jewish rabbi named Jesus who said, "Judge not, lest you be judged."

Yet, again, the impulse to exclude persists among us.

A new (or perhaps renewed) version of exclusivity has arisen lately related to the question of whether or not different faiths ultimately worship the same God. (Note, please, that this is quite a different conversation from whether or not different people intend to worship different gods. We know some people worship different gods. It is a fact attested to in many of the world's great faiths, including the faith articulated by Jesus of Nazareth who said that we can either worship God or Mammon, but not both at the same time.) The question often posed these days is not about our tendency to erect competing gods in the place of the eternal God, but (again) whether or not all attempts to worship the eternal God are feebly and sincerely directed ultimately toward the same divine being, whether or not we recognize this fact.

I remember a story told by my teacher, the late Professor James Torrance, a remarkable Reformed theologian who studied under Karl Barth and with C.S. Lewis. James related what happened to him one day walking out of an ecumenical service in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the time of "The Troubles." An angry Presbyterian woman came up to him and shouted into his face, "How can you, a Presbyterian minister and theologian, worship beside those idolatrous Catholics?" To which James graciously responded, "If you are asking how it is possible that we Presbyterians and Roman Catholics can offer our imperfect worship to Almighty God, the only answer is that it is by the grace of God. All of our broken efforts are caught up into that perfect worship that Christ offers God the Father on our behalf."

If anything, the question posed about whether we ultimately worship the same God has only become more pointed in the past couple of decades as we have become more generally aware of the presence of persons from faiths other than Christianity in our midst. The discussion of the question often provides more heat than light.

Recently, Stephen Prothero, one of our culture's genuine public intellectuals and a brilliant communicator on world religions and religious literacy, wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal asking, "Are Allah and Jesus the Same God?" (Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2016). It is a provocative title and a question, frankly, that would likely rankle many Muslims and Christians, but the title gets at the heat behind the question of God's identity; it may also provide some light.

Prothero relates the story of a Wheaton College associate professor of political science who was placed on administrative leave after posting on Facebook that she was donning a head scarf, a hijab, for Advent. She wrote: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book." Subsequently, Wheaton College began the process to terminate her employment. Wheaton has made clear in its own statements that the professor was placed on leave not for wearing the head scarf, but because of the theological statements she made including the belief that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God."

In his editorial, Prothero comments:

"Islam and Christianity both affirm that there is one God, creator and judge, who speaks through prophets, whose words are written down in scripture. Still, they are not two paths up the same mountain. Christians do not believe in the divine inspiration of the Quran. Muslims do not believe that Jesus is an incarnation of God."

I think that what Prothero says is essentially accurate, though I'm as doubtful about an out-of-hand dismissal of the whole "different paths up the same mountain" metaphor as I am of its theological durability. Either way, its affirmation or its denial just claims to know a lot more than I know. And, about that which I cannot speak, I would simply prefer to remain silent, if I may drag Ludwig Wittgenstein into this dispute (though he may come kicking and screaming).

It seems to me that we may be approaching the whole question from the wrong end, by evaluating whether or not it is ultimately the same God we worship based on our various beliefs about God. Doing so only plays into the hands of the most radical and least sensible elements in every faith, those who seek to divide and conquer. And doing so misses the most obvious point, that God is not reducible to any human concepts about God.

Within my own faith, a Christian faith shaped in the forge of Protestant history yet still related to the wellsprings of the orthodoxy of the ancient catholic church, we attempt to express what cannot be expressed about the Holy One whom Jonathan Edwards called "the Being of being" by speaking of the Triune plurality of the One God. We feel compelled to talk about God in this way because we believe we have met none other than God in this man named Jesus. This existential, historical encounter with Jesus of Nazareth forces us to rethink what it means to confess, with our spiritual forebears, the people, prophets and patriarchs of ancient Israel, "The Lord is God, the Lord alone."

We Christians speak of the eternal Word, the Son of God, the Beloved, the Begotten, who comes from and returns to the eternal Source, God the Father, the Almighty; we speak of the act of Procession by which the Son comes from the Father, not as a mere action but as divine person, the Spirit, the very Life and Love of God. We speak of creation as the overflowing of divine Love which cannot be contained. We speak of the deep need for God implanted in the hearts of God's creation. We speak of the frailty of our human nature, our need for redemption, for healing, and the belief that we are somehow redeemed and healed in God's assumption of our humanity. We believe that God is revealed to humanity in the life and death of Jesus, and that God confirmed that the life of self-giving love which Jesus lived is not a mistake by raising Jesus from the dead. But, in all of this Christian theological reflection (and it is just that, Christian theological reflection), we have not narrowed the options of who God is. Rather, we have kicked open the doors of possibility to express that age-old word of deepest piety, asking again and again and again in our amazement, "Who are You, Lord?"

Ultimately we all stand in the presence of divine Mystery, and anyone who thinks they have the answers in that presence is foolish.

Each time I read again the giants of the Christian faith, whether it is Justin Martyr, John Cassian, Julian of Norwich or John Bunyan, as I listen to their struggles to speak of meeting the Eternal, I find reverence renewed and certainty dashed. We Christians do not hold an exclusive copyright on the nature and character of God. Nor can we speak for God. We just don't know what God may be up to with other people who conceive of God in terms foreign to our experience. But this we do know: far from being a sign of strength, it is a sure sign of insecurity in one's own faith to feel we must prove the sincerity of our beliefs by judging the beliefs of others.

Prothero is, I think, correct in warning us against "pretend pluralism" that tries to paper over the differences among faiths by saying that they are all basically headed in the same direction or trying to teach the same truth but in different ways. Faith is, as Abraham Heschel once said, the indispensable prerequisite to interfaith dialogue, and we should be ready and willing to articulate and to hear the differences in our faiths and to recognize that they are not all trying to accomplish the same ends. To go beyond this, and to say that the God to whom we try to bear witness and about whom we try to speak in the stuttering phrases of our creeds is NOT the God worshiped by others, is saying far more than any of us can say. If it does nothing else, reverence produces humility.

As Augustine writes at the opening of his Confessions:

"Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is thy power, and thy wisdom infinite. And thee would a human praise, a human, but a particle of thy creation, a human, that bears about him his mortality, the witness of his sin, the witness that thou resists the proud, yet would this human praise thee, he, but a particle of thy creation."