In late 2003 President Bush said, in response to a reporters question, that he believed Muslims and Christians "worship the same God." The remark sparked criticism from some Christians, who thought Bush was being politically correct but theologically inaccurate. For example, Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals, said, "The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value the opposite."
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? The question raises a fundamental issue in interfaith discussion, especially for monotheists. We asked several scholars to consider the question. S. Wesley Ariarajah's article is the fourth in a series.
IN ASIAN TRADITIONS a question can be answered in four ways: "yes"; "no"; "I don't know"; and silence. "I don't know" (or "maybe") means that the issue is complex and that one needs to nuance the answer from a variety of perspectives. It also indicates that one needs to explore the subject rather than be rushed into giving a yes or no answer--which unfortunately is becoming an obsession among some groups of Christians.
Even though some questions can indeed, and perhaps should, be answered with a clear yes or no, in the field of ethics one comes across gray areas where clear-cut answers are less than helpful. What is right--pacifism or just war theory? Pro-life or pro-choice? We need to talk about such issues at some length. A simple yes or no does violence to the issue.
Then there is silence. Silence is used when the disciple needs to reflect further on the question itself. Not all questions are validly formulated; not all of them help deeper exploration of the issue: not all of them arise out of genuine concern to know. The guru's silence sends the disciple back for further reflection. At other times the guru maintains silence because the question is on a matter beyond verbal response or intellectual exploration. The only assistance the teacher can give is to enable the disciple to have the experience necessary to know the answer for him- or herself.
The question "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" raises the possibility of a fifth kind of answer: yes and no.
The Jewish writer Chaim Potok powerfully lifts up the issues involved here in a story about a young rabbi traveling in Japan. At a Buddhist shrine the rabbi saw an old Japanese man deep in prayer. The young rabbi asked his Jewish companion, "Do you think our God is listening to him?"
"I don't know ... I never thought about it."
"Neither did I until now. If he [God] is not listening, why not?"
"If he is listening, then--well, what are we all about?"
The question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is not only a question about Muslims but one about all peoples of whatever religious tradition who raise their hearts and hands in prayer to the Divine Other. Is God listening to their prayers? If not, why not?
This has little to do with Abraham or Abrahamic faiths (as George Bush's theology of political necessity would have it) but with the deeper issues of what it means to affirm the oneness of God and what consequences we draw from it for our attitudes and actions.
The Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions insist that there is one God and that God is the creator; provider and protector of all. "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it," says the Psalmist (Ps. 24:1). The inspiration for this belief comes from the creation narratives and the universal covenant God is said to have made with the whole of creation after the flood. Therefore the Jewish tradition, despite its strong sense of a covenant relationship with God, gradually began to insist that God is also, at the same time, the "God of the nations."
The dilemma here is an obvious one. Members of the Jewish community either had to worship Yahweh as their tribal god, allowing for the possibility of other gods who listen to the prayers of other nations, or they, as strict monotheists, had to draw the logical conclusion that God, whom they worshiped as Yahweh, is also the God of all nations. …