March 18, 2016

That All May Be One / Fr. Rick Ginther

Whether Christian, Muslim or Jew, God deserves our worship

As I noted at the beginning of last month’s column, a controversy about God took place recently at a well-known Christian college. The controversy centered upon the question: Do Christians and Muslims (and for that matter, Jews) worship the same God?

It is an excellent question. To get to an answer, let’s look at the basics which are known.

God is named differently by the three religions “of the book” (i.e. the Bible and the Quran). For Jews, God is variously named in Hebrew Adonai, Jehovah, El, Eloim, El Shaddai, G-d, YHWH (these latter two are not fully spelled out or spoken out of a profound respect for the name of God, i.e., “I am who am”).

For Christians, God is Theos (Greek), the Lord (e.g., Kyrios), the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit), Abba (Aramaic), or simply God (English). The list is quite extensive!

For Muslims, God is Allah in Arabic. But there are 99 ways (at least) to speak of God in that language and religious tradition! They are descriptive. For example: Ar-Rahim (The Exceedingly Merciful), Al-Malik (The King), or Al-Aziz (The Almighty).

This listing (one of many; cf. “Names of God in Islam” on is instructive. It is in its breadth not unlike Christianity’s description of God as “all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-merciful.”

It should be noted that Christian Arabs, whose faith communities pre-date Islam and go back to the earliest days of the Church, use the word Allah to denote God as revealed in the Scriptures and sacred tradition.

In Judaism, there are also a large number of such descriptions within the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

Thus far, the names are different among the three religions. In part, this can be due to language variation and origin (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, etc.)

But the descriptions for the names are similar. One source of the similarity in descriptions may be that the point of origin for all three is the Middle East and that part of Europe touched by the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Coupled with the fact that in the ancient world (as in our own time) there was a “borrowing” from one culture to the next, the similarities could make sense.

Amid the variations, however, there is agreement: there is “one God.” The religions of the book are very clear on this. There is no pantheon or hierarchy of gods.

That being said, neither Judaism nor Islam speak of “trinity.” That is distinct to Christianity. As we know, this is based on Jesus’ words. He spoke of the Father and the Spirit. And he spoke of himself as the Son. It is clear from the earliest Christian writers that divine revelation in Scripture and sacred tradition was manifesting God in this way. Later, Christians would speak of the Trinity (one God, three persons). Councils would define the Trinity based on theological reflection upon the revelation.

So many similarities and unique differences! Do we worship the same God?

In one sense: yes. The God whom we worship is spirit, without beginning or end. God is one. This God is the God of Abraham, our common ancestor in faith.

In another sense: no. The God whom we describe theologically and in our sacred books is different.

Three-in-One is unique. Jesus as the self-revelation of the Father and promiser of the Spirit is unique. Jesus is a prophet among prophets, indeed.

God is revealed through wonders, signs, messengers (angels) and prophets for Jews.

God is revealed through the prophet Muhammed in Islam.

Ultimately, Christians, Jews and Muslims are called to admire the goodness in each other’s beliefs, and in our common pursuit of the God we name one. God deserves our worship.

(Father Rick Ginther is director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenism. He is also dean of the Terre Haute deanery and pastor of St. Patrick and St. Margaret Mary parishes, both in Terre Haute.)

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