By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Noah Feldman has asked:
“Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
The debate is a throwback to the days when evangelical Protestants and Catholics were deeply at odds on a range of theological questions. But the debate is also a major issue for Jewish-Christian relations. If Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God, then neither do Christians and Jews.
The fascinating philosophical-theological question…depends on what we mean by the word “same.”
There are many similarities in the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, but also many differences. The God of Moses (Yahweh) is a God of law and judgment that provides rewards and punishments to Jews based on obedience to Mosaic Law. The Christian God is incarnated in Jesus who taught the primacy of love over law. The God of Muhammad (Allah) is a God of law and judgment like that of Moses, but provides rewards and punishments in the next life—either eternal paradise for believers or eternal damnation for unbelievers.
There are two flawed concepts of God that give rise to religious conflict and violence. First, the concept of a God that condemns unbelievers; and second, of a God that seeks to impose certain standards of legitimacy (what is right and wrong) on all people as sacred law. Both of these flawed concepts of God can be remedied by a common word of faith. It is the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves—including neighbors of other faiths.
Moses, Jesus and Muhammad each revealed God in their ancient language and vernacular, but since then advances in knowledge and reason have produced concepts of libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law that have debunked concepts of sacred law and of one true faith. But fundamentalists have resisted any addition or change to their ancient scriptures, and radical Muslim fundamentalists known as Islamists have resorted to violence to enforce their ancient Islamic law, or shari’a. These conflicting concepts of legitimacy must be reconciled for Jews, Christians and Muslims to live together in peace.
To reconcile such conflicting concepts of legitimacy, all religious rules or laws should be considered voluntary moral standards rather than coercive laws, with obligatory laws made by elected representatives, not God. That necessarily allows immorality, but is essential to true faith which is based on what believers voluntarily choose to do, not on what they are coerced to do by law. True faith can flourish only where there is both freedom in politics and free will in religion.
The Enlightenment brought freedom in politics in the West with concepts of libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law, but that did not happen in the Islamic East, where most Muslims continue to believe that shari’a preempts libertarian human rights and secular law. That must change for Islam to become compatible with progress and modernity; and when that happens, radical Islamism will lose its legitimacy among most Muslims.
Religious violence lacks legitimacy and is a crime in libertarian democracies where Jews, Christians and Muslims share a commitment to the freedoms of religion and speech. Religious violence can flourish only in conditions of anarchy or in nations where apostasy and blasphemy laws preclude libertarian human rights. While those human rights were never mentioned by Moses, Jesus or Muhammad, they should be embraced by all Jews, Christians and Muslims as essential to the concept of love over law as expressed in the greatest commandment.
All religions must reject the exclusivism that condemns those of other religions as well as the obligation to impose their religious laws on others, but Muslims have the biggest challenge today. Most Muslims believe the Qur’an is the perfect and immutable word of God, and it emphasizes Islamic law and repeatedly condemns unbelievers to eternal damnation. While it says that Jews and Christians, like Muslims, are people of the Book, it condemns those who believe that God had a son—a key tenet of the Christian faith—as blasphemers and unbelievers.
While the radical Islamism that opposes fundamental freedoms with violence in the name of God should be condemned, Christians should never forget their Crusades and Inquisitions. And even in America the Puritans once denied religious freedom with blasphemy laws. It is the nature of humankind to shape concepts of God as exclusivist, authoritarian and oppressive; but those are not the characteristics of a loving and merciful God.
Jesus was a Jew who never intended to initiate a new and exclusivist religion. It is time that the universal God of love and mercy revealed by Jesus is liberated from the exclusivist bondage of the Christian religion and shared with those of other religions as well as those of no religious preference (the nones). That does not require a new syncretic religion—only that God in three conceptsdoes not favor any one religion over others and puts love over law.
Reconciling conflicting concepts of God requires that Jews, Christians and Muslims embrace a God of love and mercy rather than a God of law and judgment. Belief in a God who saves only those of one religion and condemns all others and who seeks to impose sacred law on everyone is a false belief promoted by Satan, who does a convincing imitation of God and does some of his best work in the synagogue, church and mosque. Remember, God seeks to reconcile and redeem, while Satan seeks to divide and conquer.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness, February 8, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Jesus: A Prophet, God’s only Son or the Logos, April 19, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 21, 2015; Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict, August 23, 2015; The European Refugee Crisis and Radical Islam, September 6, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, December 12, 2015; and Resettling Refugees: Multiculturalism or Assimilation?, December 26, 2015.
On Noah Feldman’s commentary on One God for Christians and Muslims? Good Question, see http://www.thestate.com/opinion/op-ed/article51328635.html.
For provisions of the Qur’an on God’s rewards and punishment, see The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, posted in Resources at http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/p/1.html at pp 470-485; as to Jews and Christians, see pp 476-485. On provisions from Jewish (Mosaic) Law on blasphemy, obedience/rewards/blessings and disobedience/punishment/curses, see above at pp 548-557.
On the conflicting views of Islamic scholars on concepts of justice under Islam and shari’a, see Religion, Legitimacy and the Law: Shari’a, Democracy and Human Rights, posted in Resourcesat http://www.jesusmeetsmuhammad.com/p/1.html at pp 10-17.
On why Muslims should begin a deep self-examination of their religion, and how that relates to assimilation and multiculturalism in the refugee crisis, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/it-is-time-for-muslims-to-begin-a-deep-self-examination/2015/12/30/24320e5e-adb2-11e5-b820-eea4d64be2a1_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
On irja as a Muslim concept of postponing judgment on those of other religions by leaving that judgment to God, as a means of producing a noncoercive pluralistic form of Islam (a heresy to Islamists), see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/21/opinion/a-medieval-antidote-to-isis.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0.
On Universalism as a form of Christianity that sought to move beyond exclusivism and ultimately merged with the Unitarian faith, see Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century, at http://www.uuworld.org/articles/universalism-theology-the-21st-century.
On two progressive, critical and non-exclusivist interpretations of Christianity, see The Eight Points of Progressive Christianity at http://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/ and Charting the New Reformation: the Twelve Theses, by Bishop John Shelby Spong, at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?tab=mm#inbox/151af63e55c73a80.
A recent poll indicates that some “Christians” believe that religious freedom should be restricted to Christians, which, of course, is not religious freedom at all. Even in a democracy that kind of exclusivist “freedom” can create a tyranny of the majority, as can be seen in those Islamic democracies that have retained apostasy and blasphemy laws. And history has shown that there is no tyranny worse than a religious tyranny. See http://m.heraldtimesonline.com/wire/religion/ap-norc-poll-christian-muslim-split-on-religious-freedom/article_62cdacfb-389b-5dae-9710-d2deb29f1764.html?mode=jqm.