I recently became acquainted with the story of Larycia Hawkins, a professor at a Evangelical Protestant college here in the U.S. who was suspended for publicly asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. What I found particularly remarkable about this story wasn’t what it revealed about the current state of free speech on college campuses, currently a red-hot subject of debate. What was more striking was that, apparently, many people somehow believe that Christians and Muslims worship different gods.
Here’s how one particular article about Hawkins kicked off:
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? It’s a question that has bedeviled theologians and everyday believers for centuries.
I almost lost my souvlaki sandwich reading this sentence. Have theologians really been debating this for centuries? If so, then shame on them for such a massive waste of time. The only fact that matters in this so-called debate is this: in the 7th century, Muhammad began teaching people around him that there was only One True God, not lots of little gods, and that this One True God was the same God followed by Jews and Christians. Pretty basic.
Now, if you’re Jewish or Christian or anything else, it’s perfectly valid to reject Islam’s claim. You could even say that the One True God described in the Bible doesn’t listen to the prayers of Muslims (which I suppose would be a bit mean, but whatever). But you can’t logically say that there are two divine entities here, worshipped by two monotheistic groups of people.
This has little specifically to do with Islam, per se. A Jew could reject the divinity of Jesus, and believe that Christians are followers of a false messiah, but he/she can’t logically say that the God of Jesus is different from that of Abraham and Moses. Maybe one could argue that the ways God is described in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible differ, or maybe one might dismiss the New Testament as man-made nonsense. But when it comes to whom Christians are actually praying to, we are clearly talking about the same Being.
To argue that different monotheistic faiths worship different Gods is about as ridiculous as arguing that, for instance, Mormons follow a different Jesus than other Christians. After all, Mormons’ description of Christ is materially different than that of other Christian groups, including a belief that Christ reappeared in the Americas following the Crucifixion. Catholics and mainstream Protestants, of course, reject this entire narrative as fiction, and many consider Mormons not to be real Christians. But at the end of the day, it would be preposterous to say that Mormons somehow praise a different Jesus.
How and why do some find this concept so difficult to understand? My best explanation is that many of us emotionally do not want to accept it. That is, if we feel loyalty for and attachment to our own religious path, to acknowledge the legitimacy of any other path somehow destabilizes our concept of truth and righteousness, and challenges our spiritual identity. When taken to the extreme, we not only reject others’ claim to religious truth, but we go so far as to reject even the possibility that others are pointing their prayers in the same direction, to the same God.
Now, what I find encouraging is that it seems logic and reason are slowly prevailing when it comes to this issue. In my own experience, I’ve found that most of the people I meet accept — or at least claim to accept — the notion that all religions are fundamentally the same. I have no hard data to support this hypothesis, but I suspect that as more people in the West shed the traditional religious identities passed on to them by their parents and grandparents, the emotional barrier standing in the way of acknowledging other peoples’ religious legitimacy is slowly melting away.
The question is, What’s next? It’s all well and good to tolerate other people’s religions, and even better to recognize that all these religions must be praying to the same Being. I’m hoping the next step for society is to grapple with more difficult and pressing questions: Is there really a God? And if there is, how could it be that only one path has a monopoly on spiritual truth?
Regular readers, of course, already know my take on this as a Baha’i: Every religion does its best to capture, in its own language and imagery, impossibly obscure concepts like God, the human soul, and the meaning of existence. In that sense they are all different reflections of a single absolute truth. They are, in fact, one religion. It might take some time for humanity to come around to this way of thinking, or maybe it never will. For now at least we can agree on this: if there really is a God out there, it’s the same God for everyone.