Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Why Couldn't Presbyterians Affirm that Christians and Muslims Worship a Common God?

I find myself needing to revisit the General Assembly's statement on Christians and Muslims. I continue to find myself disturbed that the General Assembly couldn't say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. I am not critical of the the commissioners either individually or collectively; obviously, they struggled with this question. The statement with its revisions shows that they argued about this at length:

"2. State that [the PC(USA) affirms that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship a common God, 1 although each understands that God differently] though we hold differing understandings of how God has been revealed to humankind, the PC(USA) affirms our belief in one God, the God of Abraham, whom Jews and Muslims also worship; and that, as children of this loving God, we share the commandments of love for God and neighbor 2 , the requirement to care for the poor; and acknowledge Abraham as an expression of our common commitment to one God."

I am concerned that if Presbyterians (a fairly liberal mainline bunch on the whole) cannot affirm that Muslims and Christians worship a common God, how does that bode for relations between Christians and Muslims in general?

It isn't that we cannot say we worship a common God with other faith traditions. In 1987, the General Assembly approved the following paper: A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews. In this paper, Presbyterians stated quite clearly:

"A reaffirmation that the God who addresses both Christians and Jews is the same--the living and true God."
That was a very important statement to make. That statement was made a few years after Rev. Bailey Smith, then President of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of the Jew."

The Presbyterian statement in 1987 was about respect and understanding. It was about healing the rifts between Jewish and Christian people. It was about our human need to bracket our differences long enough to affirm that at the heart of the matter, we are commonly bound together. As such, we need to work together for understanding and peaceful relations.

What keeps Presbyterians (or perhaps ecumenically-minded Christians in general) from saying that "the God who addresses both Christians and Muslims is the same--the living and true God?"

I realize that many have put forth various theological technicalities in attempt in to show that there is a difference between Jews and Muslims and their respective visions of God that allow Christians to affirm the God of the Jews but not of the Muslims. I am not persuaded.

Yet the majority of commissioners were persuaded either by the theological technicalities or perhaps by something more visceral regarding Islam and Muslims. I cannot say.

I can say that the relationship between Christianity and Islam is more tenuous than ever. It is possible that we could be entering a period of Holy War in which one nation lifts up "its God" over against "theirs" as spiritual ammunition for the battle.

If we can say theologically that their God is different or inferior or non-existent, it is far easier to respond violently to them than it is when we affirm that we are ultimately brothers and sisters who worship a common God beyond our limited understanding.

It is for the cause of peace and respect of others in their common humanity that we need to say clearly that Muslims, Christians, and Jews do worship a common God. We need to hold that affirmation up especially in times in which these religions are used to foster violence and hatred.

I am pleased that the General Assembly did the following:

5. Commission a study on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations that would have the same scope and authority as the 1987 study on Christian-Jewish relations, 5 to be carried out by the Interfaith Relations and Theology and Worship Offices of the General Assembly Council.
I hope this study will be taken with all seriousness and importance. This could be the single most important issue that religious people will face in the coming decades.
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