One God or Many One Gods?
An important transition in Judeo-Christian-Islamic history took place during the Axial Age, when true monotheism appeared on the scene. Prior to this, the tribes of Israel worshiped the God of Abraham, but they appear to have been henotheists, not true monotheists. That is, they worshiped only one God, but they did not believe there is only one God. In those early years, the God of Israel was perceived to be supreme over other tribal gods, but the existence of inferior gods was not denied. Thus, what the readings present to us today is a monumental transition: “I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me.” It represents a development of doctrine and a further self-revelation by God. This would continue to develop, of course, when Christ revealed God as Trinity. In the General Directory for Catechesis, the Church calls this long process of revelation “the pedagogy of God.” Each new revelation was prepared by what came before. God, it appears, was scaffolding long before the term became popular among educators.
Despite this common history in the Axial Age, there is not always agreement among Jews, Christians, and Muslims that we worship the same God. Some (maybe most) Jews and Muslims have difficulty accepting the Trinity as consistent with monotheism. (In practice, many Christians have trouble with this mystery as well and fall into deficient understandings such as modalism, partialism, and Christomonism.) Language also adds a layer of difficulty. Muslims pray to God, but the word God in Arabic is Allah. Arabic-speaking Christians also pray to Allah, but outside of Arabic cultures, Allah sounds like the name of a different God instead of simply the word for God.
In working for unity and peaceful coexistence, it is important to break down tribal barriers that serve no purpose except to define an us and a them. In his brilliant book, Allah: A Christian Response, Yale scholar Miroslav Volf carefully approaches the question of whether Christians and Muslims (and by extension, Jews) worship the same God. He argues that we do, in fact, worship the same God, though we understand that One God differently. This difference of understanding is akin to comparing his own understanding of God, as an adult Christian theologian at an Ivy League university, to his child’s. Surely they conceive of God differently. The mental images and even some of the words and concepts are different. Yet, who would deny that they are addressing the same God when they pray?
A lot of religious violence, when looked at more carefully, is not primarily religious in nature, but political. Religion can easily exacerbate political problems, or be manipulated for political purposes. These cases make religion itself a target of those New Atheists and others who think religion is the fundamental cause of violence in the world. I reject this view. A world without religion would still have to face its divisions (language, race, culture, politics, economic disparity, etc.) and would continue, tragically, to employ violence. A look at atheistic Communism gives quick evidence that leaving God or gods out does not result in peace.
Religion, on the other hand, has the power to mitigate differences and to promote love, compassion, and peace. This is one reason that recognition of our One God, differently understood, but nonetheless calling us to emulate God’s own characteristics of mercy and compassion (something commonly understood in all 3 major monotheistic religions) is so important. Working together as agents of peace and justice, seeking to glorify the One God, we thus “give to God what is God’s” and refuse to allow religion to be corrupted by an unhealthy admixture with politics. Indeed, we have political work to do as well—we “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”—but a careful separation of Church and State is important for preserving the integrity of both.
In the critically acclaimed film, “Of Gods and Men” and the book, “The Monks of Tibhirine” by John Kiser, which I quote below, we see Catholic monks (Trappists) and Muslim neighbors living peacefully, respectfully, and lovingly together in late 20th century Algeria. We also witness the tragedy that ensues when political hijacking of Islam results in violent extremism, destroying this beautiful coexistence. On the eve of the deadly violence, Brother Christian, the Trappist Prior, worried that “this people whom I love will be accused, indiscriminately, of my death.” “The price is too high,” he wrote, “this so-called grace of the martyr, if I owe it to an Algerian who kills me in the name of what he thinks is Islam… It is too easy for…people to dismiss…this religion as something hateful by associating it with violent extremists…” Then, he says some final thank-you’s, including this powerful, Christ-like conclusion: “And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A-Dieu,’ whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father. Amen! Insha Allah! [i.e., God willing!]”
Even in the moment of martyrdom, the holy Trappist monk recognized “our common Father” and was not afraid to use the Arabic word for God to express his deepest hope for forgiveness. I have only the weak power to write about our One God, but the witness of the martyrs continues to be the most powerful witness of all, testifying that there is One God, “there is no other.”