Christian & Islamic Views of God: Our differences don’t change who God is
One student, in a last effort to refute the presentation, conceded “Islam may be referring to the same God as the Jews and Christians linguistically, but Islam sees God very differently than Christianity.” In a similar vein, I received through a friend a recent email from Ravi Zacharias’ ministry. The email from Ravi’s staff confirmed that we don’t disagree on the name of God, but rather His character. I agree that this is true; yet in my work I have found that those differences are much narrower than we might first suppose.
There are indeed differences in perception of the character of God, just as there are many views people may have of you! Some view you as a friend, others as an enemy. Some may look at you as someone who is fair, others as a scoundrel. My wife views me as a partner, lover, etc, much differently than my children; they in turn see me differently than my siblings. Moreover, each of them has their individual understanding of me; my character, nature and directives. But I am the same person, viewed differently by different people.
Christians demand that Muslims view God in the context of their particular doctrine alone as evidence of following the “true” God. One needs to be careful, as this premise negates Jews of the Torah from believing in the same God. After all, Jews do not accept Jesus as Messiah, let alone see Him as God’s Word, Spirit and supernaturally conceived like the Muslims do. Perhaps enforcing our respective dogma on others is why Christians are themselves so divided into what Bill Hybels has counted as 36,000 sects and denominations. Do any of the 147 varieties of Baptists view God exactly the same? What about Pentecostals, Catholics, Methodists, or Quakers, let alone Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, etc.?
From another standpoint, one cannot assume that current struggles with extremism within Islam represent the whole of its history or its future. Who did the Christian church claim as God while engaged for centuries in the Crusades; enforcing the Inquisition; or rising up in violence, Protestant against Catholic? Those behaviors were unconscionable, but do Christians say that those being misled at that time did not pray to the same God as they do now? Clearly, the performance of the human family does not define who God is.
However unlikely it seems, a careful review of the Muslim Holy Book reveals Christians share much more with Muslims in their concept of who God is than any of our respective religious dogmas might dictate. After reading the Qur’an, most would agree we are both referring to the one God: magnificent and omnipresent, omnipotent creator of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Ishmael. He is the God of the prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Noah and John the Baptist.
He is the same God who in both the Gospels and Qur’an sent the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, who birthed a sinless Messiah named Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The same Jesus, who could heal the sick, raise the dead, was taken up to God and is coming back on Judgment Day. There is of course much more to discuss, but what other God could all this be referring to?
In the end, the seminary students were nearly unanimous, agreeing that the three major faiths do pray and refer to a monotheistic god, and that linguistically they are the same “God.” While many left changed in attitude, most confessed discomfort using Allah in place of “God.” Western bias against it is difficult to break.
I must confess that after extensive Western/Christian training myself, it has taken time for me to feel comfortable using the Arabic term, Allah, for God in conversations. My mentor Rev. John Booko, who has been a pastor for 50 years, helps me break my dogmatically negative feeling about Allah when he prays in the name of Alaha in his Aramaic language.
Do we not all fancy ourselves on a path seeking revelation of the “true” God? None of us has to scratch very deeply to find out that our concept of God is different from another’s concept of God. My concept of God is not the same as when I first believed. Some days it is not even the same as it was the day before. God does not change, but I do! God is revealing himself from day to day through dialogue, reading of the Scriptures and through experiences. Because some have not arrived at what each of us might believe is His true nature, let us not condemn another, and cut ourselves off from others in the process of their search.
What I have hoped to outline here is evidence that the Abrahamic faith traditions share the same linguistic name for God and describe God similarly. While we feel there are profound differences in our view of His character, our journey of discovery has revealed many of these “differences” that seem daunting are minimized with careful reading of the Holy Books in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. When people open a door to explore common ground we should not slam it in their faces.
I have run out of space, but allow me to share one last thought. In interfaith relations, the nature, person and mission of Jesus of Nazareth is often seen as the crux of the problem, when ironically, he is in fact the extraordinary solution.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. 1 Cor. 13:12