Many Religions, One God? Jews, Christians, and Muslims

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Do adherents of the major Western monotheistic religions all believe in the same God? When Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship on their different holy days, are they worshiping the same divinity? Some say that they are while others say that they are not - and there are good arguments on both sides.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about this question is that the answer will depend almost entirely upon important theological and social presuppositions that one brings to the table.

The fundamental difference seems to be where one places the emphasis: on religious traditions or on theological principles.

For the many Jews, Christians, and Muslims who argue that they all believe in and worship the same God, their arguments are based largely upon the fact that they all share a common set of religious traditions. They all follow monotheistic faiths which grew out of the monotheistic beliefs that developed among the Hebrew tribes in the deserts of what is now Israel. They all claim to trace their beliefs back to Abraham, an important figure who is believed by the faithful to have been the first worshiper of God as an exclusive, monotheistic deity.

Although there may be a great many differences in the details of these monotheistic faiths, what they share in common is often a good deal more significant and meaningful. They all worship a single creator god who made humanity, desires that humans follow divinely-mandated rules of behavior, and has a special, providential plan for the faithful.

At the same time, there are many Jews, Christians, and Muslims who argue that while they all use the same sort of language in reference to God and while they all have religions that share a common cultural traditions, that doesn't mean that they all worship the same God. Their reasoning is that the commonality in ancient traditions has not translated into commonality in how God is conceived.

Muslims believe in a god who is utterly transcendent, who is non-anthropomorphic, and to whom we humans are required to submit in total obedience. Christians believe in a god who is partially transcendent and partially immanent, who is three persons in one (and quite anthropomorphic), and whom we are expected to show love. Jews believe in a god who is less transcendent, more immanent, and who has a special role for the Jewish tribes, singled out from all humanity.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all seek to worship a single god who created the universe and humanity, and hence might come to think that they therefore do in fact all worship the same god. However, anyone who studies those three religions will find that how they describe and conceive of that creator god varies dramatically from one religion to another.

It is, then, arguable that in at least one important sense they don't actually all believe in the same god. To understand better how this is so, consider the question of whether all people who believe in "freedom" believe in the same thing - do they? Some may believe in a freedom that is a freedom from want, hunger, and pain. Others may believe in a freedom that is only the freedom from outside control and coercion.

Still others may entirely different conceptions of what they want when they express a desire to be free.

They may all be using the same language, they may all be using the term "freedom," and they may all share a similar philosophical, political, and even cultural heritage that forms the context of their thoughts. That does not mean, however, that they all believe in and want the same "freedom" - and many intense political struggles have resulted over different ideas of what "freedom" should mean, just as many violent religious conflicts have been caused over what "God" should mean. Thus, perhaps all Jews, Christians, and Muslims want and intend to worship the same god, but their theological differences mean that in reality the "objects" of their worship are all entirely different.

There is one very good and important objection that can be raised against this argument: even within those three religious faiths, there are many variations and discrepancies.

Does that mean, then, that for example not all Christians believe in the same God? This would seem to be the logical conclusion of the above argument, and it is strange enough that it should give us pause.

Certainly there are many Christians, particularly fundamentalists, who will have a lot of sympathy for such a conclusion, however odd it sounds to others. Their conception of God is so narrow that it can be easy for them to conclude that other self-professed Christians aren't "real" Christians and hence don't really worship the same God as they.

Perhaps there is a middle ground which allows us to accept the important insights that the argument provides but which doesn't force us into absurd conclusions. On a practical level, if any Jews, Christians, or Muslims claim that they all worship the same god, then it wouldn't be unreasonable to accept this - at least on a superficial level. Such a claim is normally made for social and political reasons as part of an effort to foster interfaith dialogue and understanding; since such a position is largely based upon common traditions, it seems appropriate.

Theologically, however, the position is on much weaker ground. If we are going to actually discuss God in any specific manner, then we would have to ask of Jews, Christians, and Muslims "What is this god that you all believe in" - and we'll get very different answers. No one objection or critique a skeptic offers will be valid for all of those answers, and this means that if we are going to address their arguments and ideas, we'll have to do it one at at time, moving from one conception of God to another.

Thus, while we may accept on a social or political level that they all believe in the same god, on a practical and theological level we simply cannot - there's just no choice in the matter. This is made easier to understand when we remember that, in a sense, they don't all actually believe in the same god; they may all want to believe in the One True God, but in reality the content of their beliefs varies wildly.

If there is a One True God, then most of them have failed to achieve what they are working towards.