A few years ago the University of Alberta held an interfaith forum on faith and learning. The panel consisted of three students, each representing one of three faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As the Christian representative, I was pleasantly surprised at the almost unanimous agreement between the three faiths as to what hinders our faith from integrating with our studies. However, we disagreed as to a possible solution. This experience seems like a metaphor for the relationship between the three faiths. There are agreements and disagreements, continuities and discontinuities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In this age of religious pluralism we need to consider our attitude to other religions. Judaism and Islam have more in common with Christianity than other faiths. We can each trace our spiritual roots back to Abraham and the God of Abraham (via Isaac for Jews and Christians, via Ishmael for Muslims). Yet, do we all mean the same thing when we say “the God of Abraham”?
Are the Jewish Yahweh and the Muslim Allah the same as the Christian God? Is “God” a continuity or discontinuity between the three religions? I believe the answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, we are all responding to and groping after the same God. But on the other hand, our conceptions of God are radically different.
To explore these questions, we need a biblical framework for thinking about the religious impulse in humanity. Secondly, we need to consider Judaism and Islam within this framework. Finally, we also need to consider how and why we should dialogue with other faiths.
A Biblical Framework
In Romans 1, Paul writes that sinful humanity can discern God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (NRSV Rom. 1:20) from creation. This is often called God’s “general revelation”. Thus, through God’s common grace and general revelation, humanity can search and grope for God (Acts 17:27). John Calvin believed that humanity can come to a knowledge of God as Creator but only Scripture reveals God the Redeemer.
Therefore, there is a religious impulse in all humanity. By responding to the same general revelation, all religions share a universal “religious consciousness”. Every religion can be defined as a human response to, and groping for, the same God.
But Romans 1 also describes how humanity sinfully twists and suppresses revelation. We have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25). The universal religious consciousness is embodied in various “empirical religions”: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. Each empirical religion suppresses the truth in varying degrees and ways.
This framework helps explain the continuities and discontinuities between all religions. At the religious consciousness level, we all share the same deeply ingrained restlessness for God since we are made in God’s image as religious creatures. But we differ radically at the empirical religion level because each religion’s core belief determines its shape and form. For example, Christianity’s core belief is in the Lord Jesus Christ. Christianity is christo-centric. Our belief in Christ determines the shape of our theology, liturgies and faith. Every religion has a different center that controls and shapes its various parts.
Judaism and Islam
Jews and Muslims would tend to agree that the Christian God is essentially the same as Yahweh and Allah. For Muslims, Jesus was a prophet of Allah but his disciples have twisted his message. Thus, although Muslims highly regard Jesus, they believe Christians are mistaken about his divinity and his crucifixion. Muslims cannot understand why merciful Allah would let His innocent prophet be shamefully crucified. Instead, they believe that Jesus is alive, that Allah took him up to heaven and substituted someone else on the cross.
Most Jews believe that the covenant God made with Noah is a covenant for all humanity. Oral tradition teaches that this covenant has seven commandments (which cover the prohibition on idolatry, fornication, murder, blasphemy, stealing, cruelty to animals and the establishment of good government) that are binding on all civilizations. A nation is righteous before God if it keeps these commandments. But only Israel has the special calling as a chosen people shaped by the Torah (God’s teachings) through which God blesses the world.
Judaism and Islam also respond to parts of God’s “special revelation”. Jews believe in the Old Testament while the prophet Muhammad had some knowledge of Christianity. Therefore, we have a lot in common. But these similarities contain deep differences because each faith has different central beliefs. Christianity’s christ-centeredness shapes our whole faith, including how we think about God.
Although all three faiths affirm God as loving and merciful, they ultimately affirm different things. Muslims view Allah’s mercy in terms of His providence whereas Jews understand Yahweh’s love through His dealings with Israel. Christians understand God’s love and mercy in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection, which is central to Christianity. Jews and Muslims differ from Christians at this very point. True, we all worship the God of Abraham but our different religious centers create different interpretations of Abraham.
The Big Differences
Do all three faiths offer the same salvation? The Bible testifies that salvation is only through and in Christ. However, the concept of salvation from sin may be foreign to Judaism and Islam. Neither of them has a concept of original sin. Adam and Eve sinned, but Islam teaches that they repented and Allah forgave them while Judaism believes their sin only produced an evil inclination in conflict with humanity’s good inclination. Both religions tend to see humanity as fundamentally good and able to obey God’s will. Sins are dealt with through repentance, prayer and renewed obedience. Without original sin, there is, in effect, no need for “salvation”. And the question is, therefore, a misnomer.
The three faiths share a universal restlessness for God. But since each has different core beliefs, they ultimately confess different “gods”. When a Muslim prays to Allah, he is not praying to the Christian God. Allah is not the Christian God because the Muslim’s conception of Allah is shaped by Islam’s core beliefs. But the act of prayer reveals an underlying need and longing to connect, or communicate, with a supreme power. It is a specific manifestation of the universal religious consciousness. It is still a response, albeit a twisted response, to the Christian God’s common grace and general revelation.
Does God hear the Muslim’s prayer? I believe He does. Since God is all-knowing and ever-present, nothing happens in this created world without His knowledge. Futhermore, I believe His graciousness, love and mercy will compel God to listen. Whether God responds to, or answers, a Muslim’s or Jew’s prayers the same way He does with a Christian’s, I do not know. That is God’s perogative. God will have mercy on whoever He chooses.
Why should we, then, dialogue when we differ so radically? It is precisely because we differ that we need to dialogue. The purpose of dialogue is not to reach a universal agreement on basic truths or to find the lowest common denominator. We should dialogue so that we can understand each other and learn from our differences. Through this learning experience, we may all change and grow. Peter’s encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10 serves as an example. While Cornelius was converted, Peter overcame his prejudice against Gentiles. Both were transformed by the encounter.
Dialogue requires humility, conviction and love. We need humility to recognize that we can learn from other religions even though we believe they are ultimately misguided. We too, as sinful creatures, are liable to suppress God’s truth. By engaging in dialogue with other faiths we may learn to see the log in our own eyes. We, therefore, should not feel triumphalistic (especially in relation to Jews, as Romans 9 – 11 strongly suggest that the nation Israel has a special place in God’s salvation plan). Judaism can teach us a lot about the Jewish worldview that underlies most of Scripture, which can correct centuries of Greek influence in our theology. Islam’s emphasis on God’s transcendence serves to remind us of God’s holiness and sovereignty.
We need conviction to prevent us from compromising our faith in interfaith dialogues. We should beware of anything that contradicts Scripture, that does not promote love and justice, and that disables the church. Conversely, we should pay attention to anything in the other faiths that helps us to better understand Scripture, to better promote love and justice, and to strengthen the church, including a call to repentance from our sins.
Finally, we need a loving attitude. Love is the primary justification for dialogue. Loving our neighbours as ourselves involves respecting them as they are and taking their faith seriously, just as we would want from them. Because we love them we want to understand, not dismiss, them. Love leaves no room for stereotyping Muslims as terrorists or Jews as legalists. We need to carefully listen to how Muslims and Jews describe themselves and their faith.
Is there room for evangelism? If evangelism is understood as bearing witness to the gospel, then dialogue incorporates evangelism. Proper dialogue must involve the Christian to witness to the gospel as well as to listen to the testimonies of Jews and Muslims. As we allow ourselves to be challenged by Judaism and Islam through dialogue, we also need to challenge them with the story of the Cross.
Judaism, Islam and Christianity are distinct religious systems and their “gods” are distinctly different. But they each embody a universal religious impulse that longs for the one true God. The Christian confesses that only Christ fulfills that longing. We need to graciously and lovingly challenge Judaism with Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s vocation, and Islam with Jesus as the living prophet whom they have not really considered on his own terms. And we should let them challenge us because God may teach us something through them.