Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
-1 John 3:2 (NIV)
So I’ve been reading about a movement called King’s Way, an informal group of Christian and Muslim leaders who are working for reconciliation between their faiths. The movement takes several different forms. One church has invited the members of a nearby mosque to Christmas dinner, and celebrated with the members of the mosque at the end of Ramadan. It’s also taken the form of a soccer game between leaders of the two faiths on one team and teens on the other.
Recently, the movement has taken the form of a theological document that highlights the similarities between Christianity and Islam. One premise in the document, in particular, has gotten a lot of press recently, particularly from conservative Christians: that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Now, I think that statement probably glosses over some significant differences between Christianity and Islam. I think statements like that are often used to undermine the claims of exclusivity that Christianity makes about Jesus, for instance, or that Islam makes about Muhammad. It’s easy, of course, to make claims like “all religions teach basically the same things” or “all religions really worship the same God” - as long as you don’t care to delve too deeply into the actual differences in those religions. (And many of the folks who make such pronouncements don’t much care to discuss any religion in any depth at all.) As a Christian, for instance, I differ from a Muslim in that I believe that we know and come to God through Jesus Christ. That Muslim would insist that God can only be known through Muhammad’s revelation in the Qur’an. For believers of either faith, the fact that Christianity and Islam value similar moral and ethical behaviors has to be secondary to the way each faith finds knowledge of God.
But the whole argument has me thinking about the way we talk about God - particularly Christians who claim to find our authority in the Bible alone. “Christians and Muslims worship the same God,” says one Bible-believing church leader. And he’s immediately answered, with equal certainty, by another Bible-believing church leader who’s just sure that such a statement is an out-and-out repudiation of Jesus, the Bible, and picnics on the grounds.
Such certainty, on the part of the creature, about our Creator.
Here’s the thing, though; a lot of our fathers in the faith have been decidedly uncertain about God.
Job thought he knew who God was and how he worked, until in his pain and suffering he was forced to come to terms with how limited his understanding really was. “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you,” he said. “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Doesn’t exactly sound like a man who’s had his easy theology confirmed, does it?
Moses wanted to see God, and God told him no. He told Moses he’d show him something of himself - his goodness, his mercy, his compassion. He’d tell Moses his name, and he’d even let Moses get a glimpse of the contrail of his glory as he passed by. But Moses couldn’t see his face.
Abraham instinctively equated at least one foreign god with Yahweh. Jonah apparently thought God only had jurisdiction inside the Promised Land. Saul just knew that the God revealed in the Old Testament would want him to wipe out the Christian heretics, until he had his sight taken and his eyes opened on the road to Damascus.
We come from a long line of folks who were just sure that God was this or that, or wasn’t this or that - and were shown to be completely wrong. Or just incapable of grasping the whole truth.
When did certainty about God - that our understanding of him is beyond revision and that we speak for him unequivocally - become a Christian virtue?
I know, you think I’m a heretic. I’m really not, I promise. I believe that Jesus is the one through whom we must come to God, and that through him God has uniquely chosen to reveal himself here in “the last days.” I believe that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and true, and reveals God to us as no other holy text does. I don’t believe that a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or whatever can come to God through the alternative to Jesus of their choice, and I don’t think I witness to my faith properly by saying otherwise.
I don’t doubt that God has revealed himself uniquely through the Old and New Testaments, and even more uniquely by Jesus.
What I do doubt is that I’m any more likely to understand that revelation completely and correctly than did Moses, or Abraham, or Jonah, or Saul.
That’s what bothers me about the whole “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” debate. It rests on the faulty premise that the understanding of God that I have is perfectly consistent and congruent with God’s revelation of himself in Scripture and in Jesus. After 43 years of Sunday School, and nearly 20 years of preaching every Sunday, I can truthfully say I know much less about God now than I thought I knew back when I started.
Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Well that depends on what we’re thinking about God at a given time. doesn’t it? If we’re thinking about the stories of Abraham and Ishmael that are important in both the Old Testament and the Qur’an, then we might be inclined to say yes. If we’re thinking about the person of Jesus, and his being “in very nature God,” then we’d have to say no.
Too uncertain for you? Well, here’s what I do feel pretty sure about. There’s only one God, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest to imagine that Muslims might worship him as Allah. In fact, I hope that they do, because I believe that one God who made the heavens and the earth should receive praise and glory and worship from every human being.
And I believe that God wants us all to know him and come to him, and to that end he has revealed himself uniquely through the Old and New Testaments, and especially through Jesus. If Muslims, or anyone else, are to worship him in spirit and in truth they must do so through faith in Jesus, the One he has sent. Only in him, and in him alone, can any of us hope to find forgiveness, hope, and life.
I don’t pretend to understand that God completely. I never will this side of Heaven, if even then. I get him wrong with distressing regularity, in fact. But in Jesus, he has come to me on my terms. He offers himself to me through his Spirit. And as I learn to live more by the Spirit, and less under my own steam, I learn to know him a little more and a little better. Not perfectly. Not yet. But a little better.
That’ll do, until one day, when he returns, I see him as he really is.