Volf – Do We Worship the Same God?

Volf, Miroslav, 2012, Do We Worship the Same God?  Jews, Christians and Muslims in dialogue, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 166pp, pb, $20, ISBN 978-0-8028-6689-9

Synopsis

Often the differences between the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — seem more obvious than their commonalities, leading to the question “Do we worship the same God?” Can the answer be “yes” without denying our differences?

This volume brings Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers and theologians together to answer this question, offering rare insight into how representatives of each religion view the other monotheistic faiths. Each of their contributions uniquely approaches the primary question from a philosophical perspective that is informed by the practice of worship and prayer. Concepts covered include “sameness” and “oneness,” the nature of God, epistemology, and the Trinity. Do We Worship the Same God? models serious-minded, honest, and respectful interreligious dialogue and gives us new ways to address an ongoing question.

(Taken from the publisher’s website)

Reviewer

Dr Martin Whittingham

Martin is director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Studies

REVIEW

Date of Review: July, 2013

Miroslav Volf’s single-authored work, Allah: a Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011), has become a well-known treatment of the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The edited volume reviewed here, despite being published a year later, presents a selection of the papers offered at two consultations held before Volf wrote Allah, and which contributed significantly to his thinking. So those with an interest in Volf’s earlier book will find valuable background material here. However, these two related books are in fact very different, as Do We Worship (hereafter DWW) not only includes Jewish perspectives, but is also written at a more demanding academic level.

In order to understand DWW two puzzling disconnections need comment. The first occurs between the introduction and the main text. The various main chapters are characterised by nuanced and probing discussions of the title question, yet Volf, in his brief four-page introduction, (his only contribution to this volume) pre-empts these explorations with a much more direct approach. He asks whether, in the aftermath of recent political upheavals, Egyptian Christians and Muslims can build ‘a flourishing democratic society’. He responds that they can ‘if they have a common set of fundamental values. But do they? Only if Muslims and Christians, both monotheists committed to seeing in the attributes of God their fundamental values, have a common God. But do they?’ (p. viii). So according to Volf a healthy and just modern society can only be built if Muslims and Christians can agree that they worship the same God (Volf omits Jews from his discussion at this point). The implication is that anyone with a different view about question over worshipping the same God is in danger of opposing progress and justice. But the contributing authors are, in the main, less ready to be so quickly categorised, so readers should not assume that the introduction indicates the tone or approach of the book; it does not.

The second disconnect occurs between the content and the sub-title. DWW’s title refers to ‘Muslims’ in the plural, but there is only one Muslim contributor, Reza Shah-Kazemi. Perhaps to balance this, his contribution, at 71 pages, is three times longer than any other chapter, and is also longer than the combined contributions by Christians (47 pages) or by Jews (42 pages).

As for its structure, DWW opens with three contributions by Christians, before turning to a chapter by a Jewish scholar, the long contribution by Shah-Kazemi, and a final chapter by another Jewish scholar. No reason is given for this particular arrangement, nor for how the contributors, all scholars working in the USA, UK or Germany, were selected.

So how do the six chapters answer the question? I will first summarise their answers, and then reflect on their method of arriving there. Of the three Christians, Christoph Schwobel and Denys Turner avoid giving a definitive answer. Schwobel affirms that all have the same God, but the worship and faith of the various traditions are different. Turner argues that we cannot prove that we worship the same God, but nor can we prove that we do not. This side of heaven, we cannot know for sure, but we can all discuss it in the hereafter. Amy Plantinga Pauw is more definite that we do worship the same God. Of the two Jewish contributors, Alon Goshen-Gottstein writes that the question requires ‘awaiting the future’ (p. 73). Peter Ochs meticulously sets out methods of approaching the question, but gives no simple answer. By contrast, Reza Shah-Kazemi is emphatic that we do worship the same God, on the objective and metaphysical plane, even if subjectively and theologically our conceptions of God differ. So of the six main contributors, only Plantinga Pauw and Shah-Kazemi answer the title question with an unequivocal yes. This reveals how far Volf’s clear-cut introduction differs from the body of the book.

Schwobel focuses on epistemological issues, tackling head on the questions of who is to decide, and on what basis. Schwobel wrestles with the issue of whether, if there are no abstract criteria for sameness in discussions about God, we are trapped into being unable to make universal truth claims. He states that it is obvious that if God is creator of all and present to all, then he must be present in other religions.

Denys Turner, of Yale University, is similarly concerned with epistemology, and similarly cautious in his conclusions. He argues that Christians and Muslims can meet a necessary condition for affirming the same God, namely that both agree that there is no multiplicity of Gods, and no multiplicity in God. But there is no known sufficient condition for proving that the two groups worship the same God, at least this side of Heaven.

Amy Plantinga Pauw argues that Jews, Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God, basing this partly on the view that none of us can know God fully or perfectly. She proceeds by ‘plumbing distinctively Christian understandings of God as creator of all’ (p. 39) in affirming God’s freedom, faithfulness and generous, creative activity. For Pauw, therefore, ‘Joyful receptivity and responsiveness towards the faith of our closest religious relatives is one way we acknowledge and mirror divine generosity’ (p. 43).

The two contributions by Jewish scholars are in both cases highly informative and thought-provoking; their richness can only be glimpsed in a brief review. Goshen-Gottstein appears to be seeking grounds for belief in the same God, but resists a clear affirmation of sameness. After introducing various Jewish categories of analysis, such as Avoda Zara (worship of foreign Gods), he argues that observing the moral life of a believer is a better indicator of the God they worship than theological statements. For Goshen-Gottstein, questions of identity, the history of persecution, and the hate that has often marred Jewish-Christian relations, all take Jewish approaches to this question beyond purely theological categories.

Peter Ochs presents a remarkable discussion based on eight potential categories of response (for example, theopolitical, eschatological, rabbinic – the rabbinic tradition offering grounds for either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question). For Ochs, the question is never simple, and he affirms that close relationships with other believers are needed before being able to give an answer to whether they worship the same God (a stance with striking resemblance to Goshen-Gottstein’s). Ochs packs a startling amount of reflection and analysis into 27 pages, and this chapter deserves wide readership.

Reza Shah-Kazemi contends that all three sets of believers worship the same God. He maintains that differences of doctrine between Muslims and Christians can be resolved on the ‘higher plane’ of metaphysics and the ‘deeper plane’ of mysticism. For him, if we focus on the referent, God, rather than on the human worshipper, then we are inevitably discussing the same God. The journey through Shah-Kazemi’s long chapter leads the reader through some interesting areas. Can the Trinity be seen as akin to Muslim discussions of the essence and attributes of God? Secondly, and approaching the heart of Shah-Kazemi’s own faith and views, he explores the realm of spiritual and mystical intuition, in which all doctrinal or theological formulations, both Christian and Muslim, are limited expressions of a penultimate reality, while the ultimate level of reality is only accessible via mystical insight. Thirdly, there is discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ exploration of the essence of God in relation to our knowledge of relations within the Trinity. It is worth stressing that Shah-Kazemi’s informed discussion of Christian mystics, and of Aquinas’ theology, stands out among recent Muslim treatments of Christian thought.

So the issues which DWW raises include epistemology, the importance of theological categories relative to other factors such as personal knowledge of other believers, and the limits or otherwise of anyone’s knowledge of God. In addition the book helpfully presents something of the wide range of approaches which even a small group of thinkers brings to the task of answering (or not answering) the same question. The Jewish contributions in particular introduced me to much new ground, and these may be the most informative for many Christian readers.

I would welcome more reflection on what the authors think is affected by different answers to the question. This would take us beyond Volf’s opening assertions mentioned above. DWW would also benefit from a longer introduction, reflecting on the choice of contributors, methods employed, and indicating that not all the authors hold the same position as each other or as Volf. Such an introduction could also help readers situate the authors represented. For example, Shah-Kazemi represents only one strand of Muslim thought (in his case, Shi‘a mysticism) and many Muslims would not share his views.

There is much to reward the careful reader of DWW, though of course there is more to be said, particularly from the point of view of Christian contributions. Alongside DWW, I also recommend Gavin D’Costa’s outstanding article, ‘Do Christians and Muslims Believe in the Same God? Reflections on Miroslav Volf’s Allah: a Christian Response’ in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 24 (2013), pp. 1-10. D’Costa and DWW together provide a variety of tools to help any reader reflect on what is involved in exploring the question of whether Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

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