Abrahamic Monotheism: Do they all worship the same God?

First off, thanks to my mother for flagging these articles for me – I was off sleeping late and playing video games over the winter intercession, and completely missed big news in the world of teaching theology!

So as some of you may have heard, in early December, Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at the private, liberal, evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, posted on facebook an idea for what she called “embodied solidarity” between Muslims and Christians, in particular between believing women of both faiths, that for the winter holidays, non-Muslim women should appear in public and travel wearing the hijab, in solidarity with Muslim women who often face harassment and recrimination and, in airports, detainment, simply for wearing a headscarf or veil.

In explaining her “embodied solidarity,” she said of Islam that, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”  

Wheaton College, in response, placed Professor Hawkins on paid administrative leave and, as of last week, has announced that they have begun the termination process (a very lengthy process for tenured faculty that will probably take several months if not a full year).  In their public statement, they said that their decision to suspend Professor Hawkins had nothing to do with her “embodied solidarity” of wearing the hijab, but rather her theological claims, which “seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.”  This has spurred a wave of responses from other scholars in religious studies about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, including a feature piece in the Wall Street Journal by Stephen Prothero at BU, who defended Wheaton’s choice, saying, “no doubt Christians should strive to understand the Islamic faith fully, and vice versa. But pretend pluralism, feigning that all or most religious traditions hinge on the same truth, is no solution for the squabble at Wheaton or anywhere else,” and that while Professor Hawkins was expressing her freedom of religion, “Wheaton shares the same liberty to defend its Christian identity in a nation in which the “Star Wars” saga is more widely known than is the passion of Jesus.”

To start with, I’d really like Professor Prothero to offer a citation on that whole Star Wars claim, as I would have thought most Americans could more accurately paraphrase the Passion story than Star Wars (especially if we’re talking the whole series, since we’ve all collected burned the Prequels from our memory).  But more than possibly misrepresenting how mainstream nerd culture has become, there are several points about both Wheaton’s and the general academy’s responses to this issue that I think are worth pointing out.

The first, and most important, is that in none of these discussions of who worships what God have I seen a single person mention Judaism.  This is important because while Christians are often strongly resistant to the idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, they’re often all too ready to cite ‘Judeo-Christian’ traditions or values, concepts that, as I’ve talked about before, do not really exist and which many Jewish communities adamantly reject (for example here and here).

It’s important to recognize the similarities between how Christianity responds to the Muslim idea of People of the Book and how Judaism responds to the Christian idea of Judeo-Christian values because it highlights one of the most significant aspects of how religions that share historical elements relate to one another, namely, that it’s much easier for the newer ones to claim association to the older than vice versa because purifying or correcting what came before is a standard religious claim.  Without it, there would be significantly fewer religions, as many religions start out as offshoots of existing traditions, claiming a new revelation or corrected interpretation that brings the tradition back in line with what the original founders ‘really meant.’  These claims of correction are obviously going to be rejected by the group that doesn’t change, however, as they imply that everything they’re currently doing is wrong.  Nevertheless, these new faiths can only arise because they share a history with the older community – the presence of these points of innovation/correction (depending whose view you want to take) are evidence of a shared past.

Understanding this process of innovation/correction for the establishment of new religious traditions also brings me to the second point that I think is missing from every discussion of Professor Hawkins’ statement – by asking if Christians and Muslims worship the same God, you’re making a really big leap in assuming that all Christians and all Muslims worship the same God.  

For Islam, I would be more inclined to say that yes, all Muslims worship the same God – that’s because most of the major divisions that led to the creation of new sects in Islam had to do with either orthopraxis (debates over how the religion should be practiced) or authority (how the communities should identify leaders), not theousia (how the nature of God is defined).  There are some Sufi traditions that I think you could probably make a case for having their own theousia, but it’s definitely not an issue that arises routinely in Islam.

However, for Christianity, theousia remained the central point of dispute for easily the first 800 years of Christian history, and elements of it even filtered into the debates of the Reformation, counter-Reformation, and the American Great Revivals.  Wheaton has argued that Hawkins’ statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God contradicted its statement of faith, but I can think of at least a half-dozen Christian communities that would take issue with one or more of their definition of Christianity: Catholics could certainly take issue with their description of the Bible as “final authority in all they say” and that the description of Jesus’ intercession make no mention of transubstantiation; none of the churches in the Middle East or India ever accepted that Jesus “was true God and true man,” and a number of churches (Latter day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists, for example) could take issue with their limiting “scripture” to the books of the Old and New Testament.  

If we define “worshipping the same God” as “holding the exact same definition of theousia and practicing the worship of that God in all of the same ways,” then no one worships the same God.  Even two churches who both share the same denomination may hold slightly different services or practices.  There’s no reason to highlight the differences between Christianity and Islam when those same divisions exist between all of the Abrahamic faiths (including Judaism, which isn’t included in these discussions nearly often enough, plus all of the ones no one ever talks about, like the Mandeans, Druze, and Bahai), and debatably between sects of any one of the Abrahamic faiths, as well.

And yet, it is still the case that nearly all of the monotheist traditions that exist in the world today all share a common ancestry.  Monotheism is nearly exclusively a Middle Eastern innovation, with each new iteration growing out of debates within and between its theological forebears.  Whether that’s a good enough reason for members of those faiths to consider each other brothers and sisters isn’t up to me to decide, but it seems like they should at least be prepared to accept the historical reality that they are, at least, theological cousins.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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