God, Jehovah, and Allah: an exercise in discernment
There are some things we don’t have to plan for while living in a pluralistic world, though it would be wise to do so. If we can reasonably anticipate needing to make some choice there is no reason to be caught flat-footed when the situation arises, wondering what we should do and why.
One such situation involves a very simple question. The question is this: Is the God of Abraham (the Jewish Jehovah) and the Christian God (the Father of Jesus Christ) and the God of Muhammad (the Muslim Allah) the same God? Then, depending on what answer we give, what are the practical implications of our position and can we explain our reasons thoughtfully and persuasively to both Christians and non-Christians alike?
It’s important to remember that merely reacting to such things is insufficient. As Christians we believe we are fallen creatures so there is no reason to believe that our momentary reaction is necessarily godly or reasonable. And the question we are raising is an important one. In the Bible the name and identity of God is revealed as holy, and not to be taken lightly. As we review the Scriptures the fact that the Old Testament law was given to a theocracy helps us realize the significance of this issue since the penalties listed are severe. Similar penalties should not be encouraged in a pluralistic democracy but they help the Christian recognize that we must speak of God with care and respect and in a spirit of submission. He is Creator while we are his creatures, He is Almighty while we are finite, He is Redeemer and we are slaves to sin, He is our God and we are his people. Which brings me to Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell, a poet and Church of Scotland minister.
The book is a series of simple liturgies that consist of prayers and short readings, one for each day of the week, morning and evening.
There are some wonderful things about Praying with the Earth. It is brief, making it accessible to busy people and of a size perfect for slipping into a laptop case or backpack. It is a beautiful volume filled with artwork, all nonrepresentational from the traditions of religious art inspired by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (A two-page appendix helps us understand the illustrations.) Newell has inserted regular pauses between the readings—marked by “Pause” so we’ll actually do so—to provide time for meditation and reflection. I like this a great deal because I know how easy it is to simply keep reading during my times of prayer and devotion, and the reminder to slow down, to think, is good. Within each day’s liturgy there are also sections marked “Silence,” and, “Be still and aware.” One might think that these are merely other terms for “Pause,” but I don’t think so. To pause between readings is an invitation to reflect on what was just read while to be silent and still is an invitation to worship. It’s hard to be silent at the best of times, unless we happen to have a vocation that provides it, and even then technology can always provide the means to fill our world with music or talk. Silence has long been known to be a spiritual discipline, a skill to be learned, and one that is difficult to learn and practice. “Be still, and know that I am God,” the Scriptures say (Psalms 46:10). Which raises the question if we are never still can we still know God or will our walk with him always remain just a bit stilted? Newell’s inclusion of these elements reveals his sensitivity to the needs of the soul.
Praying with the Earth also raises some issues that discerning Christians will want to consider with care. “This is a time to pray for peace,” Rev. Newell writes in his Preface.
And it is especially a time to pray for peace within the household of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar. As Jews, Christians and Muslims we are painfully divided, even though we share a spiritual descent. And our divisions are at the centre [sic] of much of the world’s most serious places of conflict and war today. Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace is an attempt to utter the longings for peace that are closer to the heart of the household, and closer to the heart of all earth’s spiritual traditions, than our divisions… This is the twofold aim of Praying with the Earth, to learn from the wisdom of other parts of the family, and to recover, or perhaps to hear for the first time, some of the lost wisdom in our own branch of the family. And in all of this to be called back to the deep yearnings for peace that are at the heart of our shared inheritance and at the heart of the human soul [p. xi-xii].
Some will object to the notion that Christians, Jews, and Muslims are members of the same household or family, while others will be comfortable with this language, insisting that semantics should not stand in the way of learning from one another. Praying with the Earth is written so as to be acceptable to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim believers. Thus none of the prayers are in Jesus’ name, Scripture quotations include texts from Old and New Testament as well as the Qur’an, and some of the wording of some of the prayers may seem unfamiliar to evangelical Christians (depending on your theological tradition). The discernment issues raised here help us consider afresh what we believe and why, how we live in light of those convictions, and whether we honor God’s name as a result.
Even if you never use Praying with the Earth as a guide for prayer and meditation, the issues involved are something we should expect to face in a pluralistic world. And all this calls not for reaction but discernment, and the questions included here are designed to help us in that process.
Questions1. Do a study in Scripture concerning the name of God. Your study should not be limited to, but can include: Exodus 3:13-16; 20:7; 23:13; Leviticus 22:32-33; 24:10-16; Psalm 8:1; 72:19; 138:2; Isaiah 48:9; Amos 2:6-8; Matthew 1:21; 6:9; 7:22; 12:21; John 1:12-13; 14:14; 15:16; Acts 21:13; Colossians 3:17; Revelation 3:8.
2. Read and discuss “Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus?” by Timothy George (originally published in Christianity Today and available online).
3. Evangelical theologian Timothy George answers the question in the title of his article this way:
Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? The answer is surely Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that the Father of Jesus is the only God there is. He is the Creator and Sovereign Lord of Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, of every person who has ever lived. He is the one before whom all shall one day bow (Phil. 2:5-11). Christians and Muslims can together affirm many important truths about this great God—his oneness, eternity, power, majesty. As the Qur'an puts it, he is “the Living, the Everlasting, the All-High, the All-Glorious” (2:256).
But the answer is also No, for Muslim theology rejects the divinity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit—both essential components of the Christian understanding of God. No devout Muslim can call the God of Muhammad “Father,” for this, to their mind, would compromise divine transcendence. But no faithful Christian can refuse to confess, with joy and confidence, “I believe in God the Father. … Almighty!” Apart from the Incarnation and the Trinity, it is possible to know that God is, but not who God is.
What are the implications of this for how you interact with Islamic neighbors and colleagues? With Jewish neighbors and colleagues? Would you be comfortable praying publically at some event at which a Muslim also would pray? Why or why not?
4. In Praying with the Earth texts from the Qur’an appear along with texts from the Old and New Testaments. Do you object? Why or why not? Since many devotional books include extra-biblical poetry or quotations why would someone object to texts from the Qur’an? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about the truthfulness of a statement than its source?
5. In the Scriptures Jesus instructs his disciples to make their requests to God in his name. (See, for example, John 15:16; 16:23-28). Are you comfortable using the prayers in Praying with the Earth since none are in Jesus’ name? Why or why not? Are you convinced praying “in the name of Jesus” requires those words (or an equivalent) to be verbalized for a prayer to be fully acceptable to God? Why or why not?
6. To what extent are Jews and Muslims part of the community in which you live and work? How comfortable are you interacting with them about the things that matter most? What plans should you make?
7. Review Acts 17:16-34 where Paul is in Athens speaking with non-Christians who hold to very different worldviews and gods. Does his identification of the Athenian god (16:23) and Zeus (16:28) with the God of Scripture lend any guidance in this discussion?
SourcePraying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011) 58 p.
“Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus?” by Timothy George (Christianity Today, February 4, 2002) is available online: (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/february