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Abraham’s Children

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With today’s story about God reassuring Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, it seemed like a good time to explore how those descendants think about God in the 21st century. Do we all worship the same God? And if we do, what does that mean?

Today’s texts – Genesis 15: 1-15 and Philippians 3:17-4:1

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

Towards the end of last year, when there was a lot of vitriol being spewed out in the political world at Muslims in this country, a professor at Wheaton College near Chicago decided to take a small stand in solidarity with those people who, like her, trace their religious ancestry back to a man named Abraham.

Wheaton College is one of the academic citadels in the evangelical Christian world. One of its most famous alumni is Billy Graham. One of the jokes on campus is that students are not allowed to have sex because it might lead to dancing. So it’s a place that trends conservative.

But it was founded in 1860 by Christians seeking to abolish slavery. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom in the North. The first African-American to graduate from college in Illinois graduated from Wheaton. It’s students today are involved in anti-poverty work in Chicago and its provost in 2007 signed interfaith document called “A Common Word Between Us and You,” agreeing that Islam and Christianity can be at peace with each other.

So like many places, Wheaton has a complex history. And that’s why the actions of Larycia Hawkins had such reverberations first at the college and then across the nation.

Larycia2_0On Dec. 10 she posted on Facebook a picture of her wearing a hijab –the headscarf many Muslim women wear as a sign of their faith – and wrote “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.”

It was that last phrase – “we worship the same God” – that caused a national uproar. Within days, Wheaton College had suspended her and intense debates began about academic freedom, but also about how Jews and Christians and Muslims understand God.

Earlier this month, Wheaton dropped its attempts to fire her for what they saw as a violation of the college’s statement of faith and she in turn resigned. But not surprisingly, the debate over God rages on.

When I asked for questions and issues that we might discuss here during Lent, one person suggested this debate was a timely and appropriate topic for us to consider. And with today’s story about God reassuring Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, it seemed like a good time to explore how those descendants think about God in the 21st century.

Do we all worship the same God? And if we do, what does that mean?

abraham-starsLet’s start with the stories of Abraham.

In the Book of Genesis – the first book of the Hebrew Bible and a book incorporated into our Christian Bibles – Abraham emerges as the patriarch of Judaism, the one from whom the whole lineage of Judaism was passed on through Isaac and Jacob and the rest (and yes, they all had mothers, but that’s another part of the story).

He also emerges as the first to see God as the one and only God, the one in whom Abraham could put his total trust.

For Christians, especially for Paul in his letters, Abraham became the model of one saved not through his own actions, but through his faith. Over time, Christian thinkers tried to wrest the story of Abraham away from the Jews, suggesting that Jesus preceded Abraham.

There’s a critical line in the Gospel according to John, the Gospel most critical of the Jews of that era. John put these words in Jesus’ mouth during a testy exchange with Jewish leaders: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” It’s really a statement of Jesus’ divinity – something not acceptable to the Jews then or now.

quranAnd then there are the Muslims. The Quran casts Abraham as the model of faith in God, of submission to God, the one who rejects idol worship. And Islam, which came into being in the 600s, by adopting Abraham, adopted a symbol that preceded both organized Judaism and Christianity.

There you have it. One figure shrouded in the mists of history and tradition and story-telling that Jews, Christians and Muslims all share – and that all at various times try to claim for themselves to the exclusion of the others.

It is the shared part of that story that ties us to one God. It is the contested part that continues to give us fits and to create hostility.

All three traditions revere Abraham for his deep commitment to one God rather than to the panoply of gods that existed in the ancient world. They revere him for his deep faith, for his trust in that God’s promises which seemed incredible and for his submission to that God’s will.

In that understanding of how Abraham viewed God, all three traditions have shaped their own view of God. In that sense, we all worship the same God, even when we give that God different names – Yahweh or Father or Allah, to pick just a few.

Where this gets more complicated is how we each understand that God who we believe was central to Abraham, who we believe is at the center of our lives.

Let’s take just a few examples, but really important examples.

As I already mentioned, Jews do not think that Jesus was God’s son or the Messiah or that God raised Jesus from the dead. They do not accept the idea of a Trinitarian God where Jesus existed even before Abraham.

Some Orthodox Jews would argue that Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. They would reject the idea that Jews and Christians worship the same God.

But as Yale theologian Miroslav Volf wrote in his definitive work on how Christians view a God also claimed by Jews and Muslims, “Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in partly different ways.”

Now Muslims also have some trouble with some of the central beliefs of Christianity. They, too, think that in the Christian concept of the Trinity, we have abandoned monotheism and that we worship three Gods.

While they think Jesus is an important prophet, in no way do they seem him as the ultimate revelation of God or being in anyway divine himself.

For Jews and Muslims, God is transcendent – a being beyond humanity and the earth on which we live. For Christians, God is both transcendent and incarnate – God walked among us on this earth in the form of Jesus.

But for Jews and Christians and Muslims, God is one, merciful, just, creator and all-powerful.

Observant Jews would not speak the name of God out loud.

Muslims have 99 names for God in addition to Allah, many of which would sound familiar to us – The Exceedingly Compassionate, The Exceedingly Merciful, The King, The Source of Peace and Safety, The Almighty, The Creator, The All-Knowing, The Much-Forgiving – the list goes on and on, but you get the idea. And Christians call God by many divine attributes as well.

If Christians are divided on whether Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God, so are Jews and Muslims.

Sacksis the former chief rabbi of Britain and now a professor at New York University. He told Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times in a story that ran just yesterday, “Do you say Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same god but worship him in different ways, or do you say that the fact that they worship him in different ways show they worship a different god?”

Some Muslims think that anyone who does not worship their conception of God is an infidel, destined for hell.

Yet Yahya Michot, who teaches Islam at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, told Oppenheimer that from a Muslim point of view there was no question that there is one god, whom even non-Western traditions point toward.

“The people speaking of different gods are sectarian extremists wanting to stir up division among humans and are unfaithful to their own prophets,” Professor Michot said in the story in the Times.

volfMiroslav Volf, the Christian Yale professor, writing in The Washington Post just after Wheaton suspended Larycia Hawkins, struck a similar theme. He argued that “when Hawkins justified her solidarity with Muslims by noting that as a Christian she worships the same God as Muslims, she committed the unpardonable sin of removing the enemy from the category of ‘alien’ and ‘purely evil’ other. She also drew attention to the simple fact that most Muslims aren’t enemies.’ ”

Yes, by definition there are theological issues when we discuss whether we all worship the same God. But there are also issues of culture and politics that come into play.

When President George Bush said of Christians and Muslims in 2003 that “we worship the same God,” he was speaking as a political leader trying to bridge religious divisions. Contrast that with the rhetoric of some of this year’s candidates who treat Islam as a religion that has no place in the U.S.

But to recognize the commonality in Jewish, Christian and Muslim views of God does not need to paper over the differences.

hawkinsAs Larycia Hawkins herself said in an interview with a public television station in Chicago – “In no way did I make a moral equivalency between Jesus and Mohammed or Islam and Christianity. That would be offensive to my Muslim friends and it would be offensive to my Christian friends –to pretend that the religions are the same, that they are not different either in practice and theology.”

We Christians, after all, don’t always hold the same conception of God, either. There are Christian denominations that prohibit prayer with other Christians because our understandings of God differ. A few generations ago, Catholics were not supposed to attend services in Protestant churches.

On the flip side, last September when Pope Francis was part of an interfaith service at the Sept. 11 memorial, there were beautiful prayers shared not only by Muslims and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, but also by Buddhists and Hindus and Sikhs offering prayers.

Longest night 1What, then, might we at Memorial make of the diversity of stars that appeared in sky above Abraham and above us?

Just a couple of months ago, we had our Longest Night service here with a Jewish woman and a Muslim man joining me in looking for light in the midst of darkness.

We each shared prayers from our own traditions, not masking the differences yet embracing the unity we shared as descendants of Abraham.

I have learned a lot over the years from two wise people who have devoted a lot of thought and effort to these topics.

patelOne is Eboo Patel, a Muslim who started the Interfaith Youth Core. In his autobiographical book Acts of Faith, he tells of meeting with the Dalai Lama along with a Jewish friend. Both he and his friend were dabbling in Buddhism. “As you study other religions, you must learn more about your own and believe more in your own,” the Dalai Lama told Eboo.

And then he spent time with his grandmother in India, who without a seeming moment of hesitation, took in a woman who was being abused by her father and uncle. Eboo thought it was risky. “Why do you do this?” he asked.

He writes: “She looked a little shocked that I would ask, as if to say that the answer was self-evident. But just in case it wasn’t clear to me, she said simply, ‘Because I am a Muslim. This is what Muslims do.’ ”

And Eboo Patel began to nourish his Islamic roots even as he found ways to connect people across religious traditions.

brian-mclarenSo, too, with Brian McLaren, a Christian preacher and author whose book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? calls for those of us who Christian to dig deeply into our distinctive faith tradition and to let our faith be defined more but by the life and teaching of Jesus than by the often-hostile traditions of Western Christianity towards people who have different understandings of the divine.

Let me suggest that’s our challenge. It’s not to blur all of the distinctions among the children of Abraham into an unrecognizable stew, but to recognize that we are all seeking a God who is beyond our complete understanding, so we embrace our understanding of God with hope and humility even as we honor the many possibilities of the divine in our midst.

For that, we need to let God be our vision. So let us sing the first two verses of # 451 “Be Now My Vision.”