On November 20th last year, President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a press conference in London, at which they renewed their commitment to the war on terrorism and reaffirmed their partnership for the war in Iraq. During the question and answer period, a reporter asked the President a question highly unusual for a session devoted to issues of geopolitics. Noting that Mr. Bush often declares that “freedom is granted by the Almighty,” the journalist asked him if he believes that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

The president answered, “I do say that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every person. I also condition it by saying freedom is not America’s gift to the world. It is much greater than that, of course. And I believe we worship the same God.”

Although the remark elicited positive responses from certain Muslim, Jewish and Christian commentators, conservative evangelical leaders were, for the most part, critical of Mr. Bush, who is himself an evangelical Christian. One critic said, “We should . . . remember that [the president] is Commander-in-Chief, not theologian-in-chief. When he says that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, he is simply mistaken.” Not everyone on the religious right concurred. A noted Roman Catholic priest who edits a conservative theological journal agreed that Mr. Bush is not theologian-in-chief, “but on this question,” the editor said, “he is a better theologian than some of his evangelical critics.”

Given the religious dimensions of the agonizing conflicts in the Middle East today, the reporter’s question could well be broadened to include Jews, as well as Christians and Muslims. How these three religions, who claim Abraham as their spiritual forbear, perceive one another and deal with one another in the years immediately ahead will be a factor — perhaps the significant factor — in resolving the wrenching wars that threaten to define the course of the twenty-first century.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day in the ecclesiastical calendar when the church pays particular attention to the nature of the one God who we believe is manifested as creator, redeemer and sanctifier. I can’t think of a better occasion for considering our own responses to the question the reporter posed for the President. Obviously, we can only make a stab at the question in the few minutes we have at hand right now. But what we do together here can open a way for each of us to ponder the matter at greater depth in the days and years ahead.

It seems to me that the question — Do Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God? — invites responses at three different levels. There is a simple, immediate, self-evident answer. There are other responses, which need to be nuanced theologically. And there are, inevitably, deeply personal responses, which may be the most telling and powerful of all.

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As we move out into the depths of the vast mystery called God, it is wise to begin by wading for a while close to the shore. When one stands in the shallows, it’s rather easy to see the congruence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each believes that there is but one true God, and that this one God is the creative source of absolutely all there is. When adherents of these three monotheistic religions speak of God, then, they are describing at the simplest level what we might call “the economy model of God,” a stripped down version of the one, uncomplicated, essential Supreme Being. It is from this vantage point in the shallows that President Bush made his remark about us all worshiping the same God.

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As we move out farther from shore into deeper theological water, firm footing is left behind and we have to swim. We ordinary folks know that we are out of our depth. The currents here are subtle and swirling. They move us in unexpected, unfamiliar directions. Away from the certainties of the beach, we find that there are many distinct and crucial differences between the three religions.

Christian, Jews and Muslims agree that there is one God, but it is about the perceived character of God and the way that God relates to human beings where there is sharp disagreement. A few fleeting examples:

  • Jews believe that they are the uniquely chosen people with whom God has entered into a covenant once and for all time, as spelled out in the Torah.
  • Christians believe that it is God’s true nature to be self-revealing, as he did once supremely in the person of Jesus and continues to do through the work of the Holy Spirit, and that human beings, though fallen, are made in the image of God and therefore understand something of God’s character.
  • Muslims, on the other hand, contend that God speaks from behind a veil, that there is nothing in creation that is like him at all, and that he reveals only his will not himself.

Differences exist because God’s self-disclosure and humankind’s search for a genuine relationship with that one true God are conditioned by the specific geographical, historical and cultural contexts in which God and human beings encounter one another. In her brilliant landmark book, A History of God, the British author Karen Armstrong traces the 4000 year development of what she calls “the idea of God” in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The word “idea,” is troublesome because it suggests that God is something that human beings “thought up,” rather than a reality with whom human beings have a relationship.

The crux of Armstrong’s thesis is that there is no objective view of God in the three religions, and that every generation has to construct the image of God that works for it. I agree that context is crucial in understanding who God is, but that doesn’t mean that God is fashioned only out of human need or is the product of human imagination alone. God is more than an idea. In any case, the book lucidly documents the transformation of the Hebrew people from pagan idol worship to monotheism, a totally new departure in the religious history of humankind, and how Christianity and Islam subsequently built on that innovative foundation. If wading in the shallows is not enough for you, if you want to swim farther out into the deep waters of the mystery we call God, I commend this book to you.

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Whether or not the three monotheistic religions worship the same God is an interesting theoretical question. How it is answered intellectually by Jews, Christians and Muslims may be one factor in the reconciliation of the clashing geopolitical interests of the twenty-first century. However, when the question becomes personal rather than theoretical, considerable power can be released. Imagine what could happen if Muslims, Jews and Christians addressed a slightly different question. Instead of pondering whiter or not we worship the same God, we might ask, “Who do I worship?” or to put another way, “Who is the God I seek to know and serve?” Answering this question requires the seeker/believer to enter into a discipline, to practice the essential strokes of a swimmer who desires an intentional relationship with God that cannot be provided by the random currents of superficiality or even the stronger currents of intellectual inquiry alone.

There are certain attributes of the one true God that the three religions hold in common. Among them are righteousness, compassion, mercy and peace.

  • If you and I truly worship the God of righteousness, if we truly seek to know and serve that God, then we become people with a passion for justice, a people who seek to redress the wrongs that exist where we live.
  • If you and I truly worship the God of compassion, if we truly seek to know and serve that God, then we become people who suffer deeply with those in our circles of influence who are afflicted, we become people who work to heal their wounds.
  • If you and I truly worship the God of mercy, if we truly seek to know and serve that God, then we become people who forgive those who have done us harm, ending thereby the senseless cycles of pay-back of which we are a part.
  • If you and I truly worship the God of peace, if we truly seek to know and serve that God, we become people with tranquil hearts, people who work for harmony and concord among the disparate citizens of our communities and our world.

When a sufficient number of Christians, Jews and Muslims join us in worshiping the God who manifests these and other godly attributes, then at least parts of our conflicted, hungering world will be changed. For the spiritual reality is that we are shaped by what we value most, and we become like the one we truly worship.

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The Collect for Trinity Sunday, which was prayed just before the scripture readings this morning, is thoroughly Christian, thoroughly Trinitarian. But the little twelve word petition at the heart of that collect could be the prayer not only of Christians, but also of every Muslim and Jew who seeks to know and serve the one true God: “Bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory.” May it be so for all the descendents of Abraham. May it be so for us. Amen.