Who is the 'we' in 'the God we serve'? Yale scholar takes up Christian-Muslim question
Miroslav Volf, founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, is visiting Oklahoma City as guest lecturer for the McGaw Lectures at Oklahoma Christian University.
OC leaders said the Yale scholar's presentation tonight, April 12, is free but people were required to request tickets for admittance and all of the tickets have been distributed.
Obviously, there's widespread interest in Volf's lecture, likely because his presentation is to be based on his 2011 book "Allah: A Christian Response." In it, Volf, Yale's Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology, addresses the question "Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God?"
Volf took some time today to answer a few questions on this thought-provoking topic:
Q: Why did you decide to write your book "Allah: A Christian Response"?
A: The occasion for writing the book was a conference we had organized around the question of what binds Muslims and Christians together, if anything binds them together. That conference itself was the result of a very famous letter that 138 Muslim scholars had written addressed primarily to Pope Benedict XVI, but to all the Christians, called “A Common Word.” In this text, they claimed that what binds Muslims and Christians together is a command to love God and to love one’s neighbor. That was kind of a revolutionary document. I was an author of a Christian response with an equal number or even greater number of signatories from the Christian side. A result of that was that I started asking myself, OK, so let’s assume that that’s true, that what binds Muslims and Christians together, and Jews too, is love of God, love of neighbor –- do we mean the same thing by “love”? Do we mean the same thing by “neighbor”? Who is my neighbor is the famous question from the New Testament. Then finally, do we mean the same thing by “God”? So when I have examined these three questions that I asked myself, I thought ... where are some ways the One whom we worship can be said to be the same? That then became the question that I sought to explore -- in a sense, to help first clarify what is the truth of the matter from a Christian standpoint and then help in mutual understanding among Muslims and Christians.
Q: The question that your book brings up “Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God?” – why do you think that is so thought-provoking and even controversial?
A: Well, it’s interesting that for many years, people weren’t as exercised about this question as they have been especially after 9/11. I think what happens is that when enmity between two groups of people arises, we don’t want to have commonalities with that other. For example, when France wouldn’t support us after 9/11, we for a while didn’t eat French fries. We ate “freedom fries,” right? Because you couldn’t bring the French too close to us, right? And, if you say you worship the same God, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, somehow, that is a point of unity and at a time when we are at a point of enmity, we want to push the other person (away). I think that in part is what has been going on. I think it is a genuine question from the Muslim side of things and it is a genuine question, a debated question, from the Christian side of things. I think it ought to be taken seriously.
Q: Having said that, what answer did you come up with?
A: I have come to the conclusion, after studying Christian theological sources, studying also the great thinkers of the Christian faith, the object that which we worship is the same, but that we understand that object in significantly different ways. So there are both significant similarities and there are significant differences. The big question was whether those differences cancel the fact that it might be the same God or how does one weigh the similarities and the differences. We had to go through these individual points. My argument is yes, there is one God, but we have different opinions. It’s very similar to how we think about the Jewish understanding of God. Jews do not believe that God is the Holy Trinity, for instance. They do not worship Jesus Christ; in fact they think, many think, that our worship of Christ is a form of idolatry. But we still think as Christians that we worship the same God as Jews. Not identical but still the same God.
Q: How did people respond to your book?
A: There’s a broad section of responses. There were people who were cheering on and there were those who weren’t quite sure. I would say there were a minority of those who were quite opposed, who somehow felt I had betrayed the Christian faith. Often, when I speak about the issue and look into the audience, you can recognize the way their bodies are and how they react to when you are speaking. I know from this corner there’s going to be questions coming, there’s going to be sturdy disagreement, they are sitting on the edge waiting to pounce on the question. I understand. I was prepared for this.
Look for a story from tonight's lecture and a post-lecture discussion at OC in a future edition of The Oklahoman.