Review: Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God?

October 6th, 2012

As Martin Marty states in his Epilogue, this book was prompted by problems raised in interfaith relations and in the interests of ordinary people, including those who study religion. It will be of profound interest not only persons in academia, but to those involved in interfaith work, as well as to what Marty calls “ordinary people.” Representing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in the American context, Jacob Neusner, Baruch Levine, Bruce Chilton, and Vincent Cornell are imminently qualified to explore the tantalizing broad brush strokes as well as the vexing nuances of a seemingly straightforward question.

Levine writes of ‘a sociology of questions,’ that is factors that explain why certain questions come to the fore when they do. Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God? is indeed a question for our time, for this time, as it has been at other points in history whenever our respective communities interacted closely and well, or when we were torn apart by ignorance and fear.

On the one hand, the question has perhaps been too quickly or too simplistically answered in the affirmative by those desiring to underscore commonality and common ground. On the other hand, it has been perhaps too quickly answered in the negative by those with more overtly evangelistic or exclusivist agendas. Neither approach, the authors maintain, does justice to the complexities of each of the faith communities discussed nor to the intriguing theological variances and seeming dead-ends of the pursuit. In this regard, this book will be annoying or disappointing to those looking for an easy “yes” or “no” response.

Baruch Levine and Jacob Neusner represent Judaism; Bruce Chilton represents Christianity, and Vincent Cornell represents Islam. Writing with candor, conviction, and intellectual rigor, the authors do not rest content with superficial responses. Au contraire! Each approaches the question from a different theological or scriptural frame.

The book coheres because each author comes to the discussion from a shared conviction of the value of dialogue and engagement with the other, despite differences, perhaps because of intriguing and wondrous differences, in the pursuit of the worthy goal of peace with justice for all. Despite an array of conclusions and nonconclusions, authors make it clear that the endeavor is far from futile, but rather well worth the energy and honesty and faithfulness of any who dare undertake it.

Each of the authors points to traditions and ideas from which others can learn, Marty maintains, even or especially when easy accommodation is neither possible nor warranted. In fact, he observes that the honesty with which superficial “sameness” is rejected invites the reader to ponder just how strange we strangers are to one another. While that would seem to fly in the face of those seeking commonality as grounds for mutual understanding and respect, the serious reader is pointed towards a deeper and more wondrous unity held together by an insistence of common humanity revealed in the quest itself. Perhaps it is the shared excitement of how much more there is to learn and explore and know and attempt to articulate. Perhaps it is the elusive nature of any and all attempts to name and define the holy. Because the authors remain engaged with the questions and with one another, that which might otherwise seem merely confounding and hopeless takes on the quality of vibrant, life-giving shared adventure.

Quite intriguing is Vincent Cornell’s suggestion of replacing a comparative perspective on religious differences with a contrapuntal perspective. Drawing on the work of Edward Said, this contrapuntal perspective offers a way to examine and think things through, each with its own distinct reality and contribution, while all factors are coexisting and interacting. Given the rich and rewarding experiment into a variety of interfaith relations and life in an increasingly interfaith America, in which neighbors and families and colleagues embody a new interfaith reality, this contrapuntal perspective offers a life-giving frame. It is a frame of dance and movement, a frame of energy and life. Hopefully, it is a frame of love, in which there is no need for a single answer to the question, but rather a shared commitment to pursue the journey.

Not an easy read, Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God? is well worth the time and the mental work it demands, and will be rewarding for all who yearn to be part of creating a new America grounded in faithful understanding and respect, those who delight in wondrous difference and questions with no easy answers which all the while illuminate a greater hope.

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