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Do Christians, Muslims and Jews worship the same God?
September 1st, 2013
03:26 AM ET

Do Christians, Muslims and Jews worship the same God?

Opinion by Jeffrey Weiss, Special to CNN
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(CNN) - Pope Francis surprised Israeli and Palestinian leaders last month when he invited them to a special prayer ceremony at the Vatican this Sunday - not least because religion has often been the source, not the salve, of the region's conflicts.

Still, Pope Francis offered his "home" - the Vatican - as the perfect place to plea for some divine assistance, and Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dutifully agreed to attend.

"The Pope has placed it in this perspective: Prayer is like a force for peace,” Vatican Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin told Vatican Radio.

"We hope that there, where human efforts have so far failed, the Lord offers to all the wisdom and fortitude to carry out a real peace plan."

But Sunday's special ceremony at the Vatican raises an interesting question: When Francis, Peres and Abbas bow their heads in prayer, will they be talking to the same God?

After all, Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace their faiths back to a fellow named Abraham, whom they all claim was chosen for special treatment by the Almighty.

Not academic

The “same God” question is one theologians have hammered at for as long as there have been enough religions for the query to make sense.

The question is hardly academic, though. In fact, a number of politicians, religious leaders and scholars have expressed hope in recent years that a convincing answer on the God question might dampen the violence committed in His name.

Yale Divinity School theologian Miroslav Volf recently edited a book titled “Do We Worship the Same God? Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue.”

In the introduction, Volf explained why the title question matters:

"To ask: ‘Do we have a common God?’ is, among other things, to worry: ‘Can we live together?’ That’s why whether or not a given community worships the same god as does another community has always been a crucial cultural and political question and not just a theological one."

On the other hand, there’s CNN Belief Blog contributor and Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero.

His book on this subject is titled “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World.”

Prothero writes:

“For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world where all gods are one … In fact this naive theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clash of religions that threaten us worldwide.”

In the world of politics, President George W. Bush asserted the unity side of the argument more than once in the years after the 9/11 attacks - often as a way to deflect accusations that America was at war with Islam.

Bush told Al Arabiya television, “I believe there is a universal God. I believe the God that the Muslim prays to is the same God that I pray to. After all, we all came from Abraham. I believe in that universality.”

Pope Francis invites Israeli, Palestinian leaders to Vatican peace talks

Pope John Paul II drew from the same rhetorical well several times.

“We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection,” he first said in a speech to Muslims in Morocco in 1985.

Looking for a more recent example? Consider the plight of Vatican envoy to Malaysia.

Shortly after he arrived there last year, Archbishop Joseph Marino said that is was fine by him that Christian translations of the Bible into Malay use the word “Allah” for “God.”

“Allah” is, of course, the Arabic word for God and is found in the Quran. The Christian translators explained that since most Malaysians are Muslim, it’s the word they’re most comfortable with and therefore the best choice for the translation.

But many Muslim authorities in Malaysia were furious. They say Christians are slipping in the familiar word as a way to convert Muslims. And conversion of Muslims is all but illegal in Malaysia.

There’s a lawsuit ongoing about the translations. Marino had to apologize for pushing into Malaysian politics.

Points of disagreement

So what do the “Abrahamic” religions disagree about?

Among other things: the purpose of humanity, the relationship of God and humanity, sin, forgiveness, salvation, the afterlife, Jesus, Muhammad, the calendar, and the religious importance of Abraham himself.

Plus the nature of God.

Any summary will leave out enormous nuance. Internal divisions within religions have fueled some of the worst examples of human violence. Consider the long and frequently bloody history of troubles between Catholics and Protestants or the growing death toll of Muslim-on-Muslim attacks.

But there are common elements about God widely accepted in each tradition.

Judaism

Start with Judaism, since it came first and established roots that carried into the other two.

Jewish tradition teaches that there is one and only one God, creator of everything, and He established physical and moral laws. As Judaism’s preeminent prayer says: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

This God walks and talks directly with His creations – for a while.

Eventually, He chooses one particular nomad (Abraham) to father a mighty nation that God sets up as an example to other nations.

This God likes the smell of burning meat and demands other extremely specific physical offerings as evidence of obedience and repentance. And He gives His chosen people a particular set of laws – but doesn’t mind discussion and even argument about those laws.

A famous rabbinic saying implies that every word in Judaism’s sacred texts can be understood in 70 correct (but related) ways. And human reasoning can even trump divine intention. (No kidding. It’s in the Talmud)

This God judges His people every year. Tradition says he’s willing to accept imperfection, as long as it comes with repentance.

He’s big on obedience, not so much on faith. He’s not nearly as attentive to the behaviors of non-Jews. (There’s a famous Jewish joke with the punch line “Would you mind choosing somebody else once in a while?”)

Tradition holds that there’s a World To Come after death where moral accounts will somehow be settled. But this God is vague on details.

Christianity

The most obvious differences in the Christian God are the traditional teachings about the Trinity and Jesus. God is three separate persons who are also one. How? Christianity says the Trinity is a “mystery” of faith.

According to Christian tradition, God begets a son who is somehow also Him but not Him to atone for Original Sin. He sacrifices that son though a brutal death and thus achieves humanity's salvation.

But the son, who also is God, rises from the dead. And that sacrifice redeems eternally all who accept and believe in it. Faith, not behavior, is the essential measure of salvation.

This God is willing to vastly expand what it means to be among His “chosen people.” He’s also willing to cancel many of the laws that had applied to that chosen group for this expanded membership.

Orthodox Jews say that God prohibits them from eating a cheeseburger; Christians say God has no problem with them wolfing down Big Macs.

Unlike the Jewish God, whose instructions are almost all about this world, the Christian God is focused more on eternal salvation: heaven and hell.

Finally, for this God, much of the Jewish scriptures (which are all God’s word) are actually about foreshadowing Jesus. Including Abraham.

Islam

The Muslim God is a bit more like the Jewish God.

There is no Trinity in Muslim tradition. Jesus was a prophet, but no more divine than other prophets.

God has never has had anything like physical attributes and has no gender. (Some Muslim commentators say that the noun “Allah” is masculine, but only in the way that all nouns in some languages include gender.)

Muslim tradition holds that God wants one thing from humans: Submission. The word “Islam” is defined as “submission to the will of God.”

For Muslims, all true prophets in Jewish and Christian traditions were actually Muslim because they knew to submit correctly to God. Differences between Muslim, Jewish and Christian interpretations of God are due to errors that crept into the other two faiths, Islam teaches.

The Muslim God, like the other two, initially demanded that Abraham sacrifice a son. But the Muslim God wanted Abraham’s son Ishmael, not Isaac, who Jewish tradition holds was offered as a the sacrifice.

The Muslim God also designated, from before the world began, a perfect man to be his final prophet: Muhammad. God’s perfect truths are found only in the Quran and in the sayings of Muhammad, the hadiths.

And the Muslim God, like the Christian God but unlike the Jewish God, will welcome believers to paradise and condemn many non-Muslims - exactly which ones is a matter of much discussion - to eternal torment.

Final answer

So do Christians Muslims, and Jews, really all worship the same God?

In two major volumes on the subject recently published by scholars from various faiths and traditions, including Volf’s, the most inclusive response from these scholars is basically: Yes, and it’s our God.

This is not a new way of answering the question.

In 1076, Pope Gregory VII wrote this to a Muslim leader: “We believe in and confess one God, admittedly, in a different way…”

But like many other religious leaders on all sides of the argument, Gregory insisted that his version of the Almighty is the one whom the others are unknowingly and incompletely worshiping.

A less exclusivist set of religions might shrug off the differences. But all three claim to have the only “True Faith.”

So do all three faiths actually worship the same deity, whether they call him God or Allah or Adonai?

God only knows.

Jeffrey Weiss is an award-winning religion reporter in Dallas.The views expressed in this column belong to Weiss. A version of this story first ran in September 2013. 

CNN's Daniel Burke contributed to this article. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • History • Islam • Judaism • Muslim • Religious violence • Torah • Vatican

soundoff (7,438 Responses)
  1. Apple Bush

    Scots Dignity

    ...and though they grieved and rent their clothes, it was in the pub the followers gathered for darts and dark ale which they hoisted in sadness and drank with great sorrow. Many libations they consumed and they called it the blood of the son of God.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  2. skytag

    There is something amusing about people arguing about whether nonexistent gods are the same beings.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  3. Apple Bush

    Proof

    God created the universe. Many billions of years ago, a life form evolved on a planet not so far distant and their scientists deduced the building blocks for life existed in the universe and from it, new life forms could be created. These ancient ones populated Mars with life and eventually, due to asteroid events over millions of years, life arrived here on Earth.

    We are a product of that primeval turbulence. Therefore, we must worship the Aliens, not God. The Aliens have to worship God. This is all true because I have faith that it happened just this way.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  4. Dmadam

    Know god...No peace
    No god...Know peace

    September 1, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • jungleboo

      I like your way with words.

      September 1, 2013 at 8:45 pm |
  5. copley86

    This article is wrong on one major thing: many Jews believe that if gentiles follow the Seven laws of Noah, they are guarenteed a place in the World to Come, and heaven.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  6. Apple Bush

    If you can understand it, it has nothing to do with you.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
  7. noah

    Jewish belief= don't join us, it's too difficult.
    Chrisitans= Join us, or we'll make you feel guilty
    Islam= Join us or die!

    September 1, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  8. Alien Orifice

    K-Town

    He could smell her from his position, directly downwind of the Santa Ana’s, the putrid air-born tendril of urine and body odor makes a formidable weapon. Her socks, slung over the tops of her borrowed Converse flaps. Here teeth only a reminder of public service announcements. The hair was everywhere. Not untidy exactly, just….everywhere. Like a blanket over her. She had a pleasing form though. Hard not to look twice. So hard in fact, many had made her their project. Each had failed. For her the addiction was her destiny and would lead to her death. But not today.

    Joe Skinner rarely looked up when he was walking in L.A. Nobody on these streets needed directions or knew where any stars lived. This was Korea Town, the crossroads where Heaven and Hell conduct their business. It was different now. The riots broke the peace and historians were quick to point out that Korea Town was marginalized during the Rodney King Riots of 1992 and it was happening again. Neighborly “hellos” became tense and less friendly. If you want someone to get your back, stay in your part of town. And don’t bother calling 911.

    Joe called 911. The voice on the other end of his “iMate” spoke in hushed tones. Joe laughed. He knew they would have to follow up on any call. If Ryerson shows up, He’s dead. Joe still had friends everywhere in the eight block neighborhood of K-Town. He walked without being disturbed, but only because he understood protocol. K-Town in 2033 was not only unsafe, it was anarchy and there were untouchables.

    That is when he saw it. A photograph. Hard to see in the wet gutter, but the man in the image was beautiful. Long flowing hair that wasn’t messy but practically covered his whole upper section. Skinner reached for it. It sizzled in his fingers and glowed. This was Jesus and he was come unto the Earth to save humans at long last.

    Joe on the other hand really wanted to get baked before work and needed a paper and Jesus was handy. It was wet but they had one of those electric 2025 hand dryers in the rest room of the filling station he stood next to. He blazed, and soon saw Jesus once again. This time Jesus stood before him saying, “I brought unto you a miracle and this is how you betray your lack of awe to the sight of me?

    Joe thought a moment and finally looked at Jesus and said, “You crazy fuck, here, toke up bro!” The party lasted long into the night. Jesus got tore up and the moral of the story is that Marijuana should be legal in the United States.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
  9. Alien Orifice

    Quit following me I got no more to give you people I got no more to give so no coffee... I'm done. Done.

    But I wasn’t done. I was only pouring foundation. That is when it happened. Yeah I guess it is like a cell. It has dark spots, corners. There is a lighted area but the bulb flickers on and off more than it used too. Strange to be a rabid animal in a cage you built yourself and when they try to save you….bite them…then ask them to come back.

    to eat a steak, politely rest your butter knife through a perfectly cooked filet that melts in your mouth like warm, fresh spoiled tuna.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
  10. xirume

    ..

    September 1, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  11. Apple Bush

    Solve a layer of physics down to the next level and you are in a different universe. Solve new laws of physics and you advance again. New universes are infinite.

    The trigger: when enough multi-verses are normalized, they intersect. There is no recommended science. Change 0 and you have found another universe. In other words, 1 is now zero. New universe.

    Yada yada. Simple.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • Azriel

      Is that your believes or you got some evidence to show it?

      September 1, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        When your grammar improves we can talk.

        September 1, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
  12. Apple Bush

    helpin' folks

    How Depression Returned and then Stole my Life by Apple Bush

    A true book of pretend realities about not recovering from the depression that never left.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  13. Ungodly Discipline

    Midnight – ?

    I have decided to convert from atheism to Solipsism. The ceremony is going to be a blast, I will be having all my friends and family over and un-validating their existence. Then it will just be a free-for-all. I will also be getting a tattoo of my own face on my ass.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  14. Ungodly Discipline

    Profit Pour

    This shaggy dog was prowling the bar and spattin’ out pussy hair like sunflower seeds.

    I have taken that walk with him.

    He never said much…that you could remember anyway. Not much difference in the pour either.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  15. PerceivedReality

    ITT: Atheists reinforcing each other's foolishness.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      So true. Please visit: http://www.wikipoops.com

      September 1, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
    • Morgan King

      A knowable universe and a rational worldview?

      September 1, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
  16. Apple Bush

    I am now esoteric in my feelings towards believers that that are agnostic.

    September 1, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  17. Lionly Lamb

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9jUc0kMN-k&feature=player_detailpage

    September 1, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      The grave digs a while, deep enough for you and your flat screen and a few other gadgets. The worshippers believe if you are buried with your valuables you will get to set up a “cloud” in heaven and you can access your music from any of your wireless devices.

      The grave leans on his shovel and thinks for a moment.

      Being older and more knowledgeable, the dirt guru decided to just fill in the hole and quit for the day. The sun burned bright and the pebbles in the grave’s body stung.

      He found some shade and quietly hoped no one would try to bury themselves.

      September 1, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  18. Apple Bush

    LL, what happened to your hyper login?

    September 1, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
  19. wikipoops.com

    Who would naively call for a ban of the Earth shaking wonder of 24 fitness or whatever? http://www.wikipoops.com get hard!

    September 1, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  20. wikipoops.com

    wikipoops.com has helped over one student prepare that dreaded "Lepus Curpaeums" 5th grade report. Your kid WILL be next. Thanks!

    September 1, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • John

      The author seems to ignore the another alternative: that there are and have never been such things as gods.

      September 1, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.