When Christians hear Muslims being called to prayer, they should be happy, for it is their God who is going to be worshipped and served, says Jesuit Father Tom Michel.
THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL teaches that Muslims "adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to humans. They take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even God's inscrutable decrees".
Pope John Paul II has said the fact that Christians and Muslims worship "the One and same God" is a factor that draws the two communities together and lays the basis for love and cooperation between the two communities of believers.
But not everyone agrees. Here's Jesuit Father Tom Michel's insight on the subject:
Q. Some Christians and Muslims question whether Allah and God are the same deity. Are they?
Allah is the name by which Muslims and Arab Christians have for centuries called upon the One God. Ancient inscriptions in the Arabian peninsula seem to indicate that Christians in Arabia already referred to God as "Allah" before the time of Muhammad.
The word Al-lah literally means "The God" and is the equivalent of ho theos, the Greek term used in the New Testament to refer to God. In Arabic translations of the Bible, the name Allah is always used to translate ho theos.
Over the centuries, Arab Muslims and Christians have disagreed over many issues, both religious and political, but they have never accused one another of worshipping different gods. Moreover, the people of Malta, an almost 100% Catholic country whose language is similar to Arabic, also call God "Allah", even in the prayers of the Christian liturgy.
Q. Some Christians have objected that since Muslims' understanding of God is not Trinitarian, how can the God of Muslims and Christians be one and the same?
One could ask the same question about the great figures of the Old Testament - Abraham, Moses, Isaiah or Jeremiah - whose understanding of God was not Trinitarian, or even of figures like John the Baptist and Mary in the New Testament.
They all worshipped the one God of "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" and sought to do God's will. It was only later Christian reflection that arrived at an understanding of the One God as Trinity.
Just as Christians would never claim that Abraham, Moses and John the Baptist worshipped a different God because they did not understand God's Triune nature, so it would be wrong for a Christian to claim that Allah worshipped by Muslims is not the God of Christians.
It is not only Christians who question whether the two communities worship the same God.
Q. Some Muslims accuse Christians of worshipping three gods. Why?
This is based on the view that the Christian doctrine of "one God in three persons" constitutes a kind of committee, a sort of "division of labour" among three individuals who share in the work of creating, saving and judging humankind.
All theologians and Church teachings agree that this is a misunderstanding of Christian faith, yet Muslims may be excused for holding this distorted view, for that is the way the Christian doctrine has often been presented to them.
The ancient Councils of the Church like those of Nicaea, Ephesus and Chalcedon actually defined Christian faith as holding "one God in three hypostases". That Greek word is often rendered as "persons" but according to Karl Barth, a leading Lutheran theologian of the past century, it means "a way of being".
According to Karl Rahner, one of the Catholic Church's most important theologians in recent times, it is "a mode of subsisting" - that is, a way of being and acting. In other words, Christian faith affirms one God who has three essential, eternal ways of being and acting.
The one eternal God has an eternal Message, a Message that Christians believe God expressed perfectly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus "incarnated" that Message in that it became visible in him, in the way he lived and what he taught. But this same God actually lives and moves in all creation.
From the smallest sub-atomic particle of molecular science to the driving force behind super- galaxies, there is always something that is not measurable or "quantifi able", because it is divine.
That "something", that divine spark, is God's transcendent presence in all things, constantly guiding, teaching, encouraging. Christians call that divine presence the Holy Spirit.
The Trinity, then, is a way of affirming that the one God does not remain distant from human history or outside the created world, but has these two "ways" or "modes" of being present and active.
In a Trinitarian understanding, God need not have recourse to created mediators like angels or books, for God's ways or modes are themselves divine. As such, the Christian belief could be said to be the "radicalization of monotheism".
Q. Does this mean that Christians and Muslims are simply saying the same thing in different words?
Not at all. Islam and Christianity are two different religions and have different teachings, and God is able to save both Muslim and Christian if they faithfully follow their respective paths. What it means, though, is that both are directing their attention and service and love toward the same merciful and compassionate God.
Kenneth Cragg, former Anglican archbishop of Jerusalem, used a grammatical image to describe the relationship between the Christian and Islamic understanding of God: "On the subject [God], we agree; on the predicates, we disagree."
Q. What does it mean, practically speaking, that Muslims and Christians worship "the one and same God"?
It means, for one thing, that the two communities are not rivals or enemies.
When Christians hear Muslims being called to prayer, they should be happy, for it is their God who is going to be worshipped and served. When they see good Muslims performing the prayer, fasting in Ramadan, and doing good works like giving to the poor, Christians should praise God for the fact that so many of their Muslim sisters and brothers are doing God's will.
Similarly, Muslims can regard Christians as fellow monotheists with whom they share some of the most basic orientations to life. They need not regard Christians as kafi rs (unbelievers) or mushriks (pagans).
Like Muslims, good Christians want to submit their lives to God. Jesus' preaching revolved about the "kingdom of God" - that is, what a person's life is like when God rules and governs every aspect of it.
Q. Isn't there a deep point of contact between real submission, true Islam, and the commitment to accept God as the sovereign ruler of one's life and destiny?
Is it this point of contact to which the Qur'an was perhaps referring when it stated: "And you will find that the closest in affection to those who believe [Muslims] are those who say, 'We are Christians', for among them are priests and monks, and they are not arrogant" (Qur'an 5:82).
The one God to whom we submit our lives wants all, Christian and Muslim, to reject arrogance and to come before him together, so that God can govern our societies according to his will.
[Jesuit Father Tom Michel is Ecumenical Secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences and Secretary of the Jesuits for Interreligious Dialogue.]