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Many Beautiful Names in an Idolatrous Nation

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Quite honestly, I often wonder if I worship the same God as some of my fellow Christians.

In some respects, the answer is quite obviously yes, Muslims and Christians do worship the same God. Allah is, after all, just the Arabic word for “God” (which many Arabic speaking Christians use), like Dios in Spanish or Theos in Greek. The one God is known by many exquisitely beautiful names – at least ninety-nine of them, as Muslims would say.

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The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah

But there’s more at stake here than theological precision for its own sake. Theology always makes a difference beyond its own confines. Theological ideas wriggle their way into cultural customs, social policies, and lynch mobs. Those ideas can also shape, I constantly trust, communities of radical hospitality and social justice.

For more centuries than anyone can count, religion has provided the tempo for the drumbeat of war and the music of peacemaking alike. There are so very few “innocent” or “agenda-free” religious questions. And those questions can show up in unexpected places.

Consider the recent imbroglio over a “hazing” incident at Wheaton College, my alma mater, which included occasional references to what happened there to Prof. Larycia Hawkins. A tenured professor, a woman of color, and a Christian, she was dismissed from the college in 2016 after standing in solidarity with Muslims. The official reason for her dismissal was her supposed violation of Wheaton’s statement of faith, her insistence that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”

The “hazing” of a student by some of his football teammates happened just one month after Prof. Hawkins left the college. The details are fuzzy and contested, but some reports of the “hazing” indicated that “Islamic music” was played during the incident and Islamic slurs were used to taunt the student. Whether or not any of this is true, it has re-ignited a social media conversation about Christianity and Islam in America.

So, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? It matters to think about that question carefully and to respond with more than a “yes” or “no,” especially in today’s American cultural climate and the wider global realities where so much depends on how we humans live with religious difference – or whether we can.

I’d like to offer some observations about that question in two steps. First, I would propose a distinction worth making between prayer and worship. They certainly overlap, but worship always remains vulnerable to idolatry, to which the United States has recently fallen prey in particularly virulent ways.

Second, there is nearly as much religious diversity among Christians today as there is between “other” religions. It behooves us to ponder how we manage (embrace?) our own diversity before trying to address a religious tradition not our own. In doing so, I’m convinced, we find fresh ways to learn from and admire religious “others.”

But first, a brief preface.

I offer these reflections as a Christian priest and theologian. As such, I live with some convictions about God, and why my love of Jesus matters in those convictions (a love, by the way, that many Muslims also share, but differently). The longer I study Christian traditions, however, my list of certainties about God grows shorter.

Whenever I crave just a tad more certainty, I try to remember fourth and fifth century cautions. Like this one from Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.” Or this, from Gregory of Nyssa: “Concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.”

I do love the many texts of theology, both ancient and contemporary. I love them, not because they sharpen my conceptual acuity but because they invite me and then lead me (if I let them) ever deeper into the fathomless mystery of deathless Love.

So, the question at hand, it seems to me, is not about God but about us and our varying conceptions of the one God (at least in the Abrahamic traditions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims). How might we think about this? Here are my initial two steps:

Prayer and Worship: A Venn Diagram
Grant for the moment that there is but one God. When we’re fervently praying for healing, rescue, discernment, courage, love, or countless other things, I don’t think she cares whether we get her name right – there are at least ninety-nine of them, after all.

Pray with all your might to the Source of All, Deathless Love, Wonder-Beyond-Words – just pray. In due time, *God* may well reveal a divine name just for you.

Worship, on the other hand, carries some risk. The word itself comes from Old English and means, simply, “acknowledging worth.” My own list of people and places and things deserving such acknowledgement is endless. I’m still moved (often to tears) when hearing the phrase from the marriage rite of an older version of the Book of Common Prayer. The vows taken by the couple include this: “With my body I thee worship.” What a glorious declaration of God’s wonderful creation!

Here’s the risk: assigning worth to something that is dangerous, harmful, or violent. Biblical writers were, to put it mildly, preoccupied with this risk. They called it “idolatry.”

Rather than pondering whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, more than a few Americans might want to ponder whether they are assigning worth to the modern nation-state – the kind of worth that belongs only to *God*.

This has been a constant danger in American history (“In God We Trust” stamped on our money), but it now appears unashamedly around every corner – fetishizing the flag, covering one’s heart to swear allegiance to that flag, making “America first.”

Whom (or what), one must ask, do Americans worship?

Diversity Starts at Home
The canon of Scripture used by most Christians includes many more names and images and symbols for God than appear regularly in Sunday morning worship. More of us might engage in respectful encounter with religious difference if we engaged with our own religious diversity more honestly, as Christians.

Drawing on ancient Hebrew texts for a Christian insight about this, consider Leviticus and Isaiah.

The writer of Leviticus portrays a warrior God who demands absolute covenantal purity and strict distinctions between Israel and all other nations. The writer(s) of Isaiah, on the other hand, portray an amorous God of social justice and peace-making who invites all the nations to the holy mountain for a banquet.

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The Holy Mountain of Feasting in Isaiah (Abigail Sarah Bagraim)

I believe these various biblical writers are writing about the same God, but their perceptions and understandings could not be more different; and the implications of the difference are actually quite profound. (If a space alien landed and was given only those two biblical texts, that alien would likely conclude that they refer to two different “gods.”)

The gospel writers portray Jesus as deeply rooted in the faith of his Israelite ancestors. But in which ancestral understanding of God was he rooted? Luke gives an unambiguous answer: In the fourth chapter of his gospel account, he has Jesus quote from Isaiah to launch his ministry.

If at least Luke rooted his perceptions of Jesus drawn from Isaiah’s perceptions of God, then it seems to me that Christian mission ought to focus on inviting all the nations, all the religions, all the races, and creeds, and ethnicities to the holy Mountain of God to feast at a banquet. And this, I am convinced, would actually change the world.

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Jesus reading from Isaiah to inaugurate his ministry (Luke 4)

The change will come by focusing less on whether African-American football players obey their white owners and stand for the national anthem, and more on where anyone’s true allegiance ought rightly to belong.

The change will come when American Christians think differently about refugees from Islamic countries, about Muslims building mosques in “our” cities, and how to stand in solidarity with our Jewish siblings when their synagogues are defaced. The change would come from seeing all of them and us trying to pray to and worship the same God.

The change will come when we extend our vision beyond Abrahamic traditions and realize a common quest shared by all humans (and likely other animals, too): to find our place in a universe utterly beyond anyone’s understanding and to make meaning from our lives together, in a world where only wonder understands anything.

Are we worshiping the same God? It doesn’t matter to whom the word “we” refers. The only way anyone will know the answer is when everyone lives a world of justice, bathed with peace, and where all creatures thrive and flourish.

peaceable_kindgom_swanson

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Bubble-Work: An Advent Agenda, Part 1

Impatient prophets; a cranky Jesus; an apocalyptic Paul – that’s what Episcopalians have been encountering in the Bible lately if they are following the Daily Office lectionary this Advent season. This is hardly the stuff of holiday lights, cookie baking, or shopping malls.

The rhythms of the Christian liturgical year and their attendant biblical texts are supposed to interrupt “business-as-usual” and often quite rudely. Over the last couple of weeks those texts for this season have presented Isaiah’s denunciations of wealthy comfort, Jesus’ confrontations with self-satisfied religious leaders, and Paul’s urgent call to prepare for the coming “Day of the Lord.” I think that qualifies as “rude” two weeks before Christmas, at least in the United States.

advent_bubble3It’s especially rude here in the San Francisco Bay Area “bubble” where I live and work. Professionally, this bubble allows me teach theology and use the word “queer” positively without giving it a second thought. Personally, this bubble keeps me remarkably safe if I want to hold hands with another man in public.

Life outside the bubble is a bit, well, different. I often say that wryly, even tongue-in-cheek. But something usually interrupts that smugness to remind me that my bubble-privilege comes with responsibilities.

Those reminders have been building, nearly tsunami-like on the horizon. They urge me to remember what the Santa-clad Starbucks cups and the roof-top Rudolph on my suburban block can so quickly obscure inside the Bubble: Advent prepares us to be changed by Christmas so that we can change the world.

Among the many ways Advent has been calling me to put my bubble-privilege to work, here are just a few:advent_kadaga_pope

  • The “Kill the Gays” legislation in Uganda has been moving forward, and one of its primary proponents, Uganda Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, just received a blessing from the Pope at the Vatican. Kadaga, you may recall, rather famously promised the passage of this legislation as a “Christmas present” to Ugandan Christians. Let the record of ironic moments duly note this: The Ugandan delegation was in Rome, in part, to attend the World Parliamentary Conference on Human Rights.
  • In the wake of the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to hear not one but two marriage equality cases this term, Justice Antonin Scalia made some rather curious remarks at a gathering in Princeton. He tried to defend the legitimacy of legislation that relies on moral condemnations of homosexuality. More pointedly, Scalia wondered (rhetorically?) whether we can’t have any moral objections to murder if we can’t have moral objections to homosexuality. So I guess people who object morally to my dating another man should feel just fine about killing me as well.
  • The distance between Uganda and Antonin Scalia shrinks considerably in the light of anti-LGBT violence. The number of “official” anti-gay murders in the U.S. in 2011 was the highest on record. The less-than-murder versions of anti-LGBT violence ought also to give us pause.
  • While a gay-friendly Mosque where men and women can pray together held its first service recently in Paris (at an undisclosed location for security reasons), All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena has been the target of ugly emails and threats (from Christians!) just for hosting an Islamic group. Peace on Earth and good will to all? Hardly.

That’s just a short list of the people and places “lost in the valley of the night” and the hope of a “people who are climbing to the light.” Those are of course lyrics from Les Miserables, the film version of which opens on Christmas Day. That musical also includes a question perfectly suitable for Advent: “Beyond the barricades, is there a world you long to see?”

Substitute “bubble” for “barricades” and my Advent agenda quickly takes shape.

advent_candles2Advent is about a new world, the world we long to see when we attend carefully to the visions of ancient prophets, the exhortations of Jesus, and the apocalyptic ranting of Paul. The birth Christians will celebrate in just eleven days evokes far less about the endearing qualities of a baby and much more about the new world God wants to midwife.

I am profoundly grateful for the bubble in which I live and work. Advent urges me to tap that gratitude for a world-changing agenda. In Part Two of this post, I’ll outline just a few nodes of that agenda as we prepare to be changed at Christmas so that we can change the world.

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American Idols: God-Talk, Part 1

There are some things for which we do not give awards but which Americans tend to idolize nonetheless. Today I’m thinking especially of individual liberty in relation to the supposed constitutional right to have weapons, as well as the murkier right to private property. (Gird your loins for this take on such Constitutional matters.)

We’re not likely to hear a conversation about liberty as a form of idolatry in our courts of law, but it’s high time to have that conversation in our churches. Is it really okay for humans to do whatever they want? Do we really want to codify that idea? Is there nothing that Christian faith and theology can offer to these questions?

As promised, this is the first of a three-part blog series on theological ideas and why they matter. And they matter not least for the people who were killed or injured in Aurora, Colorado today and for the many species that are, even now as I write this, going extinct on this planet.

St. Augustine of Hippo (North Africa)

I begin with this fourth-century quote from St. Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.”

I take Augustine to be urging two things at once: to adopt a profound humility in our theological reasoning and to avoid idolatry at all costs. (Whether he himself managed to do this is beside the point.)

Individual liberty (a modern, western, Enlightenment concept) might seem a bit out of place in a cautionary tale about humility and idols. But I believe liberty might well stand as a cypher for western modernity’s presenting sin: putting the human in the place of God. This has been happening slowly but surely for about three centuries now, at least.

The many benefits of the Enlightenment’s stress on individual autonomy and human rights notwithstanding, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” come with a significant theological and, I would argue, social cost. Concerning the former: forgetting that Christian theological traditions have never understood freedom to be synonymous with the absence of constraint (spiritual freedom is always for the sake of doing something in particular not anything at all). Concerning the latter: elevating individual freedom over the common good (individual thriving is never an end in itself but something to contribute to the greater good). I believe both are illustrations of Augustine’s cautionary note about humility and idolatry.

Consider first the unrelenting, grotesquely well-funded, and usually vitriolic rhetoric of the National Rifle Association. For them, apparently, any gun-control legislation whatsoever is a pernicious infringement on the right to “keep and bear arms” guaranteed by the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We are facing yet again another moment when U.S. citizens ponder the role of guns in our common life. I think it’s important to note that violent crime has actually been decreasing steadily in the U.S. over the last few years, but mass killings have seen an increase. I’m not so sure that tighter gun control laws would have prevented what happened in Aurora today. But I don’t think that’s the point.

I think the point is the stress on individual liberty, that the individual reigns supreme in all matters of social and economic policy. I believe that is a form of idolatry, of replacing God with the human. Christians should say so, regardless of the policy implications.

Consider, second, that every single oil well, gas drilling operation, and fracking enterprise relies on a murky notion of the right to private property. (In those cases, property owned by corporations, but apparently the U.S. Supreme Court believes corporations to be individuals. But don’t single out the Supremes on this. I’m always amazed that the U.N. General Assembly’s “Declaration of Universal Human Rights” in 1948 included “private property” as one of those rights, in Article 17).

Here individual liberty comes home to roost in some vexing ways. Can you do anything you please with the property you own? No, but the constraints are wildly loose, and just try arguing any constraints at all in some parts of the U.S. and be prepared to talk to a shotgun (see the first consideration above).

The very notion that human beings have a “right” to “own” property and do with it mostly as they please flies in the face of a very traditional Jewish and Christian concept: stewardship. I’m well aware of the critiques of the biblical notion of stewardship over creation derived from Genesis. That said, are the problems with the concept of stewardship more difficult to deal with than the free-range property rights of corporations and, yes, individuals?

“Stewardship” means that what one stewards is not one’s own property. It is entrusted to that person or community for the one who does “own” it — or in this case, the One who created it. Sadly, most Christians seem to talk about stewardship only in relation to fundraising, and the planet is in peril because of it.

I return often to a wonderful 2009 book by a sociologist, James William Gibson: A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. I believe his thesis can be reduced to this: environmental change won’t happen unless and until we cultivate a re-enchantment with nature. And we are faced with severe obstacles in that task on nearly every front, not least is the modern western view of “nature” as simply a “grid of private property” (page 72). Just imagine flying over the U.S. from San Francisco to New York. What would you see out the window of that plane? Mostly property lines – state, corporate, and individual. Where is the Creator of all this?

There are of course many other forms of American idolatry – the flag, the institution of marriage, free-market capitalism, home ownership, and the Super Bowl, to name just a few. And of course, theology itself can easily become an idol, and Augustine was particularly keen to guard against that.

I’ll make suggestions in response to all that in the next two blog posts in this series, including how we might think about creedal statements in Christian history and also how the “erotic” is indispensable to “traditional” and “classic” Christianity. So stay tuned.

For now, as a beginning, I’ll offer this: Extolling the virtues of individual liberty belongs on a slippery slope toward idolatry, to replacing God with the individual human. I think that’s where any discussion of theological ideas – liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional, radical, or reactionary – needs to begin. Are we trying to deal with an encounter with the living God, the Creator of all, or an idol?

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps our Muslim sisters and brothers say it best:

“There is no God but God (lā ʾilāha ʾillà l-Lāh).”

That claim could, quite literally and practically and thankfully, change the world.