In an earlier excerpt, I discussed the curious phenomenon of atheists and fundamentalists having the same understanding of religion. Not only do both atheists and fundamentalists treat religion as a straightforward system of fact-claims, but they likewise frequently confuse a religion for the God the religion points toward. Religions are man-made; they are the metaphors that we have constructed to try to identify the divine mystery we believe lies at the heart of reality. But so very often, people forget that any sufficiently worthy divine reality would, of necessity, have to transcend any given religious system.
An example of this phenomenon concerns the question of whether different religions worship the same God. At the time of this writing, a professor at an evangelical Christian college has been suspended because, in a statement in which she pledged to wear a headscarf throughout Advent as a declaration of solidarity with Muslims, she stated that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” Although her superiors did not object to the declaration of solidarity or to the wearing of the headscarf, they strongly objected to the notion that Muslims and Christians worshiped the same God, and for that reason, suspended her.1
Now, to be fair, from the college’s point of view, the only proper understanding of God is the Christian, Trinitarian theology that affirms that Jesus is God, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, through whose sacrifice on the cross the salvation of humanity is made possible. Since Islam rejects the divinity of Christ (although it affirms his messiahship and prophethood) it cannot be said to be worshiping the same God, or so the thinking goes.
But note what has happened: such a position—and it is not the only one of its kind; there are many analogues in many different religious expressions—confuses a tradition’s understanding of God with God. Such an equivalence between understanding and reality can only be made when one’s understanding of the subject is perfect—and our understanding of God is not. Yes, Islam and Christianity (and Judaism, Baha’i, Zoroastrianism, etc.) have very different conceptions of God. They all use different metaphors to describe the unknowable God, the Eternal One. But no one is in a position to say that all those metaphors are not pointing in the same direction. Indeed, if there is only one ultimate reality in the universe, then all such efforts to grasp this reality must point in that direction. To claim that different religions worship different gods because they have different conceptions of God is like claiming that different stargazers are looking at different skies because each is focusing on a different constellation. Each may have a different understanding of what the sky looks like, but the same sky looms behind them all. And yet, we continue to fail to distinguish between our religions and the divine reality to which they point. We continue to fail to see a distinction between the journey and the destination.
1 An, Kirlkand. “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? College Suspends Professor Who Said Yes.” The Washington Post, December 17 2015.