By Vic Sizemore
In 1990 and 1991 I was a combat engineer with the 5th Marines, and we were part of the invasion of Iraq during Desert Storm. I saw the nifty new technology, the almost playful ways we had devised to murder one another, and a deep sadness sank into my heart. It felt a lot like guilt; I didn’t kill anyone myself, but I sure was there. Maybe there’s something of survivor’s guilt mixed in, I don’t know.
That was over twenty years ago now. It’s difficult to explain; the experience didn’t ruin my life, and I didn’t suffer from PTSD, but that dull sadness has hung around, turned to a kind of weariness—but not one devoid of all hope. When I saw that we were leaving Iraq several months ago my spirit lifted a little.
Naturally I first thought of those boys and girls who would get to leave harm’s way, come home. Live a life.
But there is still Afghanistan. And now my heart sinks again as I see things heating up with Iran. While I know there is a Gordian knot of issues, I keep coming back to what appears to be the one big problem: our cultures simply have different value systems—religious values—and never the twain shall meet, as it has been and ever will be.
Are Christians and Muslims destined to be eternally at one another’s throats? Is there any way for these competing worldviews to live together in peace and justice, or must one ultimately prevail through force before some kind of uneasy peace can be reached? You might call me cynical if I told you what I really think about it.
Then I pick up a book from the new titles rack at my local library the other day. It was published last February but has just now made it to my small town. It is called Allah: A Christian Response, by Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf. In the introduction he writes, “A clash of gods is a clash of values. 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.”
The question is not simply academic for Volf. Born in what was then Yugoslavia, and raised in the war-torn country, he is keenly aware of how religious misunderstanding and hatred destroy lives. “The stakes are high,” says Volf, because, “Muslims and Christians together comprise more than half of humanity.” There is a longing in Volf’s tone, a sadness I recognize.
His answer to the question of whether or not Christians and Muslims can live together is yes, a hope that rests on the claim that when Muslims pray to Allah and Christians pray to God (he notes that Coptic Christians in Egypt use the Arabic term Allah when praying) they are praying to the same God. The two faiths have both “inherited the one true God of Israel.”
His support for this claim is primarily three foundational beliefs which are central to both Muslims and Christians:
1. There is only one God, the one and only divine being (Mark 12:29; Muhammad 47:19).
2. God created everything that is not God (Genesis 1:1; Al Shura 42:11).
3. God is different from everything that is not God (I Timothy 6:16; Al An’am 6:103).
If indeed these three beliefs are held by both, then God and Allah have to be one and the same.
Volf is not trying to argue that a common God makes a common faith. He deals with the very real and difficult differences between the two religions—for example, he does claim that what the Qur’an denies about the trinity should, properly understood, be denied by Christians also.
He describes which Muslims and Christians he is talking about: those who believe “normative versions of their religions” and who also have “some appreciation for the tradition of interpretation and debate”—in other words, not fundamentalists.
He even maintains that if certain conditions are met it is entirely possible to be one hundred percent Muslim while at the same time being one hundred percent Christian. It is a matter of an individual’s relation to God, and not her identification with a religion. “Religious labels are useful because they help avoid confusion, but in a deep sense they don’t matter.”
It only does harm to set Muslims apart as worshippers of a false god. The problem with using God as a way to differentiate us from them is that in doing so “you turn God into a marker of identity...replace the one God...with the many gods of diverse nations.”
Volf sets aside the question of eternal salvation. “My concern here is more mundane,” he writes, “the earthly coexistence of Christians and Muslims.” In arguing that the two faiths share a God—the one God—Volf is attempting to find a place of commonality with Muslims, a starting point for dialogue.
Is it possible to put away ancient hatred in the name of a shared god? If I think of the history of Northern Ireland, where the theological differences are much less tricky, I am not hopeful. But like a cancer patient ready to try a faith healer, I think anything is worth a try.
I’m not sure what else to do except cry out with Volf, “In God’s name, let’s stop killing each other.”