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Standing in the Other Believer’s Shoes

Christians and Muslims share belief in the one God, yet our understanding of this one God differs.

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

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In 1990, the Roman Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies published an interesting yet unassuming book by Father Robert Caspar and a group of Christians living in Tunisia. Entitled Trying to Answer Questions, it offered a novel approach to responding to certain questions Muslims raise about aspects of Christian faith and life.

The following is based in part upon the very creative work of that book.

Understanding God. In the countries of the Middle East, when Christians make the sign of the cross, before saying “Amen,” they always add the words “one God.” They do this to make clear to the Muslims among whom they live that Christians truly believe in one God.

At the heart of Islam is the frequent and public profession of monotheism, or belief in one God. “There is no god but God” begins almost every Muslim prayer. Most Muslims misunderstand Christian references to God as Father, Son and Spirit as a profession of polytheism; they seriously question if Christians are really believers.

Muslims are used to using the words “father” and “son” in their primary meaning as describing human relationships flowing from sexual love and procreation – they have no tradition of using them analogously, with spiritual meanings, as Christians do.

Although Muslims prayerfully recite many names and attributes for the one God, “Father” is not one of them. What Christians call “The Lord’s Prayer” is truly that – a distinctive way of talking to and thinking about God that was taught to us by Jesus.

The holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, blames Christians for speaking of three in connection with God and in some places seems to consider the three to be God, Jesus and Mary. Perhaps this reflects the Muslims’ rejection of some early and obscure Christian heresy.

Christians reassure Muslims of their own monotheism when they recite the Nicean Creed, which begins, “We believe in one God…,” and when they add the words “one God” to the sign of the cross.

When Christians try to explain what they mean by the Trinity, they usually employ the ancient Greek philosophical vocabulary of “person,” “substance” and “nature” – the words used in the dogmatic definitions of the Trinity. Muslim religious culture, unlike Christian, has not grown historically out of the Greco-Roman world; for Muslims these words have no clear meaning. Another difficulty is that these technical theological terms have radically different ordinary meanings in modern-day usage.

In the past Baghdad’s Christian Arabs searched for metaphors that would explain the Trinity to Muslims. One metaphor often used was “fire.” Fire is one substance, yet at the same time it is heat, flame and light.

All words and images are inadequate to convey the mystery of God, but we still have to try as best we can.

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Tags: Muslim Multiculturalism Religious Differences