It has become common now to speak of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as constituting three forms of “Abrahamic faith”. I have not been able to nail down just when this term was first used. (To use another term of current interfaith politeness, this may be due to the fact that my Internet skills should properly be dated BCE—“before the common era”.) I have the impression that it came to be widely used in America in the wake of 9/11, with the altogether admirable intention of countering anti-Islamic hatred. In that it is similar to the term “Judaeo-Christian”, which originated around the 1950s with the similarly admirable intention of countering anti-Semitism. In 1955 Will Herberg published an influential book, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, in which he argued, among other things, that these three faiths now constituted a common foundation of the American creed. Even then this left out a lot of people—for example, the millions of Americans belonging to Eastern Orthodox Christian churches. The notion that “Abrahamic faith” now undergirds the political ideology of the United States naturally annoys American Hindus and Buddhists, not to mention agnostics, atheists and adherents of more exotic religions (how about Wiccans?!). But there has also been opposition to the usage within the three alleged religious cousins.
There was both Christian and Jewish resistance to the earlier term. Scholars from both communities criticized the term as substituting a fuzzy commonality for the sharp differences between the two faiths. But this criticism was somewhat muted, not only because just about all these scholars approved of the purpose of interfaith amity, but also because the continuity between Judaism and Christianity is hard to deny. After all, the most conservative Catholic or Protestant cannot overlook the fact that the Hebrew Bible is part of the canonical Christian Scriptures. (Indeed, in terms of sheer bulk, the New Testament looks like an appendix to the Old.) And the most Orthodox Jew cannot ignore the fact that Jesus was himself a Jew and that the earliest Christians constituted a movement (however heretical) within first-century Judaism. The Muslim case is not the same. The way in which the Koran interprets Judaism and Christianity is hardly compatible with the self-understanding of these religions. Even the most liberal Christians, who might approve the recitation of Muslim prayers at some ecumenical events, are unlikely to advocate the inclusion of the Koran in the Biblical canon. But some Muslims have not been happy either. An interesting development occurred in Malaysia in 2010. An Islamic group asked the state to forbid Christians to use the name “Allah” both in Malay translations of the Bible and in church worship. The contention was that the name “Allah” properly refers to the God proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad, and to no one else. The High Court rejected this request. There were anti-Christian riots to protest this decision and some people were killed during attacks on churches.
On November 29, 2011, The Christian Century carried a story about an event that occurred earlier in the month at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a widely respected Evangelical center in the Boston area. Miroslav Volf gave a lecture there, evidently provoking a lively debate. Volf is a very learned and much published Protestant theologian of Croatian origin. I think he can fairly be described as an open-minded, moderate Evangelical. He used to teach for a while at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, one of the centers of the current revival of Evangelical theology; he is now a professor at the Yale Divinity School. His book Allah: A Christian Response was recently published. Its central thesis was reiterated in the lecture at Gordon-Conwell: Yes, one can say that Christians and Muslims believe in the “same God”. There are enough common affirmations to justify this—most importantly, of course, the belief that there is only one God (what the late Richard Niebuhr, coincidentally another Yale Divinity professor, called “radical monotheism”)—but also the belief in a personal creator distinct from the creation, and the giver of a moral code. Volf said that his position was one of “political theology”, rather than a statement of what is required for salvation. I understand this to mean that Christians, without giving up their faith in the unique salvation provided through Jesus Christ, have enough in common with Muslims to collaborate in seeking justice and a better society. The audience at Volf’s lecture was divided. He was warmly received, and some agreed with him. The opposition was succinctly summarized by a seminary student: “At stake is the gospel. If you are saying to a Muslim, ‘See, there is common ground between us, and then there shall be peace’, essentially you have nullified the need for the gospel”.
How one comes out on this will obviously depend on one’s own theological position. Both Christian and Jewish conservatives are likely to be at least uncomfortable with the notion that theirs is an “Abrahamic faith”. [Full disclosure: As a theologically liberal Lutheran, I have no problem with the term.] But I think that one can temporarily bracket one’s understanding of one’s own faith, and look at the issue objectively—that is, truth claims set aside, trying to assess descriptively what the three religions do and what they do not have in common. If one does that, I further think that both those who say no to the idea of “Abrahamic faith” and those who say yes are right in a way.
Say no: Both Christianity and rabbinical Judaism developed side by side in the early years of the common era. (The Pharisees got bad press in the New Testament, but many historians think that both of the above two developments grew out of a Pharisee tradition, of which Rabbi Hillel was one of the founders.) But they divided sharply early on. The New Testament (in Acts 15) reports on a meeting of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, attended by both the Apostles Peter and Paul, who together convinced the assembly that Gentile converts need not be circumcised or follow the full Jewish law. Whatever may have been intended by the two Apostles, this decision marks the emergence of Christianity as a religion distinct from Judaism. The rabbis reciprocated. At the probably mythical Council of Yavne, the “Nazarenes” (still the term used for Christians in modern Hebrew) were formally cursed and expelled from the Jewish community. (There probably was no single “council”. Yavne was where the Sanhedrin relocated after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Its rabbinical school made a number of important decisions over several years, including the fixation of the canon of the Hebrew Bible.) Rabbinical Judaism never rescinded the excommunication. The history of Jews under the rule of Christians hardly encouraged the notion that the two worshipped the same God! In recent times some Christian theologians have emphasized the Jewish roots of Christianity (for example, in the assertion that God’s covenant with Israel has not been “superseded” by the new covenant with Christ’s church). And some Jewish scholars have taken a more benign view of Jesus. But the problem of Christology, summed up in Jesus’ question to his first disciples “And who do you say that I am?”, cannot be wished away by either side.
If the notion of Christians and Jews sharing a common Abrahamic faith is problematic, that of Muslims joining in as number three is more so. The most solemn affirmation of Muslim faith, the shehada, says that “There is no God but God [Allah], and Muhammad is his prophet.” A very liberal Christian might even pronounce this formula, as long as he mentally puts an indefinite article before the word “prophet”—a prophet, rather than the prophet. But such an act of interfaith concession would violate a central Islamic doctrine—that while there were prophets before Muhammad—notably Abraham, Moses and Jesus—he is “the seal of prophecy”, its final culmination. For Islam, both Judaism and Christianity, as they developed, distorted the message of these earlier prophets. Needless to say, this compliment was returned by those who have interpreted Islam as a distortion of Christianity. (Incidentally, the aforementioned liberal Christian had better be careful. In at least one version of Islamic law, there is the provision that anyone who, whatever his intention, pronounces the shehada before witnesses, thereby becomes a Muslim. If he later changes his mind, he will be guilty of apostasy, for which the penalty is death.)
So yes, there are very distinctive differences between the three traditions. But so there are within each. Do Catholics and Protestants share a common faith? Do Sunnis and Shiah? And what about Reform and Orthodox Jews? If one looks more closely at any collective category, its alleged essence can quite easily be deconstructed, and not only when it comes to religion. Are there such creatures as “musicians”? Or “Americans”? Or, for that matter, “human beings”? Sometimes it is a good idea to step back and look at the imputed collectivity from afar. It may help to look at the three “Abrahamic” faiths from, say, Benares, one of the most holy cities of Hinduism and near which the Buddha preached his first sermon. Looked at from that far location, the family resemblance between the three versions suddenly appears quite clearly. Hindus and Buddhists sometimes speak of “West Asian religion”, in contrast with their own “South Asian” or “East Asian” religion. It then seems just about inevitable to say that Jews, Christians and Muslims, whatever their differences, do indeed worship the same God.
To be sure, there are similarities between Benares and Jerusalem as well. There are Hindu versions of theism, with intense devotions to personal deities (bhakti), but there is no real analogue to the monotheism that originated in the deserts of the Near East. In Vedanta, arguably the most sophisticated form of Hinduism, the ultimate reality is the brahman, the impersonal ocean of divinity in which all individual identities eventually dissolve. There are theistic elements in Mahayana Buddhism, with devotion directed toward godlike boddhisatvas—individuals who have attained Enlightenment, but who, out of compassion, delay their entry into the final bliss in order to help others to get there. But that bliss too ends in that impersonal ocean of divinity that seems for many centuries to have dominated the religious imagination of India, from where it migrated eastward. One can find almost anything in a religious history that is over three thousand years old. But, once one has encountered the high points of this history, some in ancient texts but some still very much alive today, one will find the notion of Abrahamic faiths very plausible indeed. From a sophisticated Buddhist points of view, these faiths are at best forms of upaya—a Sanskrit term usually translated as “expedient means”—that is, illusions useful as crutches on the path to Enlightenment for those not yet ready for the truth. Tolerant Christians (like the Jesuit missionaries who first came to China and Japan) have reversed the patronizing concept by looking on some aspects of Buddhism as errors that may yet serve as praeparatio Evangelii—if you will, upaya stood on its head.
I have long argued that the dialogue between Jerusalem and Benares is an important task for Christian theology. It seems to me, though, that between those who say no and those who say yes to the idea of Abrahamic faiths, the latter have the better case. But this is not to reject Volf’s view that there is enough common ground between these faiths to make possible political collaboration for morally desirable ends. But there is also common ground, I think, between morally decent people of all faiths or no faith. That common ground is humanity. Jews, Christians and Muslims, the children of Abraham, believe that this humanity is part of the creation by the one God whom they worship.