Is it wrong to say Christians and Muslims worship the same God? What we can learn from Jesus and the Samaritans

Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins wearing a hijab for Advent, in solidarity with Muslims

Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins wearing a hijab for Advent, in solidarity with Muslims (source: Facebook)

Wheaton College has suspended a professor for expressing her solidarity with Muslims.

According to school officials (and contrary to some initial headlines) it was not because she donned a hijab for Advent. It was her choice of words and not her attire that got her into trouble. Specifically, these words:

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

Her statement, by the way, is not altogether different from something the Second Vatican Council declared half a century ago:

The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Or what Miroslav Volf, a favorite theologian among many evangelicals (and rightly so), has written:

The two [Yahweh and Allah] are one God, albeit differently understood.

But these days, when serious candidates boost their poll numbers with promises to shut our doors to all Muslims and carpet bomb our enemies into oblivion, publicly declaring a belief that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God can get you into trouble.

A couple years ago, Jesse Wheeler shared five reasons he believes Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In his post, Jesse drew a parallel to the situation in Jesus’ day between Jews and Samaritans—a parallel worth exploring in more detail.

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Tensions ran high between Samaritans and Jews, to say the least. Samaritans reportedly attacked Jewish pilgrims and tried to desecrate their temple. The Jewish Scriptures portrayed Samaritans in an almost entirely negative light—declaring all their kings corrupt and questioning the legitimacy of their kingdom (even though it was the heavy-handed policies of Solomon and his successor that drove a wedge between the Samaritans’ ancestors and the rest of Israel).

Samaritans claimed to be true Israelites, descendants of those left behind when the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Jewish tradition, however, regarded them as outsiders—as foreigners sent by the kings of Assyria to resettle a depopulated land.

Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim (near the Palestinian city of Nablus), while Jews insisted the temple in Jerusalem was the only legitimate place of worship. By the time Jesus was born, the dispute had been going on for centuries.

Samaritans and Jews had different holy books. The Jewish canon included all 39 books known to Christians as the Old Testament. Samaritans recognized only the first five books—and, even then, they had their own version. Imagine a Christian sect throwing out 85% of the Bible. Samaritans and Jews even had competing versions of the Ten Commandments.

Different houses of worship. Different holy books. Different understandings of God. If you had asked a Samaritan or a Jewish person whether they worshipped the same God, they probably would have said no.

It was this refusal to see any common identity or heritage that led to each side to view the other as, well, precisely that.

Other.

According to one Mishnah passage, “He that eats the bread of Samaritans is like to the one who eats the flesh of swine.” Both sides treated the other with contempt, fear, and suspicion, because they could not see—or refused to see—anything they held in common. Anything that might bind them together.

But when Jesus encountered Samaritans, he turned this “othering” tendency on its head.

Jesus traveled through Samaritan territory, when most Galileans took the long way around.

He struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman, violating multiple norms at once. He put himself in her care, requesting (and likely receiving) water from a Samaritan well.

Now, at no point in the ensuing conversation did Jesus water down his identity; he even suggested that he thought Jews were closer to the truth—or at least closer to the source of it. Yet when it came to the question of whether Jews and Samaritans pray to the same God, his answer was an unequivocal yes. Samaritans “worship the Father,” he said—the same God his people worshiped.

Jesus could see a common heritage with those his own people had dismissed as “other.” His willingness to see commonality and not just difference created possibilities that didn’t exist before—possibilities for new relationships, possibilities for coming together, possibilities for the common good.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_033

The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

On another occasion, Jesus went even further, making a Samaritan the hero of his most famous parable. To many of Jesus’ listeners, the Samaritan who saved the injured traveler was a heretic at best and an idolater at worst. Yet he was the one in Jesus’ story who best embodied Judaism’s second greatest commandment—not the Jewish priest, not the Levite.

Jesus could see that Samaritans and Jews worshiped the same God. He could envision a Samaritan with a superior understanding of God and how God wants us to live.

So why can’t we see the same in our Muslim neighbors today?

Acknowledging that we worship the same God doesn’t mean we ignore, discard, or diminish everything that’s distinct about our respective faiths. It should not mean we become religious relativists. Rather, it means we’re able to see something that transcends our (very real) differences—something that matters more than what makes us distinct. A common heritage. Our shared humanity.

Miroslav Volf says that it is “fearful people bent on domination” who cannot (or perhaps will not) see the possibility for common ground between Christians and Muslims.

Painting a picture of total and irreconcilable difference is an effective way of justifying endless conflict. But it’s not a good way to wage peace. It’s not a good way to make the world safe.

As Volf put it:

As to the 1.6 billion Muslims, with them we must build a common future, one based on equal dignity of each person, economic opportunity and justice for all and freedom to govern common affairs through democratic institutions. Muslims and Christians have a set of shared fundamental values that can guide such a vision partly because they have a common God.

Acknowledging our common heritage and our shared humanity is the first step toward working together for the common good.

Image credit

16 thoughts on “Is it wrong to say Christians and Muslims worship the same God? What we can learn from Jesus and the Samaritans

  1. Excellent piece the topic of which is something I’ve been thinking about recently in light of some current polls that suggest up to half of the respondents think Islam does not share American values. I find it impossible to ignore that the three most populous religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) are “Abrahamic” religions. We all come from the same root. Ironically, the Jews and the Muslims have the most in common in that both religions believe in one God. Of course Christians do too in the form of the Trinity which both other groups soundly reject. Yet all adherents would agree that we all believe in one God. One of the biggest challenges to unity is religious fundamentalism. As long as fundamentalism in any group holds sway, there will be no unity and of course that is a big problem. It is in my opinion THE problem. The only solution for Christians is to practice loving God and loving others (our neighbors), and working towards unity and peace on earth in pluralistic democracies.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Again, Ben, a very cogent and well thought out essay. I agree with you. I have always used the Good Samaritan as the epitome of the love thy neighbor commandment Jesus gave us. Why is so difficult to imagine Muslims, Christians, and Jews worship the same God? It makes perfect sense to me, and your piece gives a good argument for it. Thanks for the calm, rational discourse!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jim! If Jesus were physically present today and telling the story of the good Samaritan today, it’s easy (and contextually appropriate, in my opinion) to imagine him featuring a Muslim as the hero of the story…

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  3. Samaritans use a text for their Scripture which has changes in some places from the Hebrew text. However, there are sufficient things that are not changed that I can agree with Jesus that Jews and Samaritans worship the same God. This case with the text is a different situation in regards to the Islamic holy texts. For example, in the Hebrew text, God keeps his covenants, in Islamic texts, God may do what God wants, keeping or breaking his covenants. This is no small matter. Also, consider Abraham, the stories about Abraham in the Hebrew and Samaritan Scriptures are not compatible with the stories in Islamic Scripture, specifically about Isaac and Ismael, at most one can be correct. When an Islamic believer talks of Abraham it is a different conception of Abraham than when a believer that Hebrew Genesis is Scripture does.

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    • Hi Don, the issue I was raising is not so much whether WE can agree that Jews and Samaritans worship the same God, but whether Jews and Samaritans themselves would have agreed that the other worshiped the same God. I think the evidence suggests no.

      The example you offered concerning covenants (if accurate—I’m not familiar enough with the teachings of Islam to judge) highlights the fact that Christians and Muslims may have very different understandings of the character of God. But I’m still not convinced it follows that they worship different gods. The difference views are not trivial, as you say. And I believe that Jesus is the fullest, most complete representation of God. But I’m not prepared to say we should different gods, which (as Volf has pointed out) would be to accuse Muslims of idolatry.

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  4. Jesus said”I am the way the truth and the life. No one enters the kingdom of heaven but by me” Obviously, the Muslims do not confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Jesus also said “He who has seen Me has seen the Father”.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. For what it’s worth, according to orthodox Jewish religious law, it is permissible for a Jew to pray in a mosque but not in a church. From an orthodox Jewish perspective, Islam is monotheistic whereas there are differing opinions concerning Christianity.

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  6. I’m a little confused, Ben.

    “…publicly declaring a belief that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God can get you into trouble.”

    “Acknowledging that we worship the same God doesn’t mean we ignore, discard, or diminish everything that’s distinct about our respective faiths.”

    Sure I get your point about shared values and common heritage, but are you actually suggesting Christians and Muslims worship the same God–as in God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

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  7. Yes Christians and Muslims worship same God except Muslims do not accept him Fatther as Muslims believe that God physically can’t bear a son.

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  8. I read this from the point of view of it being written primarily to Christians, that we need to accept Islam and it’s adherents. Because we’re all just one big happy family, y’all. You forgot to mention that Islam views Israel (who also worship God the Father) as Satan and the US primarily, but all the western nations actually (supposedly Christian nations) as The Great Satan and they hate us and want to conquor us and kill us all in the name of Allah. If an Islamic woman gets raped, she’s guilty and could be put to death even tho she’s innocent. For anyone interested in the more perverse side of Islam, take a look at this link:
    http://www.hajiallah.com/page20.htm
    Just as it’s hard to hug a porcupine, its a tad difficult to openly embrace a religion and culture that treats 1/2 the population as little more than cattle, goats or camels and uses murder like its a trump card.
    Im sorry but I think the author of this article is largely uninformed.

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  9. Plain and simple they are not the same GOD.
    They don’t believe that Jesus is the son of GOD. They believe that Jesus was a prophet and that he could not have a son.
    WE DO NOT SERVE THE SAME GOD
    Those that say they are, are mislead.
    All you have to do is ask a Muslim who now is a CHRISTIAN.. Truth is Truth

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  10. Pingback: ISIS, genocide, and the real test of who we love | Ben Irwin

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