To move toward interfaith alliances, talk about God
The God of our sacred story is always fearfully free.
Who is God for you? Probably not the deity to whom you were introduced in childhood. Nor the one whose contours you memorized in religious education. God is likely not the breathless mystery you consumed at first communion, the one that left you moon-faced and wide-eyed in resulting photos. God may no longer be the jigsaw puzzle of conflicting theological pieces you struggled to assemble in adolescence.
God may have had many identities for you so far: friend or Father, just judge or suffering Savior, ethereal spirit or tangible teacher. Maybe even liar and traitor, depending on your experiences. For some, God becomes a profound disappointment, a Wizard of Oz deprived of the smoke and mirrors that once made divinity seem a force to be reckoned with. For others, God is reintroduced regularly, readmitted each time to a relationship with new and more mature terms.
In other words our relationship with God is not unlike our relationship with just about anybody we know across a lifetime. I consider my own relationship with my father: a man I alternately loved, feared, and admired, was frustrated and dismayed by, judged and forgave, clashed with, grew distant from, felt compassion for. When the time came I buried him in peace. Before long, I dug him up again—to continue the relationship on the spiritual plane, still seeking to understand him, still trying to get him to see things my way, and still hoping we’ll find a path toward real and lasting reconciliation. Because, as it happens, my father and I are more alike than we’re different. We share a passion for learning, a dedication to getting things right, and the need to fight every battle with an arsenal of words. Neither of us is going to let this argument go until we’ve found the words we’ve been searching for all along to make our meaning perfectly clear.
Relationships are organic. They don’t fall neatly into a single category and stay there. Over time some friends become enemies and others strangers. We don’t like that, but it’s true. Bosses may become friends; lovers, jerks; classmates, spouses; and rivals, allies. We can never be sure where a relationship is going when it begins. That’s part of the adventure of letting people into our lives. We don’t just open the door to the person we see, but to all the people they may be for us down the road.
Back to the question: Who is God for you? St. Peter has an interesting response to this inquiry. For Peter, God is a relationship that doesn’t simply encompass his lifetime, but the lifetimes of his people as far back as the story can be told. First God belongs to Abraham, then to Isaac, then Jacob. The cool part is that, for Peter, this is all strictly routine. He doesn’t even hear what we hear in his automatic litany, as he rattles off God’s previous partners in the story like he’s reciting the history of a generously owned car. Peter continues the litany up to the present moment, the immediate crisis, and the audience standing right before him. This is an auspicious face-off. The crowd around Peter claims this very same God as their God—just as Abraham, Moses, Judith, and Jesus did. Just as Peter himself does.
There’s just one difference. And it’s a crucially bloody one. Peter claims Jesus as the risen one of God’s own choosing. This very audience approved his execution. How are they all going to get past this brutal distinction?
This is an issue that faithful people around the world must contend with. God is God for all of us, we insist. But who is this God, exactly? Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others all admit to larger realities than what meets the eye. Divinity or duty, some higher obligation compels us to acknowledge and surrender to an ultimate good. Our sense of higher power is described differently from creed to creed, but the goal of union with what’s universally described as our greatest happiness is fairly unanimous.
Does this mean we’re on the same team? Many would disagree, some vehemently. If Catholics, Protestants, and the Orthodox can’t find their way onto the same page for centuries—while sharing a sacred text, basic creed, and moral code—it’s unlikely that scheduling an interfaith tea will amount to much.
How does the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God of all our ancestors, as Peter readily attests—become the unifying force for the living today? God of course is not “our pre-owned Lord” whose lease and legacy we pass on as proprietary to those who agree with us. The God of our sacred story is always fearfully free. As C. S. Lewis imaged so brilliantly in his Chronicles of Narnia series, the Holy is one who cannot be tamed. This wild God doesn’t belong to anyone. Divine liberty allows the Spirit to blow where it wills. God is the only chooser who gets to choose all, in perfect freedom.
It’s God, in fact, who does the choosing that shapes our primary narrative. Abraham encounters God as the great dealmaker, Jacob as the dark wrestler, Moses as the miraculous rescuer and lawgiver. Yet it’s the same God each time. The God-haunted prophets of every generation hear words planted sharply in their ears or have visions that drive them half-mad with wonder and terror. God inspires Sirach and the other wisdom writers to drink deeply of the world’s observable ways to declare creation’s patterns and human nature’s predictabilities.
Different partners, varying generations, unique circumstances, but the same God. If we could gather all the figures of scripture together and ask each one to describe the God they encountered for the sake of the others, would they agree it was the same divinity?
Would Isaiah’s deeply liberal God—who invites all nations to stream toward Jerusalem as a common family destined for peace and unity—seem offensive to the God of Joshua, the general who systematically attempts to wipe the land of Canaan clean of foreigners and their cultures? Remember, all of these characters inhabit the same sacred story. Cross-pollinate them with Jesus, Peter, and Paul, and the divine face that’s revealed grows even more perplexing and ungovernable. Add figures like Confucius, the Buddha, or Muhammad into the conversation, and we see how the interfaith tea party could go off the rails quite dramatically.
The point is not to arrive at one definitive portrait of divinity or ultimate truth we can all recognize. We probably won’t arrive at a super-saga that becomes our global sacred text, or a moral Prime Directive like the one Star Trek’s Federation of Planets embraced. A future Liturgy of All Religions is hard to envision from here.
Yet we take baby steps toward seeing each other as allies, not enemies. In the 1960s Pope Paul VI became the first pontiff since the ninth century to meet with the Orthodox patriarchs, calling their members “sister churches.” Pope John Paul II was the first pope on record to visit a synagogue in 1986, naming Jews as “elder brothers” to Christians. He also made history visiting a mosque in 2001. Some hold out hopes that Pope Francis may explore the “final frontier” and find some place for Catholic women in church governance. As scripture always counsels in light of the new: “Be not afraid!”
This article also appears in the April 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 4, pages 47–49).
Image: via Wikimedia Commons