|The Word of God:
A Catholic Perspective in Dialogue with Judaism & Islam
Roch Kereszty, O. Cist.
"The necessity for dialogue derives from the very dialectic of the Trinitarian missions."
The purpose of this article is to examine the theme "Word of God," one of the key notions that, in spite of substantial differences, unites the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I will attempt to delineate from a Catholic Christian perspective what, regarding this central theme, unites and separates us, what mutual misunderstandings can be removed, to what extent a rapprochement of our respective theological views is possible and finally what we can learn from each other, not by compromising but rather by actualizing the full potential of our own faith. As an Orthodox Jew remarked to me last year, "It must be part of God’s plan that, recently, representatives of the three religions began a friendly and substantial dialogue." Indeed, if this dialogue is from the Almighty, our rapprochement will strengthen and bring to clearer light what is divine in each tradition. By engaging in this dialogue I also hope to weaken the militant, fundamentalist trend in the respective religions, a trend that exaggerates differences, foments mutual hostility, and rejects dialogue and common tasks.
Before discussing this topic, my presuppositions on the nature of dialogue need to be made explicit. I cannot start from a pluralistic view of religions that assumes each major religion (or at least the three Abrahamic ones) to be an equally true and complete revelation of God. This theological and philosophical relativism contradicts the original self-understanding of each Abrahamic faith. How could I be taken seriously as a Catholic interlocutor, if, a priori, I would reject the Catholic position?
I would also submit that, by accepting as condition for the dialogue a postmodern relativism, we would succumb from the outset to a subtle form of Western (or Hindu) cultural imperialism which ignores the normative self-understanding of each religion by superimposing on them its own principle of relativism.
At this point the reader may interject that, under such conditions, the very possibility of dialogue seems excluded, for only three monologues could take place. However, I hope this suspicion will prove unfounded. While remaining faithful to what we, Catholics, Jews and Muslims, accept as God’s revelation within our own religion, we still can and should question our understanding of this revelation, an understanding that always remains incomplete and at times distorted. By listening to our dialogue partners we may discover unexpected convergences and enrichment of our own faith perspective.
1. What Unites Us
Regarding the Word of God, we share a unique faith that distinguishes us from all other major religions.
a) We believe that the one, transcendent, personal God has spoken to humankind in human words that have been preserved in a written form. To use a Qur’anic expression, we are "Peoples of the Book." We may disagree what books constitute the written word of God, but all three religions claim to possess such texts and these texts partially coincide. Moreover, we are also aware that, while we read or hear his written word, this one God may personally speak to the hearts of the readers or hearers of his Word.
b) Thus, through his Word we encounter not only specific teachings but, through and beyond them, the very Person of the Almighty. This encounter results in an experience that is infinitely richer than any of its verbal expressions could be: it transforms our existence, attitudes and actions, leads to compunction, gratitude and praise. The almighty power of the Word of God that shakes and transforms the very foundations of our being is a sign of its divine character.
c) All three Abrahamic religions believe—in different ways and to varying extent—that the written word of God has been given to us within the larger framework of a Salvation History: God himself has acted in history: through his chosen messengers and particular historical events he has made known his will, has prepared and/or brought about our salvation and, at the end of history, he will judge the living and the dead. The written records of the Word of God become intelligible only if we read them in the context of this Sacred History.
d) All three Abrahamic religions face a common danger: believing that we have received an absolutely true and absolutely binding message from the Absolute Himself, we are tempted to show absolute intolerance to all those who refuse to accept this message. Thus, we are prone to distort God’s Word by ignoring God’s respect for human freedom.
2. What Separates Us
a) Catholic Christians share with Judaism most of the books of the First Testament. Jews, however, follow the Palestinian canon, a list of sacred books established in the last decades of the first century C.E. in Palestine, while Catholic Christians follow an older, more inclusive biblical canon, that of Alexandria.
Muslims accept both the Christian Old and New Testament books as God’s word but they claim that the text of the Christian Bible was corrupted (to varying extent according to various Muslim scholars) in the process of transmission. Thus, according to Islam the world needs the definitive sacred book, the Qur’an. This is the uncorrupted, definitive Word of God in the original Arab language, delivered to us through God’s final prophet, the seal of all the prophets, Muhammad. However, while Christians recognize the religious power of the Qur’anic texts and its presentation of God as partially coinciding with the God of the Old Testament, they do not consider the Qur’an part of the biblical canon nor do they recognize it as the inspired Word of God.
b) Although Catholics share the common belief of Judaism and Islam that the written Word of God becomes fully intelligible only within the framework of God’s historical involvement with humankind, our conception of Salvation History is different in that it is christocentric. We believe that all the texts of what we call the Old or the First Testament point to Jesus of Nazareth as their unifying center; partially fulfilled in his first coming, the biblical texts will reveal their full meaning at his second coming, in the glorious, final manifestation of Jesus Christ at the end of history. In Christian understanding, Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God, his perfect, uncreated self-expression, revealed to us in the teaching, life, death and resurrection of the man Jesus Christ.
c) Besides the Incarnation, the most basic issue that separates us is the Christian belief in the Trinity. Jews accept that God’s Word shares in the almighty power of God, that his Spirit gives life and inspires leadership and prophecy, but they refuse to accept the belief that the Word and the Spirit are distinct persons within the one divinity.
The Qur’an recognizes Christ Jesus as a "word from Allah" (3:45) and as "strengthened with the Holy Spirit" (2:87), but it does not accept Christ and the Holy Spirit as distinct divine persons, nor does it view Allah as Father in the proper sense of the word.
So far I have outlined what unites and what separates us regarding our belief in the Word of God. Our common search for the truth, however, compels us to go further. We need to clear up misunderstandings, find a mutually intelligible language, and articulate the common elements even in contrasting positions.
a) We start with the most fundamental disagreement that concerns our notion of God. If Jews and Muslims listen to some theologically uneducated Christians they may rightly conclude that Christianity has endorsed a subtle form of tritheism. However, the authentic Christian tradition is based on an uncompromising monotheism. The unity of God is the most perfect unity beyond anything the human mind could conceive of. St. Bernard, for instance, calls God unissimus: more one in himself and distinct from anything else than any creature could be. The most perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit achieves the most perfect unity in the one God.
With regard to our Muslim brothers and sisters we have to emphasize also that fatherhood and sonship in God have nothing to do with physical begetting or physical birth. Generation or giving birth by the Father is a transcendent, spiritual act. Moreover, Father, Son and Holy Spirit possess the fullness of the same divine reality but in a mode proper to their personhood: the Father, as the unoriginate source, the Son, by way of spiritual generation from the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and from or through the Son. Such considerations will not eliminate our differences, but might narrow the gap so that Jews and Muslims may more easily acknowledge the monotheism of Christianity.
b) Regarding the Incarnation it might prove helpful to clarify for ourselves and for our Jewish and Muslim interlocutors that Christian faith does not abolish the infinite qualitative difference between God and his creation nor does it claim a mixture or a fusion of divine and human natures; but it rather affirms that God himself in his Word, his Son, accepted to take into himself a full human nature along with all the burdens of human existence. We accept the fulfillment of what Psalm 68:20 says so simply and so eloquently: "God bears our burdens;" he bears Israel’s burdens directly and the burdens of all human beings through Israel, the representative of all humankind.
c) While Christians believe that the Messiah has already come in Jesus of Nazareth, they still await his second and glorious coming. In this expectation we can be united with faithful Israel. In the words of Martin Buber:
d) If ordinary Muslims and Christians were more aware of the prominent place the Qur’an and some sayings of the Hadith attribute to Jesus, the psychological barriers between Muslims and Christians would significantly diminish. The Qur’an, for instance, speaks about his virginal conception, his miracles including the raising of the dead to life, his being Allah’s Word and a Spirit proceeding from Allah, his return at the end of time and his defeat of the Antichrist.
Mahmoud Ayoub summarizes eloquently for contemporary Christians and Muslims what Jesus means for Islam:
Ayoub, of course, acknowledges that the Christian belief of Jesus’ divinity creates a wall of separation between Islam and Christianity. Yet, he hopes that this wall one day will be "transformed into a beacon of light guiding us all to God and the good." I share his hope and would like to make another small breach in this wall by calling attention to the fact that for us Christians Jesus is the perfect worshiper of God the Father. We see no contradiction between his divinity and his being for us the exemplar of perfect worship. On the contrary, we believe that by being the eternal Son who, at a given point of history, made his own a full human nature, he alone can teach us how to give glory, praise and love to God the Father, a love, praise and worship that alone are worthy of God. Jesus the Son alone can teach us how to love our fellow human beings with his own love, with his own Spirit that comes from God the Father.
e) By mentioning the notion of love in our relationship with God and neighbor, we arrived at a plane where we should speak perhaps not merely about rapprochement but actual (even if at this point mostly invisible) unity. Christianity believes that the ultimate purpose of God’s revelation is to make us perfect in love, love for him and love for our neighbors. Religious institutions will pass away, but love for God (that includes humble submission) and love for those who are saved will remain forever.
Providentially, we find trends both in Judaism and in Islam according to which God’s Word exalts the love of God and love of neighbor above everything else. An increasing awareness and pursuit of such an emphasis would greatly promote not only mutual understanding, but real unity. If all three religions could agree that holiness depends on love, not the sentimental, romantic kind which is blind to morality, but a love that binds all virtues together, then the temptation to act superior toward the faithful of another religion would greatly diminish. Since only God sees our hearts, he alone can judge the sincerity of the inner disposition of love. Therefore, from this ultimate perspective that alone will count at the Last Judgment, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim, no one may honestly put himself above another single human being.
Most of us are aware of the importance of the Sh’ma Jizrael prayer:
However, few Christians know that rabbinic Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. extends the notion of worship and sacrifice to acts of loving-kindness. In the cessation of ritual animal sacrifices some of the rabbis perceive a divine invitation to make one’s whole life worship and atonement. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai comforts his companion in these words:
According to Rabbi Akibah, all the 613 prescriptions of the Torah are based on this most fundamental principle: "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev 19:18).
In the Qur’an, every sura but one begins in the name of Allah the All-Merciful. According to Chittick, "Mercy is the very nature of God, whereas Wrath comes into play in connection with certain of His creatures." Allah’s mercy calls for love from human beings created in the "form of God." "Those of faith are overflowing in their love for God"—says the Qur’an (II, 165). According to the hadith qudsi, "My heavens and My earth encompass me not, but the heart of My gentle, faithful, and meek servant does encompass Me." Love of God and love of neighbor flowing from familiarity with the Word of God are beautifully summarized in an oration by Muhammad:
4. Enrichment of Catholic Faith through Dialogue with Judaism and Islam.
Catholics believe that in the teaching and the paschal mystery of the Word made flesh the fullness of God has been revealed to the world. However, the same incarnate Word, God’s eternal Son, has obtained from his Father the sending of the Holy Spirit, a universal outpouring not restricted to the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church or even Christianity. Thus, the necessity for dialogue derives from the very dialectic of the Trinitarian missions. Jesus of Nazareth is the Word of God made flesh. Yet the fullness of what he brought to us can be discovered only through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, gifts offered in a variety of ways and in different measures to all humankind. Therefore, God’s providence itself necessitates dialogue: we Christians can perceive in dialogue with other religions some of what we may not quite understand of God’s Word at this point in history. These other religions may contain "seeds of the Word," partial revelations that need to be critically discerned and appropriated in order to explicate more fully what has been given to us in Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Judaism and Islam obtain a role par excellence in this dialogue since both are based—to varying degrees and in different ways—on the biblical Word of God.
In dialogue with Judaism we are becoming sensitized to a forgotten perspective of the New Testament. Jesus is not only the son of Abraham, and the son of David, but he also embodies the final, eschatological Israel. If we take seriously the Israelite notion of corporate personality, we must realize that, by becoming the son of Abraham and the son of David, the eternal Son of God has also become "Israel." The adoptive divine sonship of Israel reaches a transcendent consummation in him. In his life, death and resurrection Jesus repeats and consummates the history of his people: he undergoes the desert experience of historic Israel, endures in his death the punishment of God’s people and in his resurrection Israel itself is elevated to new life and glory. Thus, Christian faith calls us to embrace Jesus not simply as a Jew but to embrace in Jesus Israel itself. The personal appropriation of the biblical history of Israel is indispensable for the Christian disciple of Jesus. We must constantly leave behind the slavery of depending on ourselves and our possessions, go out into the desert and rely on God’s guidance, food and drink, accept the punishment as the necessary result of our own sinful actions and rise to a new life of faith, trust and love. We do all this through participating in the life, death and resurrection of the ideal Israel, the Servant of God.
Even the post-biblical history of Israel is of crucial importance for us. It is the history of our older brother, a history that is guided by God’s special providence, since God’s call is irrevocable. The survival through so many catastrophes of a believing remnant of Jews, "the eternal Israel," is for us Christians an enduring witness to God’s fidelity; their history of persecutions calls us to meditate on the mystery of their destiny and on our failure to live up to our Christian vocation.
Moreover, since the books of the First Testament are the written Word of God, they mediate to the Jewish believer a saving encounter with God. In fact Christian faith is patterned after the faith of Abraham who believed in the word of promise God spoke to him (Gen 15:6; cf. Rom 4:1–25). Already in the First Testament the Word of God is an almighty, creative word that calls into existence the things that do not exist, a word that gives life to the dead. Believing in the word of promise that God will raise an offspring from his "dead" body and from the sterile womb of Sarah, Abraham anticipates the Christian who believes that God raised the dead body of Christ to new and eternal life. Thus, for both Christians and Jews embracing the Word of God in faith means coming from death to life, a life in the presence of God. Christians can fully identify with the Rabbinic conviction that those who read the Word of God are enveloped by the shekinah, God’s luminous and mysterious presence.
A more nuanced understanding of inspiration can help us to do justice to the religious value of the Qur’an from a Christian perspective. We need to distinguish between personal inspiration and an inspired text. Countless saints in the Christian tradition were aware that the Holy Spirit inspired their minds, hearts, actions and words. The Church (both the Magisterium and popular piety) has always acknowledged this fact. However, the Church has also clarified that an inspired person can still write erroneously about his religious experience and about God’s truths. In other words, God’s inspiring action in the saint does not necessarily extend to the text in the sense that whatever a saint writes should be called the word of God. The Church attributes inspired status only to the text of her canonically recognized Scriptures. Regarding the genesis of biblical texts, the Church believes that God not simply inspired the person of the author, but he guided the process of expressing the author’s experience, thoughts or witness to a historical event in such a way that God himself guarantees the truth of this experience, teaching or witness, a truth that obtains its full meaning in the context of the whole Bible.
However, if we take seriously the scriptural witness to pagan saints (as exemplified in the figure of Job) and the dogma that God offers his saving grace to all human beings, we can, and in the case of Islam, we should perhaps acknowledge God’s inspiring activity in Muhammad. However, we must also add that this inspiring activity has not necessarily extended to the actual proclamation of Muhammad nor to the writing of the Qur’an. Thus, for the Christian the Qur’an may be the work of an inspired person, but its text itself is not the inspired Word of God. God did not protect Muhammad and the Qur’an from making what Christians believe are erroneous statements contrary to the Judeo-Christian revelation.
Nevertheless, looking at the fruits of Muhammad’s work, the Christian cannot help but acknowledge many positive results; not only the creating of a refined high level culture but also the leading of countless pagans to develop an obedient surrender to Allah whose features are very close to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael and Jacob. In this process of positive religious development the proclamation of Muhammad and the Qur’an had the lion’s share. Thus, Christians cannot but acknowledge that God spoke through the Qur’an and communicated the experience and knowledge of himself to countless millions of people.
Moreover, seeing the Muslims’ genuine, obedient surrender of their lives to Allah, a surrender shaped and formed by the Qur’an, Christians can (and some of them did) learn from the example of believing Muslims. Charles de Foucauld, the agnostic French officer, re-gained his faith in God in Algeria as he was watching his Muslim soldiers pray; he later returned to live and pray among them as a hermit priest. Christian de Chergé, the Cistercian prior of Atlas in Algeria, who died a martyr’s death at the hand of extremists was so impressed as a young man by the devotion of Muslims that he asked his superiors to establish a monastic foundation in their midst. The providential role Islam played in the life and death of these two great Christians may help us to decipher God’s providence at work in the quick spreading of Islam throughout Europe and Africa. Before we Christians can value the humility and self-giving love of God in Jesus Christ, we have to regain an appreciation for his awe-inspiring majesty and merciful strength that calls for unconditional surrender and a life lived in God’s presence. Perhaps God wants to educate in these matters the secularized Western Christians through the example of devout Muslims.
Communio 28 (Fall 2001). © 2001 by Communio: International Catholic Review
Roch Kereszty, O. Cist. is adjunct professor of theology in the Braniff Graduate School at the University of Dallas.