A world on its knees, and at your throat
“Do The Three Abrahamic Faiths Worship The Same God?” Peter Berger asks, on his blog at the American Interest. His answer, which seems to be programmed at least as much by the sensitivities of interfaith politics as by the exigencies of rigorous theology, is a politely nuanced “yes (but).” If anyone is unconvinced about the urgent pertinence of multicultural diplomacy to the question, Berger settles such doubts quickly by depicting the integrated conception of ‘Abrahamic faith’ as a response to the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ climate that arose in the wake of 9/11, “with the altogether admirable intention of countering anti-Islamic hatred.”
At its core, his argument is both realistic and relatively uncontroversial. It is comparable to an informal set theory, or cladistics, briefly surveying family resemblances and dissimilarities between branches of the Abrahamic religious ‘tree’ and concluding, reasonably enough, that none of the potential groupings are absolutely strict (each faith, even narrowly defined, is differentiated within itself by sub-branches, and twigs), and that the coherence of ‘Judeo-Christian’ monotheism is considerably stronger than that of ‘Abrahamic Faith’ in general. Whatever the complexity of these branchings, however, they derive from a readily identifiable trunk. Berger cites a lecture by the Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf:
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.
When evaluated from a wide enough angle, it is clear that the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is distinctively specified, relative to alternative religious traditions:
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.
Yet, whilst the theological dimension of this question is very far from uninteresting, or inconsequential, it limits the question at least as much as it clarifies it. More than a faith, the ‘children of Abraham’ share a story, and – still more importantly — a sense of history as a story, and this is the factor that most tightly bundles them together, irrespective of all quibbling over narrative details. Abraham is the beginning of a tale, even if it can be projected back (at least a little way) beyond him. He defines the meaning of history, as an interaction with God, through which the passage of collective time acquires structure, direction, unity, radical finitude, moral and religious significance. Abrahamic history has purpose, and a destination. Above all it tells the story of a moral community, whose righteousness and unrighteousness will ultimately be judged. Eschatology is its real key.
Because the Abrahamic tradition is rooted in a distinctive experience of history, it extends beyond theistic faith. Indeed, any comprehension of this tradition that excludes Marxism, fascist millenarianism, and ‘liberal’ secular progressivism (even that of the ‘New Atheists’) is woefully incomplete, to the point of diversionary propaganda. Uniquely, the Abrahamic faiths do not merely rise, fall, and persist. They are superceded by new revelations, or afflicted by heresy and schism. Their encounters and (inevitable) conflicts become internalized episodes that immediately demand doctrinal and narrative intelligibility. Hence the affinity between the Abrahamic faiths and historical (as ‘opposed’ to pedagogical, cosmic, or naturalistic) dialectics: the ‘other’, merely by appearing on the stage, must play its role in the world-historical drama of belief.
Strict monotheism is the personification of narrative unity, and in the end it is the narrative unity that matters. Whether history is finally to be appraised from the perspective of the people of Israel, the Church, the Ummah, achieved communism, an Aryan master-race, or secular multicultural globalism, it will have been integrated through the production of a moral community, and judged as a coherent whole by the standard of that community’s purity and righteousness. It will have been comprehended by a collective subject whose story — it insists — is the entire meaning of the world.
For the minor paganisms of antiquity, and the major paganisms of the east, this structure of understanding has the objective potential to be offensive to an almost inestimable degree, so the fact that pagans have rarely contested it with an animosity that even remotely approaches its ‘internal’ conflicts and disputations is intriguing. Whilst cases of anti-semitism, anti-clericalism, islamophobia, anti-communism, anti-fascism, and systematic political incorrectness have, on occasions, been plausibly derived from pagan inspirations, in the overwhelming majority of cases it is the various ‘fraternal’ branches of the great Abrahamic family that have wrought devastation upon each other. Indeed, persecution, as a particular mode of ‘zealous’ or ‘enthusiastic’ violence, seems to be an Abrahamic specialty, one that depends upon conceptions of ‘intolerable’ idolatry, heresy, apostasy, false-consciousness, or political incorrectness that are found nowhere else.
God told Abraham to kill his own son, and he was ready to do so (Gen 22:1-19). That is how he earned his status as the ur-patriarch of the tradition, whose children are defined by the ghost of a knife at their throats. Demonstrated willingness to kill in the name of the Lord, or its abstracted equivalent (the meaning of history), is the initiatory ideal, and the beginning of the world story that now encompasses everyone. After this original ritual, Isaac’s life was no longer natural, but ideological. It was suspended, vulnerably, from a word owing nothing to the protective bond tying an animal to its progeny (symbolically terminated by Abraham’s surrender to divine command), but settled on high, in the narrative structure of the world. If God had willed it — or the story demanded it — he would have been slain. In this way an unnatural line, existing only as an expression of divine purpose, breaks from the archaic pagan order of ‘meaningless’ procreation and nurture. (The place assigned to the sacrifice, Mount Moriah, would later be the site of Jerusalem, the city of the end of time, and beyond nature.) Isaac was spared, but the pagan world was not similarly reprieved.
The existence of an Abrahamic tradition has an importance that far exceeds its internal politics and internecine rivalries, since it is indistinguishable from the historical unification of the world, and no ‘other’ is able to remain outside its narrative order. In much of the world, even in its Abrahamic heartlands, to refuse God is no great thing, and perhaps little more than a mildly comical affectation, but to depart from World History is quite another matter. It is then that the knife of Abraham glints again.