Is God “One?”

Earlier this fall I read this story about a group of Muslims in Peshawar Pakistan who made a human chain outside a church where Mass was taking place, standing in solidarity with the worshipers when a nearby church was recently destroyed by suicide bombing:

As many as 200-300 people formed a human chain outside the St. Anthony’s Church adjacent to the District Police Lines at the Empress Road, in a show of solidarity with the victims of the Peshawar church attack two weeks back, which resulted in over 100 deaths. The twin suicide attack on All Saints church occurred after Sunday mass ended and is believed to be the country’s deadliest attack on Christians. Standing in the small courtyard of St Anthony’s Church, as Mufti Mohammad Farooq delivered a sermon quoting a few verses of the Holy Quran that preached tolerance and respect for other beliefs, Father Nassir Gulfam stepped right next to him after having conducted a two hour long Sunday service inside the church.

The photographs accompanying the story are inspiring and beautiful representations of interfaith cooperation and solidarity. One of the images that caught my eye was one of the placards that people displayed at the protest “One God Many Faiths”

It caught my eye because I liked seeing it, as I always do hearing claims of this nature like “One God, Many Religions” or “we are all climbing different mountains, to get to the same place.”

It gave me a counter narrative to what I think is the overarching argument of a book I just started reading by Stephen Prothero; God is not one, which is that “God is not one. Faith in the unity of religion is just that-faith…and the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination.” (p 3)

In contrast to Prothero, I believe that God is one, that there is one divine source, expressed, manifested, conceived of, worshipped, in a vast multiplicity of ways.  As a student said recently in a panel we held on family weekend, and others have said before, religion is like a language. Endemic, instinctive, inherent in most of humanity—and existing in pervasive, almost mind boggling multiplicity.

Yet at the same time, I believe that what is true for someone is true. If a person’s religion is the only truth for them, and their God is the only God, then that is true. That does not begin to justify violence; I believe extremism and violence in the name of religion is a distortion of that religious tradition. But I cannot simultaneously say I am religious pluralist and respect the claims of all religion, and say that those who do not hold my view are wrong. If I believe in my own position- that all religions are expressions of the same set of phenomena, needs, and experiences- then I must also allow others to claim the truth of their own positions, even ones that assume exclusivism- that their God is the only God. I must also respect the “inclusivist” claims like that of Karl Rhanher, who says that adherents of non-Christian religions are actually “anonymous Christians,” and if they practice their own religions well they will gain entrance into heaven…

In reality, of course, I don’t accept that position. So I must accept that my own version of truth is a position, which may in fact be in opposition to other positions, even though my experience of my position is that it is one of openness and flexibility to all other claims. In fact, it is not.

Why does all this matter? The claim “any faith one God” is at the heart of the message of those Muslims who came together in Peshawar to protest the violence against Christians, standing against religious extremism. But it raises a question—how is a political claim that God is one, and it/ her/his expression in faith combat extremist views?

Does the belief in ‘one God, one faith’ necessarily lead to extremist violence?

No, of course not.

Does  “Interfaith harmony,” or the coming together of religious groups to support one another, require a united theology? Can’t this call to mutual support exist in recognition and celebration of difference?

One of my knee jerk responses to this article and the “one God many faiths” claim being made on the sign at the rally was somehow there is an ethos of religious pluralism that leads more seamlessly into a notion of interfaith blending in southeast Asia than in the highly secular west. But if this is the case, its existence obviously does not lead to interfaith harmony, as the sectarian violence in Pakistan and all over the Middle East demonstrates.

In his book, Prothero says the following about religious pluralism and the claims of people like Huston Smith, who claim that all religions are speaking the same idiom and heading to the same place:

These men are not describing the world but re-imagining it…They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such visions, and such hope. Yet, we must (not mistake it for) clear eyed analysis.

It is hard to disagree with what Prothero is saying here, especially since the aim if his work is to reveal the dangers of Pollyannaish pluralism insofar as it pulls a veil of ignorance over our eyes with respect to understanding religious violence.

But I think I do disagree, to a point. When Prothero critiques Huston Smith and reinterprets a statement of the Dali Lama—“when he says that the essential message of all world religions is very much the same, what he means is what all religions share is not so much God as the Good”—he is also speaking from the vantage point of his own claim. What he has to say in his book is value laden, just as is my position, Karl Ranher’s position, and the position of the Pakistani Muslims.

I am going to continue grappling with this troubling, vastly complex and multilayered question, as I have for many years. Yet I think where I come down on it today is that it has something to do with what we mean when we say “One” and “Many.” In the US—a country dominated in equal parts by a certain brand of Christianity, and the secular ethos of a newer nation whose government was founded on post-enlightenment, post- reformation ideals—when we say one, we mean one in a certain way.

Perhaps those who had the courage to stand in solidarity with their countrymen were evoking a sense of theological unity that transcended religion. Maybe in that moment of interfaith cooperation, signs could be held saying that there is “one God, many faiths’ because in that moment of courage and solidarity, there was one God. Maybe God took one form toward ‘the good” that Prothero claims the Dali Lama is talking about.

I admit that I am making a claim. I admit I am making this claim as what Prothero would deem “an act of faith.” I think my God changes by the moment. It is a mysterious, dynamic God, and perhaps I cannot even myself be in one position in relation to it.

I will keep reading Prothero, and keep looking to people who have the courage to show solidarity with those across lines of faith, coming together both in spite of, and because of, something mysterious and unnamable that they have in common

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