A Muslim friend started a Qur’an study group a few weeks ago, and I immediately signed up. The group meets at Jubilee! Community Church here in Asheville, NC. About half the people in the group come from the Muslim tradition; the other half from the Christian tradition. About half the group is female; the other half is male. Each week, the facilitators select a short passage from the Qur’an. We hear the passage in Arabic, read it in English, and then discuss it. A recent gathering got me wondering about the way God is viewed and described in the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
In all three religious traditions, there is a strong sense that the human mind can never fully grasp the notion of God. No matter who/what you think God is, God is infinitely more than that. Along the same lines, human language is incapable of describing God. If you think you are adequately expressing who/what God is, then you are missing the mark completely. Humans, however, just can’t seem to help themselves. All three religious texts (the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an) clearly attempt to provide some glimpse of who God is, but I’m beginning to think they do this in qualitatively different ways. And that makes me wonder how growing up in a particular faith tradition and reading a particular sacred text might influence one’s ideas about God.
Here is part of the passage we focused on at our recent Qur’an study group session, which is what got this whole thing rolling in my mind.
He is Allah besides Whom there is no god; the Knower of the unseen and the seen; He is the Beneficent, the Merciful.
He is Allah, besides Whom there is no god; the King, the Holy, the Giver of peace, the Granter of security, Guardian over all, the Mighty, the Supreme, the Possessor of every greatness. Glory be to Allah from what they set up (with Him).
He is Allah the Creator, the Maker, the Fashioner; His are the most excellent names; whatever is in the heavens and the earth declares His glory; and He is the Mighty, the Wise. (Qur’an, MHS, Surah 59: 22-24)
There are numerous passages in the Qur’an that list the names/qualities of God. The underlying message remains: no matter what names/qualities you ascribe to God, language will always be inadequate. God is infinitely more than that which is described. But these God-descriptors are important in Islam. They are referred to as the “99 names of Allah.” Of course, there are many more than 99 names, and the list of 99 is not universally agreed upon, but it is a focal point of the faith. You can download the 99 names of Allah onto your mobile phone. You can buy books (some of them quite beautiful) outlining and illustrating the 99 names of Allah. And Muslim prayer strands contain 99 beads to help those reciting the names of Allah as a devotional practice keep count. (Some contain 33 beads, and you can count around 3 times). The names provide a peek at God, a tiny peephole view of the Great Mystery.
The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, in general, seem to adopt different approaches. One of the most fundamental messages about the divine name in the Hebrew Bible is found the story of Moses at the burning bush. In this familiar story, God appears to Moses to inform him that he has been chosen to free the Israelite slaves from the hands of the Egyptians. Moses is reluctant, especially since his first task will be to convince the Israelites themselves that he has been sent to them by God.
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this is my title for all generations. (Bible, Exodus 3:13-15)
The Hebrew Bible occasionally assigns names/qualities to God – like Lord (Adonai) or Almighty or some combination of those words – so that God can be mentioned, talked about, and referred to. But, you don’t see lists of God’s attributes. The fundamental name of God is “I AM.” Some Jewish people will use the word HaShem, which essentially means, “the Name.” In other words, God is, precisely and elusively, that which cannot be specified.
In contrast to both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an, the New Testament holds up a human version of the divine. The Jesus texts seem to be saying, “This is what a flesh-and-bones individual, connected to the holy in a deep and profound way, looks like when walking among us. This is how a divine-like person thinks and acts. This is how the sacred is realized in human form.”
My personal belief is that the early Christians misconstrued that point. Somewhere along the way the powers-that-be decided that Jesus is God in a way that the rest of us are not. Jesus became the divine son of God, the redeemer of our sins, and the world’s messiah. Those ideas were officially sanctioned during the First Council of Nicaea, convened in 325CE, and the rest, as they say, is history – a history that we still very much live with today.
But for many Christians (and Muslims), the missteps of the early church do not negate the fact the Jesus was a messenger of God, a prophet who walked in the light of the holy. Jesus didn’t just share divine teachings about living a loving, compassionate, and peaceful life; he actually lived that life in exemplary fashion in that time and in that place.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, [the scribe] asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Bible, Mark 12:28-31)
So that brings me back to my original query. What does it mean for us, as adults, to have grown up with a certain understanding of how best to articulate the notion of a God that can never be fully understood of described? Does growing up with a greater familiarity of one text over another affect our view of God or the way in which we describe/view God? In modern times, does having ready access to all three texts offer us an opportunity to understand God in a more meaningful way. Obviously, the Abrahamic religions differ in many ways, including their rituals and practices, but they are all grounded in a particular text. Passages from those texts are regularly heard, read, recited, sung, and chanted. And while most people are not religious scholars, nearly everyone who grows up in an Abrahamic tradition has heard portions of the sacred text on which the religion is based.
I’d like to think that reading from all three texts assists us in our struggle to connect with God in whatever ways are humanly possible. I’d like to think that the more ways our kids have to think about God and to articulate God, the better off they’ll be when they hit life’s inevitable rough patches. I’d like to think that all the texts are, in their own way, both completely correct and completely inadequate about who/what God is. What do you think?
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Shakir, Muhammad Habib. The Qur’an. Trans. Search Truth, 2014. Web. Jan. 26, 2014.<http://www.searchtruth.com/ chapter_display.php?chapter=1&translator=3>
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]