Do we all worship the same God?
The furor over the Pachamama figure at the Amazon Synod—which clearly meant different things to different people—raises several questions about the tension between evangelization and religious unity today. It raises questions about shared religious ceremonies, the repurposing of pagan images for Christian worship, and commonalities in religious belief. The one that interests me most here is whether it is right for Christians to attempt to strengthen bonds with non-Christians by claiming that both groups worship the same God.
Readers may recall that during the Pachamama controversy, both Vatican officials and Amazonian Catholics drew a distinction between what the figure of the Pachamama signified to two different groups in the region. To the pagans, the figure represented a “god” and was worshipped as such. To the Christians, she represented a traditional image which called to mind all the good things that God Himself has given to us through nature. It is easy enough to see how this distinction became blurred in the minds of many or, even if not blurred in the minds of those present, how it could appear to be blurred to the point of idolatry by those reading and viewing reports on the Synod ceremonies.
A similar (not identical) combination of circumstances was in play at the Assisi prayer meetings hosted for many divergent religious groups by Pope St. John Paul II—meetings set apart for the exploration of religious unity, and definitely not central to a synod of the whole Church. These meetings also caused confusion which can be traced to questions of prudence; in addition, any scandal was immensely exacerbated by the way secular and even Catholic opponents of the Pope reported and commented on the Assisi events.
But to what degree can deviations in religious ceremony be justified by the claim that we all worship the same God?
Do we worship the same God?
It seems clear that how we answer the question of whether two religious groups worship the same God depends largely on the groups in question. Despite painful and, to some degree, even ludicrous differences, we can usually affirm that the various Christian groups do indeed worship the same God. On the basis of Divine Revelation, it is also true that Christians and Jews worship the same God, the problem now being that they understand the very nature of the Godhead in very different ways. The Church has also acknowledged that Muslims must of necessity worship the same God, because Islam believes that there is only one God, and its conception of God is drawn at least largely from Jewish and Christian sources; and yet Islam holds a radically different understanding of intellect and will in God, which creates dramatic contradictions with both Judaism and Christianity.
On the one hand, then, those who acknowledge there is only one God can be said objectively to worship the same God, varying only in the accuracy and fullness of their understanding of God. On the other hand, as knowledge of God deteriorates into error, one religion or another might, in effect, end up subjectively worshipping what amounts to a monstrous caricature of God.
As compared with sound Catholics, for example, Calvin and his most literal followers have worshipped a God whom they believe deliberately created some souls for hell from all eternity; Jews deny two of the three Persons in the Godhead and uphold a legalism which has no power to save; and Muslims justify countless contradictions of the natural law (the moral structure of creation itself) in the name of the Divine will. So even in the examples cited, we see that Catholics must exercise extreme caution. It is not enough to insist on the bare objective fact that, since there is only one God, it must be true that all who worship one God must of necessity worship the same God.
When it comes to the question of “worship”, our human spirituality remains subjectively directed. We are quite capable of directing it to ignoble ends which do not really represent God at all. It is well to paint another’s religion in the best possible light, noting commonalities with our own. It is not so well to pretend that the full truth about God need not be presented, or that errors may be accepted and even commended without correction.
St. Paul’s Gambit
We largely escape this problem of overlapping truths commingled with error when we compare monotheistic religions with polytheism or idol worship. It is clear that the darkness of mind which enables the worship of idols can have nothing beyond a fundamental religious impulse in common with worship of the true God, however little known. The same is true of any form of polytheism. In both cases, those who worship are misled in their religious inclinations at their very core, and the only point of commonality is the legitimate natural sense that there is something larger than ourselves that must be worshipped and obeyed. That, of course, is known by reason and through the natural law—but the darkness here is very great because reason and the natural law also teach us that there cannot be multiple “gods” and that things like wood and stone are not to be worshipped.
Idolatry and polytheism, then, do not acknowledge God. The gulf of even natural ignorance is immense. Because of the human religious impulse, however, this does not completely eliminate the possibility of sympathy for the felt-need to worship, nor the possibility of building upon what idolaters and polytheists may understand, in order to draw them to a basic understanding of God—for, in truth, the gulf is not so great as with atheists. This, in fact, is exactly what St. Paul tried to do with polytheists in Athens:
So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything…. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.” [Acts 17:22-31]
Paul did not have much success in Athens, where most of his listeners seemed to be pleased by novelties, and wanted to hear more about his bizarre claim on another day. But he actually did make some converts.
The God Who Is vs. the god we conceive
The one thing Paul did not do, of course, was to commend error. All religions have some support in the natural virtue of religion, and monotheistic religions have more support since it is well within the capacity of human reason to figure out that there must be a God and that the arguments for God carry within them the knowledge that there can only be One. Paul had a very forceful personality, more prone to preaching or debate than to exploratory discussions—or at least these did not get recorded. But he did try to ascertain the nature and capacity of his audience before he began to preach. We also know from many of his letters that he tried to make himself pleasing to his hearers by becoming like them as much as he could: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22).
But there is a big difference between the invisible God Who Is, and God as we (even we Catholics) conceive of him—though it is a difference which the Father has chosen to overcome in all spiritual essentials through Christ. For this reason, on the one hand, we may not condemn ignorance unless it proves to be willful; and, on the other, we are bound to seek to overcome ignorance through good example, discussion, teaching, preaching, and faithful worship. Problems arise for Catholics and for the Church not when they can identify good impulses and aspects of the truth in others, but when they fail to share in God’s will for all, which is that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
My question was this: “Is it right for Christians to attempt to strengthen bonds with non-Christians by claiming that both groups worship the same God.” The answer is that this may certainly be done as the case objectively warrants, but never in forgetfulness of the errors to which the worshippers are subjectively committed, or of God’s desire that all “come to the knowledge of the truth”. Catholicism is not coercive, for it is rooted in the peace that passes understanding. But Catholicism is certainly not a relational accord based on the lowest common denominator. It is always first and foremost the mission of Christ.
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Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jan. 22, 2020 10:14 AM ET USA
As noted previously in this forum, Pope Francis' apparent conviction that God wills the great diversity of religions must assume an act of God's "passive" or "permissive" will, or it must presume that Christ is at least implicitly acknowledged and worshipped in all religions, unbeknownst to the followers of the non-Christian religions. If real, then this conviction must be recognized as objective truth. Does God will objective ignorance on the larger part of humanity? A newly-discovered mystery?
Posted by: wenner1687 -
Jan. 22, 2020 7:59 AM ET USA
It is not right for Christians to attempt bonding with non-Christian religious groups on the basis of a lie. (Duh!) That is like sewing new patches on old wineskins. . . . doomed to failure, and you will do more harm than good. Cooperate with those of other religions in corporal works of mercy, (feeding hungry, etc.) but do not compromise the clear message that Salvation is only through Christ in the Catholic Church. (Not a pc stance these days, but not to believe it makes one anathema.)
Posted by: RoseMore -
Jan. 21, 2020 7:04 PM ET USA
Very well said. Thank you.