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One God, Many Worshipers

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Praying to the Same God?

Q: Do Jews, Christians and Muslims pray to the same God? In one sense, it seems that they do. But in another sense, only Christians speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I am uncomfortable with prayer services attended by members of these three religions. It seems that Christians are saying something that is not true and are denying the uniqueness and importance of Jesus Christ.

A: Because Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that there is only one God, revealed first to Abraham, they are indeed praying to the same God—even though only Christians refer to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Yes, Jesus Christ is the complete revelation of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Catholic faith, however, does not say that only baptized Catholics can be saved.

The Sacrament of Baptism is still important. Everyone who has been or will be saved is saved because of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection—even if that person does not have an explicit faith in Jesus. His command to preach the Good News is still an obligation for Christians.

In connection with the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Pope John Paul II wanted, but was unable, to visit Abraham’s birthplace in modern-day Iraq. The pope did visit Mt. Sinai (February 2000) and Jerusalem (March 2000). He has frequently spoken about Abraham as the common ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

In the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall on January 17, 2004, Gilbert Levine conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, with choruses from the United States, Great Britain, Turkey and Poland, in the world premiere of Abraham, a motet composed for this occasion by John Harbison, and in Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (Resurrection Symphony).

Pope John Paul II sat between Elio Toaff, the retired chief rabbi of Rome, and Abdulawahab Hussein Gomaa, the imam of Rome.

On this occasion, the pope said: “The history of relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims is marked by lights and shadows and, unfortunately, it has known painful moments. Today one feels a pressing need for a sincere reconciliation among believers in the one God.”

Not all Jews, Christians and Muslims share those sentiments, but the pope feels increasingly called to challenge any hatred based on religion.

A Harris poll of 2,306 U.S. adults last September found that 53 percent agreed that “Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God.” Saying “no” were 32 percent, and 15 percent said they were unsure.

The highest percentage saying “yes” were Jews (64), followed by Catholics (58) and Protestants (51).

Who Were the Iconoclasts?

Q: Your article “Iconographer Marek Czarnecki” (December 2003) quotes him as saying that around the seventh century Eastern Christianity’s icons were almost obliterated by “iconoclasts.” Were these people Christians, Jews or Muslims?

A: Those “iconoclasts” (Greek for “smashers of images”) were Christians who claimed that using icons amounts to worshiping idols. Making images of any living thing is forbidden in the Torah (Exodus 20:4, Deuteronomy 5:8), a prohibition that the first Jewish Christians continued to follow. Defenders of icons said that Jesus’ Incarnation makes it legitimate to draw portraits of him and other holy men and women.

The Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea (787) affirmed this interpretation and added that Christ’s followers worship God but they venerate saints. The controversy flared up again in the following century, when some Christians claimed that icons were tolerated for private devotion but forbidden in public worship. Again the Church rejected that argument. Monks vigorously defended using icons as a way of linking this life and the next one.

Islam prohibits the use of images of God, angels or people as part of a mosque’s artwork because this religion began among people who formerly worshiped idols. When Muslim soldiers in the seventh and eighth centuries captured monasteries and churches in the Middle East, therefore, they often defaced mosaic representations of Jesus and the saints.

You can still see the evidence of defaced mosaics at the church in Kursi (east side of the Sea of Galilee). The Muslim soldiers even obliterated representations of ducks and other animals.

When the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, they whitewashed much of the artwork in Hagia Sophia, its main church. In 1923, that building, which had served as a mosque for almost 500 years, was converted into a museum—with all that whitewash removed.


Q: What does this term mean and what is the controversy surrounding it? What is the difference between the Roman Catholic Church’s belief and the Orthodox Church’s belief about the Holy Spirit’s relationship to God the Father and God the Son?

A: The term filioque is Latin for “and from the Son.” We use it on Sundays when we pray, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

The Creed we pray at Sunday Mass is called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed because it was drawn up by the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) and expanded by the Council of Constantinople (381). The term filioque is not part of that text but was first added to the Creed by the Fourth Synod of Braga (Spain, 675), later encouraged by Charlemagne and in 1013 ordered by St. Henry II, who was the Holy Roman Emperor from 995 until 1024.

The Eastern Church never agreed to this unilateral change to a creed formulated by the whole Church in the fourth century.

There is a certain logic to the filioque terminology because it reinforces a sense of three, co-equal, divine persons. On the other hand, I was present in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1995 when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew sat next to Pope John Paul II during the Liturgy of the Word at a Mass for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29). The pope and patriarch prayed the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in its original text—without the filioque. This term remains a point of discussion between members of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

Cavemen vs. Adam and Eve

Q: As a 51-year-old returning Catholic, I cherish my newfound faith and delight in prayer, worship and discussions of faith. I am going back to school to prepare to serve in some capacity as a pastoral minister. My question is: How do cavemen fit into our belief of Adam and Eve and their lineage?

A: The author of the Adam and Eve story did not know how long people had existed on this earth and probably did not know about dinosaurs and fossils.

The biblical writer who used the terms Adam and Eve, however, did know that our present human condition is not exactly what God intended from the beginning of time. Thus, the Yahwist writer presents the story about Adam and Eve’s disobedience, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the very human tendency to elbow others out of the way in taking credit for something but likewise pushing others forward if blame is being handed out.

The questions you ask are important, but please understand that the biblical writer has a different story—an inspired story—to tell. Science can teach you more accurately about cavemen and cavewomen, but such information cannot nullify what the Bible teaches.

Through the Palms or the Wrists?

Q: Several students in the CCD class that my wife and I teach have noticed that some crucifixes show Christ as being nailed through the wrists while others show him as nailed through the palms. Our students want to know which way is accurate!

A: It is physically impossible for an adult’s body weight to be supported by a nail through the palm. The weight would cause the nail to tear through the rest of the hand. Jesus’ executioners would at least have needed ropes around the wrist—and perhaps near the elbows—if they nailed Jesus to the cross through his palms.

There is a wrist bone that could provide some support. Many people have presumed that the Gospels (especially John 20:27, with Jesus’ invitation to the Apostle Thomas to feel the nail marks) state that Jesus was nailed through the palms. The Gospels are simply not specific on this point and we have to accept that.