My work draws me into conversations with people of many denominations and faiths. A phrase I often hear repeated is, “Well, we are all praying to the same God, aren’t we?” And I hardly ever disagree, because God alone knows the understandings of our hearts.
When religions collide, they often say we are worshipping the same God, but with wrong understanding. Christians told Jews the God of Moses exists in three aspects — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Mohammad told pre-Islamic nomadic Arabs that Allah was no longer the high god above the goddesses Manat, al-Lat and Uzza, who reigned over a host of nature deities. Under Islam (which means “submit”), Allah became defined as the only god, the God of Abraham, and thus the same God Jews worship.
Traditional Christians would call that god “God the Father,” but to literalists, a belief in the Trinity violates the Islamic-Jewish insistence on the oneness of God. And although Islam respects Jesus as a prophet, to worship him as the Son of God is considered a sacrilege.
To further complicate the matter, all three Abrahamic faiths seek to honor the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before [or beside] me,” (Exodus 20:2-3). Not only does this present a challenge to the construct of the Trinity, but it also implies that other gods do exist, and God will not tolerate our worship of them.
Is there further evidence of other gods? The Bible uses the word “Elohim” to describe God in the plural. Some Bible translators offer the hokey explanation that the word was pluralized to further honor God with the “royal we.” My take on the matter is that God as Elohim means God with his other heavenly aspects and beings — the angels, seraphim, etc. — the Bible refers to as “sons of God.” But then why the First Commandment? Why would God resent our worship of these other elements of God’s reign?
That question draws us back to a key story in the history of the creation: the war in heaven, when Lucifer and a third of the angels rebelled against God and fell to Earth. A telling part of this story gets hinted at in Genesis 6:4: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days; and also afterward, when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”
This passage fits with the legends of Roman, Greek and Egyptian gods and goddesses; immortals who lived lives of power and corruption, and interbred, when they felt like it, with mortal women. Early fathers of the Christian church believed those stories of gods and goddesses were nothing more than the stories of fallen angels come to Earth. You can see why God would not want his people worshipping these fallen creatures. Also, note that phrase “and also afterward” from the Genesis passage. It means those fallen angels survived the flood, and are around to greet the revival of paganism we see happening today.
Pagan, which originally meant “country dweller,” is a very broad term. It ranges from those who worship nature for its beauty to those who worship demons in hopes of gaining power. There are women who have revived the worship of Isis and other pagan goddesses as part of a feminist reaction to male-dominated faiths, and men and women who practice witchcraft, some sacrificing small animals to gain spiritual favors.
Christians shake their heads at pagans, and yet there are Christian denominations that follow similar paths. Some of the more liberal denominations spend much time sermonizing on the beauty of nature, and only seeing God in the creation. They tend to be strong environmentalists.
At the same time, many fundamentalist churches promise God’s reward of material success to those who sacrifice — not small animals, but 10 percent or more of their incomes — to “God’s” church. They tend to be strong capitalists. So even within Christianity, there are broad-ranging differences in our understanding of who the God we’re praying to is, and how we can make “our” God fulfill our needs.
But do our crazy, selfish notions, and our cultural religious practices, really have a bearing on who God is? We live in a statistically impossible world of great beauty; a God-given Eden we are hell-bent on destroying with our pigsty ways. Likewise, we were given a spiritual garden of God’s love — written on our hearts by God’s own hand — and we’ve polluted that as well, with the politics of our “my God is better than your god and I’m going to kill you to prove it” attitudes.
I choose to be a Christian because I believe Jesus best expresses God’s love. When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he told us to “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: love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
And then he gave up his life to prove that love can triumph, even in a world that confuses the God who offers love with gods drawn to mirror our individual needs, greeds or social structures. Jesus embodied the heart of compassion that God is.
So no matter what name you call upon, I believe it’s that God, the God of forgiveness and love, whom we all yearn for in our hearts and souls. And it’s for that reason I can agree when people say, “We’re all praying to the same God, aren’t we?” Yes, whether we know it or not.
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.