“O God/Heavenly Mother/Great Spirit/Vishnu/Zeus/Oneness/Jah/Yahweh.”
A few months ago, one of my fellow Voices columnists declared that all religious people pray to the same God. He wrote: “No matter what name you call upon … we’re all praying to the same God, aren’t we? Yes, whether we know it or not.” (Voices, Bangor Daily News, May 9, 2009)
More recently another Voices columnist wrote: “For me, the metaphor of God as father, ruler, and lord [is] hurtful and limiting.” “God is unknowable.” “Does this mean that my God is different from your God? No, it means that we each know God differently, that we each experience different aspects or traits of God.” (Voices, Bangor Daily News, June 27, 2009)
What should we make of such assertions? Is there really only one God at the heart of all of the world’s belief systems? To help answer that question, here’s a crash course in comparative religions.
Christianity’s God is Trinitarian. Islam’s God, Allah, is not. Christians are monotheistic. Hindus are not. Mormons are tritheistic. Buddhists are not. The God of Christianity is infinite yet personal. Proponents of New Age spirituality are typically monistic or pantheistic. Traditional Christianity teaches that God created matter. Christian Science does not agree. Neither do Taoists, who have an entirely different view of reality.
Historic Christianity holds that God can be known truly but not exhaustively. Unitarian Universalists reject the idea that God can be defined clearly for everyone in every place. Christians affirm the deity of Jesus Christ. Orthodox, Reformed and Conservative Jews do not. Neither do Jehovah’s Witnesses. Neither do Wiccans.
Given such disparity, it seems clear that there is no realistic basis for claiming that the God of all religions is one and the same. One might just as soon claim that 2 plus 2 equals 4 — or 5, or 6, or both, or anything else.
If contradictory statements about objective reality are accepted as correct, language loses its meaning. When opposing views on matters of essential doctrine are all considered equally true, every view is compromised.
So back to the question about whether everyone prays to the same God. Why not consult God himself on the matter? If the Bible is indeed God’s Word (a case we’ve made in previous columns), we should find answers to this question in Scripture, right?
Well, certainly the Bible teaches that imposter gods and idols exist. The Ten Commandments begin with a prohibition against ever putting other gods before the one true God. A number of these false gods are mentioned by name in Scripture, e.g. Bel, Nebo, Molech, Baal. Nowhere is there any suggestion that these names were mere metaphors or varied aspects of a single Divine Being.
On the contrary, the Bible often uses the term “one true God” to distinguish between the God of Scripture and other so-called gods. Jeremiah says, “But the LORD is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King.” Jesus prayed for his disciples, “that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” 1 John 4:6 states that in this world there is a spirit of truth and there is a spirit of error.
So it seems clear that God himself does not endorse the idea that everyone worships, experiences or prays to the same God.
Now, if there is no logical or biblical basis for syncretizing the various human views of God, we must conclude that some views of God are just plain wrong. These wrong views may have resulted from direct evil inspiration or by mistaken human conjecture. But they are wrong. There may be a deep, inner, innate inclination in many people to seek out a God of love and forgiveness, but the cold, hard theological fact is this: Many people have in mind a false God when they pray. All people are not acknowledging, regarding or addressing the same God.
Of course, taking this position today is hugely controversial. In his book “When Worlds Collide,” R.C. Sproul writes: “This idea swims against the strong tide of public opinion. What I’m saying here is politically incorrect because American civil religion teaches as its central axiom that all religions are the same and that everyone is worshiping the same God. But Christianity says, ‘No, we do not worship the same God.’”
All of which leaves readers of this column with the need to be especially discerning. Every-View-May-Not-Be-True. It’s always important to measure everything that you read by Scripture. Always. Everything. Even this column.
The Rev. Daryl E. Witmer is founder and director of the AIIA Institute, a national apologetics ministry, and associate pastor of the Monson Community Church. He may be reached by the Web site AIIAInstitute.org or by e-mail at AIIAInstitute@aol.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.