Can Jews, Christians, and Muslims get along? At first glance, the notion that we are all “Abrahamic religions” seems useful, and many people concerned for peace between religions have invoked it, hoping to encourage cooperation and mutual affirmation. Modern Jews look to Abraham as their forebearer. Christians look to him as “ the father of us all” (Rom 4:16). Islam places him among the line of prophets that begins with Adam.
So, a common point of reference? A unifying kinship that can help us overcome historical animosities? Jon Levenson says not, or at least largely not. Writing in the Spring 2010 issue of the Jewish Review of Books, a new publication featuring some of the finest writers and thinkers in the Jewish community, he argues that yes, Abraham figures in all three religions, but what each religion says about Abraham largely reflects the basic differences that divide Jews from Christians, and both from Muslims.
Living religions positively vibrate with conviction, and in this case, as in most others, points of contact tend to generate friction.
Take the case of Judaism and Christianity. Both treat the book of Genesis as sacred. But Genesis itself poses a problem. For, as Levenson points out, the text “resists the notion that he [Abraham] is equally the father of more than one community.”
When God calls Abraham out of his father’s house, the promise he makes to him is singular, not plural: “I will make of you a great nation” (Gen 1:2). The singular character of election is then strongly reinforced. The line of inheritance passes to only one son, first Isaac and then Jacob. No happy diversity, I’m afraid.
This singularity, moreover, has universal significance. The children of Abraham will be both blessed and a blessing. As God says to Abraham: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gen 12:2-3). God is up to something with Abraham, something of significance for the whole world.
Thus we come to a crucial point of difference between Jews and Christians. As Levenson explains, the main lines Jewish interpretation presume that the biological descendents of Abraham will inherit the blessings promised to Abraham, and precisely as God’s chosen people, they will ensure divine blessing for all the nations of the earth.
Just how this happens is a matter of speculation in the history of Jewish theology. The prophets often see a restored Jerusalem as the cultic center of the world, while some medieval interpreters see the Jewish people leading the nations toward monotheism. Differences noted, the picture is fairly clear. Jews stand at the center of human history, with blessings radiating outward to the rest of humanity, which remains non-Jewish, but acknowledges the unique and universal significance of God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendents.
Christianity reads the promise to Abraham differently. St. Paul writes against the view that Abraham’s descendants are biological: “It is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). This does not rule out Jews. An extended and complicated meditation on God’s providence in his Letter to the Romans ends up speculating that the biological descendants of Abraham are “cut off” for the sake of the promises, only to be “regrafted” at the end of the age (Rom 9:3-4 and 11:23-24).
By St. Paul’s reading, the patrimony of Abraham remains singular, but instead of Jews at the center, he pictures Abraham’s patrimony diffused to all the nations. The leaven enters the lump of dough, so to speak, brings to fruition the promised blessings in the form of the church now spread among all the nations. Thus one of the very practical differences between Judaism and Christianity: the former does not proselytize, while the latter urges missionary outreach.
Muslim take a still different view, one that downplays the theme of Abraham’s patrimony and doesn’t trouble itself about who does and doesn’t inherit the promised blessings. What matters is true monotheistic belief, to which Abraham bore witness.
Once again, the attitude to Abraham brings out deep differences. The Muslim view points toward the larger Islamic vision of an undifferentiated humanity brought to true worship by the line of prophets sealed by Mohammed—which is precisely not the Jewish view of humanity blessed and redeemed by a chosen nation at the center of world history, nor the Christian view of a new Israel, the church. In fact, the Qur’an teaches that the Jewish and Christian preoccupations with chosenness distort the true teachings of Abraham.
Nothing is simple. Yes, of course the figure of Abraham provides a point of contact for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but our understandable desire for harmony should not blind us to the real differences.
Jews see the world redeemed in and through their unique communal identity as children of Abraham. Christians have much the same vision, which invariably leads to a collision and debate about just who inherits the promises to Abraham. Muslims set aside the biblical notion of a chosen people altogether, which amounts to a severe judgment against the fundamental theological convictions of Jews and Christians.
If we downplay the significance of these differences, we relax the grip of faith and dissolve dogmas into pliable sentiments. This path—one that appeals to a superficial unity at the expense of the theological core of faith—leads pretty close to the point of unbelief that the secularist recommends as our best hope. If we don’t believe anything, or at least not anything more than muddy platitudes, we’re very unlikely to be at each other’s throats.
Such a view is a popular but naïve fantasy. Human beings are not naturally cooperative. Peace is not our default setting. On the contrary, our passions enflame us; our competing self-interest sets us against one another. Faith does not make this worse; if anything, it gives us the resources and the reasons to restrain our passions and compromise our competing self-interests. A future world without faith may very well be more bestial than humane.
I hope faith flourishes. As a Christian, of course, I pray for the conversion of Muslims. Christian relations to Jews is a more complicated matter, but in my view they also fall under the lordship of Christ in a mysterious fashion to be unveiled at the end of the age. Yet, I also have a natural duty to promote the common good, and therefore I find myself encouraging Muslims and Jews to deepen their faith.
I don’t think I’m contradicting myself. Though they differ—and this difference is of the utmost importance for our eternal destiny—the demanding doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam engage our boiling passions, transforming them into a desire to serve God rather than ourselves. This discipline of the soul strikes me as the most reliable path toward social harmony and a worldly peace.
R.R. Reno is Senior Editor at First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Levenson’s “The Idea of Abrahamic Religions: A Qualified Dissent” is available online at the website of The Jewish Review of Books.