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"He's the commander in chief, not the theologian in chief.
12/5/2003 9:20:00 PM by MARK O'KEEFE - Newhouse News Service
He's the commander in chief, not the theologian in chief. Nonetheless, President Bush stepped into a centuries-old religious controversy when he recently said of Muslims and Christians, "I believe we worship the same God."
The question has reignited lively polemics at a time when three of the world's major faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- are variously engaged in conflicts fueled by religion, in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Bush's statement came at a Nov. 20 news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, where the two leaders affirmed their commitment to the war on terrorism and their nations' alliance in Iraq. A reporter noted that Bush often says "freedom is granted by the Almighty," and asked if the president believes Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
At his home in Bethesda, Md., Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, watched intently on live television, realizing the answer could have religious, social and political impact.
"I even watched his body language," Ahmed said. "There was almost a split second of withdrawal in which he was really looking to himself, as if to ask, `What is the real answer?' He was aware of the enormous implications of what he was about to say."
While Ahmed is delighted with Bush's response, some conservative Christians are not. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, representing the country's largest Protestant denomination, told Baptist Press that Bush is "simply mistaken."
"There is one God and his name is Jehovah and his only begotten son is Jesus Christ of the seed of Abraham and Isaac, whose mother was the Jewess virgin, Mary," said Land, touching on points that divide Christians and Muslims. "Jesus our savior has made it clear that we must know his father through faith in him and him alone."
The Rev. Ted Haggard, a Colorado Springs, Colo., pastor and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, issued a statement saying that while evangelicals will continue to support Bush, they cannot agree that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
"The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health while the Muslim God appears to value the opposite," said Haggard, repeating an argument that American evangelical Christians have used since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some Muslims are tired of the spiritual jabs. Azizah al-Hibri, founder of KARAMAH, an organization of Muslim women lawyers for human rights, finds it "incredibly possessive, a not too holy quality, to argue that the God of one's religion belongs to it alone and no other."
Islam has a more inclusive approach, Ahmed said. He quotes Sura 10, verse 47 of the Quran, the Muslim holy book: "To every people was sent an apostle to teach them in their own language, in their own country, making things clear."
The implication, he said, is that while Muslims believe Muhammad was the last and greatest prophet, other faiths, such as Buddhism, also have role models that walked a righteous path.
"Osama bin Laden would probably throw a bomb at me if he heard this," Ahmed said, "but the Buddha may be a prophet of Islam," even though Buddhism is not a theistic religion.
Other faiths make similar allowances.
"Many contemporary Jews, myself included, believe the fundamental spiritual truth of the universe is accessible to everyone, but everyone gets that truth through their own psychological, social and economic framework," said Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder and editor of Tikkun, a liberal Jewish magazine.
Jeffery Long, a professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, quotes a maxim of his faith tradition, Hinduism, that "truth is one, paths are many."
Here is how the professor helps his students see the issue: If you are traveling to Pittsburgh, which way should you go? From Elizabethtown, "the answer is west, unless you want to circle the globe," Long said. But from Chicago, the answer is east.
"To speak of `the one true way to Pittsburgh' is a bit nonsensical," he said. "The way to Pittsburgh is the way that gets you there. It's the same with ultimate truth."
For Sam Trumbore, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, N.Y., God is like a light viewed through a prism.
"The light may come from the same source but the prism of reality breaks up that light into many colors," Trumbore said. "In Islam, there is the concept of 99 names of Allah. In Christianity, God has three forms. There is an army of pagan and Hindu gods. The mistake is to take any image, name or description as the literal, absolute truth."
An antithetic metaphor is offered by Michael Williams of Los Angeles, founder of "Master of None," an Internet blog that discusses religion, politics and other subjects.
"If you see someone driving on the wrong side of the road, you have an obligation to say, `You're going the wrong way,"' he said. "It comes down to what's true. Their ignorance won't protect them."
The same is true of Christianity and Islam, Williams said: "The two concepts of `god' are so completely divergent that they cannot both be true, and both `gods' cannot exist as conceived."
Not all Christians agree.
The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest who edits First Things, a conservative monthly journal of religion and politics, says Christians, Jews and Muslims "worship the same God" even though they understand God differently.
"It is true," Neuhaus writes, "that Bush is commander in chief, not theologian in chief, but on this question he is a better theologian than some of his evangelical critics."
Despite efforts by Bush and other Christians to speak supportively of Islam, religion scholars say there are at least two central tenets of Christianity that Muslims and adherents of other religions cannot easily accept. The first is that Christ is both man and God and the second is that God is three persons in one -- father, son and Holy Spirit.
If a Christian asserts that "God is Trinitarian and that God includes Jesus, then Muslims do not in fact believe in that God," says Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. Islam portrays Allah -- Arabic for God -- as a single whole who cannot be divided into multiple parts.
Ramesh Richard is a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who used to be a street preacher in his native India, where people believe that God takes countless manifestations. While Christianity may appear offensive or intolerant to some, he says Christians have a responsibility to proclaim hard truths.
"If all of us are building bridges to heaven, your way is as good as my way," Richard said. "But what if God built my bridge? Then it's not my bridge, it's God's. That's what happened with Jesus.
"Once you put Jesus in the equation of God, you have a problem with other religions."
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