Do Muslims Believe in the Same God? What about Christians?

Shia, Sunni, Sufi—do Muslims believe in the same God, despite their theological differences? And if it can be argued on the basis of Islamic principles and reasoning that they do, perhaps that might shed some light on how Christians might approach the same question with reference to themselves: “Do Christians believe in the same God?” It’s not at all obvious that they, we, do. Just compare the Thomist, Barthian, Moltmannian, and Palamite understandings of Incarnation and Trinity. Yet we Christians stubbornly cling to the conviction we really do worship the same transcendent Creator, despite evidence to the contrary.

I have found this paper by Dr Reza Shah-Kazemi, Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, to be fascinating and challenging. The author identifies some interesting possibilities for inter-faith dialogue.

I especially appreciate Shah-Kazemi’s insistence that while Muslims and Christians disagree at what might be described the theological level, they share belief in the one God at the metaphysical level: “Muslims and Christians do indeed believe in the same God, insofar as the ultimate referent of their belief is That to which the word ‘God’ metaphysically refers: the transcendent Absolute, ultimate Reality, the unique source of Being.”

Do Muslims and Christians Believe in the Same God?

And after you have read this essay, then run over to Dr Edward Feser’s blog and read his article “Christians, Muslims, and the Reference of ‘God’.”

(Return to first article)

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31 Responses to Do Muslims Believe in the Same God? What about Christians?

  1. Incidentally, Dr. Olson brought up the question as to whether all Christians worshiped the same God a few days ago as well.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2015/12/do-all-christians-worship-the-same-god/

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  2. Tom says:

    Great paper. I wonder what other papers were presented at that consultation.

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  3. JackH says:

    Following Shah-Kazemi’s line, could we then say that the answer to ‘Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God?’ is ‘Yes, but only if they’re not theistic personalists’?

    Because for theistic personalism we’re no longer in the realm of metaphysically absolute Being but rather pointing out a particular being in the set of beings. And beings can be confused with each other, unlike Being which is One.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jack, I have wondered about that, too. Might that perhaps explain the emphatic evangelical insistence that Muslims (and perhaps even Jews) do not worship (in any relevant sense) the God of the gospel?

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      • So far as I have seen such insistence, Father Kimel, it is indeed theistic personalism– sometimes from post-Barthian systematic theology, sometimes from the narrative emphasis of recent biblical theology– that motivates that emphatic evangelical insistence that you mention. Given a choice between, on one hand, Lessing’s Parable of the Three Rings, and on the other hand, splendid books by Barth, Jenson, and McCormack etc, and by Wright, Hays, and Bauckham etc, most of us have been cheerfully choosing the latter over the former for the past few decades with eyes wide open.

        Anyone is free to reject this consensus, of course, but if he just talks past it, he has no claim on its attention. If Volf has argued something that convinces any great number to reject the personalist paradigm, that would certainly be interesting to see. With all warm regard for Feser and his work, Thomist arguments (and a fortiori Maimonidean or Avicennan ones) are the usual textbook examples of what theistic personalists do not believe. Scholarship by Alan Segal, Daniel Boyarin, and Peter Schafer on the mitosis of Second Temple Judaic tradition into Christian and Rabbinical religions have complicated assumptions made on both sides of this discussion. It is fair to say that neither Christian nor Jewish bodies have come to terms with the emerging picture of their origins. Peter Och’s Another Reformation shows both success and failure in the post-liberal search for an adequate replacement for supersessionism. The theological model of Christian-Jewish relations seems too unsettled to be extended to Muslims, even if that turns out to be wise.

        And not to put too fine a point on it, some evangelical hearts are strangely cooled by what they perceive as a self-righteous attempt to make political correctness– or if one prefers, civil religion– a criterion of sacred theology in America’s heartland. After all, the Lord sends his rain on the just and the unjust. Olson rightly implies that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can hear and answer the prayers of any human being– animist, Taoist, Hindu, Santerian, etc– even if his notion and worship of God is wholly non-Christian. Why then should *we worship the same God* be regarded as necessary to the social peace of a secular state? Does this not implicitly exclude fellow citizens influenced more by Varanasi or West Africa than by Jerusalem? And how does it exemplify good civic pluralism to claim, as Volf’s Washington Post essay did, that those who do not agree with him are motivated by “enmity for Muslims taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy” (Volf’s words) or “anti-Muslim bigotry” (the Post’s headline)? It certainly does not seem to be true.

        As you know, the Turkokratia left societies in the Western Balkans with a common language and ethnicity but also with a society fractured by religion that only the iron fist of Tito could banish from public life. Those who would follow Lessing thought of the Sarajevo thus secularized as a gem of the sort of toleration that could be achieved once religious differences had been suppressed. For alas, it was. But religious identity is a stubborn force, and dreams of secular order that oppose it have proven fragile. Whether we attribute the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia to Freud’s narcissism of small differences or to the belated logic of European nationalism, reengineering the religious identities of the societies there can be seen now to have been a tragic mistake.

        The Lord has commanded us to be innocent as doves, yes, but also to be wise as serpents. America has already had a fratricidal war with religious overtones (cf Mark Noll). But the surviving union is crippled by conflicts among its regional cultures that have at times made the country ungovernable, and sharply divergent assessments of immigration, pluralism, and indeed evangelicalism are central to that conflict. Agitated by terrorism, these assessments are making usually reasonable people– your mayor, Yale’s professor– say things that they should regret saying.

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    • Tom says:

      Can somebody define theistic personalism for me? If its defining, fundamental characteristic is that God is everything a human ‘person’ is writ large (basically Zeus), who believes that? It must be more sophisticated, but I’ve had the hardest time nailing down what this view is supposed to comprise. Maybe I worship a God different than the One worshiped by Fr Aidan and Osama bin Laden. 😀

      Tom

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      • Tom says:

        *before bin Laden died.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        If your congregation uses a video projector to display the lyrics of praise songs on a super-large screen … then you probably do worship a different God than I do, Tom. 😛

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Here’s Feser’s account of theistic personalism: http://goo.gl/T3aEs8.

        It should be noted that modern Orthodox theology has no problem emphasizing the personalist dimension of God, while at the same time affirming the classical divine attributes. But the essence/energies distinction does throw curve ball here.

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        • Tom, Feser’s description naturally favors philosophers; those I mention tend to be theologians. As he suggests there are families within the clan of theistic personalists; not many emphatically insisting evangelicals have heard of them.

          The most common differentiating claim seems to be that the logic of divine identity in the OT has an integrity of its own that is not reducible to the logic of being in Hellenistic philosophy. Whether this is in fact the case is warmly debated by scholars of Christian origins interested in the way the divinity of Jesus was first understood, but I am not aware of a philosophical treatment of that ongoing debate. Even so, this is an a priori notion for many, an aspect of the scriptures as divine revelation.

          Next most common is the familiar Barthian claim that there is no god-concept in back of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The best that one can do is come to terms with the Three until they show that they are One.

          As younger evangelicals are beginning to discover Robert Jenson, we might recall here his sharp contrast between the average sort of godling whose property is to resist time and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whose perichoresis is infinite being in time. That is, if one is willing to relate Barth’s personalism to Hegel’s historicism then one need not choose between the Bible and metaphysics.

          Heuristically helpful, I think, are four historical notions. The OT uses signifiers englished as Law, Wisdom, Presence, Word, Spirit to refer to the single identity of the Creator. YHWH’s cult was the fusion of more than one and the parts were later differentiated. Daniel 7 shows differentiation within the Creator in the two thrones (compare St Mark 14:62), so that the OT does not present a monadic god to whom Christians added Persons one by one. Jesus demonstrates his divinity in the gospels by doing things that only YHWH could do, which shows that YHWH had an identity in terms of which predictions could be made.

          Calling any of this “a human person writ large” seems reductive, but that phrase makes more sense of the items on Feser’s list..

          https://growrag.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/christians-and-jews-worship-yahweh-muslims-worship-allah/

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        • Tom says:

          Thanks Fr Aidan and Bowman. I suppose this is only indirectly related to the “same God” question (topic of this post), but reading through Feser’s post again, it seems the whole distinction between ‘classical’ theists and ‘theistic personalists’ turns on actus purus, i.e., the denial of all unrealized potentiality (with respect to anything) in God. That seems to be the whole of it.

          Would classical theists familiar with ‘theistic personalism’ criticism feel that all Christian theists who deny actus purus are theistic personalists? That is, would classical theists who engage in this particular conversation grant that the denial of actus purus is compatible with not being a theistic personalist?

          Tom

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Tom, maybe the difference is as simple as one approach taking Being as its principal category by which to speak of God and the other taking Person as its principal category. The personalist approach would seem to cohere easily with a “perfect being” theology: we begin with God as an acting, speaking, thinking Person, as witnessed in the Scriptures, and then we figure out all the properties he must have in order to qualify as divine.

            Aquinas, on the other hand, takes a different starting point–namely, the divinely revealed distinction between Creator and creature (at least I think that’s his starting point). I think, though I’m not sure, that this may also be the starting point for the Church Fathers.

            Are these two approaches contradictory? complementary? I hope the latter.

            Neither can claim to be more “biblical” than the other, which is why I cannot agree with those who posit an irresolvable conflict with the God of philosophy and the God of the Bible. Once the Church formulated the creatio ex nihilo, the two were brought together in theological reflection.

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          • Tom says:

            Fr Aidan: Are these two approaches contradictory? Complementary? I hope the latter.

            Tom: Definitely the latter. If Zizy is right, “being” is “communion.” There is not that in God which is not ‘personal’ or ‘personally related’.

            Maybe the ones making the mistake are those who begin by assuming there’s a choice between ‘being’ and ‘personal existence’ at all.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            What does (or could) it mean to say, “there is no god-concept in back of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? (I’m not familiar with this Barthian claim.) Where do ‘concepts’ enter (or not enter) this scene (so to put it)? Is the claim that someone, somewhere was (or is) confronted with ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ as the Egyptians seem to have been confronted with ‘Amun’ and ‘Ra’ (or, again, perhaps, according to a certain hadith (if I am remembering my Louis Gardet corrctly), (some) Arabs seem to have been confronted with ‘Allah’ and ‘Rahman’)?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            David, for a Barthian approach to these questions, see Bobby Grow’s article on Muslims and Christians.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Fr. Aidan,

            Thank you! I’m not sure I see the coherence of this particular Barthian approach. The quotation from Epiphanius makes sense. (Am I right in supposing not much of his work is available online in, say, English or German translation? And what is “Anc., 10” in the Torrance citation?)

            But I am left wondering what things like this mean, “Without God’s economic Self-revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ there can be no genuine particularist or objective knowledge of God.” Does ‘Jesus Christ’ mean first beginning in the time of the Incarnation? Is there an implication that there was no revelation before that? Or is ‘Christ’ also naming the pre-Incarnate Son, and is there an implicit conviction that all pre-Incarnate revelation was Christophanic or Huiophanic (i.e.,by/ through the Person of the Son)? (A possible account, but not to my knowledge ever held necessary.) If so, does it further mean that all pre-Incarnation revelation was necessarily revealing inescapably to the immediate recipient that the God Who is One is equally (at least) Two? And, what of accounts of angelic messengers (where ‘the Angel of the Lord’ is, and where he is not, named)? Must we conclude the Psalmist is misleading in saying “the heavens are telling the glory of God”?

            If your answer to my second paragraph is, ‘Ask Mr. Grow’, fair enough!

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          • Tom says:

            David: I am left wondering what things like this mean, “Without God’s economic Self-revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ there can be no genuine particularist or objective knowledge of God.”

            Tom: I wondering too. When you figure it out, let us know. 😀

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            David, I have texted Bobby Grow and asked him to drop by and address your questions. I hope he will.

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          • Bobby Grow says:

            David and Tom,

            Here is how the idea of “particularism” functions within a Barthian theory of revelation. These are six motifs outlined for us by Barth scholar, George Hunsinger:

            “Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.

            “Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that say, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.

            “Objectivism” is a motif pertaining to Barth’s understanding of revelation and salvation. It describes not only the means by which they respectively occur, but also the status of their occurrence. Revelation and salvation are both thought to occur through the mediation of ordinary creaturely objects, so that the divine self-enactment in our midst lies hidden within them. The status of this self-enactment is also thought in some strong sense to be objective–that is, real, valid, and effective–whether it is acknowledged and received by the creature or not. Revelation and salvation are events objectively mediated by the creaturely sphere and grounded in the sovereignty of God.

            “Personalism” is a motif governing the goal of the divine self-manifestation. God’s objective self-manifestation in revelation and salvation comes to the creature in the form of personal address. The creature is encountered by this address in such a way that it is affirmed, condemned, and made capable of fellowship with God. Fellowship is the most intimate of engagements and occurs in I–Thou terms.[2] The creature is liberated for a relationship of love and freedom with God and therefore also with its fellow creatures.

            “Realism,” as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to Barth’s conception of theological language. Theological language is conceived as the vehicle of analogical reference. In itself it is radically unlike the extralinguistic object to which it refers (God), but by grace it is made to transcend itself. Through transcending itself by grace, theological language attains sufficient likeness or adequacy to its object for reference truly and actually to occur. Besides the mode of reference, realism also pertains to the modes of address, certainty, and narration found in scripture as well as in language of the church based upon it.

            “Rationalism,” finally, again as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to the construction and assessment of doctrine. Theological language as such is understood to include an important rational or cognitive component. This component is subject to conceptual elaboration, and that elaboration (along with scriptura exegesis) is what constitutes the theological task. Because of the peculiar nature of the object on which it is based, rationalism takes pains to rule out certain illegitimate criteria and procedures in the work of doctrinal construction and assessment. Within the critical limits open to it, however, doctrines may be derived beyond the surface content of scripture as a way of understanding scripture’s deeper conceptual implications and underlying unity. George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

            You will notice that everything, from within a Barth conception of revelation is particularly thought from the Gospel itself, even the OT revelation, since protology is conditioned and given reality by eschatology and through a strong doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ (see Colossians 1:15ff and its ‘elevation’ theology). In other words as Bruce McCormack, and David Gibson have noted about Barth’s approach:

            ‘Christocentrism’, in Barth’s case then, refers to the attempt (which characterized his mature theology) to understand every doctrine from a centre in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ; i.e. from a centre in God’s act of veiling and unveiling in Christ . . . ‘Christocentrism’, for him, was a methodological rule — not an a priori principle, but a rule which is learned through encounter with the God who reveals himself in Christ — in accordance with which one presupposes a particular understanding of God’s Self-revelation in reflecting upon each and every other doctrinal topic, and seeks to interpret those topics in the light of what is already known of Jesus Christ. Bruce McCormack, Critically Realistic, cited by David Gibson, Reading The Decree, 9.

            It is to think and take serious what the Gospel of John discloses about Jesus, the eternal Logos in John 1.18:

            . . . The center of the New Testament is the relationship between Jesus Christ and the One he addresses as Father. The communion between Jesus and his heavenly Fatherly is an utterly unique relationship, of which we can know nothing apart from Jesus’ own testimony.

            God is thus Father not by comparison to human fathers, but only in the Trinitarian relation, as Father of the Son. Whenever Father is used of God it means “the One whom Jesus called Father.” The paradigm text is John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In Greek, the word for “made him known” is exegesato. Jesus “exegetes” or “interprets” the Father. The term does not denote a generic title for God outside of the Father-Son relationship. Father thus functions in Trinitarian language not as a descriptive metaphor but as a proper name, whose home is the relationship that exists from all eternity between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. That is a relationship to which we as creatures have not immediate knowledge or access. Andrew Purves and Mark Achtemeier, “Union in Christ: A Declaration for the Church,” 34-36.

            So if this is the case there is no revelation of God in abstraction from Godself revealed in Jesus Christ, as Jesus Himself notes in Jn. 5.39.

            The idea of ‘God behind the back of Jesus’ is critiquing the impact that dualist ways of thinking have had upon developing a doctrine of God. In line with the Purves quote it is, again, taking seriously the idea of Jn 14 when Jesus says, “when you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father,” in other words there is no understanding of revelation of God outwith the face of God in Jesus Christ. He is God for us w/o remainder, and the we would do well to read the OT as if it finds context christotelicly and not in abstraction or in some sort of way wherein what we read in the OT is ruptured from God’s revelation in Christ. In other words the OT read Christianly should be read prefigurally as pre-incarnate revelation—which again takes us back to protology/eschatology.

            The idea of God behind the back of Jesus is working from the belief that the economic Trinity *is* the ontological.

            This is what I have for starters.

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          • Tom says:

            Thanks Bobby. I was aware of course of the reasoning. And I agree that only God can reveal God through his free acts. I just don’t make the kind of distinction you make between ‘general’ and ‘specific’ revelation. But I think we’ve talked about that before.

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          • Bobby Grow says:

            Tom and David,

            Here’s something else I once wrote that might give more insight: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2015/10/29/knowing-god-by-god-in-christ-in-incarnation-and-resurrection/

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          • Tom says:

            Bobby, you quoted from both Hunsinger and referred to McCormack. Do you side with the former against the latter in the interpretation of Barth?

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thanks Fr. Aidan for contacting Bobby Grow, and Bobby Grow for taking care to respond in such detail (“for starters”)!

            I’m not sure when I’ll have time (or brain and language power) to attempt to address much of this.

            Meanwhile, I do particularly wonder what “there is no understanding of revelation of God outwith the face of God in Jesus Christ” means with respect to all the revelation which took place (as recorded in Scripture) prior to the Incarnation.

            Also, it is not clear to me what John 5:39 has to do with “there is no revelation of God in abstraction from Godself revealed in Jesus Christ”, or how that could be derived from the words of that verse as what “Jesus Himself notes” therein.

            Perhaps a bit tangentially, none of the three MS. readings in the Nestle ed. I have to hand offers me anything that could be translated “God the only Son” in the second clause of John 1:18 (nor is it clear how one gets from “eis ton kolpon” to “close to the […] heart”).

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Tom,

            Thanks! The Phillip Cary article was very helpful!

            The discussion of Bartian ‘actualism’ brings sharply home to me how very odd the stress on ‘das Geschehen’ and the language of ‘das Christusereignis’/’das Christusgeschehen’ are – as well as how little I know of the history of this odd terminology.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            David, here’s another Barthian take on the question by the respected scholar Bruce McCormack: http://goo.gl/Xe1cWw

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  4. AR says:

    Fr. Kimel, this caught my eye when you posted it but I wanted to find the language to say what I am thinking. I had to pull out my logic textbook.

    The author talks about the “comprehension” of particular ideas. The “comprehension” of the idea Man, for instance, includes the elements “rational, sentient, living, being.” He says dubiously that it’s commonly assumed that you cannot increase or diminish the comprehension of an idea without changing the idea. However, for a long time the idea ‘Whale’ was thought to contain the element ‘fish.’ Of course that was discovered not to be true. The author concludes that the idea (the “intellectual representation”) of Whale didn’t change, despite this mistake.

    I think the people who say Christians and Muslims DON”T worship the same God would say that the idea ‘Whale’ DID change, and the rest would disagree.

    The difference seems to be a distinction between 1) An idea of a true thing and 2) A TRUE idea of a true thing. Even when people thought a Whale was a fish, they still referred to the same substance we refer to by that name.

    I’m frustrated that this question wasn’t framed as “Do Christians and Muslims comprehend the same God?” At that point, the question of worship – secret heartfelt inclinations (which are unknowable) – can be set aside.

    Then it’s as if we are asking whether Muslims think the Whale is a fish, or whether they think the Hippopotamus is a Whale. (Although this of course assumes that they are wrong about something, and the wording of the question ‘Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God’ already studiously avoids any indication of such a judgment, which is suspicious to me.)

    I think that even if someone mistakes the Hippo for a Whale, that is still a sort of tribute to the actual Whale, provided one has not seen the Whale and denied its Whaleness. (Part of the anxiety fueling this debate, I assume, is the Evangelical assumption that the only worship that is actually worship is the interior experience provided by salvific grace.)

    But it seems to me more likely that any person who in the idea of God comprehends the elements “Uncreated, Single Substance” has correctly identified the Whale, even if he is making the terrible mistake of claiming it lays eggs in the sea. As to worship, I do not feel qualified to comment on anyone’s worship but my own.

    Hope I’m not just rehashing what’s already been said; I’m afraid I’ve avoided the actual debate through anticipatory anxiety. (People will become so irrational on these subjects.)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks, Alana. I agree with you that the inclusion of “worship” in the question has derailed the discussion of monotheistic reference.

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