In my previous post about the three great monotheistic religions, I talked about the similarities between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. All three choose to worship a single, infinite, all-powerful divinity. All three refuse to accept any lesser beings as divine or to give them worship, no matter how intelligent, powerful, or glorious they happen to be.
Of these religions, though, there are striking similarities to Judaism and Christianity that make them different from Islam. The Jewish faith, which dates back perhaps 3000 years, is the oldest of the three. Judaism focuses on relationships, and the first relationship is that of the Creator to the world He creates. Immediately, Adam and Eve abused their freedom, doubted God’s goodness, and turned their backs on Him. So the Jewish religion is God’s response to this separation. God moved to heal the division between Him and His creatures by entering more deeply into relationship with them. Specifically God entered into a covenant with Abraham, which is a solemn agreement binding on God and on Abraham and his descendants. This same covenant was renewed and expanded, with Moses and the whole Jewish nation. The terms of this covenant are essentially this; God takes the Jewish nation as His people and promises His love and care for them forever, and they in turn promise to love God by living according to His commandments. This Divine election, this sovereign choice of God, was not made for any other nation or people, and so the Jews have the burden and privilege of living in a special way that reflects God’s holiness to the other nations. Yet the Jewish nation was not completely faithful to God, and failed to show His holiness. Here, in their failure, the love of God emerged as a stronger and stronger theme. God patiently drew them again and again back to the beautiful and unique faith that they have been given. In other words, through this adventure God is revealed as a faithful, loving Father.
Christianity represents an amplification of the themes that emerge in Judaism. God’s desire for a relationship bears fruit in the Incarnation, as God enters into a union with mankind so profoundly intimate that He takes on human flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ. The Jewish covenant was imperfect because the human partner, even the Jewish nation as a whole, was flawed and prone to failure and sin. With Jesus Christ, God-made-man, holding our end of the bargain, we finally have a man whose love and fidelity equals the love and fidelity of God. Yet it is not enough for this covenant to simply be between God and a single man. The loving generosity of God, which seemed beyond our dreams in Judaism, is now made even more incredibly generous in Jesus Christ. Through the Catholic Church, the new people of God, all who are flesh and blood are invited to share in this covenant and receive the inheritance of Jesus Christ. The covenant which once embraced Jews has been expanded to its greatest possible limits, to embrace all human beings. In this new and Eternal Covenant, God promises to adopt us as His children and be our loving Father. In exchange, we promise to love God our Father by following His commandments and living in a way that reflects His holiness. It is truly a commitment beyond our capacity, but Jesus Christ transforms our poor humanity and makes us capable of loving as He does by sharing His Holy Spirit with us. It is the saints who have most fully accepted this gift and began to live, already in this world, the life that Jesus invites us all to live.
As a final comment, while listening to Orthodox Jews describe their faith in God, I recognize the same God that I love and serve. Muslims, however, worship a God whose attitude is different. For Jews and Christians, the love of God drives Him to lower Himself so that He can raise us up. Muslims are uncomfortable talking about God’s love and especially uncomfortable talking about God stooping to our level. The entire Islamic religion seeks to preserve God’s transcendent distance from us and His independence from all creatures. The idea of God being bound to a covenant impinges on God’s freedom, which they express in God’s independence and absolute sovereignty. The idea of God taking on human flesh, and being that closely connected to our weak and sinful nature, is especially shocking to Muslims and sounds like blasphemy to them. I should add that this idea is shocking to Jews, because God’s humility and love takes on shocking proportions in the Gospel, so much so that it OUGHT to make us uncomfortable. If we really understood what Jesus means when He says, “God loves us,” we would be humbled and awed by how outrageously, impossibly beautiful this love truly is.