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GA News: Bridging the ecumenical divides: GA discusses different understandings

SAN JOSE – If Presbyterians want to speak of the common ground in the faith of Christians, Muslims and Jews — perhaps as a way to build a bridge to deeper conversation — what’s the best way to do that?

            The 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) struggled with different understandings and approaches the night of June 25 – and particularly over the question of whether those three faiths, all descended from the Abrahamic tradition, believe in “one God” or the “same God” or something else entirely.

            After much discussion,  the assembly voted 547-149 for this language: that “though we hold differing understandings of how God has been revealed to humankind, the PC(USA) affirms that, as children of this loving God, we share the commandments of love for God and neighbor and the requirement to care for the poor.”

            The assembly was considering an overture from Newton Presbytery, in New Jersey – about 40 miles from New York City.  After the attacks of September 11, many from that area could see the smoke from the World Trade Centers staining the sky on their commute to work, said Joseph Martinoni, an elder from Newton.

            Remembering that, the presbytery initiated an interfaith dialogue, and the experience “opened our eyes to what their faith was really about and the fact that we did have so much in common,” Martinoni said.

            “It can cause a lot of anxiety to put a statement like this out,” Martinoni acknowledged. “Are we denying the Trinity? We are not.”

But Presbyterians in Newton have found “the way to come together with members of these faiths is to sit down at a table beginning with what we have in common. That is what Jesus commanded us to do,” as Jesus regularly reached out to people outside the fold of Jewish religious authority.

            But Presbyterians don’t necessarily agree on how to express that common ground. The commissioners considered, and voted down, a series of proposed amendments, all struggling to speak about commonality while not blurring the distinctions among the faiths.

Earlier, the assembly’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations committee had changed the original language the presbytery submitted – voting down language which stated that “the PC(USA) affirms that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship a common God, although each understands that God differently. …”

The committee changed that to read that the PC(USA) “affirms our belief in one God, the God of Abraham, whom Jews and Muslims also worship … ”

And the full assembly moved from the committee’s recommendation to this: “Though we hold differing understandings of how God has been revealed to humankind, the PC(USA) affirms that, as children of this loving God, we share the commandments of love for God and neighbor and the requirement to care for the poor.”

The assembly rejected a proposal to take out the difficult language altogether – but still to call for “further dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, viewing each other as equals, and learning from one another …” That proposed amendment failed by a fairly close vote of 336-356.

During the debate, representatives of the PC(USA)’s national staff were called on to help clarify where the denomination stands.

Jay Rock, the PC(USA)’s coordinator for interfaith relations, said Presbyterian policy makes it clear that “we affirm one God, the creator, sustainer and redeemer of the world.” And Presbyterians understand Jesus Christ to be present, Rock said, as they enter into interfaith discussions.

But “affirming the one God who is described in the Bible as the God of Abraham is not trying to say that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God,” Rock said. “The understanding of God and the understanding of how God is revealed in those three faiths is quite different.”

Later, Joseph Small of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship elaborated on those points for the assembly.

It’s important to understand, Small said, that “to affirm belief in one God is not identical with affirming belief in the same God. It’s quite clear that Christians and Muslims believe in one God. We, together with Judaism, are the monotheistic faiths.”

But they don’t believe in the same God, Small said.

“It’s quite clear that Christians and Muslims understand who God is differently … I hope that distinction will be maintained. I think it’s absolutely essential, and to confuse the two only confuses the issue at hand.”

Margaret “Peggy” Thomas, moderator of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations committee, asked one of several interfaith representatives at the assembly — Muneer Fareed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America – to share his views.

Fareed told the assembly there were two things he could not do.

“One is to articulate a Christian perspective on God. And the other is to articulate a Muslim perspective on God. This is precisely because Christianity certainly doesn’t have a singular vision of God. And so to is the case with Muslims. But there is that bond that binds Muslims to each other and I believe Christians to each other, and that is belief in God being one, God being our creator, God being our sustainer.”

That belief, Fareed said, might serve “as the bridge that brings us together. Our conceptions of God, the way in which we understand him or her, the way in which we approach the ultimate deity, varies not just from denomination to denomination, but … varies from person to person.”

But Fareed suggested that “for Muslims a common point of departure would be to accept the oneness of God, to accept his omniscience, his omnipotence, and to use that as the platform” for building relationships.

Fareed added that what the assembly decides “is important not just for Presbyterians, not just for Muslims, but for everyone on this earth who loves peace, harmony, and the brotherhood of human beings.”