If you want to surprise a congregation, tell them to share their understanding of God with each other.
That is how Charles Kimball, an ordained Southern Baptist minister and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The Christian Science Monitor he likes to highlight the differences in people's understanding of God, even within the same congregation.
Between adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, beliefs differ much more widely. But some have argued that different faiths may be closely related.
An Evangelical Christian professor has been been placed on leave because, in explaining why she wanted to show solidarity with Muslims by wearing an Islamic headscarf, she wrote that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Her comments have sparked fierce theological debate.
“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book," professor Larycia Hawkins wrote in a Facebook post. "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."
Her employer, Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Ill., where faculty commit to a Statement of Faith, disagreed.
"Her recently expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, appear to be in conflict with the College’s Statement of Faith,” administrators wrote in a statement, explaining that her administrative leave would continue while the school explored the matter.
Dr. Hawkins' post may have referred to statements by Pope Francis such as those he gave in an interview with Eugenio Scalfari from La Repubblica, in 2013.
“I believe in God, not in a Catholic God,” the pope told La Repubblica. “There is no Catholic God, there is God."
Such statements are not new to Catholicism. When Pope John Paul II addressed 80,000 Muslims in a soccer stadium in Casablanca in 1985, he said much the same thing, according to Vatican records.
"We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection," he said.
Former President George W. Bush regularly expressed the same sentiment during his presidency to the irritation of Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, who would otherwise agree with him, Rev. Kimball says.
“I believe the God that the Muslim prays to is the same God that I pray to,” then-President Bush told Al-Arabiya in 2007. “After all, we all came from Abraham.”
The idea goes back centuries. Sixteenth-century theologian Jacob Paleologus argued that as part of the same Semitic family tree, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all shared a basic idea of salvation and ought to share fellowship as well.
"There is in my view no ambiguity at all that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are talking about the same God," Kimball says. "What I have found is that this is more of a device that Christian religious leaders use to drive a wedge between Christians and Jews on the one side and Muslims on the other."
Such debate does not exist within Islam, Kimball says. Muslims have no doubt they worship the same God as Christians because according to Islamic self-understanding, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all given from God as the same original truth.
The Islamic word for God is Allah, Kimball says, and it is the Arabic word for God used by Arab Christians of all sects as well.