Bridging the Abrahamic Traditions
I picked up Mirabai Starr’s newest book, God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, on Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day of Remembrance for those who died in the Holocaust. A man standing beside me, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, looked at the book and remarked with a mixture of wishful sorrow and rancor, “God of Love!? I’d like to ask Mirabai a few questions about that!”
Yes, just the title of this book provokes questions and emotions. Not to mention heated online debates. But leave the heat of argument aside for a moment. Instead, accept the invitation that Starr’s beautifully crafted book offers and enter into a space where divine love is illuminated as a central teaching and core ethic within the heart of these three monotheistic traditions.
In a world where violence seems to prevail, it can be hard to believe in a God of love. With a few clicks on a keyboard, we can tune into reports of numberless tragedies: ethnic struggles, religious strife, bombings, genocide, and uncontrollable fires. We hear and experience, whether first- or second-hand, the upheaval from tsunamis, famine, drought, earthquakes, acts of terrorism, and the ravaging of our forests, mountains, and oceans. Where then can we find God? Much less find a God of love?
Doubt and the dark night of the soul are not ignored in this brave book. Abraham and Jesus were both tested, and their darkest hours are revealed as testaments to spiritual awakening and the triumphs of the spirit. In the chapter “Reluctant Prophets, the Divine Summons,” we learn that Muhammed, who could not read or write, was “squeezed” three times by an angel who three times commanded him to “Recite.” When he surrendered to that command, the opening lines of the Holy Qur’an flooded through him. Still he doubted, but with the support of his wife Khadija he opened his heart to the Divine and experienced a series of revelations that lasted twenty-three years.
Lest we think Abraham, Jesus, and the Prophet Muhammed are impossible models to follow, Starr shares these poignant words of Etty Hillesum, a young woman whose life ended in a concentration camp, “One should want to be a balm on many wounds.” This line can bring us to our knees, in awe of our human capacity for cultivating compassion in the midst of unspeakable cruelty. But awe can create distance, so Starr brings us home to our own capacities, ending the chapter called “Sacred Service, Compassionate Action” with these words: “Let us embrace our wounds as evidence of our membership in the human family and allow them to guide us into treating all beings as our mothers and sons, our brothers and grandmothers, doing everything in our power to lift their burdens and bring them to solace.”
The Doubters among us are in good company in the chapter entitled “Faith in the Absence of Truth.” Here, Starr shares a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, “Faith is the bird that’s feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark.” And from the Qur’an, “All things suffer annihilation (fana) and there remains the face of the Lord in its majesty and bounty.” Juxtaposed with Starr’s simple declaration, “for as long as I can remember I have been in love with a God I am not sure I believe in,” these words eased the way for my exploration of the God of Love. And when I finished this book, after a winter of doubt and challenges, it became clear that in God of Love Starr beautifully accomplished her wish “that her book be a dipper of cool water in a burning world.”
God of Love goes far beyond illuminating the unifying essence at the heart of the three Abrahamic traditions. It offers beautiful and irrefutable quotes to quell the suspicions of those who see the God of the “other brother” as dangerous and intolerant. These quotes might help bridge the unfortunate, unnecessary, and long-standing rift between the lineages of Abraham’s two sons, to which Christianity is a blood brother.
But the radiance of this book lies in the heartfelt and intelligent way it constructs a bridge not only between the three religious traditions but, equally important, a bridge between the moments when we recognize and know this God of love in our own lives and the moments when that love becomes invisible—obscured by clouds of anger, disbelief, sorrow, or despair.
Starr, who seems to dance to the center of as many of the worlds’ religions faiths as she can, builds this bridge with the words of saints and prophets, philosophers, and poets. It is a suspension bridge, woven with cords of love and faith, doubt and hope. Quotes from Rumi, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, the Bal Shem Tov, the Torah, the Qur’an, and the Bible are interwoven with stories from the lives of people dedicated to knowing and serving the God of love.
But ultimately it is the rhythm and cadence of Starr’s voice as she shares her own encounters with sorrow, loss, and ecstasy that make the God of love knowable. This book became a calm friend sitting beside me as I drank my morning coffee, a charming and somewhat provocative lunchtime companion, an engaging guest in the hours before sleep. God of Love renewed my faith in the positive influence that the Abrahamic traditions can have on our world and reaffirmed my commitment to aligning myself with a faithful understanding of that shared central core of goodness.
As Starr gently reminds us toward the end of this book of earthy and heavenly wisdom: “Do not abdicate your power or your responsibility to repair this broken world … no matter what religion you follow. And if the road seems arduous and long … remember, we all take turns renewing each other along the way. ”
Read this book. Let the God of Love be a partner on your journey. When I see him again, I will pass this book on to the man who stood beside me with his doubt, his pain, and his questions, on that day when I first picked up the God of Love. I hope he will drink deeply.