The Abrahamic Faiths and Universalism: Faith-Based Actors in a Complex World

Dr. Thomas Walsh's Speech

Keynote Speech at the 2016 Annual International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding
Theme: “One God in Three Faiths: Exploring the Shared Values in the Abrahamic Religious Traditions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam” 


I want to thank ICERM and its President, Basil Ugorji, for inviting me to this important conference and giving me the opportunity to share a few words on this important topic, “One God in Three Faiths: Exploring Shared Values in the Abrahamic Religious Traditions.”

The topic of my presentation today is “The Abrahamic Faiths and Universalism: Faith-Based Actors in a Complex World.”

I want to focus on three points, as much as time permits: first, the common ground or universalism and shared values among the three traditions; second, the “dark side” of religion and these three traditions; and third, some of the best practices that should be encouraged and expanded.

Common Ground: Universal Values Shared by the Abrahamic Religious Traditions

In many ways the story of the three traditions are part of a single narrative. We sometimes call Judaism, Christianity and Islam “Abrahamic” traditions because their histories can be traced back to Abraham, father (with Hagar) of Ishmael, from whose lineage emerges Mohammed, and father of Isaac (with Sarah) from whose lineage, through Jacob, Jesus emerges.

The narrative is in many ways a story of a family, and the relations among the members of a family.

In terms of the shared values, we see common ground in areas of theology or doctrine, ethics, sacred texts and ritual practices.  Of course, there are also significant differences.

Theology or Doctrine: monotheism, a God of providence (engaged and active in history), prophecy, creation, fall, messiah, soteriology, belief in life after death, a final judgement.  Of course, for every patch of common ground there are disputes and differences.

There are some bi-lateral areas of common ground, such as the especially high regard which both Muslims and Christians have for Jesus and Mary. Or the stronger monotheism that characterizes Judaism and Islam, in contrast to Christianity’s Trinitarian theology.

Ethics: All three traditions are committed to values of justice, equality, mercy, virtuous living, marriage and family, care for the poor and disadvantaged, service to others, self-discipline, contributing to the building or a good society, the Golden Rule, stewardship of the environment.

The recognition of the ethical common ground among the three Abrahamic traditions has given rise to a call for the formulation of a “global ethics.” Hans Kung has been a leading advocate of this effort and it was highlighted at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions and other venues.

Sacred Texts: Narratives about Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses figure prominently in all three traditions. The basic texts of each tradition are viewed as sacred and either divinely revealed or inspired.

Ritual: Jews, Christians and Muslims advocate prayer, reading of scripture, fasting, participation in commemorations of holy days in the calendar, ceremonies related to birth, death, marriage, and coming of age, setting aside a specific day for prayer and congregating, places of prayer and worship (church, synagogue, mosque)

The shared values, however, do not tell the whole story of these three traditions, for indeed there are enormous differences in all three categories mentioned; theology, ethics, texts, and ritual. Among the most significant are:

  1. Jesus: the three traditions differ significantly in terms of the view of the significance, status, and nature of Jesus.
  2. Mohammed: the three traditions differ significantly in terms of the view of the significance of Mohammed.
  3. Sacred Texts: the three traditions differ significantly in terms of their views of each one’s sacred texts. In fact, there are somewhat polemical passages to be found in each of these sacred texts.
  4. Jerusalem and the “Holy Land”: the area of the Temple Mount or Western Wall, Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, near the holiest sites of Christianity, there are deep differences.

In addition to these important differences, we must add a further layer of complexity.  Despite protests to the contrary, there are deep internal divisions and disagreements within each of these great traditions.  Mentioning the divisions within Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist), Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant), and Islam (Sunni, Shia, Sufi) only scratches the surface.

Sometimes, it is easier for some Christians to find more in common with Muslims than with other Christians. The same may be said for each tradition.  I read recently (Jerry Brotton, Elizabethan England and the Islamic World) that during Elizabethan times in England (16th century), there were efforts to build strong relations with the Turks, as decidedly preferable to the abominable Catholics on the continent.  Hence many plays featured “Moors” from North Africa, Persia, Turkey.  The hostility held between Catholics and Protestants at that time, made Islam a welcome potential ally.

The Dark Side of Religion

It has become commonplace to speak of the “dark side” of religion.  Whereas, on the one hand, religion has dirty hands when it comes to many conflicts we find around the world, it is unreasonable to attribute too much to the role of religion.

Religion, after all, in my view, is enormously positive in its contribution to human and social development. Even atheists who espouse materialistic theories of human evolution admit to religion’s positive role in human development, survival.

Nevertheless, there are pathologies that are frequently associated with religion, just as we find pathologies associated with other sectors of human society, such as government, business, and virtually all the sectors.  Pathologies are, in my view, not vocation specific, but universal threats.

Here are a few of the most significant pathologies:

  1. Religiously enhanced ethnocentrism.
  2. Religious imperialism or triumphalism
  3. Hermeneutic arrogance
  4. Oppression of “the other”, the “disconfirming other.”
  5. Ignorance of one’s own tradition and those of other traditions (Islamophobia, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, etc.)
  6. “Teleological suspension of the ethical”
  7. “Clash of civilizations” a la Huntington

What is Needed?

There are many very good developments going on around the world.

The interfaith movement has continued to grow and flourish.  From 1893 in Chicago there has been a steady growth of interreligious dialogue.

Organizations such as the Parliament, the Religious for Peace, and UPF, as well as initiatives by both religions and governments to support interfaith, for example, KAICIID, the Amman Interfaith Message, the work of the WCC, the Vatican’s PCID, and at the United Nations the UNAOC, the World Interfaith Harmony Week, and the Inter-Agency Task Force on FBOs and the SDGs;  ICRD (Johnston), Cordoba Initiative (Faisal Adbul Rauf), CFR workshop on “Religion and Foreign Policy”. And of course ICERM and The InterChurch Group, etc.

I want to mention the work of Jonathan Haidt, and his book “The Righteous Mind.”  Haidt points to certain core values that all human being share:



In-group loyalty



We are wired to create tribes, as cooperative groups. We are wired to unite around teams and separate or divide from other teams.

Can we find a balance?

We live at a time when we face enormous threats from climate change, to destruction of power grids, and undermining financial institutions, to threats from a maniac with access to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

In closing, I want to mention two “best practices” that merit emulation: The Amman Intefaith Message, and the Nostra Aetate which was presented on October 28, 1965, “In Our Time” by Paul VI as a “declaration of the church in relation to non-Christian religions.”

On Christian Muslim relations: “since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom…”  “fraternal dialogue”

“the RCC rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions”…..”often reflect a ray of truth that enlightens all men.”  Also PCID, and Assisi World Day of Prayer 1986.

Rabbi David Rosen calls it “theological hospitality” which can transform a “profoundly poisoned relationship.”

Amman Interfaith Message cites Holy Quran 49:13. “People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all-knowing and all aware.”

La Convivencia in Spain and 11th and 12th centuries a “Golden Age” of Tolerance in Corodoba, WIHW at UN.

The practice of theological virtues: self-discipline, humility, charity, forgiveness, love.

Respect for “hybrid” spiritualities.

Engage in “theology of religion” to create a dialogue about how your faith views other faiths: their truth claims, their claims to salvation, etc.

Hermenutic humility re texts.


The story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son on Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22) plays a central role in each of the Abrahamic faith traditions.  It is a common story, and yet one that is told differently by Muslims than by Jews and Christians.

The sacrifice of the innocent is troubling.  Was God testing Abraham?  Was it a good test? Was God trying to bring an end to blood sacrifice? Was it a forerunner of Jesus death on the cross, or did Jesus not die on the cross after all.

Did God raise Isaac from the dead, just as He would raise Jesus?

Was it Isaac or Ishmael?  (Surah 37)

Kierkegaard spoke of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.”  Are “divine commends” to be obeyed?

Benjamin Nelson wrote an important book in 1950, years ago entitled, The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood. The study considers the ethics of requiring interest in the repayment of loans, something prohibited in Deuteronomy among members of the tribe, but permitted in relations with others, a prohibition that was carried forward through much of early and medieval Christian history, until the Reformation when the ban was overturned, giving way, according to Nelson to a universalism, whereby over time human beings relate to one another universally as “others.”

Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, spoke of the dramatic transition from traditional societies to society dominated by the market economy.

Since the emergence of “modernity” many sociologists have sought to understand the shift from traditional to modern society, from what Tonnies called the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft (Community and Society), or Maine described as a shift status societies to contract societies (Ancient Law).

The Abrahamic faiths are each pre-modern in their origins.  Each has had to find its way, so to speak, in negotiating its relationship with modernity, an era characterized by dominance of the nation state system and the market economy and, to some extent the controlled market economy and the rise or secular worldviews that privatize religion.

Each has had to work to balance or restrain its darker energies. For Christianity and Islam there may be a tendency toward triumphalism or imperialism, on the one hand, or various forms of fundamentalism or extremism, on the other hand.

While each tradition seeks to create a realm of solidarity and community among the adherents, this mandate can easily slip into exclusivism toward those who are not members and/or do not convert or embrace the worldview.


  1. Theism, indeed monotheism.
  2. Doctrine of the Fall, and Theodicy
  3. A Theory of Redemption, Atonement
  4. Sacred Scripture
  5. Hermeneutics
  6. Common Historical Root, Adam and Eve, Cain Abel, Noah, Prophets, Moses, Jesus
  7. A God Who Is Involved in History, PROVIDENCE
  8. Geographic Proximity of Origins
  9. Genealogical Association: Isaac, Ishmael, and Jesus descended from Abraham
  10. Ethics


  1. Virtue
  2. Restraint and Discipline
  3. Strong Family
  4. Humility
  5. Golden Rule
  6. Stewardship
  7. Universal Respect for All
  8. Justice
  9. Truth
  10. Love


  1. Religious Wars, within and between
  2. Corrupt Governance
  3. Pridefulness
  4. Triumphalism
  5. Religiously informed ethno-centrism
  6. “Holy War” or crusade or Jihad theologies
  7. Oppression of “the disconfirming other”
  8. Marginalization or penalization of the minority
  9. Ignorance of the other: Elders of Zion, Islamophobia, etc.
  10. Violence
  11. Growing ethno-religious-nationalism
  12. “Metanarratives”
  13. Incommensurability

Related Articles