Woe unto them who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)
The phrases that are used to describe things, if repeated frequently enough over time, will eventually make their way into the popular lexicon and become widely accepted as truth.
This phenomenon is often leveraged in the world of politics as a tool for influencing the manner in which great numbers of people tend to think and behave; e.g. the abortion lobby’s insistence on referring to their cause as “pro-choice” and a matter of “reproductive health.”
Employing deliberately deceptive descriptors such as these (otherwise known as propaganda) renders a disservice to truth that necessarily results in an offense against the common good. For the faithful Catholic, this much is obvious.
What may not be so obvious, however, is that the repeated use of misnomers can be equally as damaging even when such is done unknowingly and in the absence of ill will. In other words, ignorance does nothing to soften the blow against the common good.
As the Scriptures instruct, “Never speak against the truth, but be mindful of your ignorance” (Sirach 4:25).
With this duty in mind I’d like to examine the all-too-commonly uttered phrase that refers to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as “the three great monotheistic religions.”
Before continuing, let me be clear - I am in no way interested in the impossible (and irrelevant) task of attempting to evaluate the motives of those who have invoked this phrase in the past; rather, I simply intend to demonstrate that it so substantially lacks in both truthfulness and clarity of thought that its continued invocation is irresponsible for anyone who takes the call to evangelization seriously.
I would submit that the primary issue lies in the fact that the world boasts of only two monotheistic religions – Judaism and Christianity – that enjoy any reasonable claim to “greatness” as Catholic tradition would so define it, but we’ll return to that in a moment.
To examine the matter more broadly, let’s begin by considering whether or not any logical basis exists that might justify, according to some shared criteria, applying the word “great” to Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike among all of the monotheistic religions of the world.
One assumption that many seem to make is that the sheer size of these religions, measured in terms of adherents, is the criteria for the “greatness” allegedly shared in common. By that standard, however, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (which in spite of popular assumptions to the contrary, is according to its own sacred text, monotheistic) would arguably be considered the “three great” in our day.
Could the criteria for common “greatness” possibly lie in the relative ancientness of the three religions in question? No, by this measure the list would include neither Islam nor Christianity.
One may wonder if a more subjective set of criteria is what we’re seeking; one in which the “greatness” purportedly shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike lies in certain laudable achievements in the arts and sciences - things like the founding of institutes of higher learning, hospitals, libraries and so forth, or perhaps as it relates to the influence each has had on the structures of governance and justice.
Whatever assets might be included on the balance sheet of Islam, when one factors in such noteworthy liabilities as religious conquest, Sharia Law, “divinely” inspired acts of terror and the institutional indoctrination of youth in a madrasas system designed to cultivate future generations of Jihadists, “great” is a shoe that hardly fits; much less is it one that we share.
On occasion, the phrase in question is sometimes modified to speak of “the three great Abrahamic religions,” which may in some sense satisfy the first two criteria (size and age), but the more important question still remains as to whether or not Islam is deserving of sharing the label “great” with Judaism and Christianity according to its substance. Indeed, one may rightly even question whether or not Islam, though it enjoys a genealogical connection to Abraham via Ismael (of whom God promised to make a great nation, not a great religion), has any rightful claim to the faith of Abraham at all.
At this, let’s consider the substance of Islam relative to Judaism and Christianity.
All three faith traditions are in large measure rooted in what their adherents consider to be “holy writ,” and in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians unhesitatingly affirm that these are the inspired word of God and therefore truth without error.
This brings us back to the central point.
Judaism, unlike any other faith tradition on earth, finds its origins in what Christians fully recognize as Divine Revelation; the very same upon which our faith – the fullness of the faith - is built. Indeed, it is this singular criterion - one shared by Judaism and Christianity alone – that in spite of any imperfections that may be evident in the way individuals of either tradition practice their faith, justifies according to an authentically Catholic way of thinking any legitimate claim to the title “great” among the world’s religions.
Dedication to the common good demands a willingness to speak the truth even when such is difficult and unpopular. In the present situation, we must not hesitate to be clear - not only does Islam and its “holy” book, the Qu’ran, enjoy no such inspiration, it is replete with many grave errors; attributing utterances to “Allah” that can in no way be reconciled with the God who called Abram out of Ur.
It is necessary at this point to consider the widely misunderstood (and not without reason) Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.”
The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting (NA 3).
This text, written nearly four decades before 9-11, understandably strikes many (me included) as needlessly sanguine in its assessment of Islam - not because it is incorrect, but because it is so nuanced as to practically invite confusion.
Careful consideration, however, reveals that the Council is simply acknowledging to the extent that individual Muslim persons adore the “merciful, all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth,” they do indeed worship the God of Judeo-Christian tradition; a fact that is self-evident since there is only one Creator God “living and subsisting in Himself.”
It is absolutely crucial for us to acknowledge that the Council Fathers are not saying that “Allah” as defined by the tenets of Islam is the Creator who lives and subsists in himself, nor are they saying that “Allah” is one and the same as the God of Judaism and Christianity; indeed neither one of these statements are true.
The Council, in fact, had very little to say about the faith of Islam itself beyond the notion that it “takes pleasure in linking itself with Abraham” while deliberately remaining silent with regard to the validity of said pleasure in its substance.
Our Catholic faith leaves no room for confusion in the matter - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the author of Islam, nor is it He who inspired Mohammed or any other false prophet.
With this in mind, let’s return to the question posed in the title: Wherein lies religious greatness?
There is only one answer, of course. Religious greatness lies in the God who is Truth, and heeding the warning of Isaiah it must be said, woe unto them who call falsehood great.
The bottom line is this; no other religion on earth, monotheistic or otherwise, deserves the high distinction of being mentioned in a way that even remotely suggests that it exists on anything that resembles a parallel plane of “greatness” alongside Judaism and Christianity.
Thoughtlessly invoking the phrase, “the three great monotheistic religions” in reference to Judaism, Christianity and Islam has contributed nothing whatsoever to the common good, on the contrary. It has only served to imply a degree of equality to Islam that simply does not exist, and in so doing it inadvertently confirms for many the mistaken notion that “we all worship the same God.”
Perhaps it is fair to say that in days gone by the dangers associated with imputing unearned greatness to Islam were less obvious than they are today. Truth be known, I’m fairly certain that I too have mindlessly uttered this regrettable canard at some point or another in the past.
As I write today, however, I can assure you of this - for all of the reasons stated herein, I will never do it again.
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com