A few weeks ago, I was invited to talk to a group of visiting Middle East Muslim scholars, rabbis and Christian leaders in the Lady Chapel of New Yorks St. Patricks Cathedral about our common religious traditions and devotion to Mary.
It was hard to find the right words to use, because the three traditions have such different religious vocabularies.
What came to mind was the well-known quip of George Bernard Shaw about the British and the Americans being one people divided by a common language.
This refers, of course, to the fact that sometimes the British and the Americans use entirely different words for the same thing. And, sometimes they use the same word to refer to entirely different things.
A similar observation could be made about Jews, Christians and Muslims: one family of believers in the one and the same God divided by religious language.
For example, Allah. Allah is simply the Arabic word for God (with a capital G). Prayers in the Arabic language, whether Christian or Muslim, naturally use this word. However, often you hear some Christians speaking erroneously about Allah as though this were the proper name of some kind of pagan divinity.
The Jewish Scriptures do tell of the one God revealing his proper name to Moses. This name is so holy that a devout Jew will never speak it, always substituting some other word, such as Lord.
Another example, Son of God. In the Jewish Scriptures, a holy person is sometimes called a son of God. For the first Christians, Jesus was preeminently such a person and more. In the Gospels he is frequently referred to as the Son of God (with a capital S). Over the centuries, this has been the subject of much Christian theology and prayerful reflection.
Christians are so familiar with this expression and accustomed to hearing it that they have no idea how outrageous Son of God sounds to Muslims, and sometimes to Jews.
The Muslim Scriptures specifically state that God has taken neither a wife nor a son and that God has no female consort, no son.
Of course, this presumes that the expression Son of God means the product of intercourse between God and a human person a very common idea in many ancient pagan mythologies. If this expression truly meant that, Christians would indignantly join Muslims in denying it as well.
On the other hand, Muslims always refer to Jesus as Jesus, son of Mary. Normally in Arabic the sons name is followed by the name of his father. The way Muslims speak of Jesus testifies to their belief how special he is and that he has no human father.
Similar misunderstandings arise with Muslims when they hear Christians speak of Mary as the Mother of God, even though Muslims do have a great veneration for and devotion to the virgin Mary.
The way we use religious words often stretches them far beyond their ordinary meaning. Struggling to speak of the mystery of the nature of God and his love, we lamely use the best words we can think of, even though they hardly can bear the burden of what we wish to say.
Religious language soars beyond the ordinary. To speak of the things of God, we often need poetry more than prose. And in poetry it is heart that speaks to heart, more than head to head.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA