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"Abrahamic Religions": Historical Revisionism or Ecumenical Rhetoric?

The character of Abraham, the so-called common denominator of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has long been the “ahistorical figure” for both religious reconciliation and painful exclusion. As neither a Jew, nor Christian, nor Muslim, Abraham has been the ideal figure of interfaith dialogue, often used in an attempt to capture some sort of shared characteristics between various social groups conveniently labeled “Jewish,” “Christian,” or “Muslim.”

Following the September 11 attacks in the United States, the term “Abrahamic religions” began to surface in full force. Expressing the “common origins” of three volatile traditions, interfaith activists sought to reconcile the divisions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism into a common rhetoric of peace. However, Aaron W. Hughes in Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History, asks what besides “a belief in God” and notions of “superiority based on supersessionist arguments” connect the triumvirate of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (17).

Hughes is worried that the blurring of theology and the academy leads to a historical distortion. While these three religions at times interact throughout history, these interactions must not be swept under a universal quest "for all three imagined as a whole" (142). With the use of "Abraham religions," the character of Abraham functions as a theologically imagined patriarch to a "family" of "similar" religions, and while the modern intention of peaceful reconciliation is noble, a priori assumptions of a shared genetic code obstructs the investigation of actual historical relations.

It is significant to note that Hughes is not dismissing the similarities and historical interactions of the three religions; rather, he is dismissing an artificial essentialist and monolithic theological tradition. Especially in a time when religious studies departments are fighting to justify their existence in the public university, the need to minimize theological tendencies becomes all the more relevant, as Hughes writes, “the claims of both supersessionists and ecumenicists are predicated on historical myths” (8). Instead, Hughes calls for new theoretical language that will reflect the fluidity of lived religious experience. He writes:

The traditional essence and manifestation model that eschews the particulars of historical interactions in favor of some vaguely constructed interfaith dialogue no longer seems a viable option, except, of course, in the various ecumenical circles associated with liberal theology (141).

As both a member of the academy and a participant in many interfaith groups, Hughes articulates a concern I have shared for similar inefficient terms, such as "Judeo-Christian" and "Abrahamism." These terms not only artificially construct a mythic origin story, but they obscure the lived experience of each religious tradition. And it is precisely because I believe interfaith dialogue is so important that I desire a new precision in both academic and theological language. Minimizing the fluidity of religious experience into romantic artificial categories does little to encourage dialogue; we do not need to invent a "common origin" to insist on the importance of inter-religious discourse. Once we escape the need for a religious essence, other stark categories of religion, ethnicity, and identity will dissipate, revealing the complex and albeit messy interaction of various social groups on the ground where practical inter-religious discourse can emerge.