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One God, Three Quests
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One God, Three Quests

Professor Traces Religions’ Journey Towards Monotheism

By Dr. Louise Prochaska ’64

“It was a wonderful time to reflect on Sr. Karita’s topic – ‘One God, Three Quests’ – during Lent. Recognizing the commonalities of our faiths at a time when there is so much dissention in the world, reminded me how important our faith can be in sustaining us through difficult times,” said Associate Professor of Management Sharon Kerschner, who attended the President’s Lecture and dinner in Notre Dame College’s Great Room on March 15.  

That evening, Sr. Mary Karita Ivancic, SND, D. Min., ’71, gave the 2011 President’s Lecture discussing the process by which the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – reached a solid faith in one personal God. 

Sr. Karita, who teaches theology and choral music at Notre Dame and holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from St. Mary’s Seminary, was inspired to research this topic after hearing the presentations of Rev. George Smiga, the Tuohy lecturer at John Carroll University in the spring of 2010. 

Besides researching published scholars, she interviewed Michael Bloom, director of Notre Dame’s Abrahamic Center; Imam Ramez Islambouli, professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University; and Rabbi Steven Segar of Temple Kol Halev. Sr. Karita said she was impressed by the scholarship of these men as well as their deep respect for the Christian understanding of God.

The highlights of Sr. Karita’s research include the following insights:

It was not until the Israelites experienced exile in Babylon (587 to 538 B.C.E.) that they committed themselves totally to the God of Abraham. Before this purifying period, they were actually henotheists – people who worship one God yet believed that many other gods existed and protected other peoples. 

The Christian quest was different. The original followers of Jesus were strong believers in the one God of Abraham. It took Christians about 400 years and many heresies as well as theological battles to arrive at a way of expressing faith in a triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One striking passage in the paper says this well: “The Trinity is not to be understood as a literal theological statement or a logical explanation, but rather as ‘an imaginative paradigm’ or ‘poem’ about a divine relationship…one God whom we know in three distinct ways of being God for us.”

Islam, Sr. Karita writes, was founded in a henotheistic culture that “worshipped about 300 gods and demi-gods that functioned as intermediaries between the Creator God (Allah, meaning ‘the God’) and his creation.” By the time Mohammed was born in Mecca (in the sixth century C.E.), most city-dwelling Arabs understood Allah to be the same deity worshipped by Jews and Christians, but they still crafted, sold and worshipped statues of many other gods. Mohammed was told by the angel Gabriel to honor only Allah. When the prophet began preaching this message, he was rejected by everyone in Mecca except some of his own clan members. Between 610 and 630 C.E., Mohammed preached and fought to establish the worship of Allah alone. Once established, this new faith galvanized the Arab peoples and spread very quickly in the Arabian peninsula and across North Africa. 

The second and shorter theme developed in Sr. Karita’s paper was the profile of the God of these three religions. Sr. Karita highlighted five qualities: ineffable, beyond names or images; a distinct living being, not a “cosmic force”;  being benevolent and self-revealing; and holding up “definite expectations of human beings.”

Notre Dame College President Dr. Andrew P. Roth sent a public message to Sr. Karita the day after her lecture. “Thank you for your excellent President’s Lecture presentation last evening. Your talk ‘One God, Three Quests: The Journey of Jews, Christians and Muslims Toward Monotheism’ captured exactly what such a talk should be – scholarly but accessible, knowledgeable but not arcane and presented with both grace and élan. Congratulations on a job well done!”  

Dr. Louise Prochaska ’64 is professor of theology and women's studies at Notre Dame College.