Catholic philosopher Rémi Brague engages thoughtfully with the now familiar descriptions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as “the three monotheisms,” “the three religions of Abraham,” and “the three religions of the book” in his recent book, On the God of the Christians (and on one or two others).1 Brague makes it clear that he respects the motivation of finding common ground among the religions that stands behind these frequently heard claims, but he makes it equally clear that there is no lasting gain if common ground is established only through rendering the teachings of the religious traditions sufficiently obscure to hide their distinctiveness.
We can note from the outset that the purpose of the book is not to engage in a polemical account of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but to overcome an invitation to intellectual sloth that might result from the suspicion that clarity and distinctiveness of religious doctrine can be only the product of totalitarian impulses. The proper role of reason and philosophy would seem to be challenged by such a suspicion, and we could say that the suspicion is precisely that reason is nothing other than a disguised form of an attempt to assert mastery and power on behalf of whatever client [End Page 4] reason offers to serve. I would suggest, then, that an important purpose of the book is to demonstrate the continuing fruitfulness of philosophical illumination through rational engagement with the understanding of God. This demonstration requires Brague not only to overcome in our contemporary culture a certain well-intentioned vagueness exercised in the effort to avoid uncomfortable disagreements but also to overcome the deformation of reason produced by the widespread tendency to reduce knowledge to the effort to exercise mastery and control. If philosophy is to participate meaningfully in contemporary discourse about God, it must do so by displaying modes of knowing that are appropriate to the effort to know God.
Brague’s book, then, can be seen as a response to the call issued by Blsd. John Paul II in Fides et Ratio for philosophy to reactivate its engagement with the highest things and as a demonstration of the continuing vitality of philosophical clarity and illumination in the human quest to know God.
It is because the path of philosophical argumentation often begins through careful engagement with widely held opinions that the book begins by overcoming the propositions that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be understood together as monotheistic, Abrahamic, and based on founding texts. Careful scrutiny indicates that none of these propositions can be sustained as making an important claim, but the most significant progress in achieving a fuller understanding of the God of Christians emerges in the questions Brague raises about what it means to call a religion monotheistic. Among the three propositions about these three religions, the claim about the significance of monotheism as common ground is the most philosophically rich, because out of this proposition emerges a pair of key questions: “One still has to ask, what model of divine unity is at work, and what are the consequences of the application of this model?” (9).
The remaining chapters of the book take up these questions as they pertain to the images and concepts of God held by Christians. [End Page 5] Brague devotes a chapter to restoring a conception of knowing that will enable us to grasp what it would mean to know God, and this requires restoring the role of will, freedom, and love to our conception of knowing in an account of knowing God. Once this work of epistemological restoration has been accomplished, the book proceeds down the path indicated by the questions that emerged through scrutiny applied to the concept of monotheism: the model of divine unity at work in Christianity is the Trinity, and the consequences of the application of this model are those that follow from knowing that God is love.
The Trinitarian nature of God therefore holds a key place in the Christian concept of God, and Brague helps us understand why this is so: “Vis-à-vis the unity of God, the Trinitarian nature of God invites us to adopt a distinctive attitude” (68...