Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Do Muslims & Christians worship the same God?

Back in December of 2003, Steven Waldman published an article in Slate Magazine with the above title. It's a very good question. But Waldman gave the wrong answer.

1. On a semantic level, this debate confuses sense and reference. The same name can designate a different referent, or, conversely, the same referent can have more than one name.

For example, I am not the same person as Steve Forbes or Steven King, even though we share the same first name. Conversely, the same person can go by more than one name. He may have a nickname.

The same applies in religion. On the one hand, Arab Christians use "Allah." On the other hand, the God of the Bible has a variety of names and titles. But it doesn't follow, merely from linguistic usage, that Arab Christians are designating the same referent as are Muslims, or that the Bible endorses polytheism. To draw that inference commits an elementary semantic fallacy.

3. Another semantic fallacy is committed when the multiple use of a divine designation for different referents is taken to imply polytheism. This commits a type/token confusion. In order to refer to something, even in hypothetical or counterfactual terms, we need some verbal token to designate the referent of the sentence. But this doesn't entail an ontological commitment to the objective existence of the referent. Likewise, one can employ the same name to designate either a real referent or a fictitious or hypothetical referent.

Take, for example, the Faust legend. This was based on a historical individual—a seminary dropout. And that, in turn, gave rise to a literary tradition. But if I compare and contrast Marlowe's Faust with Goethe's or Mann's, that exercise does not, of itself, imply anything positive or negative about the ontological status of the characters in question.

When, therefore, a theologian compares the Christian "God" with the Muslim "God," this does not imply polytheism. From a Christian standpoint, Allah is a nonentity. But, as a practical matter, you can't talk about something without giving it a name.

4. When the Bible describes pagan idolatry, it talks about the "gods" of the heathen because the heathen worshiped their idols "as" gods. That is merely idiomatic and functional usage. It does not ascribe any metaphysical status to the pagan pantheon.

At the same time, the Bible has a demonology. There is an occult reality standing behind the various manifestations of idolatry.

It is perfectly possible that Jethro was a polytheist. Not every speaker in the Bible is a Yahwist.

4. On the face of it, it is obvious that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, otherwise you wouldn't have distinct and divergent groups.

5. The Koran is equivocal on the subject. One has to draw a line between the Meccan verses and the Medinan verses. Muhammad had a garbled, hearsay knowledge of the Bible and Christian theology, interlarded with local folktales. At the outset of his career, he apparently believed that his movement was a restoration of the true faith, and that his message was essentially the same as that of the Jews and Christians.

But after a while, it became clear that the Jews and Christians did not share his equation. At that point, his begins to position harden.

In the Koran, Muhammad rejects the Trinity, although it's also clear that he lacks an accurate understanding of the doctrine. Because of the Trinity, Muslims often class the Christians with other idolaters who compromise the unity and utter transcendence of God. This accounts for the pervasive persecution of Christians by Muslims, both past and present.

6. Conversely, Byzantine theologians referred to Allah as a solid God or holospheric deity because it lacked any internal complexity. Clearly they didn't equate Allah with the true God of Nicene Orthodoxy.

7. Whether Jews and Christians worship the same God is not a simple question, for it depends on what you mean by a Jew. In Christian theology, the OT God is the same as the NT God.

However, modern-day Judaism runs along a wide religious spectrum, filtered through the Talmud (which canonizes Pharisaic Judaism), the Kabbala (based on Neoplatonic theosophy, with a lot of Hebrew wordplay thrown in) and liberal humanism (a la Marx, Moses Mendelssohn, Martin Buber, Isaac Mayer Wise, Abraham Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, Zionism, &c.).

Christian theology would say that Messianic Jews (=Jewish Christians) worship the same God. This would include the NT writers as well as the Jews for Jesus crowd.

8. It's true that the Muslim God and the Jewish God have different attributes, although that is not necessarily the best place to start. It is an issue of rival revelatory claims. Islam is a Christian heresy. If Christianity is true, then Islam is false because Islam both builds on Christianity and contradicts it.

9. It's also true that the hostile reaction to Bush's equation is, in part, driven by opposition to religious relativism and pluralism. Pluralism is an intellectual charade, for in the name of diversity it presumes to state the real interrelationship of the world's religions. But in that case it offers one global interpretation of religious phenomena, which is no more tolerant than the traditional rivalries.

Pluralism also operates with the unspoken assumption that unless everyone is saved, no one should be saved. But this seems, at the very least, like a rather ungenerous expression of inclusivity.

10. Pluralism often claims that the great monotheistic religious share a common bond by being Abrahamic faiths. However, the Abrahamic lineage of Islam is a Koranic claim and not a Biblical claim. So pluralism begs the question.

11. By virtue of natural revelation and common grace, there's a sense in which Muslims and Christians know the same God, but Muslims don't worship the God they know, at this subliminal level. Rather, they worship a surrogate "God" or idol. They know one thing, but believe another. To suppress and supplant the knowledge of the true God is the essence of idolatry (Rom 1). Islam is not monotheistic, but mono-idolatrous. The difference between a Muslim and a polytheist is that a Muslim only worships one false god instead of many.

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