What does it mean to ask whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God”?

Occasionally controversy arises as to whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.” (See here for an example.) I don’t find this to be a particularly helpful way of putting the issue: presumably there is, at most, one God, so asking whether two groups of people worship the “same God” must be shorthand for something else. With all due respect to polytheism, it’s not like there are multiple gods and the question is which god one’s worship is directed at.

What I think is really being asked is to what extent the two religions understand God in the same way. For example, Muslims deny the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity as Christians understand them. This doesn’t mean that there are two different “gods” but rather two different understandings of what the one God who exists is like. The object of the understanding is the same, but the manner in which that object is understood differs.

So given this difference, what should Christians’ attitude toward Muslims be? Should they be trying to convert them to (what Christians believe to be) a better understanding of God? Do Christians think that a person’s worship can only be “true” or that they can only be saved if they have a flawless understanding of God? That seems to be setting the bar too high. To be specific, do Christians deny that someone can worship God if one denies the Incarnation and the Trinity? Well, that would mean that all Jews, including most of the great figures of the Bible, worship a “false god.” It would also go against a longstanding Christian tradition that “virtuous pagans” could attain true (if incomplete) knowledge of God. Moreover, the Bible suggests that knowledge of God is available to all people–often outsiders to Israel’s history are depicted as worshiping God, and Paul notes that God’s existence and wisdom are evident to the Gentiles. Not to mention that Christians have long recognized that God exceeds the grasp of our understanding. So even if Christians believe they have a “truer” or more complete understanding of God than non-Christians, they should acknowledge that God transcends their comprehension. There thus seems to be no good reason to deny that Muslims are acquainted with God and worship God according to their lights.

What Christians should focus on, I think, is confessing the revelation they believe they have received. As the Anglican bishop John V. Taylor once said, for Christians, “whatever else he is, God is Christlike–humble and vulnerable in his love.” That is the central truth Christians are called to witness to. In their dialogue with people of other traditions, Christians should–humbly and vulnerably!–uphold this insight. It may be that other traditions obscure or even deny this insight; but it may equally be possible that adherents of other traditions can absorb this insight without abandoning their tradition. The goal shouldn’t be for everyone to “become Christian” but for everyone to hear and respond to the gospel of God’s unlimited love.

Friday Links

What Makes Life Good? An excerpt from Martha Nussbaum’s new book.

–Johann Hari makes the case against the British monarchy.

–How progressive are taxes in the U.S.?

–Ten teachings on Judaism and the environment.

–Marilyn of Left At the Altar reviews Laura Hobgood-Oster’s The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals.

–A very interesting New Yorker article on the love-hate relationship between fantasy author George R.R. Martin and some of his fans.

–The fantasy of survivalism.

–Intellectual disability and theological anthropology.

–Do we need “Passion/Palm Sunday?” Seems like this comes up every year, and I’m not sure there’s a good solution.

–Mark Bittman on the cost of “lifestyle” diseases.

ADDED LATER: On Dutch efforts to ban traditional Jewish and Islamic practices of animal slaughter.

ADDED EVEN LATER: The spiritual benefits of headbanging, riffing (pun intended) on this Atlantic piece: How Heavy Metal Is Keeping Us Sane. (Thanks, bls!)

ONE MORE: It sounds like the movie version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is every bit as bad as you’d expect.

Friday links

–The Australian broadcaster ABC’s Religion and Ethics site has a series of articles by Martha Nussbaum on democracy and education: parts 1, 2, and 3.

–Coal is not cheap.

–Vegan nutritionist Virginia Messina argues that healthy diets can include meat analogues. (A corrective of sorts to anti-processed-food extremism.)

–At the great metal blog Invisible Oranges: why lyrics matter.

–Camassia has the first part of a review of Miroslav Volf’s interesting-sounding new book Allah: A Christian Response.

–Radiohead has released their new album “King of Limbs” a day early. You can download it here. I haven’t heard it yet, but the early reviews seem to be mixed. On the other hand, Radiohead albums generally take several listens to digest, so I’m withholding judgment.

–Paul Krugman on the budget “debate.”

–What’s going on in Bahrain?

–The Madison protests are about union-busting, not budget cuts.

–The history of using the National Guard to break strikes.

–According the calendar observed by Lutheran and some other Protestant churches, today is Martin Luther’s feast day (he died on this date in 1546).

ADDED LATER: The Nation‘s “Breakdown” podcast, hosted by Chris Hayes, tackles “the confusing concepts that make politics, economics and government tick” via questions submitted by listeners. This week’s episode tries to answer a question I asked: Why exactly are government deficits bad? (If or when they are.) Chris’s guest is economist Robert Pollin. You can listen here.

This seems appropriate for today:

False equivalence

Just for the record, Koran-burning and building Muslim community centers (or mosques) are not both unpleasant things we must “tolerate” for the sake of living in a free society. The former is an ugly, reactionary practice that, yes, must be tolerated, if people insist on doing it, for the sake of the First Amendment freedoms we cherish. The latter, however, is in general a positive good–people practicing their religion in peace with their neighbors and fostering service to and reconciliation within their community.

Dog bites man, John Milbank stirs up controversy

John Milbank of “Radical Orthodoxy” fame always seems able to stir up controversy in the theo-blogosphere. The latest hullabaloo stems from an essay Milbank wrote for an Australian website that seems to endorse a romantic nostalgia for western colonialism (or as he puts it, “the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires”). That, and the fact that Milbank draws on the right-wing American Enterprise Institute’s favorite apostate Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali for much of his essay’s treatment of Islam, seems to have confirmed for many that there’s little that’s radical about Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy and much that is an apology for old-fasioned Christian imperialism and exclusivism. (Milbank’s flirtation with David Cameron’s Tory party in the UK is, for many, another data point.) Milbank’s essay has generated several responses: at An und für sich, Religion Bulletin, and Inhabitatio Dei, among other usual suspects.

I don’t really have a dog in this fight, but I can’t help but notice that Milbank, as in other of his writings, has a highly idealized view of Christian history, which allows him to play a tolerant, reasonable, even feminist Christianity off of a historically intolerant, irrational, and repressive Islam. While Milbank generously allows that there is more potential for Islam to change than does Ali, the fact that he sets up the opposition the way he does loads the dice from the outset. Essentially, Milbank’s “solution” for Islamic reform is for Islam to become more like Christianity. I’m also puzzled because Milbank says that Islam should become more “ecclesial,” more “mystical,” and less “political,” but I was under the impression that Radical Orthodoxy saw the church as the “political” entity par excellence.

Why do Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin (and the American people) hate our freedom?

William Saletan has a good round-up and rebuttal of the campaign on the Right to prevent the construction of a Muslim community center and mosque in lower Manhattan, not far from the World Trade Center site. Maybe I’m naive, but it’s actually kind of shocking to hear high-profile pols like Gingrinch and Palin all but explicitly come out for the abrogation of First Amendment freedoms. The poll numbers on this issue aren’t encouraging either–it seems that a majority of Americans think that it’s okay to restirct someone’s religious freedom if it’s not your religion.

The Right and guilt-by-association

Saying that the Right has been employing McCarthyite tactics seems almost redundant at this point, since virtually the entire repertoire of the Right since the 2008 election seems to consist of guilt-by-association.

Still, Robert Wright’s analysis of the ludicrous ginned up controversy over the proposed mosque to be built near the Ground Zero site in New York shows just how preposterous these tactics have become. In this case, it’s not even guilt-by-association so much as a geopolitical version of six degrees from Kevin Bacon.

Non sequitur of the day

Theologian Paul Griffiths has an interesting post about how Christians should think about Muslims, but then ends with this:

I hope, that is, that we Christians will increasingly choose to see Muslims as allies and affines against the deadening and bloody weight of late-capitalist democracy. It would be better, I think, for the Church to live under the constraints and difficulties of an Islamic state, violent and restrictive though these can be (as they are, for instance, in Saudi Arabia), than to return with ever more passion, as it is increasingly doing, the bodysnatching embrace of late-capitalist democracy.

Well, um, okay…are those our only choices?

More on +Rowan’s lecture

Via Fr. Chris, an in-depth analysis and defense of the now-infamous Rowan Williams “sharia lecture” by Mike Higton, a theologian and scholar of Williams’ work. As Higton says in his brief summary:

Despite everything you’ve heard and read, the most striking thing about Rowan Williams’ lecture is that he mounts a serious and impassioned defence of ‘Enlightenment values’.

Fr. Chris also makes the following point that’s well worth considering:

It is always interesting — frustrating, too — to observe how Muslims are criticized illegitimately for doing things that Christians seem to be called to in some ways as well. 1 Cor 6 seems to suggest that we Christians should also avoid bringing our legal disputes into the secular realm, solving them within the Church wherever possible. The Muslim system goes further than this, so the situations are not identical. But on the face of it, I don’t see the desire to adjudicate some claims within one’s faith community — especially where there are safeguards so no one is coerced to give up their basic human rights, an important caveat in Williams’ proposal — is illegitimate.

P.S. See also Ross Douthat and Alan Jacobs for somewhat more critical, but still intelligent takes.

Making room for religious law?

There’s been a lot of blogospheric hubabaloo about this rather dry and academic lecture given by Rowan Williams on the possibility of recognizing, in some official fashion, religious legal jurisdictions within a pluralistic society. What was reported as the Archbishop appeasing Islamic extremists is, in reality, a nuanced exploration of some significant issues in the philosophy and theology of law.

In fact, Williams’ lecture is an interesting discussion of some of the issues we’ve been batting around here, specifically the question of how particular religious identities can be expressed within a pluralistic and secular state. What Williams is exploring is the possibility that, for certain specified matters, religious believers could choose to “opt-in” to legal (or quasi-legal) arrangements based in religious principle. Which sounds to me like a form of religiously-based arbitration.

The emphasis here is on the need to recognize that society is composed not just of individuals, but of a plurality of groups, each with their own particular identity. And that each person has plural identities in being both a citizen of the state and a member of one or more group within society. To allow people to opt-in to certain particular legal or quasi-legal frameworks is part of recognizing the reality of religious and other identities and the claims they make upon their adherents. So, a Muslim might choose to have certain issues relating to marriage or finances adjudicated by an Islamic “court” within the broader framework of the law of the state.

Rowan is careful to note that there are potential pitfalls in making sure that all people have their rights as citizens secured and that coercion and abuse are avoided. He is insistent that there be a prior guarantee of equality before the law and a baseline morality for all citizens. And this is where his lecture seems most germane to the issues we’ve been hashing out. He sees the role of the law as “a mechanism whereby any human participant in a society is protected against the loss of certain elementary liberties of self-determination and guaranteed the freedom to demand reasons for any actions on the part of others for actions and policies that infringe self-determination.” In other words, the authority of particular communities over their members is limited by recognition of an essential shared human dignity.

It is not to claim that specific community understandings are ‘superseded’ by this universal principle, rather to claim that they all need to be undergirded by it. The rule of law is – and this may sound rather counterintuitive – a way of honouring what in the human constitution is not captured by any one form of corporate belonging or any particular history, even though the human constitution never exists without those other determinations. Our need, as Raymond Plant has well expressed it, is for the construction of ‘a moral framework which could expand outside the boundaries of particular narratives while, at the same time, respecting the narratives as the cultural contexts in which the language [of common dignity and mutually intelligible commitments to work for certain common moral priorities] is learned and taught’ (Politics, Theology and History, 2001, pp.357-8).

This is similar to what I’ve been calling “chastened” liberalism: it upholds the irreducible importance of self-determination and the need for a sphere of free action for the individual, but it also respects the reality of “thick” communities. It refrains from trying to loosen their bonds more than is necessary to ensure an essential measure of justice and freedom for each person as well as a kind of modus vivendi or negotiated peace between different communities within a society. This would be in contrast to a more universalizing or “crusading” liberalism that upholds a single form of life as the best for every person: the free-wheeling, unattached, cosmopolitan individual.

Now, It’s not entirely clear to me how much freedom Rowan envisions people having “over against any and every actual system of social life.” For instance, if I can opt-in to a more restrictive religious law, can I also opt-out again? In other words, exactly how much authority does he envision ceding to religious communities? Is it possible to give communities a significant degree of autonomy while still upholding the principle that whether or not to belong to such a community is a matter of individual choice? This is, I think, the more reasonable version of the concern raised, somewhat hysterically, in some quarters by Rowan’s speech. I recommend reading the whole thing, though it is a bit dense in places.