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.

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

  1. “What I really think is really being asked is to what extent the two religions understand God in the same way.”

    Right on. The other way of putting is either:
    1) A ruse by Islamophobes to discredit Islam; or
    2) A ruse by atheists to discredit theism.

  2. Nice post. I got a little worried by this:
    “There thus seems to be no good reason to deny that Muslims are acquainted with God and worship God according to their lights.”
    because the thus seemed misplaced, but I see your point.
    However, most Muslims find your (excellent and worthy) proposed point of emphasis blasphemous, making dialog difficult. I agree that these attributes are tremendously important, which is why I think a tradition that rejects them is in error. To the extent that an aspect of vulnerability in God is exclusively a Christian belief, your scare quotes are disingenuous. How is Islam to discover this aspect? Their revelation is closed, and they don’t take kindly to innovators.

    1. Thanks for the comment. On the first point, I agree that my “thus” was a bit of logical base-stealing. The point I was trying to make is that Christianity doesn’t stand or fall on denying that people outside its tradition can attain true knowledge and worship of God, which includes Muslims.

      On the second point, I have to confess some degree of ignorance about what Islam can and cannot accomodate. But relgious traditions are by their nature fluid and open to change and development–even if some of their adherents deny this!

  3. It’s hard to draw a line between polytheism and monotheism that everyone agrees on without a whole lot of question-begging. When I teach World Religions, I break up the class into small groups and have them visit various houses of worship. The group that visited the local Hindu Center in last fall’s class met the priest there, and the priest was adamant that Hindus are monotheists, that the Hindu deities are merely personified attributes of the One divine nature.

    The same group later attended an Orthodox synagogue, and asked the rabbi, Do you think that Christians are monotheists? He answered, I believe that Christians believe that they are monotheists. Heh. Which, I suppose is what I would say if someone asked me, Do you believe that Hindus are monotheists.

    1. Well I sometimes think Christians aren’t very good monotheists, but then I probably have suppressed modalist tendencies. 😉

      My understanding of Hinduism was that it is a very complicated tradition with many different expressions, but that, generally speaking, the more philosophical schools tend to see the various deities as expressions of an underlying, transcendent reality. Whether or not that counts as a version of “theism” is an interesting question!

  4. I think one thing that makes this complicated is that it matters when you ask the question. If you were around when Muhammad was alive, the question, “Who was talking to Muhammad in the cave?” presented a stark choice, as did Jesus’ “Who do you say i am?” back when he said it. However, as religions spread, age, and interact with other religions, it becomes a lot less clear who’s worshipping what. Hence the God of Sufism looks kind of Hindu, the Hindus revere Jesus as a saint, the Pure Land version of Buddhism looks messianic, etc. Although God is theoretically always active in the world, there are certainly some times when religion is mostly a matter of people observing and speculating about God, and others when God — or something — seems to be acting more directly and therefore needs a clearer identification.

    1. I agree with this up to a point. For instance, I think there’s a middle ground between saying “God dicated the Koran to Muhammed word for word” and “Muhammed was totally deluded.” It’s possible that Muhammed had a genuine experience of God but that not everything in the Koran is directly divinely inspired (though I recognize that many Muslims would say it is).

  5. From the little that I’ve learned of Hinduism, I’d say too that Hindus are monotheists with different aspects of God available to them. When I was first becoming a Christian, I asked the priest who was helping me if the trinity was one God in three aspects and he said that was a heresy … add Mary to the mix and things get even messier 🙂

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