One and the Same?

I’ve blogged about this before, but with Wheaton College’s recent dismissal of one of their professors for claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, it seems like a timely subject to revisit.

It seems as though this is a sensitive as well as timely subject, as evidenced by Wheaton’s reaction to what some Christians (even Bible-believing Evangelicals) would see as a legitimate intellectual position, and it’s not really one that the Bible itself weighs in on very clearly. In the period in which the Bible was being written, there were no other extant monotheistic faiths about which the Bible authors saw fit to comment. Even Akhenaten’s solar monotheism goes unremarked in Scripture, and Islam was several hundred years in the future at the time of Christ. At the time of writing even the last books of the New Testament, Christianity wasn’t even fully divorced from Judaism, the only other existing monotheisting faith..

So we’re dependent for an answer largely on our own reasoning and wisdom, and our interpretation of certain few Scriptural precedents.

There are simplistic arguments and poorly-reasoned responses on both sides. It would be incredibly oversimplifying the question (as well as denying the real differences between us) to say that since both Muslims and Christians believe in one God who created and rules the universe that therefore the Muslim and Christian views of this God are identical at all points, but equally, it would be oversimplifying the question (and denying the considerable body of basic truth that we do hold in common) to say that since the Muslim and Christian doctrines of God are not identical at all points that therefore the Islamic Allah and the Christian God are fundamentally separate beings.

What the debate boils down to is how significant are the differences, and how significant are the commonalities?

It should be evident to anyone that Muslims and Christians do have several crucial differences in how they conceive of the Divinity. Christians believe in a Godhead who is Triune. Muslims consider any attempt to compromise the singularity of the Divinity as the ultimate sin of shirk, or blasphemy about the Divine nature. Christians believe in a God who is Love. Muslims see this as an anthropomorphism at best and almost certainly a heretical notion. And so on.

But it should also be obvious that there is a lot of overlap in how we perceive the Divinity. The Muslim Allah and the Christian God are both shown in the relevant texts of the two religions as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. They are both known as Creator, Sustainer, Almighty, Ruler of the angels, Lord of the Universe. It’s not totally unreasonable to suggest that we might be looking at the same Being from different angles.

Ah, but that relativises revealed Christian truth and undercuts missions by suggesting that Muslims don’t need to be saved, we are told sometimes.

Personally, I find that to be avoiding the question. Jews who are not Messianic also consider the Christian concept of the Trinity to be blasphemous, yet no-one I know about is suggesting that the Jewish Adonai is not the same Being as the Christian God. Indeed, our very foundational theology rests on the fact that they are one and the same: “Christianity is Judaism fulfilled”, as we sometimes put it.

So what makes Islam different?

Saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not the same as saying that Islam is wholly right. Some of their theology is wildly divergent from mainstream Christian doctrine, as I have said. The real question is over how significant those real theological differences are to the question of whether or not we worship the same God. After all, Calvinists and Arminians sometimes hold some wildly divergent theological doctrines, yet no-one seriously claims that Baptists and Methodists are following different gods. Or Protestants and Catholics, for that matter. I don’t hold with the Catholic elevation of the Bishop of Rome or their doctrines of purgatory and penance, and some of their veneration of the Virgin Mary and other saints is a little too close to outright worship for my personal comfort, but I don’t try to say that Catholics are worshipping a false god. That would be rather ridiculous, in my opinion.

In other words, just because we have some different beliefs and teachings about God, it does not necessarily mean that there is a black-and-white separation and “our God” is the true one and the fact that their teachings differ from that is prima facie evidence that “their god” is a false one. That seems rather simplistic. The truth is a little more complex.

For those who believe that Muslims and Christians are worshipping different beings, the crucial difference comes down to character. They point to the apparent capriciousness of the Muslim Allah, the recorded harsh, demanding aspect of his character and the total lack of any sense of the Christian idea that “God is Love”. They point to the absolute and uncompromising monotheism of Islam, with no room for the complex Christian idea of the Trinity. They point to the apparent distance of the Muslim Allah from his believers.

These are all valid points and critical differences. Muslim concepts of Allah and Christian concepts of God are really not the same.

But is that the same as saying that therefore they are two separate beings? I’m not sure.

If we were to encounter a new tribe of polytheistic pagans who had a notion of a “high god” who was a good Creator deity, but distant from humans and uninvolved, most of us would probably identify that “high god” with the God of Scripture, even if the local religion’s concept of that God was that He was limited in power, presence and knowledge. After all, isn’t that what Paul did with his Mars Hill speech to the Athenians, proclaiming the “unknown god”?

Paul was even prepared to repurpose pagan poetry (functionally almost equivalent to Judaeochristian prophecy for the ancient Greeks) addressed to the vengeful, capricious and lustful Zeus to convey Christian truth about the Divine Being.

Was Paul saying that all of the Greek ideas and stories about Zeus were right? No, of course not. And honesty compels me to admit that he wasn’t saying that the pagan Zeus and the Christian YHWH were the same being, either. But historians tell us that at this period the more philosophical among the Greeks were beginning to dimly grasp that humans needed a Deity who was higher than the pagan stories. Though framed in the language of Zeus, there was a groping towards the notion of a High God. Zeus at his most exalted begins to approach Yahweh at His lowest ebb.

Can we build on that? Paul thought so.

Can we do the same with Islamic ideas about the Divine Being? Why would we be unable to? They are far closer to the whole truth.

A lot of the argument seems like a deliberate misunderstanding of one another’s position. To those who claim that Muslims and Christians are worshipping the same God, saying that we aren’t is perceived as a simplistic and unhelpful denial of the very real overlap in conceptions of the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. As one who holds this position, I often want to point out that it is unhelpful, when trying to lead a Muslim to faith in the Messiah, to start out from an attitude of “everything you believe is wrong”. Because it isn’t so. He (or she) already knows the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, just as we know the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He already knows that there is a spiritual world. He acknowledges angels and demons, the Messiahship of Jesus and the reality of the Last Judgement. It seems foolishly ignorant to dismiss all of that.

However, it cuts both ways. For many of those who say that Muslims and Christians are not worshipping the same God, this is merely a way of acknowledging that the Muslim doctrine of Allah does not entirely square with the Christian doctrine of God. They are (most of them) not saying that Muslims do not believe any Biblical truths about the Deity, just that the differences are significant enough that it is perilous at best to equate the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. They really aren’t the same.

As for me, I’m more comfortable with giving Muslims the credit of at least worshipping the same Being that we are, even if, like the pagan polytheists in my hypothetical example, they get some of it wrong. To me, what the differences largely come down to is a difference in focus on various aspects of the nature of God. We look on the differences as largely differences in character, and they are (given that we are prepared to believe that Jewish people worship the same God despite their rejecting the notion of the Trinity), but to my mind that obscures a very interesting difference in how we approach the nature of God.

Both Muslims and Christians hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Or in simpler words, all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere at all times. We both hold that He is both good and eternal. But we have different areas of focus, and they affect the way we perceive His character.

Muslims acknowledge all of those attributes, but the really important one to Muslims is His omnipotence. God is first and foremost great, supreme in power and without rival. To Muslims, even His justice and goodness are second to His omnipotence; whereas Christians believe in an objective standard of right and wrong to which even God is subject, to a Muslim the idea that God could be subject to anything, even the idea of right and wrong, is nonsense. Whatever Allah does is right, not because Allah constrains Himself to never do wrong, but because whatever He does becomes right. It’s right because God is doing it.

By the same token, referring to God as “Father”, “Lover”, “Bridegroom” or many other of our Christian titles is to do the all-powerful, supremely exalted Godhead the blasphemous disservice of equating Him with our human expressions of those titles. We’re bringing God down to our level, as far as they are concerned. God isn’t like a fallible human father in all ways, much less the equality that “lover” can sometimes communicate.

By contrast, for many Western Christians the really important attribute of God is His omnipresence. Yes, God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but the important thing is that He’s close to us. “Emmanuel” is a truth that much of Christian doctrine rests upon, but even beyond its meaning that “The Word became flesh”, we focus on God’s nearness and readiness to act on our behalf. Look at our worship songs. “What a Friend We Have In Jesus”. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”. “Your Love Reaches Me”. And so on. We acknowledge God’s transcendence and power, but it’s subordinated to, and in service of, His with-us-ness.

If Muslims err in bending all of God’s other attributes around His omnipotence, it seems like a lot of we Christians err just as much in bending all of God’s other attributes around His intimate Presence. Emmanuel does not mean that Jesus is my Boyfriend, after all, though we often seem to sing and make music as if it does.

But the question of whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a nuanced and subtle one, as much a matter of interpretation as various “difficult” passages of Scripture. I personally believe that it is reasonable to suggest that we are, but I take the point that we do indeed really believe some very different things about Who we are worshipping.

In other words, the debate is still open. And in light of that, I’m afraid Wheaton College’s dismissal of one of its professors over this question is not going to do anything to further the debate. At best it seems counterproductive; at worst, a little like intellectual dishonesty. This is apparently, in Wheaton’s eyes, not open for discussion. If you even dare to suggest the possibility, it is as much grounds for dismissal as claiming that the Resurrection did not physically happen.

I’m a little saddened that not even a respected academic institution like Wheaton seems able to have an adult discussion about the issue.

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O Families of Nations

My regular Bible readings took me to Psalm 96 yesterday.

It’s a fairly familiar Psalm, beginning “Sing to the LORD a new song”. And the thing about fairly familiar passages is that they are easy to gloss over. If we’ve been following Jesus for any length of time, we can have a tendency to read them almost by rote, not really taking it in but just letting the words wash over us.

What struck me today about the passage was its evangelistic, missionary emphasis.

We can tend to think that in the Old Testament, God is exclusively concerned with Israel. They are the people with whom He has made a Covenant. They are the people He calls His own. They are the nation of faith. All the stories of Joshua, Gideon, King David, Elisha and the rest are all stories of God fighting against the evil pagans who are attacking His people.

Right?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, God is certainly concerned to maintain His Covenant with His people. Even when they are faithless, He remains faithful.

So He’s going to defend them. He has a purpose and plan for them that is not served by their destruction. More, He genuinely loves them and wants their good.

But it never has been solely about Israel. They were and remain God’s chosen people, but chosen for what purpose?

Chosen so that through them God might display His glory to the world.

Abraham was blessed as the father of many nations, ancestor of Israel and father to the nation of faith. But the corollary of that was always that “through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed”.

Psalm 96 makes it clear that God wants the praise not just of His Covenant people, but of all peoples. “The gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” is basically evangelistic in tone. Turn away from these worthless things that you have been serving! There is a real, Living God that made the heavens and can actually do something to help you!

“Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations/Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength/Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to His name” continues the theme. Giving glory to the LORD is right not just for Israel, not just for His Covenant people whether Old or New, but for all the earth and its families of nations. He made the whole world; He has a right to the praise of the whole world. More, “the gods of the nations are idols”, and ascribing God’s majesty and attributes to a created thing is enslaving yourself to a lie.

It doesn’t much matter if that created thing is money, sex, power, the stars and planets, a carved block of wood or a human philosophy or ideology, it’s a made thing, not a Maker. And when you attribute to it that which is rightfully God’s, that’s the point at which it becomes an idol.

And the passage goes on even more remarkably: “Bring an offering, and come into His courts”. This is, of course, a reference to the Temple worship in Jerusalem.

Under the Law of Moses, Gentiles were forbidden from coming into the Temple beyond the outer court, known as “the court of the Gentiles”. They could observe and listen, but they were outside the Covenant and barred from participation unless they became a Jew by being circumcised and obeying the Law of Moses. “Bring an offering and come into His courts” is especially shocking because it follows on from “Ascribe to the LORD, o families of nations”. In Hebrew, the words “nations” and “Gentiles” are the same, so the sense is pretty clear. Here is King David, prophetically reaching forward to a time when Gentiles will no longer be barred from the worship of God. A time when the invitation to “bring an offering and come into His courts” is for everyone, not just a chosen few.

Part of what the Cross does is open doors and destroy barriers. The sacrificial death of Jesus opens the way for the Gentile, the outsider, to be brought all the way inside the promises of God. And what Psalm 96 helps to show is that this was always the plan. The Gentile Church wasn’t a surprise to God. It was already in the plan. It was the plan: no division any more, but one people worshipping one God.

We can see foreshadowings of it with the Egyptians who chose to go with Israel (ref), with Rahab (a Canaanite), Ruth (a Moabite), Bathsheba (probably a Hittite), Naaman (a Syrian) and others. All the nations of the world being blessed and coming to know God.

Teleport vs Time Travel vs Invisibility: Implications

I don’t usually do these daily prompt challenges, but this one caught my eye.  Your local geek habitat electronics store has started selling time machines, invisibility helmets and teleportation doors.  You have enough money for one, but which one?

It got me started on thinking about some of the implications for my Christian faith.

A helmet of invisibility would, at a stroke, pull the rug out from under the simplistic materialist argument that if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.  Potentially a helpful (un)visual aid for talking about the spiritual.  Then again, it rather ties in to the Islamic idea of the jinn rather than standard Christian doctrine of angels and demons.  The jinn are more or less just like us, personality-wise, except non-corporeal.  Angels and demons are moral and immoral beings respectively.

So perhaps not quite so useful.  Also, the temptation to dishonesty would be immense.  Theft, spying, public immorality and gossip are just the beginning.  You’d need to sell those things with a “hold harmless” agreement.

Time travel would allow us to prove or disprove the contentions of so many churches that “the early Church did thus-and-so”.  Whenever anyone says this, you need to read it as code for “We do thus-and-so, and this is our justification”.  It would also be superb for Bible scholarship, though potentially embarrassing if we’ve been getting the wrong end of the stick for generations.  We’d have the opportunity to go back and ask Paul exactly what he meant by “because of the angels” in that controversial passage on head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:10).  What the situations were that prompted this or that comment in the Epistles.  The historicity or otherwise of the Deluge, Abraham, even the Exodus.  Better still, we could go back and actually meet Jesus.  Be an eyewitness of the crucifiction and resurrection.

It would be amazing.  Still, we would almost certainly get a shock.  It would test and stretch our faith to discover, for example, that Paul didn’t match our image of him.  And as a witness to the crucifiction, you’d need a strong stomach.

It’s easy to sanitise the past.  But some of the past really was brutal, and in all of it you need to be aware that they really did think differently on any number of points.

Which brings me to the teleportation door.

The implications for global missions are unparalleled.  (Still, so are the implications for larceny.  Open a door into the vault at the bank…  It’s another device that would need proper ethical screens in any commercially-available variant.)  Nowhere is unreachable.  No more worries about plane tickets or hiking up into the mountains of Bongo Bongo.  Even visas might become a thing of the past – how is a nation going to regulate who lives there when there are teleporters available?

Of course, it would have its down side, even for missions.  It would be too easy.  No need for cultural adjustment when you can commute to the field.  Why bother?  And if we don’t adjust our thinking and cultural expectations to more closely resemble those we are going to, we will naturally communicate a foreign Christianity that panders to foreign priorities and addresses foreign felt needs.

So I think that on reflection, I’ll just keep the money, thanks.  Though if pushed to choose, I think I might be able to make better missions use of a teleport door than some people.