In the wake of last week’s suspension of a professor at (evangelical) Wheaton College for her public statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, the question of whether we do, in fact, has been making its rounds again in blogs and journals. Many smart Christians have been coming down on one side or another, or meta-analyzing others’ arguments to distill what seem to be the best ones.
I don’t think all this is without value as a thought exercise or conversation-starter. But I do think that to ask simply, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” is to ask the wrong question.
A common problem in any conversation is the failure to define terms. We use words to communicate, but verbal communication only works when the parties to the discussion share exact or at least similar notions of the things to which the words refer—be they physical objects or metaphysical concepts. And often the latter have contextual meanings or shades of meaning that have to be worked out and mutually understood before any real meeting of the minds can take place.
For example, before two people can fruitfully discuss the question, “Is man free?” they need a common working concept of what freedom is, and what it would mean to say that a man exercises or possesses it. This takes time, work, and good will, so unsurprisingly it often doesn’t happen. What results is arguing at cross-purposes—two people firing talking points at one another, each convinced in his mind he’s right, but never connecting with the other on mutual terms.
Our social-media arguments, comment-box chatter, and water-cooler debates are, sadly, rife with this volleying of words. The question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is no exception.
Of course they do! There’s only one God!
Of course they don’t! Christians believe that God is a Trinity. Muslims don’t. End of story.
Vatican II said that Muslims worship the one, merciful, just God, just like we do. This is official Catholic teaching.
Christianity’s God is love. Islam’s God commands his people to kill and subjugate unbelievers. How can they be the same?
Muslims sincerely believe that they worship the God of Abraham, so how can you say they don’t?
The “revelation” that Muhammad received could only have come from a demon. How can you say that a demonic religion worships the same God as Christianity?
And on it goes. Depending on how you define the question, you come up with a variety of equally sure-sounding answers. By not defining the question, even just temporarily for the purposes of discussion, we fail to recognize that the question could be legitimately answered in more than one way.
This occurs every day in sports arguments. Who is the greatest baseball player of all time? Was it the player with the most hits or home runs, or the best advanced-stat metric? Was it the guy with the most championship rings and intangible winning qualities? How do you compare offense versus defense, pitchers versus everyday players, team success versus individual numbers? How do you account for the differences in eras across baseball history—dead-ball, juiced-ball, high-mound, low-mound, pre-/post-expansion, the DH, the effects of nutrition and steroids, the depth of the talent pool and quality of competition?
Yes, baseball fans can be quite geeky.
Now, sports arguments are usually about the journey rather than the destination. Most people understand that there is no divinely assured single answer to the question of who the best baseball player is, but they enjoy the mental exercise of talking about it. (Plus, for men especially I think, it’s fun to bump egos and try to win over someone to your favorite player’s camp.)
And yet we persist in asking—and answering—this question of Muslims, Christians, and God as if there had to be a single normative answer. Not just a single logical answer, in fact, but a single Catholic answer that demands our religious assent.
Let me suggest that the question we should be asking instead, after first acknowledging that there are multiple ways to address the larger matter, is this: “Which answer offers the most helpful way for Christians to regard Islam and Islamic theology?”
Some people will say it’s best to stress kinship with Muslims as fellow monotheists—whether as part of a strategy of alliance against global secularism or because they think common ground and positivity should always come first for Christians in dialogue with other religions. Or that even though the Quran is not inspired, it claims to play in the same ballpark as Christian salvation history and so we must consider Muslims as at least distant cousins on Abraham’s family tree. In some of these senses or others, they’ll say the best answer is yes, same God.
Others might say that even though the Quran features many of the same characters, places, and basic stories as the Bible, and the Quran’s Allah has some attributes in common with our God, in many other ways Islam’s God is so alien in nature and behavior to Christianity’s, and its followers so chronically hostile to the followers of Christ, that the best answer to our question is one that emphasizes estrangement, not kinship, between our two religions. They might add that this moment in history, when the Christian West is frittering away its identity while the Muslim world grows ever stronger and more invasive, is not a moment for Christianity to cloud its identity further while legitimatizing Islam’s. In some of these senses or others, they’ll say the best answer is no, not the same God.
I gave my own take on this matter two years ago, and I still believe now what I offered then: that the most helpful way to slice the “same God” question is by looking at revelation and relationship. In short, we worship the God we do because we know him. And we know him because we have his inspired and inerrant revelation about himself. Through it he speaks to us, introduces himself to us.
But Islam explicitly rejects that revelation and replaces it with a false substitute. That makes Islam’s God, despite whatever true things that the Quran says about him (whether gleaned from reason, plagiarized from Scripture, or captured by Muhammad’s imagination) a false God. According to what I think is the most helpful way of defining the question.
A quick analogy: Let’s say you and I have a mutual childhood friend named Bob. One day, you move away and lose touch with Bob, but I stay close to him. After twenty years, you and I get together and Bob’s name comes up. I tell you all the things that Bob has done since you saw him last. For instance, he joined the military, served some time in combat, then got married and had a family.
“I can’t believe Bob did those things,” you say. The Bob you knew was a shy, peaceful guy, and you were sure he’d remain a bachelor. Now we have two different pictures of Bob’s identity, but only because mine is more complete. We both still know the same Bob.
If Bob is God in this analogy, then I’m Christianity and you’re Judaism. We think somewhat differently about God because I’m more up to date on his actions and what they say about him, but it’s same God we both know from way back. My picture of him is just more filled-out. He has revealed more to me.
Now, what if you never met Bob at all, but only pretended to? What if you came to me out of the blue and claimed that this same Bob never really did a lot of the things you know he did, and that he did do all kinds of other things you never heard of, but that he was nonetheless the same exact person I claimed (fraudulently, you say) to be old friends with? Now you’re Islam. Do we know the same Bob?
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Catholic Answers.