Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

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President Bush has gotten in trouble with some of his fellow evangelicals. They don't think he's a real evangelical because of his comments about other religions. He says Islam is a good religion, that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God, and that the beliefs of other good religions like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. will help contribute to a better society. Meanwhile, Christianity (at least any Christianity that takes the scriptures as authoritative) states quite clearly that there's no other way to the Father except through Jesus. It says that God is three persons in one being, a Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), while Islam and contemporary Judaism insist that God is one in every way possible and that Jesus, a mere creation of God, is not to be identified or confused with God. Islam does believe he's a prophet and will return. They don't believe he died, never mind that he was resurrected. Judaism (except for Messianic Jews, if you count them) don't even believe that much about him.

What do we make of this? I want to explain what I think President Bush means when he says these things and why I think it's not just consistent with evangelicalism but it's what evangelicals should say. What the evangelicals who resist saying these things want to avoid is the kind of pluralism that attributes one reality to the multiple beliefs systems in world religions. They're all getting at the same reality but in different ways. I don't think that's at all what Bush has in mind, and I think a careful look at the nature of the language will show that the many repeated claims against Bush�s statements are assuming an implausible view of how names function in natural languages like English.

We need to understand some philosophy of language to see this point. There are two sorts of theories you can have about how names function in natural languages. Bertrand Russell took the view that seems to be assumed by all this anti-Bush rhetoric. The idea is that a proper name is really just our way to abbreviate some extremely specific phrase that would technically be called a definite description. This would be something of the form �the �� where whatever follows the �the� make the expression uniquely referring. It rules out all possible contenders for the name�s referent. So �Jeremy� when used in a context that makes it clear that it�s referring to me is really just an abbreviation for some definite description, e.g. �the blogger who started Parablemania� or �the Ph.D. student in philosophy at Syracuse University married to a hot chick from Barbados� or �the author of the blog post that you�re reading�. No other person or object can fit these descriptions. Which definite description is relevant depends on how you came to learn the referent of the name, but the name really is just such a description according to this theory. If �God� in English is a definite description, then it would have to involve some uniquely referring content. As it turns out, English users have different views about God and are thinking about different descriptions when they use the word. If we take this view seriously enough, then we have to think �God� has a different description for each user, who has at least a slightly different view of God from the next person�s. I have a Reformed view of God. I have a good friend who is more Arminian. We disagree on whether God had certain people in mind to be saved from the beginning or whether God allows people to choose in a way that doesn�t stem from some action of God�s determining their choice. That�s a pretty big difference in terms of God�s character and God�s ultimate desires. Can I and my friend say we believe in the same God? I don�t think you can if you take the unmodified Russellian view that �God� is just an abbreviation for whatever definite description you�re thinking of when you use the term. If that�s right, then no one believes in the same God, and religious pluralism is rampant, because each Christian has a different religion and a different God. That�s contrary to actual Christian teaching, so that�s a dead-end. This view is insane and can�t really be held consistently with biblical statements that Christians are united in Christ despite disagreeing on minor issues.

The other option for a Russellian is to say that a particular core of the properties of God are the essential ones that count as the relevant description. How do you figure out which properties are in this core? Is it a core belief that God is a Trinity? Is it a core belief that Christ died for our sins? These are both core beliefs for Christianity. You can�t be a Christian without believing in these things. But is it essential to the meaning of the word �God�? When that sound is uttered, Christians will think these things are true of God. When the same sound is uttered, Muslims will not think these things. Is that because their private dialects have different meanings for the word? No. They both mean that God is the creator of the world and the one to whom we owe our allegiance. On a description theory of names, I�m not sure the name means too much beyond that. (I should point out that Aquinas took exactly this sort of view and concluded that Muslims mean the same thing, and much of his work was designed to be evangelistic toward Muslims, so he was no pluralist!) Muslims and Christians disagree not because they think the word �God� means different things. They disagree because they believe different things are true of the being who is in fact the referent of that word. Both religions believe there�s only one God, and each thinks that the other has false beliefs about God. That is not the same as saying that they think the other religion follows a different God that doesn�t exist. A Christian should say that God exists. A Muslim will agree, and the Muslim really does mean the same thing the Christian does. Yet a Christian should also say that Muslims believe false things about God and worship him falsely or in vain (as a Muslim will say about the Christian). This seems to me to be what a Russellian definite description theory should say about how �God� functions in English, and it�s perfectly consistent with saying that Christians and Jews worship the same God.

The other main view about how names function is Saul Kripke�s view that names carry no meaning content at all but just trace back to the object that was originally named with that name. There�s a story about the causal history of the use of that name. When I was born, my parents named me �Jeremy�. That�s the source of the use of that name for me. A series of uses of that name to refer to me continued on to the current time, when people still use that name to refer to me. On this view, �God� is a name. I don�t know the philological history well enough to give details that I�m sure of, it seems right to say that �God� came to be used in English because Christianity at some point had reached English-speaking people who used that name to refer to the being they worshiped. That�s why it�s correct to say that �God� in English has the same referent as �Deus� in the mouth of a Latin-speaking Christian during the time of Augustine, which traces back to Greek-speaking Jews who used the word �Theos�, which in turn has a causal connection with Hebrews who used the term �El�. But what about contemporary Judaism? That�s easier to see than Islam. After all, contemporary Jews trace their use of the English word �God� back eventually to uses of the Hebrew �El� and �Elohim�. The causal chain there is fairly clear. Abraham worshiped God and called him �El� and other names. His children called God the same names. Eventually the use of the term led to interacting with people who used a different word in a different language, and eventually it hit English-speaking Jews in the 20th century, say Joe Lieberman�s parents. Their use of the term led to his. This causal chain runs independently of those that led to George Bush�s use of the term, but both trace back to Abraham�s use, and both refer to the same being that Abraham referred to with �El�. Therefore, Christians and Jews today in the United States are using the word �God� as a name for the same being. It�s just that many of them disagree with each other about what�s true of God. They even worship the same God, though God has made claims about what counts as legitimate worship and what is worshiping him in vain. So an evangelical Christian should say that Joe Lieberman worships God but in vain (with a hope, of course, that it won�t continue to be in vain).

What about Islam, then? Certainly there�s a big difference. Muhammad came along hundreds of years after the time of Christ, writing some scriptures that he said were in the tradition of Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. He said that this was a continuation of the revelation God had been giving since the time of Abraham. He said that this was the God of Abraham that he was worshiping. Yet the things he said about this God conflicted not just with what Jesus said but also with what Abraham, Moses, and David would have said. Muhammad�s explanation for this is that the scriptures had been changed, and he had come along as a new prophet to set things straight. Does this mean that the God of Islam is not the same God as the God of Judaism and Christianity? I don�t see how. All it shows is that Islam teaches different things about God. The causal history view has to admit that, even at the beginning of Islam, Islam teaches different things about God than do Judaism and Christianity, but that in itself shows no more than that even at the beginning Islam had different views about God. It doesn�t show that the term �Allah� in the mount of an early Muslim was intended to refer to a different God. In fact, Muhammad says the opposite. He says he is talking about the God of the Bible. He just says the people of the book (i.e. Jews and Christians) believe false things about God. Therefore, the causal use of the term �Allah� in the mouth of a Muslim today (and therefore �God� in the mount of an English-speaking Muslim) does trace back through a chain of causes to the use of �El� by Abraham. Therefore, on the causal view of names, the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are indeed the same God. It�s just that the two religions teach different things about God.

I conclude that President Bush was speaking the truth when he said that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all worship the same God. This isn�t the whole truth, and I won�t say that it�s not misleading, but I don�t see how anyone can say that his statements on these matters would constitute an endorsement of the kind of pluralism that counts all religions as equally valid paths to the same salvation, and I don�t see how these statements require a misunderstanding of the differences between Christianity and Islam. I reject that kind of pluralism, and I know full well the differences between Christianity and Islam (having read most of the Qur�an and having spent a summer in a Muslim country), but I agree with President Bush�s statements on this matter. Denying them involves a fundamental mistake about how names function in language, on either of the primary theories of how such terms work.

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18 Comments

I wonder how the same argument might run about the word Christianity. You insist one can't be a Christian without believing in the trinitiy, but there is a long and strong thread of anti-trinitarian Christians. That is to say people who self identified as Christians but denied the trinity. Besides the early Arians (still being suppressed well into the fourth century), there is the Polish Minor Reformed Church (1500's), the early Anabaptist, English Unitarians (1600's), American Unitarianism (late 1700's), contemporary Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (aka Jehovah's Witness), Unitarian-Universalist, a plethora of contemporary nondenominational churches. Sorry if this is a sidetrack but I've always been curious as to why the Trinitarian doctrine is essential. With such a long history of dissenters it seems that this may not be something that essential unless you're concerned about being part of the orthodoxy.

1-20-04 11:44 pm

Hmmmm...

Your post is well thought and written, but I must admit that I'm not entirely in agreement.

I am not an educated man by any stretch of the imagination, but I see a challenge with tearing a word from a statement and dissecting it apart from presented context: The forest is lost due to a single tree.

The philosophy of language should not ursurp the practical use of it. Yes, there is an historical connection between Islam, Judaism and Christianty, so one could make some kind of argument about 'worshipping the same God'. But look at the consistency of G.W.'s comments on the subject. He has established quite clearly what he intends- and that is a message of pluralism.

Theognome

1-21-04 12:10 am

Don't you think that most evangelists would think that Jews and especially Muslims have been deceived in to worshipping a false image of God, and in doing so are actually worshipping the deceiver?

1-21-04 9:32 am

Matthew: This argument can't apply to the word 'Christianity'. The situation with that is the reverse. There can't be more than one reality for the word 'God' to refer to, whereas there are many sets of religious beliefs and practices that someone might use 'Christianity' to refer to. That's a really squishy word, with different possible meanings, which is why I made it clear that I was talking about evangelical Christianity or Christianity that recognizes the authority of the Bible.

As to whether certain formulations of the Trinity are essential to believing the gospel (which is what I think is essential to Christianity), I'm not sure. I do think you have to have a very high view of Christ, and if you deny his divinity then you're denying claims that I think he quite clearly made in scripture, and his contemporaries knew it and condemned him for it. Some of the groups you mentioned deny this. Some I'm not sure about.

1-21-04 11:28 am

Theognome: The context is the secular United States government accepting Islam as a legitimate religion in this country despite some Muslims being terrorists. It's about working with Muslim charities grounded in belief in a higher power. It wasn't about agreeing with Muslim theology. I'm not sure how context helps your case.

I want evidence that he intends theological pluralism (i.e. the same God views these religions as proper worship of him) rather than descriptive pluralism (i.e. these religions worship the same God in the sense I've explained but without saying which is correct or better worship). I'd expect Bush means the second, and he's just silent (in his political role) on whether any religion has it right. His firm personal commitment to Christianity suggests that he considers it the correct way to worship God, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt on that unless he gives clear reason to think he's a theological pluralist. I've seen no such evidence.

1-21-04 11:49 am

Anonymous: Did you mean evangelists or evangelicals? I was talking about what evangelicals should believe, not about what evangelists in fact believe.

You did raise an issue worth discussing. Is false worship in reality worship of something other than what it was intended to worship? I think the biblical accounts describe things in both ways, so the way you’re talking about fits with some of the biblical ways of talking about it, but so is the way President Bush talks about it. I never said that God recognizes Muslim worship as genuine worship. I just said President Bush believes they worship the same God (albeit in false ways), and I think any evangelical Christian should believe the same thing.

See Gen 14:17-21; II Kings 17; Isaiah 1; Isaiah 29:13; Mark 7:1-13; Luke 16:13

1-21-04 12:17 pm

Jeremy,

Both arguments are from the position of ambiguity. True, nothing explicitly states pluralism, but neither is your conclusion explicit. Your statement:

"The context is the secular United States government accepting Islam as a legitimate religion in this country despite some Muslims being terrorists. It’s about working with Muslim charities grounded in belief in a higher power. It wasn't about agreeing with Muslim theology."

is also simply speculation. The statement "We all worship the same God" it would seem means anything we want it to mean.

Theognome

1-21-04 6:26 pm

I agree that the evidence of President Bush's actual words doesn't decide the issue either way. What I was saying is that his personal commitment to Christianity (in particular evangelical Christianity) tips the presumption toward my reading of his words and away from yours, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

Why do you think my explanation of the context is speculation? Those are the two issues he's discussing when he makes these claims. If you know of a different context when he's said this, what is it?

1-21-04 7:36 pm

It would again boil down to a history of what is said.

I do not question the validity of G.W.'s confession nor claim him to be outside of the Church. Rather, I feel that he is misleading at best, and in error at worst.

COnsider his remarks concerning 'faith-based' organizations and/or his 9-11 remarks at the national cathedral memorial service. It's the lack of distinction between religions, be they implied or boldly proclaimed that makes analysis speculation, be it yours, mine or anyone elses.

I tend to compare this sort of commentary of his to the Pope when he kissed the Koran and proclaimed brotherhood with the Dhali Lama. You can interpret those acts to mean lots of things, but they sure give the appearance of evil.

Theognome

1-21-04 8:43 pm

The faith-based charities stuff is exactly one of the two contexts I mentioned above. I don't remember the details of the 9-11 memorial speech, so I'd have to check that out. Do you happen to have a link? The only one I could find was this. That doesn't seem related at all. If he did make any comments about Islam in that context, I would expect it's getting at the first of the two issues in my first response to you, but I can't seem to find any Islam comments at all.

1-21-04 10:05 pm

Jeremy,

I tend to disagree with you, but I won't go in detail here because I think I might just post it on my own blog. Here is a related question, however.

Do you see any analogy with the question of gay marriage that is now being discussed? This sounds off the wall, but think for a second. Part of the debate rages around the question as to whether or not a legal union of two men could be properly called marriage, given the assumption that the definition of marriage is the union of two people of the opposite sex. That is, when a gay couple and a straight couple are talking about marriage, are they talking about the same thing, the same social insitituion, or not. Are they merely disagreeing about the attribute of particular marriages (this one or that one is bi-gender or uni-gender), or are they debating about something more profound, namely the essence of the meaning of the word marriage in the first place?

1-22-04 11:48 am

There are two categories -- traditional opposite-sex marriage and partnerships that allow same-sex partners. The second is a more general category that includes all partnerships in the more specific group. Which does the word 'marriage' refer to?

We can evaluate whether the general usage of the term in fact refers to one of these two groups (which may vary by person, region, etc.). Another issue is what the word will mean legally, and duly constituted government people can change that. A third issue is whether we have theological reasons to retain a category like traditional marriage. I say yes, but we might be forced to do that without the term 'marriage'. That would be unfortunate, but it doesn't destroy the institution of marriage. It just means that it's no longer a legal category.

This is like 'Christian', where there's more than one thing the word can refer to and not like 'God', where there can be only one being the word could refer to.

1-22-04 12:07 pm

It seems to me that since religions, and sects within religions, describe different conceptions of God, then it all hinges on whether there is actually a diety, or not. Then these differing ideas of Him would all point towards the same real entity. Or not.

I think one assumption in my argument is that there is a God. With no God, any term purporting to refer to God simply fails to refer. Since we couldn't define the meaning of 'God' in terms of what it refers to, I'd want to think of it as a disguised description masquerading as a proper name. If it's like a description, then you have to figure out which parts of the description are central or central enough to justify saying that one use of the term is talking about an entirely different description.

I don't know how to sort out that issue, but the description view is the easiest way to argue that Islam and Christianity involve different gods. However, if anything like traditional Western theism is correct (as I myself hold), and therefore there is a being that the term could refer to, then I would say that 'God' is best thought of as a name and not a disguised description.

Whilst one can argue that islam and Christianity can belive in the same God, it is not water tight, fundamentally they cannot. One of the main beliefs of Christianity is that of the trinity and what differentiates Christianity from Judaism is Jesus being not a prophet but the Son of God. Denying these facts disputes the very heart of Christianity and therefore the Christian God. As such it is not plausable to suggest that Christianity and Muslims believe in the same God as one disputes the essence of the other.

Ben, none of what you've said shows that it's not the same God. All it shows is that they're saying different things about God (and thus I would say false things, since I believe Christianity teaches true things about God). Your very language shows this. You said that they are denying facts at the heart of Christianity. To deny a fact means you have to be using the terms the same way. When they say Jesus is not God, they are denying something about Jesus that Christians believe is true. They are still saying it about Jesus, not about someone else. When they say that God does not exist in both unity and trinity but that God only exists in trinity, it's not someone else that they're talking about. It's God.

Christians and jews believe in the same God as of the father because the jews were the chosen people but when god came in a human form, they rejected him but they do believe in the same god of the father. Now muslims don't believe in the old or new testament and my belief is that God was never with the muslims. Muslim is a made up religion and so was never with God and so they can't believe in the same God. Muslims really pray for nothing because the religion was made up and God was for them. he always was with the jews and christians but he is with the christians because of the son. So muslims do not believe in the same god jews and christians believe in because the whole muslim religion was made by a christian minister and an evil spirit and muhammad.

Islam traces itself historically to be about the God of the Bible. It just denies crucial elements of the Bible and then says the texts were altered.

As for being with God, I never said Islam or contemporary Judaism have everything or even the most crucial things right. I just said that when they use the word 'God' (or whatever the equivalent is in whatever language they use) they're talking about God. There's only one such being to refer to, and you can't say false things about God if it's not God you're talking about.

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