In a previous post, I considered whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. My answer was sort of a yes and a no. Literally speaking, I think the answer is yes. It's just that Christians and Muslims believe very different things about the one God that exists. As a Christian, I think Mulims believe radically false things about God, and I think Christians believe generally true things about God. There would be no meaning to calling myself a Christian if I didn't think something like that. In that sense, what some people really mean when they say Christians and Muslims worship different gods is true. Their sentence is false, but what they were trying to convey is true. The different things the two believe about God are very different.
I had another instance of happening upon a gem of a discussion this morning, when I was following a reference in a footnote on an entirely different topic. After looking up a reference in N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, I decided that it might be worth looking through his introduction, since I've had the book for a while but barely looked at it. In the introduction, he explains his use of 'god' rather than 'God' consistently throughout the book (which I won't bother to go into here), and in the process he gets into the very issue of my aforementioned post, focusing mostly on the differences between first-century Christianity and first-century post-Christian Judaism (though mentioning Islam in the process). I thought enough of the issues were parallel that it was worth summing up Wright's thoughts and looking at their significance for the discussion about Islam from my previous post.
Wright doesn't really get to this issue until page 471 of his roughly 500-page book, so much of what he says relies on the detailed work he did in the rest of the book about the belief system of ancient Israel, the cotnext of Christian development, and how Christians revised certain elements of the Judaism of their time in the light of Jesus, in many cases reinterpreting the Hebrew scriptures in directions unforeseen by most first-century Jews. His main question at the end of the study is about the relation between the Judaism and Christianity of the time of the New Testament and what the relation between the two is. Do they worship the same God? If one is correct, is the other idolatrous, and does that mean and answer of 'no' to the question of the previous question? Two views on this matter seem common:
1. There's no moral difference between Christianity and a Judaism that rejects Jesus (and the parallel would be between Christianity and Islam). After all, it's the same being being worshiped by both religions.
2. The difference between Christianity's claims about God and Islam's claims about God are so far apart that they must be talking about different beings.
The main problem with view 2 is that the sentence itself makes no sense. The sentence explaining the view talks about Christianity's claims about someone and then about Islam's claims about the same someone. Well, it can't really be that way if the religions follow different deities. It would make little sense to say that Christianity believes one thing about God and that Islam believes different things about someone else. We then still haven't shown any disagreement. (The disagreements will come out when you look at the differences, but it seems fine to me to describe the disagreement as a difference in what things are true about God. That's my main point. We do talk this way, so the assumption is that it's God that both groups are talking about, and it's just that both can't be true.) That's my main reason for rejecting the second view.
The first view is more obviously wrong. It requires not thinking the differences between Christianity and Judaism are worth much. Yet Christians claim to worship one being who is also somehow three persons. Jews see that as no longer monotheistic. Christians see Jesus as the full and final revelation of the creator of the universe. Jews see such a view as importing pagan elements into Judaic thinking. Christians in turn see Jews as having rejected God's most important revelation (and indeed his all-important saving act in the death and resurrection of Jesus) and therefore indeed rejecting the very God who called them apart as a nation. Christians were rejecting elements of the Torah, the most important documents of the Judaism of the time, though they were claiming the Torah to be fulfilled in Jesus.
Yet Wright goes on to say exactly what my detractors deny, and the evidence they cite is similar to what he says, so he must not think the evidence supports that conclusion:
The New Testament writers claim that, though there is only one god, all human beings of themselves cherish wrong ideas about this one god. In worshipping the gos thus wrongly conceived, they worship an idol. Pagans worship gods of wood and stone, distorting the creator by worshipping the creature. Jews, Paul argues in parallel with this, have made an idol of their own national identity and security, and so have failed to see what the covenant faithfulness of their god, the god of Abraham, had always entailed. Christians, as the addressees of the New Testament writings, are not exempt from idolatry, of using the words 'Jesus' and 'Christ' while in fact worshipping a different god. Our study of the history of Judaism and Christianity in the first century leads us inexorably to the conclusion that both cannot be right in their claims about the true god.
What's most interesting about this to me is that Wright switches back and forth between the use of 'God' as a name, according to which both groups are talking about the same being, and the more descriptive use, which strictly speaking should require an article, according to which any difference in views about a god means you would say it's no longer the same god that you're talking about. Here are two groups who each think the other has false views about the very being they themselves worship. But then each group also has a tendency to think that enough divergence on central doctrines (some of which I have listed above) will justify the charge of idolatry. How can this be so? Is Wright just inconsistent, not knowing whether he thinks each group is using 'God' as a name or a description and wanting to have it both ways?
I don't think so. He goes on to list other worldviews -- Stoics (with the whole world as divine), Epicureans (on this issue closer to what we now call deism), pagans (with their different divine forces all doing different things), Gnostics (who believed in a hidden god who reveals himself to a select few to be removed from the evil world of matter), and modern materialists and atheists. He then evaluates of the dispute between Christianity and Judaism in the light of this list:
The claim of first-century Judaism, and of subsequent Judaism, is that the creator of the world has revealed himself in Torah in ways which simply do not allow for the claims of Stoicism, Epicureanism, paganism, Gnosticism, and the rest -- or for those of Christianity. The claim of Christianity from its earliest days, and subsequently, is that the creator of the world, the god of Abraham, has revealed himself through Jesus, and through his own spirit, in ways which disallow the various pagan claims -- and also those of a Judaism which rejects Jesus. This conclusion.... represents the way things were seen in the first century, within the two communities that claimed to be the people of the one true god.
First off, pay careful attention to what he does and doesn't say. He says that the claims are mutually inconsistent and can't both be right. That's a denial of claim 1 above, and I think he's said enough to consider 1 refuted. He even gives enough reason for each side to be motivated to consider the other idolatrous, which presumably means that the other side is worshiping a false god (and not the right god but falsely). The dispute between Christianity and a Judaism that denies Jesus is not as great in terms of the number of propositions each will affirm and deny when compared with the difference between Christianity and paganism, say. However, the difference is on the same order morally speaking. If one is correct, then the other is false worship. Each side claims to worship the same god, but at least one of them is doing so in a way that violates what God has actually said (if at least one side is correct, anyway). But all along Wright keeps describing this as a disagreement about what's true about the God they refer to and worship, what things this being has revealed to his people, etc. That means it is the same being.
This is a different context, with Christianity and a Judaism that rejects Jesus, instead of Christianity and Islam. However, the point is basically the same. What's parallel in the case of Islam is that Christians and Muslims will each see each other as believing false things about the same being, the God Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus served. By establishing the reference of their terms in this historical way, they ensure that they're talking about the same being Christians and Jews are talking about when they talk about the being they themselves worship. Yet the particular beliefs Muslims have about God are different enough from Christian beliefs that a Christian has to say that Muslims are idolatrous in an important sense, the same sense they would say Jews who reject Jesus are idolatrous. In my first post I affirmed both of these things, and it's nice to see N.T. Wright's independent affirmation of both.