Friday, February 26, 2016

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

 (Photo: Interior view of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul--originally a Christian church, later a Muslim mosque, and now a museum. A Byzantine icon of Mary and the Christ child can be seen above the windows, flanked by medallions with Islamic calligraphy. The large disk on the right bears the name of Allah. For photo credits, see the bottom of the post.)

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? This question has been the source of controversial public debate for quite some time, and broke out prominently into the news cycle last year with the revelation that a professor at Wheaton College (a highly-regarded evangelical bastion) had made remarks to the affirmative--that yes, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This created a firestorm because, within American Christianity, there's a group of people--often liberal or "mainline" Christians--who would answer the question "Yes, Christians and Muslims both render worship to the God who revealed himself to Abraham, so clearly it's the same God," and there's another group of people--usually evangelicals and fundamentalists--who would say, "No, it's evident on a close inspection of the Qur'an and Islamic tradition that Allah has certain attributes, does certain things, and says certain things that could not possibly be attributed to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, so it is clearly not the same God." And to many American evangelicals, the scandal of having a fellow evangelical take up a theologically "liberal" line is unsettling. The truth is, there's merit to both of the arguments above, but the main thrust of my contention here will be that the question itself is very poorly worded, to the point of being misleading, at least where it addresses evangelical concerns.

It's a poorly-worded question, because each side of the debate can read its own definitions into the terms of the question--particularly into the word "same." Let me use an example: as a sports fan, one of my favorite sports to watch is American football (NFL). There are variants of this particular sport out there, though, the most prominent being Canadian football (CFL). Now, what if I were to ask, "Are American football and Canadian football the same sport?" If one favored a broad definition of "same," it would be easy to say, "Yes! They derived from a common origin and are, broadly speaking, played the same way." But to someone who has carefully watched both leagues in action, the answer might lean towards: "No--the NFL and CFL have different sets of rules, changing even the basics of the game, such as field size, number of downs, and ways of scoring." The question "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" can likewise be properly answered with either a yes or a no, depending on how one is using "same"--broadly speaking, Christianity and Islam claim a common origin (Abrahamic monotheism) and both direct their worship to the one, all-powerful, holy, creator God. But when one looks at the specifics with a more practiced eye, it's clear that the two religions' concepts of God are not exactly the same, particularly when it comes to crucial matters of character, nature, and divine actions in salvation history.

So why, if the question can reasonably be answered in two different ways, do evangelical Christians get so worked up if someone leans toward a "yes" answer? The reason is because evangelicals recognize that all of this is really a front for a much more pressing set of questions: If the Christian God and Allah are one and the same, then is Muslim worship acceptable to God? Are we implying that it's perfectly fine to be a Muslim, theologically speaking, and that Muslims stand in no need of the grace offered through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and through inclusion in the Body of Christ? The evangelical answer to those questions has always been, "No--we cannot affirm Islam as a religion that grants salvation and ultimate peace with God, because that is only found in Jesus Christ." I know that to modern ears, trained in the niceties of tolerance, that may sound harsh, even bigoted. But the question really ought not to be whether it sounds harsh, but whether it happens to be true. So whatever is meant by the question of the identity of God/Allah, the all-sufficiency and uniqueness of Christ is the firm bottom line that evangelicals are trying to express in these debates.
So, my fellow evangelicals, don't get too worked up about the title question. The truth is, both Christians and Muslims aspire to the worship of the same God--the one true God, the Creator, all-powerful, all-merciful, all-wise, who revealed himself to Abraham. The real question is, Which set of theology understands that God better (inasmuch as he can be understood)? Which religion embraces the true historical tradition of that God's revelation to humanity? Did the one true God become incarnate in Jesus Christ, or not? Those are the important questions, the ones that really differentiate Christianity and Islam. Whether or not "Allah" is the same as "God" is a misleading question that directs attention away from deeper issues. The fact of the matter is, "Allah" has always been the name for "God" in Arabic, and has always been used as such, not only by Muslims, but by Arabic-speaking Christians (who have been around as long or longer than Muslims). If the mere association of the linguistic term "Allah" with a less-than-complete view of God is the problem, then we Western Christians need to stop calling God "God," because that's the old pagan Germanic word for deity, and was originally probably a lot farther from the mark of identifying the one true God than the term "Allah" is now. (We would also need to rewrite the New Testament so that the apostles stop using the old pagan Greek term for divinity, Theos, as their go-to name for God.)

So let me come back around to the real question. If Islam and Christianity are different religions (and they clearly are), and if they have different perceptions of what God is like, yet Islam still aspires to the worship of the one true God, is that worship acceptable in God's sight? (This question assumes that Christianity is true, since I write this as a Christian, although one that has lived with and befriended many Muslims.) There's a few different biblical answers to this question. On the one hand, one could look at the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4), in which Cain offers a sacrifice to God (thus, like Muslims, directing worship toward the one true God), but does it in a displeasing way, perhaps through lack of proper understanding or through improper motives. In this case, God does not accept his worship (but, it's important to note, God remains in relationship with him nonetheless). 

On the other hand, one could point to the Magi--the "wise men" of the Christmas story (Matt. 2)--who appear to be outside the bounds of God's covenant-people (perhaps even pagan astrologers associated with the Persian court), and yet they recognize the work of the one true God and come to offer him homage, and their worship is accepted. Similarly, the Apostle Paul states in Acts 17:23 that the pagan Athenians have been worshiping God, though without really knowing him, and he gives no implication that this worship was displeasing to God or rejected by him (further, he says that God has "overlooked their ignorance"). Based on this evidence, I tend to lean towards an interpretation in which God would not necessarily be displeased with Muslim worship--they are, after all, directing prayers of adoration to the Creator God, the all-merciful, even though, as with the Athenians and the Magi, they don't know him or his plan in its entirety. However, it's clear from the stories of both the Magi and the Athenians that God wants them to come to a greater knowledge of him. The Magi are there not only there to worship God, but God-incarnate-in-Jesus, and Christian tradition tells us that they became true Christ-followers for the remainder of their lives. The Athenians, though directing some unspecified worship towards God, clearly need to be told by Paul who that God is and what he has done through Christ Jesus, and they are expected to respond to the message of Christ with acceptance and repentance (Acts 17:23-31). 

The same, I think, is true of Islam.  There is, in fact, quite a lot to respect and admire about the spirituality of Islam. Anyone who says otherwise hasn't really studied or experienced it in all its depth and richness. There are, of course, also elements with which Christianity disagrees, and in which Islam falls short of the full knowledge of God that has been revealed through Christ Jesus. So I think it's possible to say, "Yes, Christians and Muslims worship the same God," but to say with the same breath, "That isn't enough--Muslims need to know this God they worship, and the only way to truly know him is through Christ Jesus the Lord."

(Images -  Photo, top: "Interior of Hagia Sophia," by Altay Ozcan, 8/9/2009, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation license and multiple Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licenses; Painting, top left: "Ancient of Days," by William Blake, 1794; Painting, middle right: "Evening Prayer," by Rudolf Ernst, 1854-1932; Painting, bottom left: "Saint Paul Preaching in Athens," by Raphael, 1515; Photo, bottom right: "Thavaf," by Wikipedia user Bluemangoa2z, 12/23/2007, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. The use of these images does not necessarily reflect the painter/photographer's agreement with the positions taken in this blog article.)