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Do Muslims, Jews and Christians worship the same God?

18 January 2016

There has been quite a lot of comment on social media recently about the decision of Wheaton College, in the USA, to sack a professor because she said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

I refrained from commenting on this for a while because most of the reports I had seen were in secular media that do not understand theological issues, so it was not clear what it was actually about. It did concern me, though, because Wheaton College is the repository of much of the archives of C.S. Lewis, who was one of the twentieth-century  Christian writers who said some of the most interesting and thought-provoking things about Christianity and contemporary culture.

Now, however three articles have appeared, which throw some light on the issue, or at least show why it is an issue.

These articles all emanate from Evangelical Christian sources (which happens to be the same theological tradition that Wheaton College belongs to). and in different ways they present the theological question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Muslims and Christians claim to worship the God of Abraham, as do Jews, so these three religions are sometimes called Abrahamic. So the question really boils down to whether the God of Abraham is the same God. Christians believe that the God of Abraham is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ is himself the God of Abraham.

Ikon painted by Bridget Hayes

Ikon painted by Bridget Hayes — Ikonographics

On one Internet discussion forum for Orthodox Christians a Muslim posted the question “Who is Allah?” to which I responded that Allah is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of course the Muslim disagreed, and no doubt Jews would disagree too.

I’m not a great theological fundi, but it seems to me that if people make an issue out of saying that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, and insist that it is important to insist that they do not, they then turn God into a purely human construct, and thus deny that God exists at all.

If God exists at all, he is bigger than human constructs, and while one can say that Christians and Muslims have differing conceptions of God, different theologies, to insist that God is entirely determined by those human constructs is to deny God altogether.

As an Orthodox bishop has pointed out:

In Orthodox patristic theology it is clear that the mystery of the Holy Trinity is one thing, which we will never understand, and the doctrine of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which the Fathers expressed after having experienced Revelation, is another thing.

St John of Damascus (who lived in Damascus while it was under Islamic rule, and was therefore familiar with Islam) described Islamic theology as a heresy that mutilated God. But he never suggests that Muslims worshipped a different God. Their theology was different, certainly. But to say that there are different Gods is to confuse human theology with the divine essence, which is idolatry. It confuses the map with the territory. If you have two maps, an accurate and an inaccurate one, you do not have a different territory, you just have an inaccurate map.

The article on Confronting the Tashlans of our time raises more and somewhat different problems.

The author goes beyond the question of Muslims and Christians, and makes a distinction between God and Allah. This is pure linquistic chauvinism, which I have dealt with in another article, so I won’t say any more about it here.

But the article also identifies C.S. Lewis’s literary creation Tash with Allah, which is a problem in several ways. While the author acknowledges that Tash is a creature (“Tash, in the story, did turn out to be real. He was not just some idea to be manipulated but a distinct and evil creature who did not care for his followers and was destined to be vanquished by the might of Aslan’s roar”), I believe that both Christians and Muslims regard Allah (God) as the uncreated creator, and therefore not a creature.

In doing this the author seems to make the very error he is trying to avoid — creating a Tashlan, a mingling of the uncreated with the created, which is therefore exactly the kind of parody of the incarnation that C.S. Lewis was trying to portray in his book The Last Battle.

It seems to me that Tash is much closer to Satan in Christian thought — a creature, not the creator. Tash has no power to create, he can only twist and distort the good creation of Aslan. His followers are not like Muslims, but more akin to Satanists. The Calormene culture in the novels may bear some superficial resemblances to medieval Saracens, but the cult of Tash is completely different from Islam.

C.S. Lewis populated his fiction with numerous divine and semi-divine beings, fauns and dryads, Bacchus and Silenus, a river god, planetary rulers and more. But he is always careful to maintain the distinction between creator and created.

Muslims, Christians, and I believe Jews as well maintain this distinction. Muslims go on to say that God neither begets nor is begotten, which Christians do not accept. But that does mean that there are two (or three) uncreated creators, one who begets and is begotten while the other does not. There is one God who is the uncreated creator, worshipped by Christians, Muslims and Jews, even if their conceptions of him differ.

But, as I said, I’m not a theological fundi. If someone can show me that this is heretical, I’m open to being convinced.

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 January 2016 12:51 pm

    Dear Steve

    I have no dog in this fight, of course, but it seems to me there is a lot of semantic confusion in the way people use the word “same” in this discussion.

    For example, consider the question “Do John and Jim love the same woman?” The answer is either “yes, they do” or “no, they don’t, John loves Kate, and Jim loves a different woman called Helen”. “Same” and “different” apply because there are more than one woman to fall for.

    But suppose there were just the two men and one woman, shipwrecked on an island perhaps. Now the range of answers is “Yes they both love Kate” and “no, John loves Kate but Jim does not” Or vice versa, Jim could be the lucky one. Whichever of the two men gets the girl, the other one does not have the option of loving another woman, because there are no other women.

    So, how many gods are there? One? Then either you end up in a universalism like Panikkar where everybody worships the same god in their own way, and my way just happens to be the best way. Or you can be exclusivist and claim that only I and a handful of like-minded people worship god, everybody else worships false gods, or demons mistakenly identified as gods. The Pat Robertson way, one might say.

    Of course there are far more subtle variations of both, as you’ve so ably demonstrated above. But what I’m getting at is that if there is only one member of a category, the words “same” and “different” no longer apply. “a, b and c worship the same god” really means nothing more than “a, b and c all worship god”. If there is one god, it is logically nonsensical to say that c worships a different god than a and b. For that to be true, there would have to be at least two gods. Or none, of course, that would also work. But if you stipulate one, then certain terms of comparison can no longer be used.

    So the next time somebody tells you that Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same god, you can ask “are you a polytheist, then?” 😉

    Keep well,

    • 22 January 2016 12:30 pm

      Aye, that was more or less the point that I was trying to make. The ikon (sometimes called “the hospitality of Abraham”) depicts what Orthodox Christians to be an analogy of the trinity. But it seems that some others believe that they might be the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Gods of Abraham.

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