Muslims and Christians and God2016 Jan 23
It has been stated with controversy that "Muslims and Christians worship the same God". But as it has also been said: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." (The Princess Bride)
This statement has at least a couple of implications:
- We share common ground
- The God Christians and Muslims worship is one and the same entity
I comfortably agree with the first implication. I cannot agree with the second. So, how should we respond to these thoughts?
In passing the gospel on to other people it is necessary to find common ground to bring meaning to the conversation and show that it has relevance in their lives. This is what Paul did with the Athenians (Acts 17) by asserting to them that their unknown "Theos" was none other than the high God that made the universe. Since this God had made them animate, he could not himself be an inanimate, material thing. This living God was authoritatively calling them to repentant living, and Jesus having been resurrected was His proof for this.
Paul bridged to these Greeks to be able to reveal the character of God. But without that part about God’s character, the bridge would have been a waste. In the same way, an attempt to bridge with Muslims over commonalities can have value only when we also clearly proclaim the character of this high God.
A bridge which is truthful is that Muslims and Christians are both seeking the God of Abraham. However, the wording "Muslims and Christians both worship the same God" contains a lie.
This is because the (English) word "worship" has multiple meanings. One meaning contains the idea of showing honor or respect. Both Christians and Muslims want to honor the God of Abraham, so to this limited meaning, we worship that same God.
However the origin of the word derives from worth ascribed to an object. Therefore it is necessary to know the worth of a deity in order to do worship. The value of God cannot be considered in ordinary earthly methods of accounting. Since God is immaterial, his value only derives from his attributes, character and acts.
In many ways we ascribe attributes to God as Christians that are identical to the attributes that Muslims have ascribed to God: transcendence, omnipotence, omniscience, justice, judge, etc. Our God and their god are attributed much in common. But there are significant differences as well. These differentiators ultimately describe incompatible entities.
First of these is that our God acted to take on flesh. In the flesh, he performed a work through his death and resurrection that enabled the only way to (access) God. Second of these is that our God has made a covenant of grace with humans; God has promised love and mercy and forgiveness to all who would seek him. These differentiators are the classical central tenants of the gospel, and they specifically reveal God's glory to us.
The God the Muslims proclaim disavows the first and has no part in the second. How then can the two be the same?
In addition, (thirdly) the Christian God expects those who genuinely seek him to pursue internal motivation by Christ-like love. And (fourthly), the Christian God expects those who seek him to seek a spiritual kingdom that is not of this world (not an earthly kingdom). Again, the Muslim God doesn't participate in this third expectation, and disagrees with the fourth.
The Christian God and the Muslim God have done different things because of their different characters. They hold different values, and have different expectations for humans. Therefore they are worshipped differently. Since the worth we ascribe to our God is not the worth they ascribed to theirs, we cannot worship the same God.
Looking at it another way, do you think any Christian should believe that the God that Jesus represented is the same entity that caused the origins of Islam? If not, then the God that Christians worship is not the same god that Muslims worship.
Although there is common history between Christianity and Islam, the Christian God is holistically not compatible with Islam. This differentiation should be clear to Christians.
However, when an Islamic seeker of God comes to know and love Jesus, often from their perspective they simply gained a better understanding of the one true God. Though from the Christian perspective the Muslims are starting with a wrong view of God (like as the apostle Paul before his conversion), it is important not to press this point with them. That would be alienating and therefore it doesn't help them to learn about Jesus. Muslims have long specifically been taught that our gods are the same, and it is unnecessary to first force a change in this thinking for them to come to know about Christ. Remember, it is the work of God to reveal understanding of himself to anyone.
As followers of Jesus God we are to lovingly tell Muslims the good news of the Kingdom of God. This must start from a place of mutual trust and friendship, which includes us assuming that they are (trustworthy) good neighbors. Start by helping them learn about Jesus and let theological points derive later from that clearer understanding of Him.
Christians and Muslims both seek to worship the Abrahamic God.
By restating the original bridge this way, we can qualify it to be truthful, and make it helpful for our own thinking. However then like Paul in Athens, we must continue by telling about the character of God through Jesus.
Muslims do acknowledge Jesus as a prophet though they do not recognize his deity or death. But they can recognize his teachings on love and find it amazing and attractive. So then, let us represent Jesus well to everyone so that others might be drawn to God.
Note 1: The word/name used for God, "Allah" in Arabic, has also been problematic for some people in this discussion. But I think this is a red herring. Christians speaking Arabic used Allah to name God before Islam began. God taught early Jews that his name was El. El was the name already in use by a local pantheon of gods, and in that pantheon, Baal was the son of El. This does not confuse us into thinking that Baal was the progeny of YHWH. It does teach us that God has no problem using an established local word for deity as long as his unique differentiated character is also established. So we should not confuse other experiences that we might have had with some name for God, with the actual character of the one God.
Note 2: Some (maybe a Muslim) may think that the problem in the statement of “worshipping the same God” is not that of the entity but of how worship of the God is done. However, this also does not solve the statement problem: You can't worship the Christian God in the way that Muslims do by ignoring Jesus because Jesus is the exact representation of God and the only way to God. You can't worship the Muslim God in the way that Christians do, because by acknowledging Jesus as Lord, you do blasphemy. The difference in how worship is done in each case is because the Christian and Muslim gods are different.
Note 3: Saying that the Christian and Muslim gods are different entities does not imply two entities do exist. If there is only one high God in the universe, there is only one God. Therefore when character descriptions of this God are in genuine conflict, at least one of them cannot be correct and does not describe an actual being.