Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Question: Do Christians and Muslims Worship The Same God?

In light of the veritable storm of events that have unfolded after Dr Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College, and bastion of Evangelical protestant tradition, declared that Christians and Muslims worship the same God- I thought I would offer my two cents worth.

While her intention to stand in solidarity with people of another religion may be commendable in some sense, she has in just as much a very real way- alienated many of her fellow Christians who felt she went too far in this statement.

Here is a quote from her Facebook post as presented in the Wikipedia article under her name:
"I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God. ... As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws (read: unconstitutional and Islamophobic), and at church."

As always, the truth is more difficult and nuanced than the all-too common knee jerk reactions observed in the aftermath.

So what exactly is meant by "people of the book"?

While it is certainly true that both Christian and followers of Islam are "people of the book" this statement is ambiguous. Obviously, it is by no means a question of being the same book. What we do have in common is our "logocentricity"- not the same book, and not for the same reasons. That is, we revere, as Muslims do, the authority of a group of texts- however the basis on which we place this confidence does not rest ultimately on authority alone but also on the historicity of the Christian texts as witnessed to by numerous witnesses. The authority of the Prophet Muhammad's revelation rests solitarily on the confidence that his was a true revelation by Allah as attested to by himself alone. It appears that he himself had doubts as to the authenticity as referenced in Sura 10.94.

According to Adam Francisco who holds a PhD in Islamic-Christian relations, the Islamic worldview is logocentric, that is- it is not a worldview determined by facts- but a worldview informed by a group of texts. While Christianity is also logocentric, on issues that are not directly addressed by the Bible, the facts may speak for themselves- even while there may be tension between the texts and the facts. The historicity of Christianity is also the guarantor of the importance of its relation to factuality.
However “in the Muslim mind the factual world doesn’t so much matter when they’re trying to understand and articulate the world- What matters is what the texts say.” Adam Francisco.

In the Christian world, Theology in concert with reason has always been integral to the Christian worldview. Thus St. Paul could say "And if Christ has not been raised,"  (physically, historically, prophetically, factually, miraculously and reasonably) "your faith is futile; you are still in your sins."

However, by far the statement with which the name Larycia Hawkins has been most strongly identified with,  and has caused the greatest hue and cry over is that "we worship the same God".

Coming as I do from the Evangelical camp it is all too easy to shout down her solidarity with Muslims at this point, especially cogent since she quotes the Pope who isn't the flavour of the month with Evangelicals anyway, and many would be loathe to associate with authentic Christianity. But it was two articles in "Christianity Today" that remind us to keep a semblance of reason in this debate and to think a little more carefully before we arbitrarily dismiss her as an heretic. Unwise certainly, in error maybe, but heretical is an inordinately strong term.

Do we Christians, in concert with Muslims, worship Allah?
"Where do these Christians and Muslims get the name Allah? Most likely this is a legacy from Abraham, who referred to God almighty as Eloha. Allah is the Arabic way of saying Eloha. Muhammad taught that he had a mission to establish worship of the one true God, the God of Abraham, throughout Arabia and in regions beyond Arabia. His message was that there is only one God almighty, creator of the heavens and the earth. His name is Eloha (Allah).
However, we need to recognize that in the Christian missionary movement around the world, the church has used many names for God, not just the Arabic Allah. "       
David W. Shenk, Christianity Today
At this juncture I would want to interrupt Shenk and distinguish between the name of God, and the category that we give to him. The word "God" or, for that matter, "Allah" is a categorical term, denoting what God is, however the name "Jehovah" describes who he is, and that's an important distinction that appears to have been clouded over here. If I understand correctly, the form Allāhu is the nominative of Allah, the proper name of God in the context of Islam.

I am human, that's what I am, my name is Kerry, that's who I am. So to correct Shenk, I would want to offer this amendment to his sentence:

"...we need to recognize that in the Christian missionary movement around the world, the church has used many names words for God, not just the Arabic Allah. "

So in this sense only, Hawkins correctly identifies that we along with Muslims worship the same category, we, in communion with Muslims, Jews and others worship a monotheist god (small "g" because I am describing type or category). We worship a supreme creator as opposed to worshipping the creation or anything within the created order. But beyond this there is a divergence that makes it clear we don't worship the same entity at all within that category of which there is only one member.

The devil is in the detail. So is this what the Pope meant, is this all that Hawkins intended? We may never know because at the end of the day, we do not know the thoughts and intent of the heart. However there is one who does, and we can be assured of that. If there is guilt to be had by any, it is that of ambiguity and not being transparent, and it seems even Shenk has had his part in that. Perhaps some wordsmith will see it in the words that are coming from my fingertips...

The word Allah is simply Arabic for "God" and so, as Shenk points out, Christian translators and missionary movements have for years encouraged a local word for God. He exemplifies this tradition by his own parents as Christian missionaries to the Zanaki people of Tanzania,

"they asked the Zanaki people whether they know about God. They assured my parents that they were aware of God. They called the Creator Murungu." 

This tradition has a scriptural precedent and principle, namely the conviction that God has his own witness scattered across all cultures and people of the world, hence legitimizing the use of local words for God. (Acts 14.17, Romans 1.20)

This principle we can observe in St. Paul as he preached in Athens referencing the "Unknown God" whom they worshipped in ignorance, and by whom Paul was about to illumine them as to the only true God.
Robert Priest, a mission and anthropology professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) and current EMS president, has “watched with interest” the unfolding Wheaton-Hawkins debate because, for evangelicals worldwide, “what Wheaton does affects us all.” In Acts 17:23, “Paul referenced an Athenian altar to an unknown god who he said Athenians ‘worship,’ and where he then proceeded to treat this god as the same referent that he wished to tell them about,” he wrote. “Clearly he did not intend us to understand his use of the term ‘worship’ as implying something soteriological, that these Athenians were therefore in a saving relationship with God.”
Instead, Paul was seeking common ground, he said. In the same way, when evangelizing Muslims, it’s helpful to start with what you have in common: Allah as creator of the world, who flooded the earth in the time of Noah, revealed himself to Abraham, and handed 10 commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai." 
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, Christianity Today.

Of course, while it may be absolutely legitimate to use the Arabic word "Allah" in exchange for, and synonymously with "God" in discussion with Muslims; and as a point of common ground, (it being true that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all Abrahamic religions) that is still light years away from affirming that Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God. The motive of the heart comes into play- do we wish to continue dialogue with these people? Of course! And that is the only legitimate Christian response. It is a scriptural precedent observed by St. Paul in his dialogue with the Athenians.

Here, I think the issue is seriously conflated. One can wisely take St. Paul's idea and identify the common ground that we have with Muslims without compromising what we believe are essential differences.  People don't worship a name or a category (of which the word God or Allah signifies the only solitary member), they worship the entity that the word signifies. They worship the god to whom their mental image of God answers. To say that we worship the same God merely because we can interchange the word "Allah" with "God" is a serious conflation of the issue, and it behoves Christians to respectfully and gently make that distinction clear.

This is quite distinct from the example we have in the Book of Acts in which we have Apollos a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt, described as “eloquent,” “mighty in the Scriptures,” “fervent in the spirit” and “instructed in the way of the Lord” who, though a Jew originally by religion, had converted to Christianity, and was very conversant with the Christian perspective of the Hebrew Bible, but was yet uninstructed in certain areas: since he was “acquainted only with the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25).

He (Apollos) began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. Acts 18.26  
Apollos was an engaging Christian, actively involved in evangelism and a fervent Christian apologist, he did not worship anything less than the Christian God, though he was ignorant in some respect of Christianity that made it necessary for him to be brought up to speed.

As a side note, there is also the need for compassion towards the weaker brother or sister on the part of Christians seriously engaged with Muslim people, as to why there has been such a strong backlash against interchanging the word "Allah" with the word "God" in the West. I say "weaker" because it is always easier for someone to stand on the side of an obvious injustice than to stand on the side of those who are unwillingly caught up in a tide of injustices as many Muslims are.
Allahu Akbar (Arabic: الله أكبر) is an Islamic phrase, called Takbir in Arabic, meaning "God is greater" or "God is [the] greatest"
 We have all been constantly assaulted by the media's use of video in which we hear incessant cries of "Allahu Akbar" as we watch some people being blown into eternity, or some historic monument, or some military target, someones home and neighbourhood reduced to dust and jagged pieces of masonry. And naturally we are deeply disturbed by it all and want to distance ourselves from associating that word from him that we worship, no doubt this is also true for Muslims who are genuinely ashamed to hear that phrase associated with those actions in the name of Islam.

Outspoken leaders of all parties need to stop acting like demagogues, and playing off against one anothers prejudices.

Playing the “race card” or the “religious card” works both ways. In the same way that talk of “rich capitalist Jews” appeals to the anti semitic elements in a culture, these cards are also played the other way as when any criticism of the State of Israel is decried “antisemitism” when clearly it may be a criticism based on policy, not race or religion. This kind of dialogue does nothing but muddy the waters. Prejudice for and against are equally wrong and damaging.

While, from a personal perspective, our knowledge of God as Christians is incomplete, and in some areas maybe even aberrant, yet there is a demarcation, a line which cannot be crossed without coming under the category of cult or false religion.

Superficially then, we can stand with Muslims united against the materialist's worship of the created order, but fundamentally there is all the difference in the world in worshipping a persona as opposed to the actual persons, or who they are in reality.

What do I mean regarding worshipping a persona rather than the actual persons? Technically the word "person" denotes any rational being with mind, will, and emotions. Clearly God as well as human beings answer this description. So to worship the person of God is to worship him as he really is- irrespective of the name we apply to him. When people of Arab descent or who have a cultural connection to the Arab language worship "Allah" it doesn't automatically apply that they are therefore Muslims. Arab Christians use the same word to denote Christianity's God.

However the Latin word "persona" was originally used to denote the mask worn by an actor. So to worship a persona is to worship a character who is in fact a figment of someone else's imagination, rather than who they really are. Worship of a simulacrum has always been outlawed in Christianity.

 It must remain a Christian distinctive to worship in Spirit and in Truth.