Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?
Here is a surprisingly good article, by today’s standards, from a secular publication that touts the virtues of tolerance as consistently applied. It regards Wheaton professor, Larycia Hawkins, who has gotten into trouble with this evangelical Christian college for showing her solidarity with Muslims on something of a theological level. What it doesn’t do, however, is touch upon the interesting question of what is so wrong with claiming that Christians and Muslims all worship the same God.
The problem is that “God” is simply a word, and words have meaning. The meanings of most words are pretty uncontroversial and agreed upon by all parties. Some are not as well defined, though. For instance, the meaning of the word “liberal” depends upon the country or historical time-frame to which one is referring. The definition of the word “God” is perhaps the most controversial of all, and is the very reason why there are different religions to begin with. Some take “God” to be the universe, or an impersonal force, or a physical being, or an immaterial person, or a plurality of beings. If “God” were a pitcher, then each religion fills it with a different fluid.
It is true that both Christians and Muslims ascribe some similar attributes and history to “God,” but it is the distinctions that matter. Muhammad taught that the Christians had lost and corrupted the true Scriptures; and Scripture is where we get our very definition of “God.” He said this of necessity, because his own definition offered many profound contradictions to that found in the Bible. The most important of these regards the idea that the Godhead includes that which was incarnate into the world: Jesus. Muhammad claimed that the belief in such a thing is one of the greatest of all sins (“shirk”). In addition to this, he denied that Jesus died on the cross or that God accepts anyone based merely upon grace and forgiveness rather than by way of works of obedience (specifically, obedience to Islamic law and ritual). If Christianity is built upon the nature of Christ and His work on the cross, and Islam passionately denies these things, then the only things shared in common are coincidental and mere technicalities.
If I say that I saw Charles changing a tire along the road at noon yesterday, when he was in fact at work, then to say that at least I’m right that both are men with the same hair color does nothing to demonstrate that they are the same man. If there is a God, then surely one definition is the closest match and the others are, at best, poor descriptions, and, at worst, describe something entirely fictional. It is reasonable to presume that God is keen to be properly characterized. It is certainly the presumption of Christianity.
To say that we all worship the same God is to deny the distinctions and the very relevance of one’s own religion. If “God” were a round hole, and all religions were blocks of a variety of shapes, then only the round one “fits” and the rest must have their points and corners shaved to have some hope of insertion. But in doing so, you eliminate those things that make each block a unique shape, and by analogy, you divest the religions of their critical theological distinctives.
Some would say that only those things that can be shared in common across all world religions are what is truly important. But this is, essentially, to invent one’s own unique religion, and it must necessarily be thin broth in order to contain all the world’s religions. This is why a pluralist like Oprah Winfrey could claim that even an atheist in her audience was a believer, because Oprah defined “God” as “love” and this atheist believed in love.
I once had a Muslim coworker. We had many discussions about our theological differences. The interesting thing is not that we agreed in some incidental areas of our beliefs, but that our differences were important and that we both made competing truth claims about God that could be compared and tested. What we shared in common was the rejection of muddled theology and the efforts of the religious pluralists to throw all beliefs into one, big, tasty stew.
To say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is either naive, an insult to both religions, or the rejection of the fundamental doctrines that separate them. Any one of the three warrants concern in an institution that is committed to the historic Christian faith, and, in their words, to “serve Jesus Christ and advance His Kingdom.”