Identity and Religious Pluralism: A Reply to an Email

I recently received the following email from a friend. I thought I would post my reply here. Read it below the fold.

Do you think that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (i.e. is Allah of Qur’an the same God as God of the Bible)? Obviously there are some major differences concerning how God is described in each, but do you think that means we are worshipping different Gods? What aspects of God are essential to believe in so that you are actually worshipping Him?

First off, I like thinking about these issues a lot but I am by no means an expert, especially when it comes to Islam. For my purposes here, I’ll assume that substantial differences between Islam and Christianity exist about the nature and divinity of Christ. Christians affirm Christ’s divinity and, by extension, the doctrine of the Trinity, while Islam would reject both. If that’s not a fair assessment, then take what follows with a grain of salt.

Allow me to reframe your question a bit, just for clarity’s sake. I think you are asking something like, “If “Christianity” and “Islam” constitute two different perspectives on “God,” are they both looking at the same being?

Presume for a second the answer to that question is “yes.” You’re in good company–I am under the impression that is the official Catholic position since Vatican II. What this means, though, is that if they are looking at the same being, at the very least they have substantial disagreements about what they are looking at. If they are worshipping God as they perceive Him–and I fail to see how they could not be–then it seems they are worshipping a “different” God. For Christianity, the nature of that God exists in Three Persons. For Islam, it does not. Even if they are looking at the same being, one position is wrong in its conclusions about “Him.”

I thin this poses a real problem, though. Suppose for the sake of argument the Christian conception of God is accurate–that “God” means “Three Persons, One Essence” and that our knowledge of that “God” depends upon the special revelation of God-in-Jesus Christ. In other words, it is on the basis of the actual incarnation of Jesus and our subsequent knowledge of it in Scripture that we have formulated our understanding of God. If the Christian conception of God is accurate, then it means Islam is worshipping “not-God.” By rejecting God in Jesus Christ, they reject the revelation of the Transcendant Being. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ and through Scripture excludes the possibility of religious pluralism. There is no “GOd” behind the Trinity.

The question of religious pluralism, then, is not a question about salvation. Using arguments (better, questions) such as “Well, what about all the Islamic people? And the infants too, huh?” doesn’t address the issue. Religious pluralism is a question of revelation, not salvation. It is a question of God’s identity, not His saving grace. Hence, saying that Muslims worship a different God does not necessarily entail they will all go to hell. It simply means that if they go to heaven, it will be (presuming Christianity is true) on the basis of the identity and saving work of Jesus Christ.

Either way, I think there is good reason to be wary of the “creeping imperialism” that many Christians seem to have: “Well, when they worship Allah they are really worshipping God the Father.” They’re not, in fact, doing any such thing any more than we are really worshipping Allah when we worship Jesus. Why Christians do this is, I think, subject for another email.

Finally, as for “how much is enough to believe to be worshipping the right God,” I think I pointed toward an answer above. I am pretty sure we’ve got to affirm the Trinity in order to get it right–and while our actual understanding of the doctrine may not be perfect, there is no reason to suspend affirmation until it is made so. Faith precedes seeing, as it were.

These are complex issues–my understanding of them is far from complete. I would highly recommend this collection of essays on the topic, especially Kevin VanHoozer’s article (chapter three, I believe). The above argument is his, only more convoluted and condensed. I have, not surprisingly, been completely persuaded by it. Either way, it is a great collection of essays.

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  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

    Matt,

    Does perception create reality or merely interpret it? If it creates it, then Muslims and Christians are worshipping different gods. If it interprets it, then Muslims and Christians are possibly worshipping the same god but happen to believe very different things to be true about this god.

    How do we differentiate between the object itself and that which we predicate to it due to our perceptions? In what meaningful sense can we be said to be talking about the same object if our predications are contradictory? How would we even know that we are talking about the same thing?

    You said, “If the Christian conception of God is accurate, then it means Islam is worshipping “not-God.”

    This doesn’t follow from your previous distinction between the object and one’s perceptions of it. If it is possible to have completely erroneous perceptions of an object while still being able to look at an object in a meaningful way, then to worship God as I perceive Him (assuming my perceptions are incorrect) does not mean that I am not worshipping God, it only means that my perceptions are wrong.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

    Matt wrote: It is a question of God’s identity, not His saving grace.

    This isn’t quite right. God’s saving grace cannot be so easily separated from his identity. The Christian position is that Divine grace is possible only because of the triune nature (read: identity) of God that allows Him to be both just and merciful without violating His character (again, read: identity).

    So, the religious pluralism question does become a salvation question—more so when the requirement of salvation is faith and belief in God.

  • MatthewLee

    Tex,

    Regarding comment 1:

    I certainly agree that they “could” be looking at the same substance. The answer hinges upon what is meant by “same” in the question. Regardless, I think it interesting that even though Islam rejects the purported revelation of that substance, we would still be inclined to say that they are worshipping “the same” substance. Put another way, two religions claim that “the transcendent being” revealed itself. There are deep contradictions in the revelation of both. If they are both looking at “the same substance,” then it seems the only options are (a) a deeper unity behind the contradictions, which destroys the specific nature of the Christian revelation or (b) a theological imperialism by one or both religions. That doesn’t seem very helpful either.

    Why not begin religious dialogue with an acknowledgment of our radical otherness, rather than trying to find a unity that potentially reduces each religion?

    Additionally, the question was, “Are they worshipping the same God?” Surely worship is rooted in perceptions of that God. In that case as well, it seems prudent to answer “no.”

    Regarding comment 2:

    I agree that the identity of the Christian God is related to salvation. Historically, as you know, Christian doctrine started with soteriological questions, which pushed them to the Christological questions, which moved them to the Trinity.

    That said, in the structure of theology, questions about whether Islam and Christianity are worshipping the same God are questions about God and His nature, not who is being saved by that God. That’s why I pointed out the “problems” of salvation that are usually posed as a means of advancing a pluralist position are not, in fact, defeaters for what I’ve argued. I think it absolutely essential to ask the right question of the right doctrine.

    For instance, you wrote: “So, the religious pluralism question does become a salvation question–more so when the requirement of salvation is faith and belief in God.” This begs two questions, though: whose concept of salvation, and which God? The latter is a question for comparative religion, the former a question for the doctrine of God. If the doctrine of salvation answers, “How are we saved?” the doctrine of God answers, “Who saves us?” It is the latter question, I think, that I was asked.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

    Matt,

    “Why not begin religious dialogue with an acknowledgment of our radical otherness, rather than trying to find a unity that potentially reduces each religion?”

    How does this avoid theological imperialism? If our perceptions are radically other, surely they cannot both be right. If one is right and the other is wrong then we end up with something like theological imperialism, if by that, you mean not tolerating false beliefs a place in one’s religion. Is there something else you mean by “theological imperialism” that precludes it from referring to the conviction that there is only one correct theology?

    “…we would still be inclined to say that they are worshipping ‘the same’ substance.”

    “Additionally, the question was, “Are they worshipping the same God?” Surely worship is rooted in perceptions of that God. In that case as well, it seems prudent to answer ‘no.’”

    Can you explain to me how these two statements are not contradictory? Worship, just like belief, understanding, obedience, and a host of other actions are all rooted in perception. Yet you still are able to entertain the possibility that Christians and Muslims are “looking” at the same thing. How is this “looking” different from worshipping, believing, understanding, obeying, etc., that it avoids the interposition of perception between the subject and object while the other actions I mention do not?

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Two Dodgers fans meet at a bar. Through the course of the conversation, one discovers, to his horror, that the other loves the Brooklyn Dodgers, and doesn’t even know that the team has long since moved to Los Angeles. Are both Dodgers fans?

  • http://bourgeoisburglars.blogspot.com Burglar
  • MatthewLee

    Gents,

    I’m continuing my string of commenting on old conversations.

    Tex,

    By “theological imperialism” I mean the notion that everyone all Muslims are closet Christians, that “religious language” is subsumed under one framework that transcends all the religious traditions. I think that this is what happens when people say that Islam and Christianity worship “the same” God. They are submitting their theological discourse to a third standard that is independent of their revealed religion. When that happens, my theological defense shields rise: if the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ is true, then to suggest that people who worship something that is outside that self-revelation are worshipping the same Being undercuts the primacy of rev elation for the knowledge of that God. How would we know they’re worshipping the same Being at all, since our knowledge of that Being comes through Scripture?

    Regarding the purported contradiction, you took the first comment out of context. I said I find it interesting that we’re motivated to say that, but then posed two problems for thinking it.

    Jim,

    The problem with the analogy is that the only difference between their understandings of the referents is a lack of historical awareness of the actions of that referent on the part of one of the individuals. The problems in religious reference seem much deeper than that, as the traditions have different narratives for their Deities.

    Burglar,

    Thanks for the link!

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  • Patricia Hofer

    Sometimes I think the 4 chosen Gospels sound more authentic to us because we’ve grown up with them. That said, some of the “gospels” that didn’t get into the Bible are pretty far out. But they could still contain some valid threads that early church fathers rejected out of ignorance or ambition.