Thursday, January 14, 2016

On Worshiping The Same God

A friend of mine helped me think though some issues regarding whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The issue is currently a hot potato in some circles because of professor Harris, her comments regarding wearing a hijab, and Wheaton’s reaction. It seems to me that the simple understanding of the issue is that Christians and Muslims (and all other worshipers of drastically different religions) believe in different Gods, but my friend raised a point held by the Catholic church and many philosophers and theologians that is helping me clarify the issue for myself.

[In addition to that, I have removed a previous post, not because I disagree with my conclusions, but because I have decided I was a bit strident. In reading several of the reactions against Wheaton’s actions against Harris, some of them have become simply disingenuous. Some are talking as if NOBODY EVER has actually held the ridiculous belief that Muslims and Christians worship different gods. I didn’t want to be one of those kinds of voices. So I wrote something much more involved and hopefully more thoughtful.]

This point of view is that Christians and Muslims believe in the same God and that this is the most obvious understanding of this issue. In two recent articles, both written by respected theist philosophers, the position is defended with the argument that Christians believe there is actually only one God, so therefore everyone who believes in God or worships God believes in the same God, but has different beliefs about that God [Beckwith, Rae]. And Protestant theologians, one no less than Mirislav Volf in a recent article and several tweets, have expressed the same opinion. It is commonly accepted, and not controversial in many circles, to say that two people can have two different sets of beliefs about the same thing or person (and one of them even be very wrong) and for both of them to be referring to the same thing or person. Two people can "point at" the same thing/individual, have conflicting accounts of what attributes belong to them, and yet refer to the same thing/individual. Both articles linked above raise this point and give examples.

My position is still that Christians and Muslims “believe in different Gods,” but that statement needs some work to make sense in light of the Same God (SG) position described above. I want to try to make two basic points, the second leading to a third. First, which is the simplest understanding of what two people believe - that they believe in the same God though with conflicting accounts, or that they believe in two different Gods? Second, what is the theological data we have to work with in the Christian scriptures? And third, what of worship and conversion?

It was argued in both Rae’s and Beckwith’s articles that the simplest position to hold is that two worshipers are pointing at the same God and yet hold differing beliefs about that God. My intuition is exactly the opposite. In one article written by a theologian who happens to be a convert from Islam to Christianity, he said his first intuition about this issue was that when converting he was still worshiping the same God but with a different understanding, but the more he came to know the God of the Christian Bible he changed his mind. Rae and Beckwith argue that in order to hold the position that we worship different Gods, one would have to do some pretty significant semantic work and even develop a robust theory of worship and how it works.

It seems to me that the semantic work is applied one step beyond the assertion, "they believe in different Gods." The conclusion, “they believe in different Gods,” can be arrived at by a very simple question like, “do you believe Jesus is God?” The rebuttal is the semantic move, "No, in fact, because Christians believe there is only one God, they actually worship the same God, but often attribute different attributes to God." The rebuttal relies on the train of thought that because two people can apply different attributes to the same person and still refer to the same person, and that there is actually only one God, these religions are pointing to the same God in different ways. But what if they are not pointing to the same God, but using the word "God" to talk about what they believe in? This, it seems to me, is just as easily the case, and can be discovered given some fairly straightforward inquiry regarding what different religions sincerely believe about what they refer to when they talk about God. Using one example cited in the articles linked, it is entirely possible for two people to talk about "Thomas Jefferson" using different attributes, and given the chance to point to the person they mean, they will point to two different people. In this case they both used the same word/phrase as their referent, but one (maybe both) were actually wrong about the referent, not the attributes. Pointing to two different Thomas Jeffersons has its theological equivalent in describing conflicting and contradictory attributes of God.

Referring to the same thing with different attributes is not the only way people disagree. They can refer to two different things with the same attributes or two different referents with overlapping attributes. To reduce religious propositional conflict to just the first form of difference might oversimplify the situation.

In addition, some semantic work might need to be done to explain how the phrase, "believe in," works in order to support the assertion that Muslims and Christians "believe in the same God." The articles linked above deal with the "same God" portion of the phrase, and I am sure someone somewhere has worked on the first phrase. Whether someone has or not, it needs to be done. Belief, roughly speaking, is an internal adherence and some significant level of commitment to a proposition. Christians and Muslims propose very different things about God, so from the start it should be pretty easy to see that they literally do not "believe in" the same God. Now are we at a place where the burden of work is on SG to tell us why two people who believe in different things actually believe in the same thing whether they say so or not?

Second, the theological data, it seems to me, allows for both to be possible.

"You shall have no other gods before me." God, Exodus 20:3.

Thinking primarily about a theology of idolatry, the worship of idols seems to be treated in two broad fashions in Scripture. First, it is the case the God warns against worshiping him so badly that a person has slipped into idolatry (Malachi 1 and 2 are examples). In this case, we may be able to say that two people can worship the same God and say they believe in the same God while at least one of them has so perverted worship that they have slipped into idolatry.

But the second, and what seems to be the primary warning, is idolatry in the sense that people literally worship other gods. In this case people can worship things, other people, themselves, or spiritual beings as god. In any event, the theological data regarding idolatry is focused in the first of the Ten Commandments, "You shall have no other gods before me." The commandment is not (and I don't believe can be interpreted to mean), "You shall not assert false attributes to me when actually worshiping me." The biblical worldview posits a universe of spiritual beings that humans have often mistaken as "God" and believed in and worshiped as gods. So, of course, people can believe in/worship different gods in the sense that they attribute ultimate divine worth to beings who are not God. They have been doing that for millennia.

This raises another point that Rae mentioned in his article. He stated that to assert that religions worship different gods would require a well-developed theology of worship. While that ought to be done regardless, I wonder if the case is exactly the opposite. The debate right now is about Muslims and Christians, and seems to be fuzzy around the edges because they are both Abrahamic faiths. Add Judaism to the list, and it seems fairly easy to say that these religions worship the same God, just differently. Given SG can we justifiably take it another step to say that Hindus and Christians worship the same God? If so, then Hindus substitute billions of gods with conflicting personalities for the unity of the Christian deity. That difference is pretty drastic, and worship in those two very different faiths would need to be explained to hold to SG. What about belief systems that straddle the religious/philosophical fence such as Buddhism and Confuciansim? In these systems ultimate reality is at direct odds with Christian beliefs about ultimate reality, leading some to even label these systems as atheistic. And yet (at least Buddhism) has a form of worship and beliefs about ultimate reality and salvation. How can both worship the same God? That would need to be explained. Then, at the extreme end of this train of thought is atheism. Atheism has been described as a kind of worship by both theologians and thoughtful atheists, and not without merit. If atheists worship (human potential, science, technology, transhumanism, etc.) and Christians worship, then SG implies that they worship the same God.

Are we at a point with SG where there is an inherent conflict, if not internal contradiction? A Christian who says there is a God and an atheist who says there is no god both worship the same god.

This raises a fascinating question for me- what about conversion? Does a convert believe that they are now worshiping the true God as opposed to a false god? Or do they believe they are worshiping the same God, only now they are worshipping more properly? And if SG is true it seems we are stuck with saying that in reality they were worshiping the same God all along and this seems incongruent with how both the OT and NT treat other religions and the move from one to another.

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