Allah and Yhwh…and Tash and Aslan

Just a little more on this issue of “Which God is which?”

As I implied at the end of my previous post, but now will say explicitly: I rather wish Professor Hawkins simply hadn’t gotten into what we academic types might call “the comparative doctrine of God” by linking her act of solidarity with Muslims (which I commend on the basis of love for neighbour) with a particularly troublesome phrase, “Muslims and Christians worship the same God.” You don’t need the latter to justify the former.

Likewise, I don’t (yet) agree with other friends who make claims like these in order to establish political and social solidarity with Muslims, as if making such a claim gives strong grounds for cooperation. I don’t think such claims do provide such grounds (European history following the Reformation, for instance, gives me pause to wonder about how much political benefit can be gained from acknowledging that the other side worships the same God, if wrongly), nor do I think such claims of theological similarity are necessary (which is why I can make common cause with lots of different kinds of people in North America today, including atheists, depending on the issue at stake).

To be sure, such a declaration of a common object of faith might help some Muslims and some Christians take a less antagonistic stance toward each other. I couldn’t say. And I have some very smart friends who are committed to such work. I just don’t think it’s a necessity to seeking the common good together, and I’m not sure the effort is worth the pay-off. We have all the commonality we need as fellow human beings to make shalom together.

As for the theological issue at stake—namely, can one be truly worshiping the One True God and yet not acknowledge Jesus as Lord?—I suggested that the New Testament’s valorization of Old Testament saints indicate clearly that yes, one can.

Now a few qualifiers.

First, not just any sort of worship of any sort of Supreme Being can count. One is in contact with the One True God only by the prevenient grace of God connecting one with God via the Holy Spirit. Preferring to worship just any god won’t do, as the Old Testament takes pains to make clear.

Second, one might have a troubled understanding of God and still truly connect with God. As a theology teacher, I have to believe this, or lots of my students are in big trouble! If we are willing to grant that lots of Christians have distorted understandings of God and yet are genuine believers, then I am willing to affirm that people in other monotheistic traditions have distorted understandings of God and yet might be genuine believers. I believe that to be true about Old Testament saints, as Hebrews 11 affirms. Why not believe it about other people who, in the gift of God, have realized that there is only One True God and want to worship God even through the murky theological concepts currently available to them in their culture and spiritual experience? Missionaries have long reported encountering such people, particularly among Muslims, who worship God albeit with the deficiencies typical of their culture and then gladly embrace the gospel as better revelation about the God they are already loving.

Third, and following on from these two points, some understandings of the Supreme Being are so wrong, so wicked, that they simply direct worship wildly off target. Such clearly would be the case of the worship of the Canaanite god Moloch, or any other wicked, bloodthirsty deity elsewhere in the world. Such an abominable view of God cannot possibly accommodate, let alone facilitate, worship of the One True God. In sum, if you like that kind of deity, you’re not going to like the One True God.

Sidenote for those who get their theology of such matters from The Chronicles of Narnia: This is why I think C. S. Lewis gets it wrong in The Last Battle. (I say this with trepidation as a great admirer of CSL.) The god Tash is so clearly devilish that it seems incongruous to me that the estimable Emeth could worship this version of God and then, as it were, rather effortlessly transfer his allegiance to Tash’s adversary, Aslan (the Christ figure). I think Lewis overreaches here.

There has to be some identity between the two understandings of God such that the former is a cloudy and partial and adulterated but genuine understanding of God that the gospel at once extends, fulfills, and corrects. If instead the gospel simply has to supplant the former understanding, as in the case of horrible views of the divine, I find it impossible to conceive of worshipers of that horrible god connecting in any important way with the One True God. Instead, people raised in such religious traditions would have to develop deep misgivings about that god such that they do not worship it and instead long for the Great Alternative, however vague their notion of That might be. And that longing is the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit drawing people away from error and toward The Truth.

Are there therefore clear resemblances between the Islamic version of God and the God as revealed definitively in the Bible? Depending on the version of Islam, I would say, “Of course there are.”

Is it conceivable that someone could be a faithful Muslim and be on his or her way, so to speak, to embracing an even better understanding of God, in the gospel, that would extend, fulfill, and correct his or her current understanding? I would say, “Yes, I think it is.”

Is that situation similar to that of people who are faithful Christians who yet have a seriously distorted theology of God (and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and the Bible, and…)? I would say, “Yes, I think so.”

Yet can someone indefinitely and steadfastly refuse to worship Jesus and yet hope for salvation? I can’t see how.

I have studied and taught and written a lot of theology. I like theology and I think it really matters what we think about God and God’s ways in the world. Deficient theologies impede our relationship with God and with the world. So we need to be busy helping each other develop better theology, including helping people come to understand and embrace the most important theology we Christians have to offer: the good news of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

At the same time, however, we ought to guard against over-emphasizing the differences between ourselves and some others. Paul is the very model of the zealous missionary. Yet Paul did not see himself as changing Gods on the road to Damascus. He did not tell his Jewish audiences in the Mediterranean synagogues that they were praying to the wrong God. He didn’t even tell the badly confused Athenians that they were utterly off-target in their piety, but instead Paul declared the gospel truth to them about the God they did worship, but obscurely.

We likewise ought to be careful not to despise all other people’s theologies as simply wrong and condemn their piety as aimed at a completely different deity just because it doesn’t include even wonderful and crucial ideas such as the Trinity or the deity of Jesus. We must be careful especially when their theology looks so much like ours—and like that of our Old Testament forebears.

At least, as the saying goes, if it’s good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me.

21 Responses to “Allah and Yhwh…and Tash and Aslan”

  1. Terrance Tiessen

    Thanks, John. In this and your previous post, you have spoken well. You lay out clearly the senses in which one may and may not speak of Muslims and Christians as worshiping the “same” God. This is, as you note, an area in which one must speak very carefully. Emotions run high.

  2. Robert Stroud

    Yes, the gifted apologist C.S. Lewis certainly overreached in this case. It must be remembered, however, that he was writing fiction, not theology.

    As for “the New Testament’s valorization of Old Testament saints…” Yes, they indeed worshipped the true God. And they did so trusting in his promised Messiah. To compare these genuine believers with post-Incarnational religions that reject the genuine Jesus… is also a significant overreach.

    • John

      We will do better if we will not confuse what a religion says in its dogma with the situation before God of any particular believer. No one in this discussion, so far as I can tell, is disputing the deep differences in theology between Islam and Christianity. So can we stop wasting time bringing up one after another? The issue is whether monotheistic believers who understand God quite differently than is taught in Christianity might nonetheless be truly in relationship with the One True God partly because of the true teachings of their religion and partly in spite of the limited or even false teachings of their religion–but centrally because the Holy Spirit has reached them and called them to faith in God, however confused or partial their theology might be. If you cannot grant that prospect, then you’d better get busy figuring out just what theological concepts everyone has to understand and believe correctly on pain of missing salvation. And you’d better teach them to your kids right away and insist that they have each one exactly right, however limited their capacity might be. (Good luck with that, says this experienced theology teacher.) And then you’d better…and so on.

      Again, I think good theology is literally vital–literally life-giving. But let’s not commit the heresy of saying that people are saved or lost on the merits of their theological convictions. They have to believe that God exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him–says Hebrews 11. That makes sense to me. Insisting on an orthodox syllabus of theology does not.

      • Steve Wilkinson

        Good point, but then wouldn’t it also be very important to distinguish between Islam (the teachings of the religion) and Muslims (individual people who might not hold to those teachings… and then would they really be Muslims)?

        So, to Robert’s point, what would we say about a Muslim, who while maybe not holding to the exact teachings of a particular division of Islam, held the central point of God being one and rejecting the person of Jesus as God/saviour?

        While I get your point about Apostle Paul, I’m not sure I’m willing to include Islam with Judaism in the same manner. Yes, it was a correction form polytheism to monotheism, but unless we think the ‘angel’ reveling it to Muhammad was indeed a messenger from God, and Muhammad messed up in the recording… it seems it would be a production from some other source (i.e.: idolatry or worse?). Monotheism or not, that doesn’t seem to be a good parallel with Judaism.

        Would it be fair to say that just because Islam bases it’s own stories on Jewish history, that it’s truly at least attempting to reference the same God?

        BTW, somewhat along these lines, Dr. James White over at AOMin recently did a plea/rant on his podcast/videocast for Christians (especially of the US Evangelical type) to more carefully consider the variation within Islam – and take it seriously – especially concerning views of violence/Jihad.

        It was quite an interesting episode. Even though I have a few world-religions courses under my belt and a couple of specific courses on Islam, I learned quite a bit.

        I’m not sure if a link works/is allowed, but it’s the Dec 8th episode titled, “I Really TRIED to Talk About Other Stuff, But…Eventually…”
        http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2015/12/08/really-tried-talk-stuff-eventually/

        • John

          If you know enough about Islamic and Christian theology to answer your own questions, Steve, then go to it. I find rhetorical questions unhelpful almost all the time, and especially in these situations, since one thereby substitutes an appeal to the convictions of the reader for an actual argument.

          Furthermore, you seem to want to keep talking about comparative theology among religions. I’m not talking about that.

  3. Jim

    I came to Christ in my late forties after years spent in other faith systems. I was not looking for Christ and my conversion was not a human achievement. After time and reflection I have come to appreciate that he was always with me in relationship and at a time and place of his choosing I was awakened. My prayers and reverence were not fruitless. I welcome and enjoy engaging non-believers and persons of other faiths. I love to witness, to demonstrate grace and see every conversation as an opportunity for someones awakening.

  4. Layton Friesen

    Good stuff John. Another, perhaps weaker sense that could be given to the claim of worshiping the same God is to say that when a Muslim prays for rain, the God and Father of Jesus may hear her and send it. Many people relate answers to prayer as part of what drew them to eventually worship Christ. This does not depend on their having some proximation to a Christian theology but rather on God’s attentiveness to the cries of all his children.

  5. Isaac

    So what about non-trinitiarian Christians? Or Mormons? How far is too far? Is it possible to assess who is or is not too far from the ruling of the council at Nicea (especially given that they were also trying to answer the same question).

    • John

      What are you trying to assess? Whether non-trinitarians are theologically correct? I would readily confess that they are not. Same with Mormons (and I told them so when they asked me to speak at Brigham Young University a few years ago). But are you wanting to assess someone’s standing before God, the authenticity of their relationship with him in the Holy Spirit? I have indicated that if someone’s theology indicates their preference for a deity deeply different than Yhwh, then we can properly worry about their destiny. But other than such a clear alternative choice, we are not privy to the data necessary to draw a firm conclusion. One’s relationship with God is a mystery to outsiders.

  6. Steve Boyer

    Thanks (as always) for these judicious posts, John.

    I am somewhat surprised at your take on Lewis, for I would have thought that he is doing exactly what you are calling for. To be specific:

    (1) Lewis steadfastly resists any comprehensive statements that would say that Narnians and Calormenes all worship the same God (no “Tashlan” nonsense).

    (2) Aslan explicitly notes that he and Tash are “opposites”.

    (3) After he meets Aslan, Emeth himself does not say, “I have always worshiped this God, and now I worship even better.” On the contrary, there is every sign of a real conversion.

    (Indeed, one might even speculate that the encounter with Aslan finally makes clear what Emeth’s “faithful service to Tash” really consisted in all along. If Aslan was what Emeth truly sought, but if Tash was the only “God” he knew, then Emeth may well have emphasized whatever virtues could be found in Tash so fully that Emeth’s “Tash” was not so plainly villainous as the actual Tash is. Tash himself is, then, unveiled, precisely in the light of Aslan.)

    Hence, it seems to me that Lewis’s point is not that the wicked Tash is (as you put it in this post) a “version” of the one true God. It is rather that, even though Tash is NOT the one true God, it is possible for the true heart who knows only Tash to be seeking Aslan without realizing it. The Spirit is at work, even in the darkest corners.

    This strikes me as very congruent with what you’ve articulated here. Have I misunderstood you somewhere? Or am I overlooking some decisive line in Lewis?

    • John

      I’m saying that you can’t there from here. Devotion to just any supreme being won’t do, however sincere or impressive. Lewis, in my view, fails to show that the basic dynamic here is actual personal acquaintance with the One True God (via the Holy Spirit) rather than virtuous service to whatever/whoever one conceives to be the Supreme Being. Since the issue is faithful acquaintance with the correct Person, rather than faithful service to Whatever, I am saying that the “from-Tash-to-Aslan” movement lacks the strong continuity Lewis suggests. As I wrote, if one really worshipped Tash in anything like faithfulness, one could hardly then swing ’round and worship Aslan, the “opposite.”

      I am arguing in the foregoing that Muslims, Jews, and other monotheists could well be worshipping the One True God, albeit through a veil of significant theological misunderstanding (Exhibit A: misunderstanding the identity of Jesus), since their conception of God might well be in the crucial vicinity of the God that actually is. Tash (or Satan, or Moloch) isn’t in the neighbourhood, but is in fact in the exact opposite direction, and serving the latter puts you at odds with, not on the way to, worship of Yhwh, the Triune God.

      • Steve Boyer

        I see your point, John. I suppose a lot depends on what it means that Emeth served Tash “faithfully”. If this involves respect for and conformity to Tash as Tash actually is — cruel, bloodthirsty, monstrous — then I think you are right that Emeth’s faithfulness itself would prevent his being so responsive to Aslan.

        On the other hand, if Emeth was honoring and following whatever good might be perceived in Tash — sovereignty perhaps (“the Irresistible, the Inexorable”), or unyielding sternness (which might be perceived as an expression of holy purity) — then Emeth’s faithfulness was never really directed to Tash at all. This seems to me to be what Lewis intends. This is not (as you put it) “devotion to just any supreme being”: it is devotion to the One True God (via the Holy Spirit), albeit in a confused, ambiguous context in which it is easy even for us ourselves to misunderstand what exactly we are devoted to.

        In other words, I don’t think Lewis is saying that Tash actually possesses the virtues that Emeth honors. He is saying only that the Spirit has given Emeth a particular hunger for those virtues, and that Emeth therefore has responded to whatever looks most like them in the religion (and culture and poetry and so on) that he knows. As soon as he encounters the real thing (when he sees the nobility of the Narnians outside the stable, and even more when he meets Aslan inside the stable), the “respectable” Tash is exposed as a sham, and Emeth therefore assumes that he is doomed. Hence, Aslan must explain that Emeth’s supposed faithfulness to Tash was actually a confused faithfulness to Tash’s opposite.

        One wonders whether, at that moment, it might suddenly have dawned on Emeth why (say) he had never been fully satisfied with certain parts of the religion of Tash, why he always unconsciously downplayed certain elements of the ritual in Tashbaan, why he was drawn to certain priests and not to others, to certain stories and not to others, etc. The Tash he loved and served was always oddly different from the Tash that Calormene religion in general followed. This seems to me to explain just what “actual personal acquaintance” with God might look like in a murky context where all goods are shrouded in darkness and therefore are known somewhat indirectly.

        I admit that it requires a little imagination to “get there from here”, but it doesn’t seem to me as impossible as you think.

        One last word, though. Even if I am right that Emeth’s journey is a logically and psychologically possible one, we have no grounds for thinking it is a common one. I note that there aren’t many Calormenes happily converted in the stable. One of the things that makes me hesitant about classical “inclusivism” in a Christian theology of religions is precisely the breezy confidence with which its advocates too often approach other faiths, with a care-free “All is well!” because the Spirit is at work everywhere. Of course, the Spirit IS at work everywhere, but that doesn’t remove the danger of bad theology or the urgency of the missionary task. Your whole discussion here (and elsewhere) seems to me very balanced on helpful on that score. Thanks.

        (Sorry for the long post.)

        • John

          No problem with the length: These matters need careful articulation. I think we’re agreed about the main ideas and now differ only on quite what CSL was saying. Since, as I said, I am a great admirer of Lewis’s, I’d prefer your reading to mine! Thanks for the good engagement.

  7. AML

    Excellent job clearly and calmly separating the issues that have become so tangled and inflammatory through sound bytes and rhetoric.

  8. Boppo

    I’m a little confused here. Are you saying that someone can be indwelt with the Holy Spirit and thus have an authentic relationship with God but at the same time not acknoweldge Jesus as Lord and Savior? If yes- then your theology is off the rails. Thats not in the Bible.

    If you are using the Old Testament saints as your validation of that theory- thats wrong too. When Jesus came- he changed everything. “No one comes to the Father except by me”. The Father is God. No one comes to God except through the Father. This has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with relationship. There is NO realtionship with God except through Jesus Christ.

    Muslims do not accept Jesus Christ as anything more than a prophet thus Muslims have no relationship with God.

  9. Boppo

    I meant to say “No one comes to God except through Jesus”

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