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.