Monday, February 23, 2015

The God of Christianity and the God of Islam: Same God?

Interesting Thoughts from the Maverick. Here is an excerpt:

One morning an irate C-Span viewer called in to say that he prayed to the living God, not to the mythical being, Allah, to whom Muslims pray. The C-Span guest made a standard response, which is correct as far as it goes, namely, that Allah is Arabic for God, just as Gott is German for God. He suggested that adherents of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) worship the same God under different names. No doubt this is a politically correct thing to say, but is it true?
Our question, then, is precisely this:  Does the normative Christian and the normative Muslim worship numerically the same God, or numerically different Gods?  (By 'normative Christian/Muslim' I mean an orthodox adherent of his faith who understands its content, without subtraction of essential tenets, and without addition of private opinions.)  Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic.  So if Christian and Muslim worship different Gods, and a monotheistic God exists, then one is worshipping  a nonexistent God, or, if you prefer, is failing to worship the true God.
1. Let's start with the obvious: 'Allah' is Arabic for God.  So if an Arabic-speaking Coptic Christian refers to God, he uses 'Allah.'   And if an Arabic-speaking Muslim refers to God, he too uses 'Allah.'  From the fact that both Copt and Muslim use 'Allah' it does not follow that they are referring to the same God, but it also does not follow that they are referring to numerically different Gods.  So we will not make any progress with our question if we remain at the level of words.  We must advance to concepts.
2. We need to distinguish between our word for God, the concept (conception) of God, and God.  God is not a concept, but there are concepts of God and, apart from mystical intuition and religious feelings such as the Kreatur-Gefuehl that Rudolf Otto speaks of, we have no access to God except via our concepts of God.  Now it is undeniable that the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God partially overlap.  The following is a partial list of what is common to both conceptions:
a. There is exactly one God.
b. God is the creator of everything distinct from himself.
c. God is transcendent: he is radically different from everything distinct from himself.
d. God is good.
Now if the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God were identical, then we would have no reason to think that Christian and Muslim worship different Gods.  But of course the conceptions, despite partial overlap, are not identical. Christians believe in a triune God who became man in Jesus of Nazareth.  Or to put it precisely, they believe in a triune God the second person of which became man in Jesus of Nazareth.  This is the central and indeed crucial (from the Latin, crux, crucis, meaning cross) difference between the two faiths.  The crux of the matter is the cross. 
So while the God-concepts overlap, they are different concepts.  (The overlap is partial, not complete.) And let's not forget that God is not, and cannot be, a concept (as I am using 'concept').  No concept is worship-worthy or anyone's highest good.  No concept created the world.  Whether or not God exists, it is a conceptual truth that God cannot be a concept.  For the concept of God contains the subconcept, being that exists apart from any finite mind.  It is built into the very concept of God that God cannot be a concept.
It is clear then, that what the Christian and the Muslim worship or purport to worship cannot be that which is common to their respective God-conceptions, for what is common its itself a concept.
We could say that if God exists, then God is the object of our God-concept or the referent of our God-concept, but also the referent of the word 'God.' 
3. Now comes the hard part, which is to choose between two competing views:
V1: Christian and Muslim can worship the same God, even though one of them must have a false belief about God, whether it be the belief that God is unitarian or the belief that God is trinitarian.
V2:  Christian and Muslim must worship different Gods precisely because they have different conceptions of God.  So it is not that one of them has a false belief about the one God they both worship; it is rather that one of them does not worship the true God at all.
There is no easy way to decide rationally between these two views.  We have to delve into the philosophy of language and ask how reference is achieved.
Read the rest and learn something.


  1. Thanks for the link, Tully. I should add, though, that the criticisms by Lukas Novak are on target and show that my post has its problems.

  2. Thanks for the note, Bill. Yes, I've kept up with the comments. You have some excellent followers.