Quodlibetal Questions 1.1 ‘Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God?’

(For more on our series of Quodlibetal Questions, see here.)

The first question that I will tackle comes via the Oriel Theology Facebook page: ‘Do Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God even if some have some false beliefs about God?’ I think the answer is yes. The line I would take is that Jews, Christians, and Muslims intend to worship the same God, and their intention is enough to fix the reference of their acts of worship so that they all pick out the same God.

It seems to me that the question of whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God resolves into the question of whether their acts of worship refer to the same God, so I think this is mainly a question about the theory of reference. (Mainly but not entirely—there are theological issues too, and we might also need a distinction between ‘minimal worship’ and ‘proper worship,’ as I discuss below.)

Suppose you and a friend are at a party and you see a man across the room who is drinking what appears to be champagne from a champagne flute and who appears to be wearing a nice watch. You say to your friend “That guy drinking champagne has a nice watch!” Now suppose your friend happens to know that the guy in question is drinking water, not champagne, from his flute. What if your friend then says to you “Ha! No one over there is drinking champagne! As a result of your false beliefs, your expression is empty and you have not referred to anyone at all!”

Your friend is being a jerk. You did refer to the man. You had a false belief about him, to be sure, but it was a false belief about him, that guy, the guy to whom you successfully referred. Philosophers will know that there is a large (analytic) literature about the theory of reference. I am somewhat familiar with that literature, and my views more closely align with theories of direct reference and the causal theory of naming. But I think the key determinant of reference is a speaker’s intention.

I think something analogous is going on with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim acts of worship. The Christian insists that God is triune, which the Jew and the Muslim deny. The Muslim insists that God revealed the Koran to Mohammed, which the Christian and the Jew deny. The Jew insists that God requires certain ritual acts which the Christian and the Muslim do not perform. And so on. There is a great deal of overlap among the three Abrahamic religions when it comes to the concept of God, but a great deal of difference too.

Nevertheless, they all worship the same God because they all intend to worship the one God of Israel. The first proto-orthodox Christians took themselves to have learned something surprising (very surprising indeed) about that same God— that he has a Son, who is also fully divine. They did not think that their God is a different God altogether. (Well, Marcion thought that, and so did some other gnostic Christians but that doesn’t actually complicate the point I’m making here.) Likewise for Muslims, mutatis mutandis. Jews, Christians, and Muslims intend to refer to the same God and so they do, notwithstanding the fact that (depending on what God is really like) some or all of them have a lot of false beliefs about that God.

The line I’m taking also explains why, intuitively, many people would say that Greco-Roman polytheists, or monotheists in non-Western traditions do not worship the same God as Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They do not intend to, and so they don’t.

Here is a potential counter-example to my view. What about a case like the following? Suppose that Bob intends to worship the God of Israel in the form of, say, a golden calf. He builds a statue himself, bows down to it, and says “Yep. This right here is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and that’s the God that I intend to worship!” Does he succeed in worshipping the same God as Jews, Christians, and Muslims?

I’m prepared to say that he does, at least in some circumstances. Those circumstances are unlikely to obtain, because the relevant intention is transparently self-undermining and so is very unlikely ever to be formed. Someone who really, truly, intends to worship the God of Christians, Jews, and Muslims will rarely be able to really, truly, intend to direct that act of worship at something he himself constructed. (“This thing I myself made just now is also the very God that spoke to Moses from the burning bush…”). But I’m willing to say that someone who sincerely does form that intention succeeds in worshipping God, notwithstanding his massively false beliefs about God.

This is where the distinction between proper or full worship and minimal worship might be needed. We should not infer from the fact that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God that they all worship God to the same degree, or in the right way, or in the fullest way. Nor, obviously, should we infer that all three religions are equally salvific or equally true. The position that I have taken is compatible with a variety of views on those questions.

A final story: When I was a child, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was very young. I was able to read it with pleasure, but I didn’t recognize that it was a Christian allegory. (In fact, that didn’t happen until I was embarrassingly old.) When I finished, I thought Aslan was pretty awesome— WAY better than Jesus, and way better than the God we talked about in Church. One day, semi-guiltily, I decided to worship Aslan—you know, just to see what would happen—and so I said a little prayer to him.

By my present lights, I did not pray to the Christian God, or to Christ, even though in a certain sense Aslan is meant to be Christ, or at least to represent Christ. (I’m sure there are additional complexities about fictional characters, but let’s leave them out.) The reason that I did not pray to Christ is that I did not intend to. I explicitly thought Aslan was a different God, and I explicitly said a little prayer to that God rather than to the God my family worshipped on Sundays.

Reader, I was a tiny idolator. Thanks, C.S. Lewis!

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7 thoughts on “Quodlibetal Questions 1.1 ‘Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God?’

  1. Though I would be inclined to subscribe to an intentional theory of reference, there seems to be a further problem when talking about God.

    Reference picks out a particular intentional object. That intentional object can be either a real object (such as the table in front of me), or it can be a concept or idea, such as Pegasus.

    Say it was in fact the case that there was a real winged horse, called Pegasus. Sue happens upon this winged horse one day. Importantly, she psychologically identifies this winged horse to be the mythological Pegasus.

    From then on, the intentional object that she refers to when talking about Pegasus is this extant winged horse. Then take Jack, who has only come across Pegasus in Greek mythology. Are the two referring to the same object? Certainly, the real winged horse looks like Pegasus; but it also has never been ridden by Perseus, nor has it ever encountered Zeus, or Poseidon, or Bellerophon…

    It seems likely that at least some Muslims, Christian and/or Jews have never experienced God, and that the intentional object ‘God’ for them is in fact only a bundle of properties (benevolent, omniscient etc.) associated with this common concept.

    It seems to me that in such cases we need to do some work to establish identity between such intentional objects with those intentional objects that are informed by experience of God. And there is still further work to be done to establish identity between, say, the un-experienced Muslim concept of God with the Christian experience of God.

    This is particularly the case in Christian theology, where one might wish to say that God can only ever be experienced as triune.

    And on top of that all you have the question of whether God can be an object, or whether God can even have being.

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  2. Good to hear from you Anatole. I don’t think Sue and Jack are referring to the same object. Sue has a bunch of mistaken beliefs about a real winged horse, and Jack has some beliefs about a mythological horse which seem to be more or less ‘right’ although we’re not quite sure how to explain their rightness.
    I suppose if a Sufi mystic experientially encountered the real deity, who had in fact never entered into any significant relationship with the people of Israel, although the mystic believed that he had, then the case would be analagous. The Sufi has a bunch of mistaken beliefs about the real deity, while the majority of Muslims, Jews, and Christians pray to a different and false god.
    But where there is no direct experience of the divine, I think that in fact there is no problem. For most believes do not think in abstract and (for want of a better word) philosophical terms, but concrete historical terms. All parties, as Bill says, think of themselves as worshipping the God who revealed himself to Israel. That’s the defining feature of the intentional object – unless, as with the Sufi, some more direct experience trumps it.
    Also, Bill, what did happen when you prayed to Aslan?

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  3. I imagine the critical question is whether or not Muslims, Jews and Christians consider revelation to Israel to be a key defining characteristic of God.

    Without doubt all three faiths do maintain this as part of their theology. For Judaism, of course, the historical revelation (and specifically the covenant) is absolutely essential to their understanding of God.

    For Christians this is also the case, exemplified through their adherence also to the Old Testament. However, the revelation of Christ is more of a focus.

    Islam also maintains a certain mythology relating to the Jewish people, and indeed do assert a common ancestry through Abraham. However, the issue is more complex. Islam provides a revisionist history, and certainly discounts the quality of revelation through the Jewish tradition.

    In particular, unlike Christians, Islam (I do not think) views the Jewish covenantal relationship as unique. Certainly, many prophets arose through Judaism, but the more important bloodline is that of Ishmael and not Isaac.

    This is I think precisely an attempt to shift away from revelation to Israel as a defining characteristic of God.

    To be sure, it is still true for Muslims that the Jewish tradition had a multitude of prophets, the final one being Christ. However, this mythology is not central to the Muslim understanding of God.

    Why does this matter? An intentional object is characterised also by our understanding of that object. Once you remove the experiential connection (e.g. with fictional characters), you can only talk about identity in terms of similarity between our understanding.

    Returning to Pegasus: I have encountered Pegasus through Greek mythology (perhaps indirectly, though Disney’s ‘Hercules’…) and thus have a particular understanding of Pegasus that is centred around particular characteristics of Pegasus that I consider to be essential.

    For a start, Pegasus must be a winged horse. Additionally, Pegasus has some sort of connection with the ancient Greek deities.

    Somebody else may have encountered the fictional character of Pegasus but an entirely different context. Whether or not my concept of Pegasus is the same as theirs depends wholly on the similarity between our understandings.

    The further that understanding diverges, the less inclined I am to say that we are thinking of the same fictional character. If their Pegasus, for example, doesn’t have wings… well I’m not sure I could say that we were talking about the same Pegasus, even though their Pegasus was also ridden by Perseus.

    Similarly, without experience of God, we can only say establish identity between two distinct understandings inasmuch as those understandings are similar to one another.

    Commonality re: revelation to Israel is certainly a point of connection, but only to the degree to which the relevant religions consider such a characteristic of God to be essential to their understanding.

    If in fact Muslims hold other beliefs which they consider more important to – or at least more formative of – their understanding of God, and those beliefs fundamentally diverge from the Jewish belief, then one can legitimately question whether both are talking about the same God.

    Of course, this still assumes no experience of God.

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  4. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for an interesting post. You attack the question from the perspective of the philosophy of language: believer B1 prays to the same object as B2 if B1 and B2 intend to refer to the same object. In a sense this begs the question: how do we know that B1 and B2 intend to refer to the same object? Particularly if, when B1 starts to pray, he may deliberately intend *not* to pray to the God of B2? To quote the Aleinu prayer in the Jewish liturgy (and I bet there are parallels in other traditions): “It is our duty to praise the Master of all…who has not made us like the nations of the lands…for they worship vanity and emptiness”.

    I don’t think philosophy yet has a complete account of meaning and reference. But I also wonder whether a discussion of reference misses the more interesting ontological question. *Is* Allah the same as the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob? If so, then regardless of the intentions of the believers they are referring to the same object. The textbook intuition pump is that of Lois Lane: she intends to marry Superman, regardless of her intent to avoid Clark Kent.

    Are the three Gods the same? They have different properties, and objects with different properties are distinct ontologically. You could deny that the God of Islam has different properties to a Christian God, much like you could deny that Clark Kent has different eyesight to Superman. But the approach of insisting that the three Gods have the same properties would be ignoring the doctrine of the three different religions. I hesitate to generalise, but I think there’s a good armchair argument to suggest that anyone who didn’t believe God had a son could never Christian; and anyone who believed he did could never be Jewish.

    I worry that if you remove the extra properties the three religions ascribe to their respective Gods, you undermine the religions themselves. And if the three Gods have different properties, they must be different objects. And so, regardless of our theory of reference, I think the believers must be praying to different objects.

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  5. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for reading the blog. You are certainly right that two (or three) gods with incompatible properties cannot be identical. I agree that Jews, Christians, and Muslims attribute incompatible properties to God. It follows that one or more of them must be wrong about what God is like. It does not follow that they cannot worship the same God. So these are my views:

    (1) Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God.

    (2) In reality, the God that is worshipped by Jews has exactly the same properties as the God worshipped by Christians, and by Muslims. (This must be the case, on my view, since it is the same God.)

    (3) But Jews, Christians, and Muslims attribute incompatible properties to God.

    (4) So either Jews are wrong about God’s properties, or Christians are wrong, or Muslims are wrong, or they are all wrong.

    But they could still worship the same God, because they do not have to attribute the same properties to God in order to worship the same God. I think this partly for theological reasons, but mainly for reasons to do with the theory of reference, as outlined in the post. Two people do not need to affirm the same set of descriptions of X in order for both of them to refer to X successfully. I think worship is a species of reference, and so I also think the same point holds.

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  6. Bill, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on why a more accurate knowledge of God might matter for worship? If they are equally referring to the same being, in what sense is the orthodox theologian’s worship superior to the heretic’s? (I’m not forwarding this as a criticism – I’m genuinely intrigued as to how one would cash this out.)

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  7. Bill, its funny that you were ahead of the game in answering this question, as the academic philosophy of religion Blogosphere has blown up recently over the issue after the Wheaton controversy about Dr. Larycia Hawkins, and her statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same god. (Perhaps a little bit of a prophetic answer on your part!) Anyway, the discussion has been interesting, and a useful roundup post is here containing many of the links where positions have been given (although note that blog posts have continued to be written on the topic by many of the authors, so check their blogs for further thoughts) – http://romereturn.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/muslims-christians-and-same-god-round.html
    Enjoy!!!

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