Tag Archives: monotheism

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God? Offering a Fresh Perspective by Questioning the Question

April 2017 Feature

The question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has been asked by many for a long time.

A recent article in Christianity Today notes that this question is ‘a perennial one’, that it was one of the ‘top questions of 2014’, and that the evangelical community and the American population are split over it.[1]

It has received increased attention in recent months following the comments made by Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins who stated on Facebook in December 2015, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Since then, various church leaders and theologians have weighed in on both sides of the debate, adding further to the confusion.

On the one side are those who argue that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, even though Muslims do not acknowledge the Trinity as Christians do. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is used as a parallel.

As Miroslav Volf argues,

‘For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response?… Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in partly different ways.’[2]

On the other side, Nabeel Qureshi has objected to Volf’s arguments by emphasizing the rejection of the Trinity in the Islamic Tawhid.

He writes, ‘The Trinity is an elaboration of Jewish theology, not a rejection’. By contrast, Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity, Jesus’ deity, and the Fatherhood of God, doctrines that are grounded in the pages of the New Testament and firmly established centuries before the advent of Islam. Most of the earliest Christians were Jews, incorporating their encounter with Jesus into their Jewish theology. Nothing of the sort is true of Muhammad, who was neither a Jew nor a Christian. Islam did not elaborate on the Trinity but rejected and replaced it. Additionally, Volf’s assumption that Jews did not worship something like the Trinity is unsubstantiated. Many Jews held their monotheism in tension with a belief in multiple divine persons. Though the term “Trinity” was coined in the second century, the underlying principles of this doctrine were hammered out on the anvil of pre-Christian Jewish belief. It was not until later, when Jews and Christians parted ways, that Jews insisted on a monadic God. The charge of Christian hypocrisy is anachronistic.’[3]

While Qureshi makes valid criticisms of Volf’s views, there are some problems with his own article. He admits there is a very general sense in which Muslims and Christians worship the same God (‘There is one Creator whom Muslims and Christians both attempt to worship’), yet he goes on to insist that ‘Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.’

Qureshi also says that the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is a good question (‘Like all good questions, the answer is more complex than most want’). However, it seems that the root of so much chaos and disunity within the body of Christ concerning this question is that it is a bad question.

Very often, the reason why a question is difficult to answer is because there is something wrong with the question. In this case, the problem is that it is ambiguous. It can have the following different meanings:

(1) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that there is one Supreme Being who created the universe and who revealed to certain persons mentioned in the Old Testament such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, and they intend to give glory to this Being’?

(2) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that the one Supreme Being who created the universe is a Trinity (three divine persons within the one being of God), and they intend to give glory to this Being?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ because Muslims deny the doctrine of the Trinity.

This denial does not negate the fact that they (like Christians) recognize that the universe has a Creator and they seek to worship this Creator, unlike those who ‘worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator’ mentioned in Romans 1:25.

To give an analogy: Peter and John are trying to contact the architect of a certain building, but Peter thinks that the architect of the building is James, while John denies that the architect is James but thinks that the architect is Andrew.

Are Peter and John trying to contact the same person? This question is similarly ambiguous, but once we disambiguate it, the answer is simple:

(1) Do Peter and John recognize that the building has an architect, and they intend to contact this architect?

(2) Do Peter and John recognize that the architect is James, and they intend to contact James?’

If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ ; John denies that the architect is James.

So the next time somebody asks you this question, the first thing to do is to ask what he/she means by ‘worship the same God’. Once the question is disambiguated the answer is simple and straightforward. Christians need not be confused or disunited over it.


Notes

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/february/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-same-god-reinstatedochawk.html 

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/17/wheaton-professors-suspension-is-about-anti-muslim-bigotry-not-theology/ 

[3] http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god 



Dr. Andrew Loke
 (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is the author of ‘A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation’ (Ashgate, 2014) and ‘Debating the Christian Faith’ (Tien-Dao, 2014). He has published articles in leading academic journals such as Religious Studies. He is also the author of the ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.

 


 

The Forgotten Trinity

January 2017 Credo

In 1989, the British Council of Churches published a collection of essays with an interesting and arresting title: The Forgotten Trinity. The authors of these essays – prominent theologians in the UK – lament the neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity by the modern Church.

To be sure, the Trinity is given special mention at strategic points in Christian worship. The Church baptises her new members in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Great Commission set out in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 28:19). And at the end of the service, the minister often blesses the congregation by using the Pauline benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14) with its trinitarian formula.

But beyond these specific rituals and allusions, very little attention is given to the doctrine. By treating the doctrine of the Trinity as little more than a theological appendage, evangelical churches appear to be following in the footsteps of their liberal counterparts.

The doctrine of the Trinity must never be seen as an optional extra.

In his book entitled Wrestling With Angels Rowan Williams writes perceptively that ‘Trinitarian theology, in so far as it is concerned with what “kind” of God Christians worship, is far from being a luxury indulged in solely by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian self-understanding’.

Thus, far from being a doctrine that should be relegated to the far margins of orthodoxy Christianity, the Trinity must be placed at the very centre. In fact, we may say that it is the article upon which the Church stands or falls in the sense that without it there can be no Christianity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is based on God’s revelation, the divine self-disclosure, and not on the Church’s metaphysical speculations or imaginings.

Together with Israel, the Church professes that there is only one God. The formal form of this profession can be traced to the famous Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 which declares: ‘Hear, O Israel, our God, the Lord is one’.

The monotheism of Israel is further underscored in the Decalogue, especially in the first commandments which says: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:1). This commandment is reinforced by the categorical prohibition and condemnation of idolatry that immediately follows it (Exodus 20:4-6).

The Church has always embraced and defended the monotheistic faith of Israel that is rooted in and shaped by the revelation of God in the Old Testament.

But as the Church reflects on the significance of Christmas and Pentecost, she begins to see that the one God she professes and worships is triune. For at the first Christmas, the eternal Son of the eternal Father (John 1:1-2) ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). And at Pentecost, the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit was poured out to empower the Church to be Christ’s witness in the world (Acts 2).

Thus, through the revelation of God in salvation history, the Church realises that there is no plurality of gods – there is only one God, and all other claimants to deity are imposters and fakes – in a word, idols.

But on the basis of the same revelation, the Church also realises that the one true God is plural, or more precisely, triune.

In the one God, there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – who are co-equal and co-eternal. Each person is the whole of the divine essence and is therefore fully God. Thus, the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Spirit is fully God.

Yet each person is distinct from the other in the sense that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. But because each person is fully God, each person possesses all the divine attributes. As the great fourth century theologian Athanasius has so insightfully put it, everything we say about the Father (that he is omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign, etc) can be said about the Son, except that the Son is Father.

The concept of God as triune – as Being-in-Communion – is unique to Christianity. And this has led some of the most eminent theologians of the Church like Thomas Aquinas to conclude that knowledge of the triune God is possible only by divine revelation.

The doctrine of the Trinity therefore distinguishes the Christian concept of God from all human conceptions of deity. It rejects polytheism, so rife in the Greco-Roman world, and insists that there is only one God, not many.

But the doctrine also insists that Christian monotheism must be distinguished from the ‘bare’ or ‘generic’ monotheisms that we find in Islam and some versions of philosophical theism. God cannot be reduced to a simple monad, either of the Platonic or Islamic variety.

Yet, the Christian concept of God brings together the one and the many. The one true God is a relationship of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are of the same essence (Greek: homoousious).

In guarding this precious truth concerning the being of God, the Church has resisted all easy solutions and opposed all metaphysical and philosophical compromises. In the process, she has also exposed and rejected numerous erroneous conceptions of God.

These battles were fought because the Church believes that the doctrine of the Trinity is of primary importance. It is not an optional extra.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us something true about God, based on the divine revelation. The doctrine can thus be described as an exact tracing of the being of God.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Religion and Violence

May 2016 Feature Article

We have recently witnessed tragic events of violence in many parts of the world.  The massacres in Belgium, Paris, and Pakistan, the shooting in California, the tension in Jerusalem, and the terrorist attacks in Turkey, Egypt, Ivory Coast, and Tunisia are but a few examples.  While many of these assaults are attributed to fanatics of Islamic extremism, there is an unspoken thesis that their religious conviction is the seed of such violence.  People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would like to brand all religious beliefs under the same banner of intolerance and hate.

For instance, after 9-11, this slogan was posted on some billboards: “Science will fly you to the moon…  Religion will fly you into a building.”  Occasionally, the media would reinforce the idea that religion is outdated and the enemy of modernity.

While these accusations are mostly unfair, the challenge remains.  What is the relationship between religious beliefs and violence?  Are monotheistic religions more prone to violence than polytheistic or Asian ones?  Does belief in a One True God translate into proselytization and the intolerant suppression all other “false” gods?  How do we explain the different passages in the Bible or the Koran that advocate violence towards unbelievers?

It is important to address these assertions, as religions in general and monotheistic belief in particular is increasingly under the scrutiny of the secular world.

Monotheism and violence

The claim is that polytheistic religions, which already allow for the coexistence of different deities, are therefore more tolerant to different, ‘foreign’ conceptions of God, and hence less likely to militantly enforce their view on others.  Because of this oriental religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism are also more tolerant than monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—which are historically marred with much fighting internally and externally.

At a first glance, there seems to be some veracity in this.  There are many conflicts described in the Old Testament between the Jews and other peoples, and then one can add the wars between Muslims and Christians in the Crusades, between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation and the Thirty Years War, and the current situation in Israel and the Middle East.  Christians persecuting Jews, Muslims fighting against Jews, Shiites against Sunnis, and the al-Qaeda and ISIS jihad against the West seem to validate this claim.

However, upon closer examinations, history has shown that states with polytheistic religions are not at all benign.  The Roman Empire was very violent against minorities and intolerant towards Christianity in the first three centuries.  In the past century, we witnessed how several atheistic regimes have perpetrated the worst massacres and genocides in human history.

We need to look for the causes elsewhere. Samuel Huntington, who wrote The Clash of Civilizations in the early 1990s, claims that geopolitical conflicts will occur along the lines of cultures.  Thus, these conflicts are often equated as religious ones because most civilizations define themselves along religious lines.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ recent book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence provides further insight as to why it seems religions could be a source of division.  He believes that people commit atrocities because of an identity crisis.  Human beings are social by nature, and as a result of the herd mentality tend to define their world in terms of “us” and “them.” Religious identity is often the strongest social bond that distinguishes one group from another.  He states,

“Violence has nothing to do with religion as such. It has to do with identity and life in groups. Religion sustains groups more effectively than any other force. It suppresses violence within. It rises to the threat of violence from without. Most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion whatsoever. They are about power, territory and glory, things that are secular, even profane.  But if religion can be enlisted, it will be.”

This is confirmed by the fact that many of the suicide bombers and terrorists are not really religious. Their upbringings were not ultra-religious when they were recruited.  They are often radicalized through a process of socialization when given a new mission and meaning in life.

It is interesting to note that the current wave of terrorism is related to the secularization which began in the West and now spreading across the globe. Secularization was a process that began in the 18th century with the Enlightenment, where reason was seen as the alternative to religion as the unifying force of peoples.  By depriving society of the central role that religion plays in it, it was thought that people would unite under the standard of science and reason. The secular state becomes the norm of modern societies where individual freedoms are guaranteed.  After all, wasn’t “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’) the motto of the French Revolution and the cornerstone of modern democracy?

With secularization, however, relativism and individualism have become prevalent.  And once cultures and religions become relative, modern man is forced to live an individual existence unmoored from his cultural roots and traditions and isolated from community, church and extended families. Autonomy, individual rights and “spirituality” have replaced virtues, duties and religious practices.

Yet, the modern man is restless, constantly in search of meaning and identity before an array of possibilities. Many people find comfort in religious fundamentalisms and sects which offer a sense of meaning and spirituality in the West and in Islam.  This turn towards fundamentalism can at times result in violence.

Faith and Reason

One way to resolve this tension is to emphasize the possible harmony between reason and faith. On the one hand, the secularists need to learn that while human reasoning is the common basis and starting point of knowledge, it is not the only font.  On the other hand, religionists must also shun fideism which only blindly accepts revealed sources without being open to dialogue with different interpretations in a reasoned manner.

One area where this is applicable is in the field of theology and biblical exegesis, especially the difficult passages where violence seemed to be condoned in the Old Testament. Between the two extremes of literal interpretation and historicizing away the difficulties, a mature approach that balances faith and reason can help us to better understand the biblical message.  One such example is the International Theological Commission publication God the Trinity and the unity of humanity: Christian monotheism and its opposition to violence which concludes that, “The Christian faith, in fact, sees the incitement of violence in the name of God as the greatest corruption of religion.”

Faith and reason needs one another, to purify one another from potential pathologies.  For Christians, Christ being the Logos Incarnate means that faith itself cannot be illogical. Human reason finds its fulfillment in the new commandment of charity of Christ impels believers to enter into dialogue with others. A healthy tension of faith and reason that avoids the extremes of fideism and rationalism can therefore allow peaceful dialogue to take place among cultures, religions and the secular world.


Father Joseph Tham
Fr Joseph Tham (LC, STL, MD, PhD) is Dean of the School of Bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome and Fellow of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights.