Dean Esmay fisks a dumb Islamophobic e-mail that's making the rounds. It's a good post; read the whole thing. I learned some things from it.
I only have a quibble with one point that Dean made, and I concede that it's at least partly a subjective point (in that differences of opinion matter to the conclusion). Several of Dean's commenters appear to agree with me:
Muslims believe they worship the same exact God as the Jewish and Christian God. They worship the God of Abraham.
I disagree that Muslims who have an accurate understanding of both Judaism's and Christianity's concept of the divine would believe that they worship "the same exact God" as Jews and Christians do. I think I have a reasonably accurate understanding of all three, and I would not say that Muslims worship "the same exact God."
Obviously I don't mean that there are multiple gods hanging about in the heavens, one worshipped by Muslims, another worshipped by Christians, and more worshipped by other people. Clearly, every monotheist would agree that there is only one, and if so, then all of us desire to worship the same one, the Only God. And yet... it's a circular argument to say that we must be worshipping the same God, by definition, because there can't be more than one. I take it as given: when someone says "they worship the same God that I do" that person must be making more than just a statement of monotheism; that person is saying "their beliefs in God are sufficiently similar to mine." How similar, then?
What does it mean, if two people (say, John and Jane) worship "the same exact God?" I say it means that John and Jane agree on the essential characteristics of the nature of the deity they each worship, and any disagreements they have about the nature of the deity are very minor. They can, I think, disagree about the actions of the deity, either what they think the deity did in the past or what the deity will do in the future or how the deity will judge some hypothetical action or how the deity interacts with man. They can disagree about how man should interact with the deity too. But if John and Jane differ significantly in matters concerning the nature of the deity --- what that deity is like --- I say they're not worshipping "the same exact" deity.
The rub, of course, is what "significant" means. Define it too broadly and everyone worships a different god. Define it too narrowly and there is no difference at all among all the world's religions --- we all worship "the same exact deity," we all always have, from ancient Greeks and Aztecs to modern Hindus and Muslims --- and we lose some of the power of language to help us make useful distinctions.
In general, the essential characteristics of the Christian God must be identical with those that existed before the creation of the world or any other beings. Any that didn't exist before, such as any that have to do with God's relationship to His creation, aren't (by definition) "essential" --- inherent in the very essence, or nature, of God. Nothing essential to God can depend on our existence. That means, strangely enough, that concepts like "just," "merciful," "Creator," as important as they are in Christian theology, needn't be included in the list. John may believe God is merciful, and Jane may believe God is vindictive, and that does not mean they are not talking about the same Being --- though undoubtedly their relationships with That Being are very, very different.
Even more strangely, this restriction means that "Jesus," the Incarnation of the Second Person, is not an essential characteristic of God, because God hasn't always had a human body (though he does from now on). And that means that there's no tautology here: it is, in fact, logically possible to be a non-Christian who worships the same God that Christians do. (And it's possible to define "Christian" in such a way that some people called Christians do not worship that same God. Indeed, many do.)
There are three traditional descriptors that Christians have applied to God as we understand God to exist from all time.
- God is eternal: God had no beginning, but always was; and God will have no end.
- God is unique: the only eternal entity in existence. There is one God, no more, no less.
- The eternally unique entity God is eternally also three persons, all equally the one God and all co-eternal, but distinctly related to one another: the Second Person is eternally begotten from the First Person, and the Third Person proceeds from the First and Second.*
So intertwined are these three descriptors that we typically apply a single term that we understand to encompass all three: The Holy Trinity. Eternal threeness and oneness: that's what the term means when we use it. And that's how I use it, of course. Someone else might have a different name for the same set of ideas, and if so, fine; we'll still call it the same concept.
We do have more personal-sounding names for the First, Second, and Third persons of course: we call them the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or Ghost). But in an effort to be as general as possible, I'm sticking to ordinal notation (which is also traditionally Christian, if less commonly used). The main thing is the relationship among them: there's one who begets, one who is begotten, and another who proceeds somehow (not, presumably, involving begetting) from the others. John may name them "Father, Son, and Spirit" and Jane may name them "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier;" even though I believe for numerous reasons that John's set of names are more precise, the names are less significant than the comprehension of the relationships when it comes to determining whether John and Jane worship the "same God."
So now, about the identities and overlaps among the sets labeled "Christian," "non-Christian," "believers in the same God that I'm talking about when I say the Christian God." Draw yourself one of them executive-summary four-way charts:
- Believe in the Trinity, deny the Incarnation, and you're not a Christian but you are a believer in the "same God."
- Disbelieve in the Trinity, believe in the Incarnation, and you could plausibly call yourself a Christian but not a believer in the "same God." (I have reservations about this, to be explained later).
- Disbelieve in both Trinity and Incarnation, and you are definitely not a believer in the "same God" and it's getting a lot less plausible for you to call yourself a Christian.
- Believe in Trinity and Incarnation: you might be a Christian who believes in the Christian God.
My quibble with the Muslims-worship-the-same-God-as-Christians assertion is, of course, that they explicitly reject the Trinity. There is no God but God, and that's that. (Christians, OTOH, say "There is no God but God, but there's a little more to it than that.")
Back in the comments to Dean Esmay's post, Dean objected to this line of argument with the following:
Really, honestly? Even though they say it's the God of Abraham, even though they believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and revere him as one of God's prophets, even though they say the Bible is a holy book merely flawed and incomplete, it's still not the same God? Not just a misunderstanding of that God, but a totally different God? Because they argue over scripture?
Okay, then I repeat: the Jews aren't worshipping the same God either. Neither are the Mormons. Tell me where you want to stop with this. Orthodox Christians disagree very deeply on certain fundamental issues of scriptural interpretation with American evangelicals--indeed, they'll tell you that American Protestants use deeply warped and false translations of the Old and New Testaments and that things like the New International Version are borderline heretical because they're so screwed up. So are they not worshipping the same God either?
"They're not worshipping the same God because they disagree with our interpretation of the Bible" is just [a] way of dehumanizing the Muslim and making his religion seem more alien, more evil.
Taking those points backwards:
(1) some people might think "they don't worship the same God" is an inherently dehumanizing statement, a statement of condemnation, and one that makes the other seem more evil. I don't think so. I agree that it is alienating, in that it points out a difference. I don't agree that it's a denigration.
(2) It would be a correct application of the definitions I've laid out to say that Jewish people, as well as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Unitarians, and a number of other groups, worship a different sort of God than do (most well-catechized) Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Protestants; but it wouldn't follow to say that Catholics, most Protestant, and Orthodox worship different gods, because all are Trinitarians.
(3) The reasoning isn't at all "because they argue over Scripture" --- heaven knows, even people within the same denomination of the same religion do plenty of that --- but because they differ in their basic doctrinal concept of the deity, which is, after all, what we are trying to nail down. From the Catholic and Orthodox point of view (and really the Protestant one too, though they may not realize it), this question is quite distinct from a difference over Scripture, because belief in the Trinity may be supported entirely from an argument from the earliest Christian Tradition. We have the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds, for example, which don't appear in Scripture at all but which concisely summarize the Trinitarian belief. From the Muslim point of view, the questions are not distinct, because all religious authority rests in the Muslim Scripture and the Muslim claim is specifically that the Muslim God is the same God described in the Jewish Scriptures. So Dean may be forgiven for missing that point.
I find that even though I'm intellectually quite satisfied with these definitions, I feel some conflict about asserting that Jewish people do not worship "the same God" that Christians do. Perhaps that's because I have always viewed them as worshipping a God who is identically the First Person of the Trinity. But now that I think of it, it may be more accurate to say that they worship a God who is the three persons telescoped into one. In any case, if the threeness of God is truly essential --- and I believe that it is --- I am forced to conclude that the Jewish concept of God is, like the Muslim one, not the same as the Trinity, even if Jews, Muslims, and Christians all apply the term "the God of Abraham" to the deity. Whether Jews and Muslims worship the same God, I'm not qualified to say. (Here's one argument that they don't; I leave it to the reader to evaluate, and if anyone knows of a good counterargument I'll post it.)
Finally, about the reservations I have about the definition of the term "Christian." Personally, I think people should be allowed to label themselves whatever they want. But that doesn't mean I have to use the same labels if I don't find them helpful. And any time I am in a serious discussion where definitions matter I will negotiate on an accepted set of terms and definitions in advance, because mutual understanding is impossible when the interlocutors mean different things by the same words.
So, I'm not bothered if, say, an atheist calls himself a Christian because he admires Jesus of Nazareth and tries to live by his moral exhortations. (Though I wonder why he would use the term Christian, since Christ is not Jesus's human name.) I'm not bothered by various not-technically-Trinitarian groups calling themselves Christian either. I'll even do it myself colloquially. Many times, it's useful in conversation to apply the word "Christian" very generally. But any time that definitions matter, I prefer a narrower, precise one, one that includes Trinitarianism as a requirement.
*There is some slight disagreement among Trinitarian Christians about whether it is necessary to include the "filioque" ("and the Son") in the Creed immediately after "we believe in the Holy Spirit... who proceeds from the Father." Some Christians don't. I only wish to point out that if the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, then it is necessarily true that the Spirit proceeds from the Father; and the latter doesn't exclude the former. Thus I don't think it represents an essential difference, but one of emphasis.