As Christians attempt to celebrate the sacred season of Christmas amid a sea of consumer excess, the last thing we need to see is conflict among ourselves. So it was sad last week to see a Christian college punish a professor for quoting Pope Francis.
Administrators at Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading evangelical college, placed Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science, on administrative leave last Tuesday after she suggested that Christians and Muslims follow the same God. Her December 10 Facebook posting read: “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” The college offered this rationale:
"Dr. Hawkins’ administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions, and is in no way related to her race, gender or commitment to wear a hijab during Advent."
The Internet predictably exploded with sites asking “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” (google it!) The result is a flood of pseudo-academic gobbledygook detailing supposed differences between the “Christian God” and the “Muslim God.”
Many arrive at the same conclusion as Bryan Fischer, columnist for the American Family Association:
Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The answer is an unequivocal and unambiguous "No." Muslims themselves will confirm this to you if you know the questions to ask.
Some of these commentaries argue about words: the origin of “Allah” and “Yahweh” and “Jehovah,” for example. Some argue about whether Abraham sacrificed Isaac or Ishmael. Some argue that Allah is not a loving father, or that Allah has no son. Some finally, detail many differences in Christian and Islamic beliefs.
All of which provides ample evidence that Christianity and Islam are not the same religion. We do not share the same faith, which is why interactions between us are called “inter-faith” events. But all these things are beside the point.
All these arguments, however distinct, make the same basic error. It is called a “category mistake”:
A category mistake is an error in logic in which one category of something thing is presented as belonging to another category. For example, to say "the rock is alive" assigns the category of life to that which is not alive. Another example would be to say that an idea is the color blue. It mistakenly applies the category of color to a concept in the mind.
In short, the arguments above all waste our time by making the points that do not even apply to the question about the “same God.”
The category mistake here lies in thinking that talking about “the same God” is equivalent to talking about “the same concept of God” or “the same ideas of God” or “beliefs about God” or even “names of God.”
These are all mistakes, because the question is not if we all believe the same things. In fact the question is not about us (our ideas, concepts, beliefs, words) at all. It is about God. It is not about our beliefs, but about the object of our beliefs. And as Saint Thomas wrote, the object of our faith is not an idea--it is a being, or even Being itself.
Let me take an everyday example. I have three children. Do they all acknowledge the same father? Perhaps one thinks I am generous, another thinks I am wasteful, and a third thinks I am stingy. They have very different ideas of me--but their ideas do not change me. I am still father to all three. Do they all love the same father? Perhaps one thinks she is my favorite child, another believes I have no favorites, and the third thinks I’m the best father in the world. None of those things alters the main fact--I am still their father, and if they love their father then they all love me.
My kids’ ideas may be right or wrong, of course. But those ideas do not change who I am. Different people’s ideas about God may also be right or wrong. But they do not change God.
So Muslims do not believe Allah has a son. But then, Jews do not believe in the Son of God either. Nor do Unitarians. Nor did the 4th century Arians, who believed Jesus was only human. Then there were the Docetists, who did not believe that God’s Son became human. And the Jansenists, who believed that God’s grace destroyed our free will. And the Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, who do not believe, as we do, that “the Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son.”
Are we to conclude that Jews, Unitarians, Arians, Docetists, Jansenists, and Othodox Christians all worship a different God? Of course not. That would make a mockery of Western monotheism, which began with the notion that the God of Abraham is the only God, that all others are frauds. We may disagree with those others, or believe they are wrong in their beliefs. We may even judge, as history does, that Arianism, Docetism, and Jansenism are heretical beliefs incompatible with true Christian faith. But we cannot say they worship a different God. We all share the same monotheism.
By definition, monotheists acknowledge only one God. If Jews worship a different God from Christians, then the God of Abraham cannot be God at all. So why do we use their scriptures? Why don’t we reject their God? But of course, we do not--any more than Muslims reject our God.
To repeat: the question is not whether we all believe all the same things about God. The question is not about us at all. The question is about God. In short, the focus is not on our beliefs but on the object of our beliefs—and God is and remains the same God whether our beliefs are right or wrong.
So how do we know we all worship the same God if our beliefs are so different? The obvious way to consult our traditions. Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.
--CCC 841, quoting the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium 16, from Vatican Council II.
Vatican II's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, 3, makes the teaching of the Council perhaps even clearer:
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.
And here is what the Quran says:
We believe in God and what has been sent down to us, and what had been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their progeny, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and to all other prophets by the Lord. We make no distinction among them, and we submit to Him.-- Quran 136:2
If we compare these statements, it is clear beyond doubt that both Catholicism and Islam claim to worship the same God--the God of Abraham. So we share the same God, but we do not share the same beliefs about God--which should be obvious, since we belong to different religions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all live by different belief systems, including different beliefs about God. But we all claim the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the one true God. “Yahweh,” “Allah,” “Trinity”--all these are different names for the same creator.
This truth may threaten some Christians. Stating this truth may cost Larycia Hawkins her job. But the reasons people use to deny this truth inevitably fall into that “category mistake” I explained above. In fact, what they are really giving us are the reasons why Muslims are not Christians.
Did anyone think they were?
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015