Recent controversy at Wheaton has reminded us of one of the most cherished nuggets of contemporary wisdom, positively golden for its heart-warming conciliatory sentiment. Yes, you have heard it said, “Muslims and Christians worship the same God.”
But you don’t have to bite down very hard on that nugget to discover it’s fool’s gold, sold by bullshitting Western journalists whose infatuation with Islam is matched only by their contempt for conservative Christians. Sadly, even many Christians have invested in the worthless pyrite. And they really should know better. They should know that the Christian God and the Muslim God have different essential properties, which entails that our concepts of them cannot possibly denote the same God. If A and B are essentially different, and we were aware of those differences, our concepts of A and B cannot possibly denote the same thing. If (per impossible) Hesperus and Phosphorus had different essential properties, and we were aware of those differences, our concepts of each could not possibly denote one and the same object.
The Christian and Muslim concepts of God do share certain properties in common. Both Gods are omnipotent, omniscient, created the world, and sent prophets, for example. Both are even referred to by the same name; i.e., “God.” But it hardly follows from this fact that they are therefore the same. This is the Dumbo fallacy. I have ears. Dumbo the elephant has ears. It doesn’t follow that I am Dumbo the elephant. And don’t fall for the equally elementary ‘same word, same referent’ mistake. Words refer to concepts and concepts denote things. We can use the same word to refer to different concepts that denote different things. So the “’Allah’ is just the Arabic word ‘God’” defense goes precisely no distance in showing the concepts referred to are the same, much less the objects the concepts denote.
An example may help. My uncle Mark proudly drives a pickup truck. My grandpa Bill proudly drives an 18-wheeler. And they playfully make fun of each other for their respective vehicle of choice. Sure, they know both vehicles have much in common. Both have engines, wheels, can haul stuff, are referred to as “trucks,” etc. But my uncle and grandpa are also keenly aware of the essential differences. How absurd, confusing, and downright foolish it would be if I went up to them strumming a conciliatory note on my guitar and said “You know, guys, you really drive the same truck,” my kumbaya attitude notwithstanding.
How, then, does the Christian God and the Muslim God essentially differ? Again, easy: the Christian God is trinitarian. God is three persons. The Muslim concept of God is unitarian. God is one person, not three. So if either a Christian or a Muslim thinks they’re worshiping the same God, they have simply failed to understand the concept of the God in whom they claim to believe. If a Christian is worshiping the same God that a Muslim is, one or the other is worshiping the wrong God. In fact, one doesn’t exist. Christians and Muslims believe there is room in reality for one and only one God. If the Christian God exists, the Muslim God doesn’t (and vice versa).
As I said, the “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” line is usually peddled by dishonest salesmen who like the sentiment it expresses more than the truth. But well-meaning, thoughtful people have bought in, too. Witness Francis Beckwith:
But doesn’t Christianity affirm that God is a Trinity while Muslims deny it? Wouldn’t this mean that they indeed worship different “Gods”? Not necessarily. Consider this example. Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.” On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.” Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not. In the same way, Abraham and Moses did not believe that God is a Trinity, but St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Billy Graham do.
The problem with Beckwith’s example is that Fred and Bob are disagreeing over which non-essential properties Thomas Jefferson has. It is not essential to Jefferson either that he is or is not the father of several of Sally Hemings’ children. And of course we can talk about the same thing while disagreeing about which non-essential properties it has. But that is not like the present case. So here’s a better example. Fred and Bob are disagreeing over the essential properties of tables. Fred insists that essential to a table is that it have a surface. Not only does Bob disagree, Bob insists that tables essentially do not have surfaces. Fred is right and Bob is wrong. But the point is that whatever Bob’s concept denotes, it does not denote a table, and Fred’s and Bob’s concepts cannot possibly denote the same thing. So don’t go around saying Fred and Bob are talking about the same thing, because they aren’t—regardless of whatever other properties their concepts have in common and regardless of whether they’re using the same word.
Saying “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” promotes confusion, not solidarity. And as Jonathan Edwards rightly observed, “it is much the more hard to think right when speaking so wrong.” There is more to say about this, but that’s enough for now. Go in peace, and worship God in spirit and in truth.
Today’s reflection was brought to you by Dunhill’s Early Morning Pipe. The description reads, “Sweet Oriental carefully blended with Bright and Red Virginias, pressed and lightly stoved. Great as the ‘first pipe’ arousing the palate for the further pleasures of the day.” Indeed.
*Update: The claim that Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worship the same God seems demonstrably false to me for the reasons I outlined in the post. But I am genuinely open to it being true. The principles I appealed to to justify denying the claim (e.g., “If A and B are essentially different, and we were aware of those differences, our concepts of A and B cannot possibly denote the same thing”) could probably be Chisholmed to account for prima face counterexamples. However, the only way I can see how it could turn out true is if interesting philosophy of language considerations are brought to bear on the topic. There is a recent paper on this I’ve been meaning to look at. Here’s the reference if anyone’s interested: Jeroen de Ridder and Rene can Woudenberg, “Referring to, Believing in, and Worshipping the Same God: A Reformed View,” Faith and Philosophy 31/1 (2014), pp. 46-67.