Tuesday, June 04, 2013

One God

Jake had asked about my views of whether and how Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God. This is not an issue I generally have much interest in, because I'm one of those people who think it's just obvious that they do: all major monotheisms worship the same God, and so the question is just how accurately or inaccurately, how well or badly. I wouldn't ordinarily talk about it, then, unless asked; but as I was asked, and as it came up recently at First Things, where Gerald R. McDermott argues that "the God of the Qur'an is not the God of the Bible", I suppose now is a good time to talk about it. I think there are certain basic points that need to be kept in mind as our background.

(1) All of the world's major monotheisms are explicitly inter-referent. Christians insist that they worship the same God that the Jews claim to worship. Muslims insist that they worship the same God that Jews and Christians claim to worship. Sikhs refer to Sufi Muslim worship of God as true worship of God. The list can be continued. This needs to be given weight. When Muslims are asked, "What do you say God has actually done?" among the things they will be pointing to are things that Jews and Christians will point to as things that God has actually done.

(2) Talking about God is not like talking about some guy you happen to know from somewhere; there are lots of unique descriptions of God, things that can necessarily only genuinely be applied to God if they can be applied at all. A lot of these are mutually recognized by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. All three, for instance, recognize God as Creator, and as having revealed himself to Abraham and the Jewish prophets.

When you look at the kinds of arguments people give in order to say that (for instance) Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, one finds that there's usually a slippage in figure of speech going on. What they're really talking about is difference of worship, not difference of God. Both McDermott and Volf (to whom he is responding) focus almost solely on this. But using this to talk about different Gods is a figure of speech. We find a similar figure of speech, incidentally, when people distinguish the God of the philosophers from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: this is not actually a division between what philosophers and Christians talk about, but a hyperbolic way of talking about how philosophers and Christians talk about God. If they weren't talking about the same thing, there wouldn't be an issue; it would be a purely verbal equivocation to put them together, as if one said that there is a very big difference between the banks of the river and the banks on Wall Street, or between the Abraham in the Bible and the Abraham who led the United States in the Civil War. That's true, but it's true because the only relevance of one to the other is that they happen to be described by homonyms. Similarly, the only reasonable force of a distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to say that one of the two groups, philosophers or the spiritual children of Abraham, are talking about God badly, or that one of the two groups is doing so in a defective way in comparison with the other. Similarly, the only sensible point a person can be making in saying that the God of Judaism is not the God of Christianity is to be saying that one of the two groups, Christians or Jews, are doing things wrong. And it's important to emphasize, again, that this is a hyperbole to make a specific kind of point; it is not a general principle that can be applied straightforwardly to every kind of case.

Incidentally, when philosophers talk about this subject they tend to talk about reference and sense. Done well, I think this can clarify things, but I think it's ultimately a mistake in approach. The difference put forward in talking about hte difference between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for instance, simply doesn't depend on whether they have the same referent -- any difference of meaning relevant to whatever the point at hand is will do, even if it's purely a matter of tone or contextual association. And I think the tendency to talk about the God of Muslims being different from the God of Christians is quite parallel.

We see this done elsewhere. I remember reading something by an analytic philosopher of religion -- Wolterstorff, I think -- who was talking about Aquinas and did so by repeatedly talking about Aquinas's "Plotinian God". It was very aggravating. Part of it, of course, was that Aquinas even at his most Platonistic is not actually very Plotinian, despite some very indirect connections to Plotinus. But the point of it, of course, was really not about Aquinas's God at all, but about some things that Aquinas says about God that the author wanted to treat as wrong. It would have made no sense to go through Aquinas's commentary on Romans, for instance, and point out all the places that he talks about his "Plotinian God". It was a figure of speech, and in context was largely a rhetorical bridge to avoid having to argue certain things in plain sight. It wouldn't have been a problem at all if the argument had been aboveboard about the limitations of the hyperbole. I can point to Berkeley's texts and talk all day about Berkeley's very Neoplatonist God, and it in no way and at no point suggests that Berkeley was not an orthodox member of the Church of England, or that he was at any point not talking about "the Anglican God". This is all because I am not actually talking about Berkeley's God in these contexts; I am using a figure of speech to talk about Berkeley's talk about God. Likewise, in the case we're talking about here, the discussion is not actually about God at all, but about belief and worship.

The whole issue, then, seems to me to involve foundering on figures of speech, rather than being one of real substance. You can legitimately talk about the God of Muslims and the God of Christians as being different; this is really a figure of speech for talking about the differences between Muslims and Christians. And you can legitimately talk about them being the same; because otherwise the difference wouldn't be worth mentioning. It's just a matter of keeping in mind context, and not treating hyperbolic figure of speech as a straight literal expression.


  1. Alexander Pruss3:06 PM

    This reminds me of van Inwagen's complaint about phrases like "libertarian freedom". Your post says that we can use such phrases innocently, talking about "freedom according to the libertarian".

  2. branemrys3:21 PM

    Yes, I think that's exactly right. We do have to be careful about it, but I think there is a legitimate, innocent sense if we are careful about it.

  3. Paul.G5:35 PM

    Nice post. You should check out Miroslav Volf's book on this topic "Allah: A Christian response".

    Unrelated: Are you going to see "The unbelievers"? I would love to see you or Feser review it.

  4. Pseudonoma12:09 AM

    Brandon, this is no area of specialty for me, so I am more posing a question just to hear your response than posing it from some alternate deeply-considered position or deeply-held conviction...

    My question is, doesn't it make good sense from within the (theo)logic of Christianity to say that both Chrisitans and Jews may worship the same God, but that Muslims do not.The theological justification for this would be that, at least traditionally,. the Christian God is Triune --and this is indeed the way the Christian element --i.e. the (second) person of Christ --belongs to God(hood). Now, since Christians see the (messianic-expectant) Jewish religion as a pre-cursor to and preparation for the fullness of revelation that is the deposit entrusted to their own (Christian) religion, then they can reasonably say that, though the Jews did/do not identify their God as Triune, He is yet the same as the Christian God, only his full revelation (as Triune) is still in potency or on the way. The same position, it would seem cannot be enjoyed by the Muslim religion, which both does not have, in the Christian estimation, the same preparatory relationship to Christianity AND absolutely denies God as Triune. In other words, "Trinitarian Monotheism" seems to be a kind of limit to the category of monotheism itself, one that order the possibility of 'compatible' relations between the monotheistic religions...

  5. Christ is reputed to have said if you don't accept the Son you haven't the Father, either. So it appears the founder of Christianity disagrees with you.

  6. branemrys7:23 AM

    Setting aside the fact that this argument presupposes Arianism by treating Christ as other than God, it also ignores the entire point of the argument of the post, which is that such expressions are figures of speech saying something not about God but about us. Christ wasn't saying that the Pharisees believed in a different God than He did, but that they weren't honoring him by his actions. So it appears you need to read a bit more carefully, or at least elaborate your arguments a bit more.

  7. branemrys7:33 AM


    This would equally imply that heretics do not worship the same God -- but again, this can only be a figure of speech for saying that their belief in and/or worship of God is defective, which is essentially how heresy is understood. It would also, I think, equally apply to Judaism, and would require supersessionism of a strong sort, since Jews also reject the Trinity, so would require us to say that Christians are the only legitimate successors of early Judaism. The issues concerning supercessionism, for and against, are complicated for independent reasons, but I think this would end up being a bad way of arguing for it. In any case, the same point arises: we could indeed say such things, as a figure of speech picking out in a particular, limited context, some defect in belief and worship, but not as a literal expression about the object of belief and worship.

  8. "read a bit more carefully"

    1) You're reading Arianism into what I said. It isn't there.

    2) If Christ meant what he said it means it's not just a matter of our talking about it. Not just figures of speech. That's my first point; the second, implied, is that Christians, Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God.

    Christ didn't believe in another God than the Pharisees believed in. Christ didn't believe in God at all.

  9. Dave Maier9:29 AM

    I certainly agree with the general idea of your final paragraph (and your reply to Alexander), but I'm not sure I would say it was a matter of literal vs. hyperbolic speech (or sense and reference either). What I tend to say is that the one way of talking concerns "numerical" identity and the other "qualitative" identity; that is, two different uses of "is". But in each case God is the referent, and the speech is literal. Or so I've always thought. Isn't the sentence "A is qualitatively identical with B" just as literal as "A is numerically identical with B"?

    Similarly, I agree with your penultimate paragraph just up to the point where you say you're not *actually* talking about [Berkeley's] God but about belief and worship. I see the point of it, but that sounds funny to me.

  10. branemrys9:55 AM


    (1) I'm not reading Arianism into what you said; rather, your argument would only be coherent in this context on Arian assumptions.

    (2) None of this actually improves your original non-argument. (a) People use figures of speech to "mean what they say". If I say that the head of state called for an emergency, I've used a figure of speech and meant what I said. Anyone who thinks that Christ "didn't mean what he said" when he says it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than a rich man the Kingdom of Heaven would not know what he was talking about; yes, it's figurative language; no, this does not imply that the figure of speech "he means what he says" does not apply, because reasonable people don't take that phrase as a synonym for "reading his comment hyper-literally". (b) No such thing is implied by any of Christ's comments on this point when read in context. (c) Your last paragraph is simply nonsense in this context.

  11. branemrys10:01 AM


    But while you may mean a distinction between qualitatively identical and numerically identical, it's not literally in the phrase, so the most that you can say is that you are alluding to this distinction. But it wouldn't change the point: you wouldn't actually be saying either that the God worshiped by Muslims and the God worshiped by Christians is not the same (qualitatively or numerically) but that the beliefs and worship of Muslims and Christians with respect to God are not the same. And to say that the God is not the same is surely a hyperbolic way of saying this.

  12. Dave Maier10:57 AM

    I don't want to make a big deal about it, given our basic agreement, but I'm still not getting it. The way I see it, I can perfectly literally say "A is/is not B", using "is" (again, literally) in its (perfectly well-established) qualitative sense. I don't see why, in order to be speaking literally, I would have to actually *use* the word "qualitative" -- just as I don't have to say "RIVER bank" in order to mean that by "bank". Of course the qualitative differences I have in mind do indeed include the different beliefs and worship, but my *literal* utterance is still about A and B.

    Maybe it's that I have pretty relaxed standards for "literal" (probably my Davidsonian heritage ...) And identity statements are weird going in (pick out A and then also B and only then notice you have only one thing ... ?).

    Anyway, let's not get too far afield here. Thanks for your take on the matter!

  13. 1) It's nothing but your assertion that Christ was speaking figuratively in John.
    2) Some people say the word camel should have been translated as rope. The same word was used for both. It would make a lot more sense.
    3) If Christ "believed" (your word, not mine) in God, it would be incredibly stupid to be a Christian.
    4) If you have time, explain to me my Arianism. I simply paraphrased the bible, being too lazy to look it up.

  14. branemrys6:21 PM

    (1) I in fact argued in the post that it makes more sense to treat these expressions generally as figurative speech; it is, however, nothing but your assertion that it is not in this particular case. This is, what, your third comment, and I still don't know why you think it has to be treated in a very strictly literal sense, particularly since the contexts don't seem to require it.
    (2) There are problems with that interpretation, but it wouldn't matter; Christ regularly speaks in hyperbole. All one would have to do would be to pick another one, e.g., "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple." You can find Christ using hyperbolic expressions on practically every page; it's unreasonable to interpret all of them as literal. Hyperbole is one of Christ's most common ways of making an important point.
    (3) 'Belief' in standard English covers the entire range of cognitive actions; Christ was certainly aware that there was a God. Again, your point is completely irrelevant to the question at hand.
    (4) Again, I've said nothing about "your" Arianism; it's the argument that only would make sense if Arianism were true, since it's only relevant to the question we are considering here if Christ is not God. The Pharisees obviously knew Christ in the literal sense, because he was right there talking to him.

  15. 1) It's nothing but your assertion that Christ was speaking figuratively in John 5. Too bad you weren't there at the time to explain to the Jews who decided to kill Christ because he made himself "equal to God" that he was speaking metaphorically, or hyperbolically, or allegorically, or etc.
    2) Some people say the word camel should have been translated as rope. The same word was used for both. It would make a lot more sense.
    3) If Christ "believed" (your word, not mine) in God, it would be incredibly stupid to be a Christian.
    4) If you have time, explain to me my Arianism. I simply paraphrased the bible, being too lazy to look it up.

  16. branemrys9:22 AM

    This is just repeating your arguments; I have already addressed them.

  17. David5:00 PM

    I think the reason the assertion "We all worship the same God" so rankles is this: It makes it seem that a Muslim is just, say, another kind of Protestant (maybe an especially angry sort of Unitarian?), and so why all the fuss, really? It's a kind of indifferentism. The phrase is especially wrong because, of course, the act of worship commits one to the whole God one discerns; talking about shared attributes or common ideas and history is irrelevant once the worship begins. There is no "same" referent at that point.

  18. branemrys5:06 PM

    But you are slipping what is essentially the same kind of figure of speech back in with the talk of "the whole God one discerns".(I'm not really sure this is true, anyway. It would seem to follow from this that the God of Calvin is not the God of Luther, and for that matter that the God of Calvin is not the God of Bucer is not the God of Jonathan Edwards is not the God of John Knox is not the God of Witherspoon. That's one of the difficulties of the topic, since it can easily spin out of control.)

    But your point that when people get rankled about it they are really dealing with what happens "once the worship begins" is, I think, exactly right.


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