Tuesday, January 12, 2016

God and Allah: A lack of logic

So it looks like Professor Hawkins of Wheaton College is going to be fired for making this statement:"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". I want focus on the logical mistakes several Christian commentators have made about the alleged similarity between the God of Christianity and the God of Islam, in response to this recent controversy

A valid argument, needs both clear terms and true (corresponding to reality) premises. Often we summarise our arguments, assuming our terms are clearly understand and hoping our premises correspond to reality. In this recent controversy Christian commentators have displayed a lack of logic by jumping to theological arguments about whether or not the gods of Islam and Christianity are the same , without making their terms clear or the premises accurate. Here are some reasonable observations about this controversy.

  1. You can observe linguistic similarities: Arabic, like English has a word for god. "Allah"
  2. You can observe historical similarities: Islam is a seventh century derivative of Christianity
  3. You can observe sociological similarities: both religions have ethical standards, meeting places and religious leaders
  4. You can observe religious similarities: both religions have theological discussions about who God is and how he saves
So what shape would a valid argument take? You would start by making your terms clear, by comparing individual Islamic and Christian definitions of God. You would then need to show if those terms accurately represented wider Islamic and Christian theology. Finally, you'd then need to connect the dots and show how your argument was bigger than a mere sociological observation but proved a profound ideological similarity. I've yet to see this. 


Now, here are some examples where Christian commentators have blurred an unclear observation about Islam and Christianity with a half-baked theological argument, leading only to disappointing confusion.

John Stackhouse
"What she [Hawkins] could have meant, and what makes sense in the context of her long-time affiliation with Wheaton College, is that she believes that the same God is the object of much and normative Islamic piety as is the target of much and normative Christian piety."
Miroslav Volf
"Most Christians through the centuries, saints and teachers of undisputed orthodoxy, have believed that Muslims worship the same God as they do."
Tevin Wax
"Timothy George – Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus? The answer is surely Yes and No." 
Mark Gali
"For example, theologically there is indeed a limited way in which we can say Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but in larger and more substantive ways, we don't. That issue needs careful parsing."
Note that a valid Christian argument would need to distinguish between Muslims learning true things about God in-spite of Islam, as opposed to Muslims learning true things about God because of Islam.


4 comments:

Alex Smith said...

One night Murray, Jen and Chris were looking up at the night sky. Murray pointed up and exclaimed, “Look at that light moving across the sky, it’s not a shooting star as it’s not fading, nor is it an aeroplane as it’s not flashing, I reckon it’s a satellite!”

Jen, pulls out her telescope and points it at the moving object, and informs them, “I can see it’s solar panels, I reckon it’s the International Space Station!”

Chris takes out his iPhone and nods, “That’s the International Space Station alright. Here, take a look at this video Jed, my astronaut friend who is onboard, has just sent me!”

(In case my illustration isn't obvious, Murray is a Muslim, Jen is a Jew, Chris is a Christian, and Jed is Jesus)

As far as I can tell, none of the Jews who became followers of Christ thought that in doing so they were denouncing the God they’d always worshiped. Rather they rejoiced in seeing Him more clearly, although still admitted that, “For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.” (1Cor 13:12 HCSB).

As we believe there is only one God, who is the source of all truth, doesn’t that mean that the truth that Muslims have is glimmer of God given by God? (e.g. they believe that “There is one Creator who is distinct from all Creation”. We believe that is a truth, a glimmer, that God has revealed). Or to extend Paul’s analogy, could Muslims and Jews have a mirror that hasn’t been cleaned as much by the Spirit?

Passages like “He is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.'” (Acts 17:27-28) and “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20) suggest to me that God isn’t entirely unknowable by non-Christians.

To support this further, there are some interesting non-Israelites mentioned in the Bible who seemed to be seeking God (which is in itself a gift from God) and I assume they had something of God revealed to them (e.g. Melchizedek, Rahab and Cornelius). Although I’m not trying to make a case for inclusivism, just that they may have stepped onto the road to the narrow gate.

The application of all this would still be to encourage Murray and Jen to look at the clearer, more detailed, personal revelation we've been undeservedly given, rather than tell them they can't even see a glimmer of light (which backfire against us when they do say true things like “There is one Creator who is distinct from all Creation” or "Pray is important" or "God has revealed Himself to humanity", etc.).

Luke Isham said...

Your argument could be made about any two religions and wrongly conflates a sociological observation with a theological one. For example Christians and North Korean nationalists both believe there is a 'messiah', one who will fix our problems and defeat our enemies. But more importantly, it's one thing to say a Mormon could learn something about Jesus in-spite of Joseph Smith , but it's invalid to argue he could learn something about Jesus because of Joseph Smith.

Alex Smith said...

//Your argument could be made about any two religions//
Only if at least one of them believed:
God is Truth
(1) implies all truths are revelations from, and of, God
Then if you find that they believe a single truth, then they are seeing a glimmer from, and of, God.

Also, with Christianity, we are claiming not only to see glimmers of God but that He Himself incarnated and invited us to become His friends―which is far better!

//and wrongly conflates a sociological observation with a theological one.//
I’m not sure how my reasoning is “a sociological observation”??

//For example Christians and North Korean nationalists both believe there is a 'messiah', one who will fix our problems and defeat our enemies.//
“There is a messiah” is a true statement… but sadly they’re extraordinarily mistaken about the qualities required to properly fulfil that role. And again, having a glimmer doesn't save them, although I guess discussing “messiahs” with them could lead on to a discussion of the Gospel.

//But more importantly, it's one thing to say a Mormon could learn something about Jesus in-spite of Joseph Smith , but it's invalid to argue he could learn something about Jesus because of Joseph Smith.//
Joseph Smith taught that Mormons need to have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I assume most Mormons accept this teaching, and therefore have “learn[t] something [true] about Jesus because of Joseph Smith”. I think they also have learnt many falsehoods from him and his successors. However, believing even a million falsehoods doesn’t make the truths (that you’ve been given) become invalid. Light is still light, no matter how vast the darkness around it.

Regarding your last point, I agree, it’s conceivable that Mormons have learnt truths about Jesus from outside of Mormonism (e.g. when a Christian tells them about Jesus).

Luke Isham said...

//"Or to extend Paul’s analogy, could Muslims and Jews have a mirror that hasn’t been cleaned as much by the Spirit?"//

Your making CS Lewis' error in The Last Battle. Lewis goes to great pains to show that Tash and Aslan are not the same in the first half of the book and then has Aslan reveal that actually they were the same, to the young Calorman at the end of the book! The way Lewis should've written it; was to have the young Calorman dream about Aslan and then have him secretly worship Aslan, while pretending to worship Tash. You hear these stories about Muslims becoming Christians this way in real life. Aslan and Tash are not the same! Now Islam has borrowed aspects of Christian theology, and that simply shows that those ideas are robust and interesting, not that there is any theological significance in the similarity.

//"Passages like ... (Acts 17:27-28) ... (Rom 1:20) suggest to me that God isn’t entirely unknowable by non-Christians."//

I'm not arguing that God is unknowable, but that the God who is unknowable is Yahweh and not Allah . An awareness of God, a Muslim might have ,is not an awareness of Allah, but an awareness of God.

//"The application of all this would still be to encourage Murray and Jen to look at the clearer, more detailed, personal revelation we've been undeservedly given, rather than tell them they can't even see a glimmer of light (which backfire against us when they do say true things like “There is one Creator who is distinct from all Creation” or "Pray is important" or "God has revealed Himself to humanity", etc.)." ... "I’m not sure how my reasoning is “a sociological observation”??"//

This is what I meant by sociology, it might be useful to observe that both religions pray, have a word for God etc etc but they are just observations. If "Allah" is just a translation, then sure why not use that word for "God", but if it carries theological weight and meaning why confuse a linguistic similarity with a theological similarity?

//"Joseph Smith taught that Mormons need to have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I assume most Mormons accept this teaching, and therefore have “learn[t] something [true] about Jesus because of Joseph Smith”."//

Back to the Tash and Aslan example, the young Calorman could learn about the existence of Aslan from Tash, just I could learn about the existence of Judaism from the Nazis but that's not the same as learning true theological things about God. This goes back to my original criticism of Christian commentators. You can observe interesting linguistic, religious, historical etc etc similarities but that's not the same as a theological similarity. For example, as Christians we argue for a theological similarity between Christianity and Judaism that doesn't exist between Islam and Christianity.

//"“There is a messiah” is a true statement… but sadly they’re extraordinarily mistaken about the qualities required to properly fulfil that role. And again, having a glimmer doesn't save them, although I guess discussing “messiahs” with them could lead on to a discussion of the Gospel." ... "Light is still light, no matter how vast the darkness around it."//

Again, everyone can learn true things, math is true in Iran and Israel. Also everyone has a God shaped hole in them because the God of the Bible is the one whose missing. But Mormonism, North Korean Nationalism or Tash doesn't help us in learning anything about God, these things are known in-spite of them.