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Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

September 27, 2019

Some Thoughts About Muslims and Christians Worshipping the Same God

WRF Associate International Director, Dr. Samuel Logan
February 6, 2016

In recent days, a great deal has been said, in both the secular and the Christian press, about the controversy at Wheaton College (in Illinois, USA) over the comments made by a Faculty member at Wheaton to the effect that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Most of those comments have focused on the content of that statement and have argued, one way or the other, about the accuracy of the statement.  I would like to offer a few comments in a different vein.

My personal belief is that, in strictly technical terms, the statement is likely false.  But far more important, it seems to me that the statement is actually so vague that its exact meaning is unclear . . . and that that is at least one of the causes of the uproar.  To take just one example, what is meant by the word “same”?  Is the claim that the object of worship in Islam is identical to the object of worship in Christianity?  Even those who have defended the statement seem not to be claiming this.  Strong Muslim/Christian disagreement over the doctrine of the Trinity seems to me to indicate quite clearly that the word “same” does not mean “identical.”  But then, what exactly DOES it mean?  In the age of Twitter and Facebook, it is tempting to make “headline-grabbing” brief statements and that’s not necessarily always wrong.  But it can be wrong if the brevity of such statements blurs rather than clarifies a situation.  I believe that is the case with the blunt assertion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

This very point is made by several missiologists whose thoughts on the “same God” debate are summarized in a 1/19/16 blog post in “Gleanings” and stated in full on pp. 25 – 26 and pp. 13 – 14 of the OMS Occasional Bulletin here:

The question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is so “pernicious” that it shouldn’t even be asked, wrote Kurt Anders Richardson, a professor of Abrahamic studies at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics.  “If the question is to continue to be asked, it should be understood in the way that the Catholic/Orthodox majority of theologians have answered it: ‘yes, but’—meaning not in any liturgical or soteriological sense,” he wrote.  That’s because worship questions are liturgical, confessional, and denominational, he wrote.  The question “sets an extremely high bar of judgment,” one that connects with “inter-confessional/denominational questions of admission to the sacrament, the recognition of ordination, and most sensitive of all, of saving faith.  “Defined in this way, it cannot apply to separate faiths and is or has become a bad question,” he wrote.

Valid questions, asked wrongly, can become “theological litmus tests intended to separate and divide,” wrote David Greenlee, an international research and strategy associate with Operation Mobilization. “Still, I wonder, can we even answer the question, ‘Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?’ Which Muslims? Which Christians? ‘Worship’ in the sense of ritual and tradition, or in the sense of lives as living sacrifices? ‘Same’ in terms of the ontological fact of one Almighty God, Creator of all things, or ‘same’ in sufficient congruence in the details of belief?”

The very fact of the statement’s vagueness is, therefore, one reason why I would suggest that it was unwise for the Faculty member to make the statement.  But, in addition to the lack of clarity in the statement and significant to the potential impact of the statement is the cultural context in which it was made.  Cultural contexts do not, in and of themselves, make statements true or false.    But cultural contexts do affect the wisdom of making certain statements.  I grew up in Mississippi and, after some time in school in New Jersey, I came to believe that segregation was wrong.  I wrote a letter to my hometown newspaper proclaiming that fact, with no consideration whatsoever of the impact my letter might have on my immediate family and on others I loved there in my hometown.  The context in which my letter was published (on March 10, 1963) did not make my statement wrong; but it surely and unnecessarily hurt – and, in fact, endangered – other people.

Further, and this seems to me to be most relevant to the Wheaton situation, my publishing that letter in the way that I did made it much more difficult, when I returned home, actually to bring about changes that needed to be made. I was immediately labelled a “liberal” who had been “corrupted” by a “godless” school “up North.” (The quotation marks indicate things that I was actually told.)  The simple fact is that I did not need to announce that segregation was wrong in order to show solidarity with and actually to be of assistance to African-Americans in my town.  While working on a highway crew, I witnessed a minor automobile accident in which it was clear that the party at fault was a white man and that the injured party was an African-American woman.  Without mentioning the word “segregation” at all, I spoke privately with both individuals, told them what I had seen, gave them my telephone number, and urged them to call me if either of them needed me to testify further about what I had seen.  The African-American woman expressed both surprise and delight at my communication.  The white man apparently had not read my letter because he seemed simply to accept what I said at face value and didn’t even mention any of the words in quotation marks above.

Yes, it is absolutely right to “show solidarity” with ANY who seem to be discriminated against – African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, even Presbyterians (like me!).  But there are wise and there are unwise ways of showing solidarity and it seems to me that passages like Matthew 10:16 insist that, when there is a choice, wise is better.

But is the present cultural context such that it might be considered unwise to affirm, in a public social media forum, that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?  I would suggest that there is and one major reason is the reality of ISIS in our world.  Of course, many (perhaps MOST) Muslims are as horrified as Christians by what ISIS fighters do in the name of Allah.  But this does not alter the fact that GLOBALLY despicable actions are being taken in the name of the deity of Islam.  To ignore that reality and to fail to act accordingly is, at the very least unwise, similar to the UNwisdom of my public proclamation in March of 1963 about segregation which followed by just a couple of months the riots at the University of Mississippi.  If anything, ISIS and the Ole Miss riots show the importance of our finding WISE ways of building bridges and possibly affecting change.  But they also set contexts within which wisdom is especially important.

Then there is the matter of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is extraordinarily important but it is also quite complex.  Most of the time, discussions of academic freedom focus on the academic freedom of individuals to think and to speak that which they believe to be true.  That is certainly one critical element of academic freedom.  But, especially in the context of American Christian Higher Education in the early 21st century, it is critically important to include in any discussions of academic freedom the freedom of institutions and organizations to establish Christian goals and to act in ways which will, in their best judgment, maximize their ability to reach those goals.  That’s what, among other things, the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution seems to me to affirm.

Here, of course, I begin to talk like an academic administrator which, for most of my professional life, I have been.  But, in spite of what many of my Faculty member friends have told me, that doesn’t necessarily make my comments wrong.  It does, however, mean that I am aware that I am writing from a specific perspective and I am ready and willing to argue that, while it is not the ONLY valid perspective on these matters, it is A valid perspective.

I first became interested in this subject when, as an Academic Dean, I was given the responsibility of responding to an accrediting agency which issued our institution a “Show Cause Order,” requiring us to prove to them that our accreditation should not be removed.  The issue? Because our institution did not support the ordination of women and because we required all members of our Board of Trustees to be ordained, we had no women on our Board.  The accrediting agency said that this position violated their stated goal of male/female parity in the institutions they accredited.  The question, which we ultimately took to the Department of Education in Washington, D. C., and to the civil courts, was whether we, as an institution, had the academic freedom to be the kind of school which we believed we should be.   That was an all-consuming issue for us for several years and it led me to write the paper which is attached to this blog and which was originally published in the Christian Scholars Review in the Fall of 1991.

Here are a couple of brief quotations from that paper:

We must avoid creating our institutional policy regarding academic freedom from a negative perspective. That is, we do not emphasize what our faculty members are to be free from. The starting point of institutional policy must be what the institution wants to accomplish—stated as specifically as possible. This way of proceeding will make it clear that freedom— however it is later defined—is a means to an end. Faculty members must be free to contribute to the accomplishment of institutional goals. The institution itself must be free to achieve what it sets as its goals.

In this context, the faculty member is “free” to contribute to the institution’s goals, and it is only when he is demonstrably undermining those goals that his faculty status should be challenged. Until it can be shown that he is compromising institutional goals, the faculty member deserves the vigorous and aggressive support of the institution.

On the other hand, it is always appropriate to ask any member of the institution to show how he sees his actions contributing to the accomplishment of agreed-upon institutional goals.

In the end, it is the responsibility of the Administration and the Board to determine whether a professor’s public statements enhance or undermine the “academic freedom of the institution” to accomplish its stated goals.  Unquestionably, if the Administration and the Board determine that certain “unwise” statements made by a Faculty member (whether those statements be technically correct or technically incorrect) do, in fact, undermine the institution’s ability to accomplish its stated goals, they must make this clear to the Faculty member and to the public (which includes the institution’s accrediting agency).  But if they do this and if the Faculty member is, in fact, dismissed, it would be wrong to say that “academic freedom has been compromised.”

Let me try one final example – go back to the specific situation mentioned above.  Suppose that, during our institutional negotiations with our accrediting agency and with the Department of Education and with the civil courts, a certain Faculty member had published a statement in a national periodical (Mark Zuckerberg was only three years old when that controversy occurred, so there was no Facebook at the time) that women should be on the Board and on the Faculty and in the Administration of the institution (and there were at least two faculty members who did feel this way).  In that context, though it did not violate any specific element of the institution’s doctrinal statement, it would have been a very unwise statement to make and it is likely that the Faculty member would have been disciplined because he (it would have had to be a “he” since there were no women on the Faculty) had unwisely done something that undermined the institution’s ability to be the institution it sought to be.  No such public statement was made, quiet efforts behind the scenes continued, and change was ultimately brought about.

So, regardless of whether the statement could be shown to be technically correct, it seems to me to have been, at the very least, a very unwise and unnecessary statement to make.  There were surely MANY other ways in which concern for and solidarity with Muslims could be accomplished.  Why choose a way which is actually rather vague and which might possibly undermine the ability of Wheaton College to accomplish its institutional mission?

Finally, there is the matter of “prophetic voice.”  No question – Christians ARE called upon to speak out against sin and injustice.  But when we are integral parts of various “families,” we need to take very serious account of the fact that, whether we intend it or not, when we speak, we are heard to be speaking for our families.  I certainly was in 1963.  If we are going to carry out our biblical “prophetic task” in a way which maximizes the potential for positive impact and minimizes the potential for negative impact (for us and for our “families” as well as for those on whose behalf we believe we are speaking), we need to be sure that the statements we make are crisp and clear and, unless we have consulted with and received the expressed approval of our “families” for exactly what we are going to say, we need to make it absolutely clear that we are expressing our private opinions and NOT necessarily the opinion of the “family” of which we are a part.

Please go back and note the words which appear at the very top of the first page of this blog.   They are there precisely because what I am saying in the blog is absolutely NOT, in ANY way, the official judgment of the World Reformed Fellowship.  It is my opinion . . . and mine alone.  To be sure, before posting this blog, I shared it with the WRF International Director and the Chairman of the WRF Board of Directors.  Indeed, some of their comments led me to make changes to what you are now reading (if you made it this far!).  But if I had been asked not to post this blog, I would have obeyed that request.  I am a member of the WRF and, when I speak, especially in this forum, what I say can impact the organization, even when the disclaimer at the very beginning is used.  Of course, if the Wheaton professor did seek and receive the approval of Wheaton’s Administration for her statement before it was made, the concerns I have stated here are irrelevant.  But if she did not, I think she should not have made the statement.

I still don’t know exactly what it means to say that Christians and Muslims do or do not worship the same God.  I think I do know that it was likely not necessary to say it in order to befriend and to show solidarity with and to love Muslims.   And I think also that making such a statement, without the pre-approval of Wheaton’s Administration, was unwise and could negatively impact the ability of that outstanding institution to accomplish its critically important Kingdom mission.

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