OPINION | Richard Shumack
Eternity #67 March 2016
Evangelical Wheaton College has been controversially in the news lately. It suspended one of its professors on the grounds that she declared that Muslims and Christians worshipped the same God.
But this is not an isolated incident. This debate rages outside Wheaton too. The Pope is weighing in. Yale theological heavyweight – and CPX pal – Miroslav Volf is weighing in. Nabeel Qureshi, the New York Times bestselling Christian apologist from a Muslim background, is weighing in. Christianity Today has taken a keen interest, and even the previous issue of Eternity witnessed two excellent opinion pieces by John Stackhouse and Mark Durie highlighting some of the key theological issues involved. In virtually every setting where I teach on Islam and Christianity I am asked the very same question.
So at the risk of muddying the water even further, I’d like to add my two cents’ worth to the debate. What I think is that when we get past the theological complexity and think missionally, the issue becomes pretty simple.
A complex theological question
Some questions comparing Islam and Christianity are straightforward. Do the Qur’an and the Bible describe the same God? No. Do Islam and Christianity have the same doctrine of God? No. Do Islam and Christianity describe the same sort of human relationship to God? Again, no. But without further nuance, and because it’s asking about people not doctrine, the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is extraordinarily difficult to answer with a simple yes or no.
For a start, notice that every single word carries significant meaning that shapes one’s answer. So when we say “Muslims”, who exactly are we talking about? There are millions who identify as Muslims, and they exhibit a wide range of theologies and forms of worship. And when we say “worship”, do we mean it in a very general sense of desiring to place our creator in the centre of our lives and to seek to do his will? Or do we mean it in a more specific sense of agreeing upon the particular sort of life and belief that constitute appropriate worship that will warrant eternal life? And when we say “God”, are we agreeing that we simply mean the necessary being that created the universe, or do we mean we are agreeing on the details of just what that God is like? And how many details need we agree on to say it’s the same God? Clearly the underlying theological issues are complex. But we should have known this already from reading our Bibles.
The Bible, too, seems ambiguous on this question. It is true that there are some extremely stark examples where God identifies improper worship of a false deity as evil in absolutely clear-cut terms and treats it harshly. A classic example (and a cool Sunday School story) is Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18.
It is also true, however, that sometimes the worship of false gods is viewed positively. The classic example in this case is Paul speaking to the Athenians in Acts 17 where, even though the Greek religion was unquestionably false, he commends them for being worshippers at heart and in some sense identifies God with one of their unknown deities.
What’s the difference between these two stories? Neither Baal nor Greek religions worshipped the true God. The key difference, I think, is in the mission context. Put simply, Elijah was dealing with people (and religious leaders especially) who had clearly and persistently rejected the offer of worshipping Yahweh in favour of an evil form of idolatry. Paul, on the other hand, was reaching out to ordinary people who had had little or no opportunity to form an accurate understanding of God. It made sense, then, for Paul to at least speak in terms of common worship of God in order to share the message of how that God had visited in grace.
A simple personal question
This biblical perspective reinforces that for those of us who live, work and play with Muslims, the question of how to talk about God and worship is not merely an abstract theological question.
I know Muslims who worship a clearly idolatrous deity that bears no relation to the God of the Bible and who utterly reject the gospel of grace. I have been in some very dark places in Muslim communities in which there were tangibly evil spiritual forces at work. ISIS is a clear example of this form of Muslim theology and worship that is evil, depraved and inhuman. In my discussions with these Muslims – some of whom were my close friends – I very deliberately made it clear that our conceptions of God and religion were radically different.
Yet at the same time I know many Muslims who worship an Acts 17-type deity. They have a theologically undeveloped sense of their creator God that resonates closely with my own. They exhibit a deep and beautiful longing for a personal connection with that distant and unknown creator and the only theological framework they have for pursuing that longing is their inherited, and often unorthodox, Islam. When I am speaking to these friends about worship, surely it makes the most sense to start with the assumption that we are talking about the same God – they absolutely will think like that and will find it totally weird, if not rude, if we don’t.
For me, this issue comes down to a fairly simple suggestion: in your friendships with the average Muslim, stick with Paul and give them the benefit of the doubt. Until proven otherwise assume you are talking about and, more importantly, seeking to worship the same God. Differences will no doubt appear as you talk deeper and live closer – the key and vital difference being the person of Jesus, of course. I promise you will have ample opportunity to explore the doctrine of God, but starting out this way usually builds relationships and opens doors to share Christ. In short, remember that in the end this is a personal question, not a theoretical one.
Dr Richard Shumack is a part-time research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) and also Director of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology.