Worshiping the Unseen

My last post suggested that part of the difficulty in adjudicating the debate whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is that we mean so many different things when we say “worship.”  But there is another problem: how do we know what someone worships?  In grammatical terms, “worship” is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object.  But how do we know what the actual direct object is of any particular act of worship?  The first answer would seem to be that someone is worshiping whom or what they claim to be worshiping.  And in cases of frank idolatry, that is undoubtedly sufficient.  When an ancient Greek claimed to be worshiping Aphrodite, or a modern Vaishnava Hindu worships Vishnu, there is no reason to doubt them.  The greater difficulty is determining the object of worship when people of different religions claim to be worshiping simply “God,” or even “the God.”  This question takes us to the center of some tricky problems about meaning and language, especially the meaning of language describing non-physical realities.

The Distinction Between Sense and Referent

What does a word mean?  “Dog” conveys the meaning of a certain animal species, but it can also refer to a particular canine in question.  The same term, “dog,” can refer to different pooches in different contexts, and even to a few non-canines, with a rather more negative connotation.  The same woman might be identified, in different contexts, as “mother,” “daughter,” “judge,” and “winner,” words with very different conceptual content but which may nevertheless all indicate the same individual.  In one sense, those words all mean something different, while “dog” means the same thing no matter which canine it describes.  That is a word’s sense.  On the other hand, the different individual pooches and the woman with multiple roles are also meant by these words, regardless of the connotations involved.  That relationship is a word’s referent.  (This is somewhat different than Frege’s conception, though clearly related.)  The dog example shows that the same word can have different referents in different contexts, while the woman example shows that different words with different senses can have the same referent.  This is not at all uncommon.

In Christian theology, there are many terms used to refer to Jesus, each with a different sense: “Jesus,” “the Christ/Messiah,” “Son of God,” “God the Word,” “Lamb of God,” “Lion of Judah,” “Son of David,” “Seed of Abraham,” “Prince of Peace,” etc.  Yet the single word “God” can be used of (a) the Father, (b) the Son, (c) the Holy Spirit, or (d) the threefold unity including all three Persons at once.  In order to evaluate statements of Christian theology, therefore, it can be useful to distinguish between the sense of what is said and its referent.

The Physical Tether of Referentiality

Yet the edge cases show that the referents of terms are most easily adjudicated in physical cases.  Not uncommonly, two people who have each independently met someone discuss their meetings and attempt to figure out if they have met the same person or two different people.  Person A says, “The person I met is a student,” while person B says, “I met a professor,” and they begin to think they are talking about two different people.  But if they describe physical features (height, hair length, eye color, nose size), the two descriptions sound awfully similar, and they wonder if they met the same person after all.  When the person they both met walks up during the conversation, one says to the other, “That’s who I mean, right here!”  All question is removed about whether they mean the same person or not, because they can point and see.

Conversely, the referents of terms are less easily adjudicated in non-physical cases.  How many people have wondered whether the feelings they have for someone are “love” or something else?  (And not only young people, but even Tevye and Golde.)  People debate what unseen beings such as angels or demons might be doing, or whether they are present.  Many Christians wonder what “the will of God” might properly describe.  With regard to God himself, we are comparatively well-informed, because he has inspired revelation to reveal himself to us, but there are questions not answered by that revelation.  God himself inspired Moses to say so long ago, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

Sense and Referent in Worship

So how does this reflection on sense and reference apply to the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God?  We need to ask whether who/what Muslims worship is the same as the one whom Christians worship.  How do we know what Muslims worship?  In general, we believe people when they say what they worship: someone who says they worship Zeus or Kali we believe to worship beings whom they call Zeus or Kali (although what those beings are we may debate).  But Muslims say they worship Allah, which is simply the Arabic word for “the God.”  Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews have long said that they worship Allah.  Is “Allah” the same?  Both Muslims and Christians believe that there is only one God, but do they refer to the same God by the name “Allah”?

This is a classic case of the difficulty of adjudicating referents with respect to non-physical beings.  We can look at their attributes, and we find that some – but by no means all – of the ways that Muslims describe God match what Christians say.  Muslims and Christians together would say that God is eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, the Creator, not created, merciful, just, good, sovereign, holy, etc.  Muslims and Christians agree that the one God gives life and brings death, judges, is the first and the last, is self-sufficient, is transcendent, immutable, and ineffable.  If you want a list of attributes of God from a Muslim perspective, there’s probably no better place to look than their enumerations of 99 names of God.

Yet the disagreements are just as striking, most especially in the notion of Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ.  Christians assert that there is only one God, who is eternally existent as three divine Persons, the Father, the Son/Word, and the Holy Spirit.  Muslims assert that God is exclusively singular, has no son, and has no divine spirit as a distinct Person.  Christians assert that Jesus is God, the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity.  Muslims assert that Jesus is not God, being only a human messenger (see Qur’an 4:171; 5:72-75, 116), and that calling him God is shirk, the sin of associating a created being with the Creator, tantamount to polytheism.  They cannot both be right.  Either the Creator God is Trinitarian or is unitarian, but not both.  Either Jesus is God or he is not.

Some people take the view that people cannot be worshiping God if they believe false things about him, and thus conclude that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.  Quite apart from the worry that all of us in fact believe some false things about God (such as that he doesn’t really mind our own particular faults), Jesus himself indicated the possibility, mentioned in the last post, of worshiping “what you do not know” (John 4:22).  Perfect understanding of God cannot be a prerequisite for worshiping the true God.

Others point to the large number of shared characteristics ascribed to God by both Muslims and Christians, and conclude that in fact both groups worship the same God.  But, even granted that those divine attributes are not shared by anyone else, are those attributes sufficient to guarantee the reference?  The disagreement over Jesus is no trivial matter.  Devout Muslims would assert that they worship the Creator God and that they do not worship Jesus.  All devout Christians are committed to the view that Muslims are wrong in either the first or the second of those assertions.  (I am assuming, on the basis of John 5:23, that a Trinitarian nuance fails: i.e. that it is not possible to worship God the Father without worshiping God the Son.  Some thinkers might reject my reading of what Jesus said there, and hold out the possibility that Muslims worship the Father alone and not the Son, while contending that Christians worship the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.)

Yet because God is not seen, we cannot point at him and ask Muslims, “Is that the one you worship?”  That point in time will one day come, when Jesus returns.  Until then, we are stuck with describing God.  We find that the ways Muslims and Christians describe God overlap enough to dispute the view that Muslims and Christians worship different gods, while not overlapping sufficiently to clinch the argument that they worship the same God.  The identity or non-identity of referent remains unclear.  In light of that ambiguity, we might most profitably focus on worshiping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24), on being conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29), and on being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).  In our interactions with Muslims, we must pray for God to reveal himself to them, and lovingly urge them to accept God’s salvation offered through the redemptive incarnation, atoning death, and life-giving resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, for “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  For those purposes, a disputed question whether Muslims and Christians happen to worship the same God is irrelevant.

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One comment

  1. I think there is another argument to be made, which leans toward the “same God” point of view. Namely, that Christians and Muslims both claim to worship the God of Abraham. Or, to break it down a bit more, both Christians and Muslims believe that there is a God whom Abraham worshiped as a historical fact, and both can point to that God and say “That is the one I worship.”

    Of course, this doesn’t entirely solve the problem because the stories of Abraham/Ibrahim as handed down by the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions are significantly different. Then you have to decide whether these Biblical and Quranic stories describe the same God (or, as you said, at least the same God the Father).

    So…yeah, things get fuzzy if you look to close, and your advice on witnessing is definitely more relevant either way.

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