Blogospheric Pollution

The blogosphere is at least as polluted as the atmosphere. But then again, the blogosphere was never really known for having clear waters of crisp distinctions or the fresh air of well-defined terms. Witness exhibit A by a well-meaning but confused Christian who should know better:

And all that leads me to ask this question w/o much emotional attachment: Would you consider me a blasphemer for thinking that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Cuz … I do. And I know – that could get me slapped in some circles.

The “all that” refers to the recent controversy over whether Malaysian Christians can refer to the Christian God using the name “Allah.” And to this my enlightened friend courageously stands for—though “w/o much emotional attachment”—his belief that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” against the threat of heresy. Yes, you have heard it said, “Muslims and Christians worship the same God.” But I wonder from whom. From some equally enlightened, profoundly original Western news journalist whose infatuation with Islam is matched only by his contempt for conservative Christianity, no doubt.

It is true that “Allah” is the Arabic word “God,” and is historically referentially indiscriminate with respect to which God. “God,” like “Allah” is a generic term that can be used to refer to different things, in the same way that “truck” can be used to refer to a Ford F-150 or an 18-Wheeler. Of course, the referents may have certain properties in common. Both trucks have wheels and an engine. Both the Christian and Muslim God are omnipotent and omniscient. But two things having something in common doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. I have ears. Elephants have ears…you see where I’m going. So, same word, different referent. More precisely: words refer to concepts and concepts denote things. So: same word, different concepts, different things. This is not hard, people.

In what ways, then, do the Christian and Muslim concepts of God differ? They are probably more dissimilar than they are similar, but the essential difference is this: the Christian concept of God is trinitarian. God is three persons. The Muslim concept of God is unitarian. God is one person, not three. But if the concept of A differs essentially form the concept of B, then A and B cannot possibly denote the same thing. So if either a Christian or a Muslim thinks they’re worshiping the same God, they have simply failed to understand the concept of the God in whom they claim to believe. If a Christian is worshiping the same God as a Muslim, one or the other is worshiping the wrong God. In fact, one doesn’t exist.

Again: the same word can refer to different concepts which denote different things. “God,” then, cannot be assumed to refer to the same concept when used by Muslims and Christians. It bears repeating because this is apparently difficult stuff for some. So in situations like this, one can adopt one of two solutions: either specify what one means by the word or use different words. For Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims, the former route seems most reasonable. For Westerners who already have two words handy (i.e., “God” and “Allah”), each one having very different connotations, the latter route seems most reasonable. As Muslim Badru Kateregga says (Kateregga and David Shenk, A Muslim and Christian in Dialogue [Herald, 1997], p. 23):

Muslims feel strongly that the English word God does not convey the real meaning of the word Allah.

And Christians should agree. Let us therefore adopt the second solution. Different words (nearly always) flag different concepts, helping to preventing confusion. This problem highlights the importance of words. Words are the vehicles of meaning that serve to make oneself understood and to understand others. As Jonathan Edwards puts it, “it is much the more hard to think right when speaking so wrong.” Saying “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” should be just as offensive to Christians as it is to Muslims, and so should be found on the lips of neither. Why? Because it suggests that one of them is an idolater. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the pollution.

Of Mystics and Men

I was recently reminded of the following oft-misquoted passage from Jonathan Edwards’ book, Religious Affections:

As the first comfort of many persons, and their affections at the time of their supposed conversion, are built on such grounds as these which have been mentioned; so are their joys and hopes and other affections, from time to time afterwards. They have often particular words of Scripture, sweet declarations and promises suggested to them, which by reason of the manner of their coming, they think are immediately sent from God to them, at that time, which they look upon as their warrant to take them, and which they actually make the main ground of their appropriating them to themselves, and of the comfort they take in them, and the confidence they receive from them. Thus they imagine a kind of conversation is carried on between God and them; and that God, from time to time, does, as it were, immediately speak to them, and satisfy their doubts, and testifies his love to them, and promises them supports and supplies, and his blessing in such and such cases, and reveals to them clearly their interest in eternal blessings. And thus they are often elevated, and have a course of a sudden and tumultuous kind of joys, mingled with a strong confidence, and high opinion of themselves; when indeed the main ground of these joys, and this confidence, is not anything contained in, or taught by these Scriptures, as they lie in the Bible, but the manner of their coming to them; which is a certain evidence of their delusion. There is no particular promise in the word of God that is the saint’s, or is any otherwise made to him, or spoken to him, than all the promises of the covenant of grace are his, and are made to him and spoken to him; though it be true that some of these promises may be more peculiarly adapted to his case than others, and God by his Spirit may enable him better to understand some than others, and to have a greater sense of the preciousness, and glory, and suitableness of the blessings contained in them. [(Dover, ed. 2013) pp. 151-152]

This is one of those juicy quotes that in embellished form floats around the internet without bibliographic citation. At the time of Edwards’ writing, the “inward” trend of emphasizing an intensely subjective, mystical “personal relationship” with God was gaining momentum, which found full expression in the American revivalist preaching of the 1800s. Tellingly (as J. P. Moreland has pointed out in Love Your God with All Your Mind, p. 23), three of the major American cults emerged at that time: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science.

I once found a Christian tract in an airport “religious observance” room that had the phrases “personal relationship” and “know Jesus as your own personal Savior” almost every other sentence. The tract was so chalk full of these phrases that had I tried to write a tract satirizing this trend, I might have reproduced the same tract. I wish I still had it.

What do these phrases even mean? The idea that having a “personal relationship” with God means that God guides by whispering in your ear or “puts something on your heart” is unbiblical, lazy, self-centered, and immature. The modern notion of “listening to the voice of God in your heart” or “being spoken to by God” in some personal, subjective way as part of a normal and mature relationship with God is indelibly vague, confusing, and, I suspect–along with Edwards–delusional. The false expectations created by the inward trend has adversely affected the way we communicate to God and even the primary way He communicates to us; i.e., through his Word. The Bible is no longer a sober book of divine wisdom that means what it says. The Bible is latent with magical powers and Bible studies are séances.

Does this mean there’s nothing meaningful or true in the phrases? No. Does this mean God doesn’t communicate personally to individuals? No. But those are topics for another post.