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.

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