“Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Do a Google search and you will find this question being addressed on numerous blogs by theologians, philosophers, and plebeians. Clearly it has generated a great deal of interest. My blog certainly experienced a big jump in “hits” after I published my own article on the question. The topic is not only controversial but more illuminating than one might initially think.
Over at the Eclectic Orthodoxy Facebook page, one reader asked, “Suppose for a moment that everyone agreed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (and agreed on what that meant). What then? What practical difference would it make?” Good question. My answer: “Probably not very much.” To acknowledge that Christians and Muslims worship and serve the same God is simply to say that the words “God” and “Allah” refer to the same divine reality, namely, the one transcendent Creator. It does not entail that Christians and Muslims are in perfect agreement on the divine attributes and the character of God. It does not mean that Christians and Muslims agree on the identity of Jesus of Nazareth or on the prophetic role of Muhammad. It does not mean that the differences between the two religions are inconsequential. And it certainly does not mean Christians have abandoned the claim that salvation is only found in Jesus Christ or adopted a unitarian understanding of divinity. All it says is that when a Christian prays “O God, merciful and compassionate, who art ever ready to hear the prayers of those who put their trust in thee” and a Muslim prays “Glory to Thee, O Allah, and Thine is the praise,” they are addressing the same divine Person. Ditto for third-person discussions about God.
How is it possible for “God” and “Allah” to refer to the same Deity when Christians and Muslims vigorously dispute core doctrines about him? Consider this trivial example from ordinary life. You believe that John is wicked and contemptible. I believe that he is delightful, profoundly wise, and exceptionally virtuous. Yet we both agree that the name “John” denotes the same person, despite our contradictory assessments of his character. In other words, the proper name “John” successfully refers, even though we dissent on specific descriptive statements about him.
(1) Christians and Muslims claim that “God”/”Allah” designates the one Creator of heaven and earth. (2) Christians and Muslims claim that they worship and serve the same Deity Abraham and Moses worshipped and serve. These two claims, both together and individually, are sufficient to establish referential identity. Nothing more is needed.
I was going to elaborate a bit more on reference and theological language, but fortunately three philosophers have recently shared their thoughts on this topic: “On Worshipping the Same God” by Michael Rea and “God, Allah, George Washington, and Eric Clapton” by Dale Tuggy, along with Tuggy’s follow-up piece “God, Allah, and Mistaken Identifications.” For philosophically sophisticated analyses, see “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?” by William Vallicella and “Christians, Muslims, and the Reference of ‘God’” by Edward Feser.
It’s about reference, not full agreement on the doctrine of God. If you’d like to explore this topic further, I recommend that you begin with William Alston’s essay “Referring to God” in Divine Nature and Human Language.
So what practical difference does all of this make?” It clears away the underbrush for purposes of evangelism, ecumenical dialogue, and further theological reflection.
(Go to “Allah, Son, and Holy Spirit“)