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And This All Men Call God

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Wheaton College’s decision to suspend a Christian professor who proclaimed that Muslims and Christians worship the “same God” has sparked a debate among Christians. Despite the dogmatic differences between Christians and Muslims, is the same God the object of our worship and belief?

Ours is not the first age in which a Christian culture has clashed with the Islamic world, nor the first in which Western states have lived in fear of violence or occupation. It is not even the first time that Christian university professors overtly influenced by Islamic thought have engendered controversy.

I refer, of course, to the Middle Ages. Many luminaries teaching at medieval Christian universities in the shadows of a militant Islam were strongly indebted to the likes of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn-Rushd (Averroes). Thomas Aquinas, as is so often the case, is a paradigm instance, drawing on Muslim thinkers for fundamental elements of his thinking about God.

St. Thomas, of course, draws heavily on Islamic thinkers for his famous “five ways” to demonstrate the existence of God and for his strong distinction between essence and existence. The affinity, however, goes much deeper than the genealogy of ideas: St. Thomas’ insistence (echoing St. Paul) that God may be known partially through ordinary experience would be completely unintelligible were Christians and Muslims (and pagan philosophers in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions) not referring to the same God.

In fact, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas opens the chapter on the demonstrations for God’s existence by pointing out that not only Catholic teachers, but also “philosophers” (by which he means both pagans like Aristotle and Muslims like Averroes) have already proven God’s existence. In fact, after concluding that there exists a transcendent, immutable, and metaphysically necessary Source of physical, contingent beings, Aquinas concludes without hesitation that “This we call God”—with the “we” including not only Catholic teachers, but also pagan and Muslim philosophers.

In the present controversy, some Christian thinkers have taken up the opposite position, arguing that Muslims do not believe in the “same God” as Christians do, because they deny the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity. There is a certain truth to this. Americans who think that our President is well-motivated and those who do not in some sense do not in the trivial sense believe in the existence of the “same” president, as they disagree about certain of his attributes. Yet in the more substantial sense, they clearly are referring to the same person.

The classic philosophical distinction here is the distinction between what we designate (i.e., that to which we refer) and what we signify (i.e., what we mean to say about that to which we refer). For instance, certain medievals believed that Aristotle authored the Liber de Causis. Today, scholars believe it to be a much later work of neo-Platonic metaphysics. Do modern day scholars and the mistaken medievals believe in the same Aristotle? Of course they do. They refer to the same person even if they believe very different things about that person.

Lydia McGrew conflates this distinction when she claims that, because Christians do not believe that God is the author of the Koran, while Muslims do, that therefore Christians and Muslims do not refer to the same God. But this is no more plausible than that those who believe Aristotle authored the Liber de Causis and those who don’t aren’t referring to the same Aristotle. Moreover, McGrew argues that:

“The Muslim, whose religion changes the concept of God in important ways from that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, claims that there is an essential continuity [with the Judeo-Christian concept of God], but the Christian, as long as he remains a Christian and not a Muslim, should reject this.”

No one would dispute the fact that Christians and Muslims do not have the same concept of God. Tertullian and Athanasius did not have the same concept of God either, but that did not mean that they were not referring to the same God. The question is not whether concepts of God differ (they do), but rather whether by those concepts thinkers intend the same (non-conceptual) reality. This is not to deny, of course, that these conceptual distinctions are of the utmost importance, nor is it to say that Christians should be careful to distinguish Christian dogma from that of the Islamic faith.

Peter Leithart advances a similarly mistaken case. He does acknowledge the distinction between what we signify and that of which something is signified. Yet he argues that Islamic and Christian doctrines differ to such a great degree that they could not refer to the same being. He offers this analogy:

“Bob believes in a Thomas Jefferson who was not from Virginia, had no hand in writing the Declaration of Independence, never heard of Monticello, was not the Third President; Fred believes in a Thomas Jefferson who did all those things. As the false believes and misrepresentations pile up, we have to wonder if Bob hasn’t confused Thomas Jefferson with a pretender.”

But this analogy is a bad one, by the lights of classical theism, and for important reasons. We come to know God through his effects, through what he does in the world. But coming to know God differs from the way we learn about persons. In the case of the Liber de Causis, for instance, historians attempt to establish who the author is by proposing a class of possibilities, and then by narrowing that class until—ideally—only one member remains. Historians might start very generally by limiting the class to those kinds of entities that are generally capable of writing philosophy (human beings). (This step is often implicit.) Then, considering the Proclean elements in the work, a historian can narrow the class of possible authors significantly by restricting it to those who lived after Proclus (thus excluding Aristotle). Other evidence may indicate it was written in Arabic. Historians then try to determine from the evidence whether the author is a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. This is just good detective work: establish a list of suspects and winnow it down.

Yet God as conceived by monotheists (which includes, at the very least, Christians, Jews, and Muslims) is not the sort of being who can belong to a class. Being divine is not a matter of having a specific way of being the way humans do; and we do not distinguish monotheists from polytheists by saying that, for the former, there happen to be only one instance of the sort of beings contemplated by the latter. God is not a specific being that stands among other beings. God transcends this sort of being altogether. As Aquinas puts it, God is subsistent being itself and belongs to no genus.

When we reason from effects to their divine cause, then, we could not place God as an individual in a class; and if we intrepid metaphysical detectives do so, whatever entity we find at the end of our investigation will not be God (though it might be a god on the order of Baal).

Because Leithart misses what is distinctive about monotheism, he attempts to equate Islamic worshippers with pagans who worship Baal or Molech. Baal and Molech were deities in the polytheistic sense; that is, powerful beings that were still beings in the world, have a specific way of being, and can belong to a class. But for monotheists, it is not as though there is some type of genus to which YHWH, Allah, Baal, and Molech might belong, only that monotheists believe this set only has one real member (disagreeing about which candidate it is). God simply is pure being, and therefore there cannot (logically or metaphysically) be more than one God. Nor does “one” here mean numerically one, in the sense that there is only one Peter Leithart. God’s “oneness” refers primarily to his metaphysical simplicity (i.e., the fact that no real distinction obtains between God and his attributes, nor is there any composition between act and potency). God is not numerically one, because to be numerically one is to be marked off from other beings by virtue of some finite mode (e.g., being here rather than there). The initial way any monotheist distinguishes God from pretenders to the name is to deny the limited mode of creaturely existence to God—regarding him as the infinite Source of all being.

Leithart concludes with a surprisingly radical claim: “In the New Testament, ‘God’ just means “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ or ‘the Father of Jesus who raised Him from the dead.’ Those who disbelieve the gospel are talking about some other being than this.” This directly conflate the distinction between what we say of a reality and that reality of which we speak, a distinction Leithart acknowledges as valid. More striking is that Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries disbelieved the Gospel, weren’t Trinitarians, and didn’t believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob raised Jesus from the dead.

In a subsequent article, Leithart attempts to distinguish Jews from Muslims by citing “countervailing considerations.” But he simply ignores the laws of logic. If those who disbelieve in the Gospel do not believe in the same God as Christians, and non-Messianic Jews do not believe in the Gospel, then it follows ineluctably that non-Messianic Jews do not believe in the same God as Christians do. To avoid this conclusion, Leithart must deny the major premise, which was his whole point. To simply cite “countervailing considerations” amounts to nothing more than an enumeration of the reasons why he should reject the position he was defending in the first place.

This is not to say that there is nothing to be gained from McGrew and Leithart. Both call attention to the importance of attending to God’s revelation in history, and the specificity of God’s speech to mankind. Moreover, both seem quite rightly concerned with a watery ecumenism that would naturally lead many Christians to believe that Christian dogma is not important. McGrew’s particular insistence on the importance of the historical genealogy of doctrine strikes at something that should be central to any comparison of the Muslim and Christian faiths.

But the full truth of the dispute is not merely a technical point in the philosophy of language. Most of the great religious traditions of the world have a remarkable convergence in their belief in a transcendent and absolute Source of the physical world. The fact that they have very different beliefs about this Source, and that these differences are tremendously important does not change the fact that what monotheists disagree about (and worship) is the same God. Knowledge of God, as St. Paul declares, is given through nature, and so naturally manifests even outside the boundaries of the Christian faith. (And, in fact, the position of McGrew and Leithart not only contradicts that of St. Thomas, it entails the rejection of St. Paul.) If Christians are to engage fruitfully with those of the Muslim faith, they should emulate St. Paul and St. Thomas by expounding on beliefs common to monotheism and knowable by reason, while also defending the revelation of God in Christ. Moreover, to non-believers, Christians should be clear that, for all their numerous and critical differences, the monotheism that pervades mankind is deeply united in its conviction that all we have is a gift from the one true God.
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Thomas M. Cothran

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Thomas M. Cothran is a writer that lives with his wife and son in Lexington, KY. He blogs occasionally at thinkingbetween.blogspot.com.

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