Vinoth Ramachandra

Pocket-Sized Gods?

Posted on: December 30, 2015

The Malaysian Church, in recent decades, was engaged in a prolonged legal battle with their Islamist-influenced government which prohibited non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to the supreme God and creator. Church leaders received directives stating that several words of Arabic origin, including Allah, Nabi (prophet) and Al Kitab (Bible) were not to be used by non-Muslims as Arabic was the language of Muslims. Usage by Christians would sow the seeds of “confusion”. The import of Malay Bibles printed in Indonesia (which used Allah) was effectively banned.

Christians countered by pointing out that Allah was the common term used to refer to the supreme God long before Islam came into existence in North Africa. Arab Christians continue to worship God as Allah and Malay-speaking Christians have also been using Allah for centuries. Far from sowing “confusion”, it has facilitated communication and promoted mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims.

Clearly this was more than a matter of official historical ignorance. Islamists fearful of the conversion of Muslims sought to deter the latter from reading the Bible by claiming that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. They have been successful. Christians lost the legal battle, with dire consequences for the future of social justice and religious harmony in Malaysia.

How ironic, then, to find these Islamist arguments flourishing among ultra-conservative Christians in the USA.

Earlier this month, the authorities at Wheaton College, a prominent “evangelical” liberal arts college aligned themselves with the Islamists. They suspended a tenured professor for referring to Jews and Muslims as “people of the book” (a common Qur’anic expression, distinguishing Jews and Christians from polytheistic pagans), and stating that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God”. In the statement of suspension, the professor was accused of not “upholding theological clarity”. The obsession with “clarity” and fear of “confusion”- at the expense of other intellectual virtues such as desiring truth and tolerance of different theological opinions- have long been hallmarks of religious fundamentalisms.

The eminent logician Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) famously drew an important distinction between the referent of a word/phrase and its sense or meaning. He took the example of the planet Venus which is, paradoxically, described as both the “Evening Star” and the “Morning Star”. The two expressions have different senses or meanings, but they have the same referent, namely the planet Venus.

The earliest Christians, most of them Jews, found themselves worshiping Jesus as Lord and ascribing to him all the titles and functions that applied to Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible. They were not bi-theists. Nor were they rejecting Yahweh. As they reflected more deeply on their experience, they eventually came to articulate a deeper and fuller understanding of who Yahweh is. They became Trinitarian monotheists.

Arab Christians share many beliefs in common with their Muslim neighbours. Not only do they both worship Allah as the unique creator and sustainer of the universe, but Christians accept most of the 99 Beautiful Names for Allah in the Qur’an. The differences, of course, are crucial and decisive. Belief in God as Trinity, as Incarnate as the person Jesus of Nazareth, as crucified for the salvation of the world… these are foundational to all Christian believing and living. It grieves Christians that these are misunderstood and rejected by Muslims (and Jews). Therein lies the great challenge to communication. Christians ascribe a different narrative identity to Allah and Yahweh. But if there were no overlapping areas of agreement, no dialogue between Christians and Muslims (and Jews) would be possible. (Indeed, even argument would be impossible because argument presupposes that we are arguing about the same subject matter). And Christians, Muslims and Jews have engaged in mutually fruitful dialogue for centuries in Europe, Africa and Asia (along with monotheist Hindus and Sikhs).

All the distinctive Christian truths are paradoxical. Christians, therefore, should be at home with paradoxical thinking and not shun it.

So, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Yes and No. To use Frege’s terminology, the same referent but different senses.

But why is this question not raised in conservative American circles in relation to Jews and Judaism? (This is what makes many suspect that underlying this debate is fear or even animosity towards Muslims. If so, it would be deeply disturbing.)

The actions of the Wheaton College authorities, like much of what is done in the U.S., reach a global audience. I can imagine how they will be seized upon by Islamists around the world as ammunition to deploy against Christians. And how betrayed Malaysian Christians must feel.

American Christians- especially those studying and working in colleges and universities- cannot remain complacent with theological, historical or political naiveté. Wilful ignorance is inexcusable. Americans have ready access to a wide range of scholarly literature and the latest information technologies that the rest of us envy. They don’t have to watch Fox News or listen to the latest chauvinist or demagogue. Some of the finest biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers and historians are found in the American Church (sadly, it is not their works that are exported to the rest of the world).

Moreover, every American city is multi-cultural and multi-religious. You can meet Christians from all over the world, as well as thoughtful Muslims from every Muslim sect, Jews, Sikhs, Jains or Buddhists. You can have your prejudices dispelled, your viewpoints and worldviews enlarged through such encounters and friendships.

If American Christians do not avail themselves of the resources and opportunities on their doorstep, they will remain culturally marginal, intellectually lightweight, politically reactionary, and a deep source of embarrassment to the rest of the global Church.

18 Responses to "Pocket-Sized Gods?"

Thanks so much for this Vinoth.

Thanks for your thoughts here. From an American who travels abroad often, I increasingly realize how much we have to learn from people outside of Western thinking. Thanks again my brother.

Doug Morris:

I think the author of the article you cite makes some good points, but I don´t think his conclusions actually mean that they (Christians and Muslims) are in fact worshipping different gods. It´s simply that Muslims and Christians describe the same God in much different ways.

Even even recognizing we talk about the same God, the differences remain, the God of the Bible Has a Son which is the price of our salvation but Allah doesn’t. Our God offers us His Son to save us from Hell where Allah of Quran lets search in vain for a way of self righteous which will never be enough for our salvation.

revivreforma:

I do agree the differences remain, but if both Christians and Muslims worship the same god, yet express this god differently in their theologies, then at least there is a meeting point for further discussion.

I would add, though, that I have a question:

If Christians believe Muslims must hold to an orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ in order to receive eternal life, if Christians believe they (Muslims) must convert, then does it really make sense to argue about whether or not both religions worship the same god?

As a staunch and, nowadays, evangelical (in the sense of zealously advocating a cause) atheist, I hover between amusement and despair at the way differing theists argue over these semantic debates. Guys…you may have noticed that you speak different languages. I’m afraid I don’t really know any Latin, Arabic, Greek, or Hebrew. I was told, by an Egyptian tour guide, that the roughly twenty foot high concrete lettering in the Sinai desert at Ras Mohammed spells “god” in both Arabic and Hebrew lettering. It was built, by soldiers of both sides, in the gap between the end of one of the Israeli/Arab wars, and their separate returns to their separate homes. It was built mainly (he said) to keep the troops occupied once the war was over. Now this (non-existent) entity can be described as the “maker”, “creator”, “father”, “founder”, “origin” (etc) of the “World”, “world”, “Earth”, “heavens”, “universe”, “cosmos” (etc) in just one language. If he/she/it created you all and has any interest at all in your future activities surely it wouldn’t involve interlingual wrangling about a name?

Having lived in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (SPLAJ) for 10 years, the word “ALLAH” simply was understood as the Arabic word for God, whether the person is an Arabic Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. not understood as anybody’s personal property.

Thanks very much for this!

[…] post: Pocket-Sized Gods? at […]

Thank you from Malaysia.

I’m from an English-speaking family and church background so the issue you mentioned doesn’t affect me directly but over the last few years it has become a big enough issue that I hope privileged urban middle-class Christians can support our indigenous sisters and brothers who do use the Malay language Bibles and other materials containing the Arabic-derived words banned by the authorities. I hope it becomes a true catalyst for unity and not just a political rallying flag.

[…] perspective. Most notable have been two responses in her defense: the first is entitled, Pocket-Sized Gods?, by the eminent scholar and Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement at the International […]

Dear Vinoth,
1/ With or without such “confusion” Muslims are bound to find “ammunition to deploy against Christians.” Let us remember the core of Christianity and Islam are irreconcilable.
2/ Majority in both camps are ignorant of the tenets of their own faith, never mind their own.
3/ We need to play down on this “reconciling” business. Some have taken it to such lengths that Allah is a synonym for Allah. The purpose is to “make the world a better place” and that “Christian extremism” is why we are having so many wars [this is not just in reference to the Crusades which is deplorable but for saying the religions are irreconcilable]. And then the fallacy that Islam is a religion of “peace” [the fact is Islam is very much a political program demanding submission].
4/ Let us NEVER forget or make light of the Jewish roots of Islam.
5/ Islam does not recognize the Fatherhood of Yahweh; hence, his love as revealed in Jesus. This is not a side issue but a qualitative difference. For example, someone with a “Christian” background could become Muslim without any repercussion; not so with a Muslim turning to Christ. Don’t you see the effects on European journalists for lampooning Mohammed and Christ?
6/ Western “cultural Christianity” is causing much harm around the globe. It played a major role in causing the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna to form The Muslim Brotherhood. To call oneself a “staunch evangelical atheist” is nothing to be embarrassed by these days.
7/ In the end this is not about Christianity being better than other religions [Islam included]. It is about Jesus Christ. That Jesus alone has fully showed us who God is by his life and teaching. Jesus alone has revealed the mystery of death and the hereafter. Jesus alone has offered real peace and the reality of sin and forgiveness and so on.

ps: How is your wife doing?

[…] These four individuals also join the other listed alumni in supporting publication of a reprint of the blog post by Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra in the January 28 2016 Record.   In his essay, Dr. Ramachandra – who is the Secretary for Dialogue &Social Engagement in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students – questions the theological basis for the action against Dr. Hawkins, and expresses concern about its damage to the global Christian church. See https://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/pocket-sized-gods/. […]

[…] These 63 alumni also support the reprinting – in the 1.28.2016 Wheaton Record – of a blog post by Vinoth Ramachandra about the potentially damaging effect of the action against Dr. Hawkins in global Christian dialogue with Muslims and other monotheist traditions. Dr. Ramachandra’s essay may be read at       https://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/pocket-sized-gods/. […]

Reblogged this on real.eyes and commented:
“American Christians- especially those studying and working in colleges and universities- cannot remain complacent with theological, historical or political naiveté. Wilful ignorance is inexcusable. Americans have ready access to a wide range of scholarly literature and the latest information technologies that the rest of us envy. They don’t have to watch Fox News or listen to the latest chauvinist or demagogue. Some of the finest biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers and historians are found in the American Church (sadly, it is not their works that are exported to the rest of the world).
Moreover, every American city is multi-cultural and multi-religious. You can meet Christians from all over the world, as well as thoughtful Muslims from every Muslim sect, Jews, Sikhs, Jains or Buddhists. You can have your prejudices dispelled, your viewpoints and worldviews enlarged through such encounters and friendships.
If American Christians do not avail themselves of the resources and opportunities on their doorstep, they will remain culturally marginal, intellectually lightweight, politically reactionary, and a deep source of embarrassment to the rest of the global Church.”

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