The Boston Marathon bombings and the faiths of the Tsarnaev brothers have renewed the debate about the nature of Islam, so this week I am reposting my review of Miroslav Volf’s Allah: A Christian Response, from the Patheos archives.
President George W. Bush created a boiling controversy amongst evangelicals in 2003 when he declared that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Many accused Bush of pandering to political correctness. Nearly 80 percent of evangelical leaders polled in 2003 disagreed with the notion that Muslims and Christians pray to the same God.
Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School is not so sure. Evangelicals may roll their eyes—of course an ivory-tower liberal from Yale believes that Muslims and Christians worship the same God! But in his book Allah: A Christian Response, Volf offers a thoughtful—if ultimately too uncritical—examination of the identity of the God, or gods, of Muslims and Christians.
Happily, Volf stands between the extremes of Christians who see all Muslims as would-be terrorists and ecumenists who see all paths to God as equally legitimate. Volf believes that God has uniquely revealed himself in Jesus. But he is also driven by a this-worldly agenda. If Christians and Muslims worship the same God, Volf thinks it will be much easier to build bridges between them. Thus, he is largely uninterested in the question of salvation and the afterlife. This omission will undoubtedly make his argument unsatisfying to many. The question, critics will argue, is not whether we’re monotheists who have some common ideas about God. The question is, who among us is going to heaven?
If you can overlook this omission, Volf’s approach remains nuanced and thought-provoking. What exactly do we mean when we ask whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God? For monotheists, of course, there is no other god but God, so if someone does not worship that God, their god must be a false or non-existent god.
But what of those from the common Abrahamic tradition of Christians, Jews, and Muslims? It is illuminating to ask first—as Volf does—whether committed Christians worship the same God as monotheist non-Muslims, including immature Christians? When a 4-year-old with only nominal understanding of Christianity prays to God, is she praying to the same God as I (a baptized, believing adult Christian) do? The answer would have to be yes.
But here’s a critical question Volf fails to answer: does that child worship God “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:23)? Maybe not. Real worship, for evangelicals, would seem to require a saving knowledge of God, and a heart transformed through conversion to worship him. Volf, conversely, sees worship essentially as a “matter of practice.” Worship, to him, entails obeying the great commandments to love God and your neighbor, something that he thinks any sincere person could do, whatever erroneous views they hold about God’s nature. And for Volf, that includes Muslims.
But is Allah the same being as the Christian God? Certainly you can make a good case for the historic commonalities between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Islam’s beginnings were heavily shaped by Judaism and Christianity, there are strong parallels between the Qur’an and the Bible, and the three monotheistic faiths all see Abraham as a leading patriarch. Some Christians would suggest that Islam had heavier pagan influences, but Islam’s resounding affirmation of monotheism obviously derived from its Abrahamic roots. So there are sound reasons to believe that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all refer to the same true, creator God when they speak of him.
Yet the monotheists’ views of Jesus, the way of salvation, and the Trinity remain starkly different. (Volf also takes for granted that most of the world’s billion and a half Muslims do not endorse terrorism, an assumption I accept. But the relationship between Islam and violence remains more problematic than Volf may wish to admit.) Volf argues that Muslims have routinely misunderstood the doctrine of the Trinity as a form of polytheism, but the fact remains that traditional Muslims do not accept Jesus as the Son of God. For evangelical Christians, worshipping God in spirit and truth would surely require accepting his essential nature as one undivided God revealed in three persons, including the Son of God.
Christians should certainly emphasize commonalities with Muslims wherever possible. As I showed in my book American Christians and Islam, American evangelicals have often needlessly alienated Muslims by demonizing them and insulting the Prophet Muhammad. But we have to balance charity toward Muslims with sober acknowledgment of the deep differences between us.