Still to this day, one of the more profound experiences of my education took place during my junior year, which was Arthur Holmes last year teaching full-time before his retirement in 1994.
Dr. Holmes was a philosopher (He died in 2011), whose year-long course, “A History of Philosophy,” was one of the more popular courses and had established a reputation as one of the most academically rigorous and stimulating ones at Wheaton.
During one of those class sessions, Dr. Holmes was asked a question by a student: “Is Socrates (or maybe it was Plato, I’m not entirely sure) in heaven or hell?”
He reflected on that in his eminently philosophical way, and his answer was both challenging and life-giving for me. Now, keep in mind this was 20 years ago, so my memory is pretty hazy, but nonetheless Dr. Holmes suggested that he believed Socrates (an/dor Plato) were in heaven because they were grasping after God in the best and truest way they knew how.
Granted, I cannot quote him authoritatively now. And it’s of course possible I’m mis-remembering. (If someone out there can correct or confirm my memory, please do so).
But what I do know is that bit of honest, serious reflection on the possibility that someone who was neither (1) a Christian or (2) a Hebrew/Jew or (3) a character in the Bible, ended up in heaven, rather than in that other less-desirable place, was for me–then a young, conservative evangelical (Southern Baptist)–a powerful moment of opening up a new way of thinking about humanity’s search for the knowledge of God and of God’s grace for us.
This event sort of sits in the background for me as I process the current controversy going on at Wheaton, where a political science professor (Dr.) has been suspended (with pay) by the administration for a comment she made on social media as expressing her solidarity with Muslims. In her comment, she cited Pope Francis’ suggestion that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”
At one level, I can understand the reaction to such a comment by evangelical Christians, who unhesitatingly affirm that God is made known to us most perfectly through the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is the Word (logos) of God who has made God known to the world (Jn 1:18) and he is the image (icon) of the invisible God, the “exact representation of his [God’s] being” (Heb. 1:3).
So, if Muslims deny that Jesus is fully divine and is the “exact representation” of God, the fullness of the revelation of God in the world, how can they be said to worship the same God as Christians?
It seems to me that the emphasis on Jesus as the revealer of God is sometimes taken to mean that the only way people can worship God (Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) is by believing Jesus to be fully divine and therefore worshiping God by worshiping Jesus.
But it’s one thing to argue that someone’s view of or understanding of God is deficient, or incomplete, or whatever, and quite another to categorically insist that they do not worship the same God.
Miroslav Volf, in an essay for the Washington Post, explores this question and suggests that, despite the conviction of Christians that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity who reveals God in a way otherwise unavailable, it does not follow from this that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.
It’s helpful to remember that Christianity splintered off from Judaism largely because of a change in conception of God. Christians began to understand God as defined in part through the addition of the person of Jesus as being, like Yahweh, also divine. But the understanding of God as incorporating also the person of Jesus was in addition to what they already believed about God from within Judaism. So “God” was complexified in early Christian belief and practice. Christianity was no longer a simple monotheism, but a complex monoethiesm, one which included Jesus–and eventually also the Holy Spirit.
As Volf explains more simply,
Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in in partly different ways.
That’s the key phrase: “partly different ways.”
Jews, Christians, and Muslims all understand God in “partly different ways”
It’s also important to notice, as many commentators have pointed out, that these “different ways” describe not only differences between these three major “Abrahamic religions,” but also differences within the religions themselves. You might even say that there are as many different conceptions of God as there are people who believe in and worship God.
But Calvinists don’t say to Arminians, “You worship a different God” (well, sometimes they do!). Or pacifists don’t say to just war theorists, “You worship a different God.”
It is of the very nature of God, I believe, that means that God is always just beyond our (human) ability to fully, completely capture exactly and precisely who God is.
This insight has been a common thread throughout so much of the Christian theological tradition. We can try to describe, define, and articulate our understanding of God (and try we should!); but as we do so we should always recognize that it’s God we’re talking about (or trying to talk about).
Even a theological affirmation of the divinity of Christ and of the Trinity should not be accompanied with a triumphant certainty that now I know God fully and completely and that therefore no one can knows or worships the same God I do.
I like how Benjamin Corey puts it:
Affirming the basic fact that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are three religions attempting to worship and describe the same object (Abraham’s God, whatever one calls him), doesn’t mean we’re saying all three religions are the same, equally valid, correct, or anything else. We’re simply pointing to the fact that we’re attempting to describe the same object.
Furthermore, if there is one God (even for a trinitarian Christian, there is one God), then whoever worships God, worships that one God–however accurately or deficiently in understanding.
From what I can tell from the Bible (and the gospels and book of James in particular), true worship of God is less about correct, precise concepts than it is about the heart—which is manifest in one’s posture and actions toward others.
Now, I don’t know what all lay behind Dr. Holmes’ suggestion that Socrates and/or Plato is probably in heaven because they were grasping after God in the best way they knew how. And yes, the question of “who is in heaven?” is admittedly different from “do they worship the same God?” I also don’t know what Dr. Holmes would think of Dr. Hawkins’ comment.
Nonetheless, I suspect there is something in the eminent philosopher’s open-hearted suggestion, which might help point a way forward.
A memorable moment for me was