21 December 2015

Same God?

Arabic calligraphy of the Lord’s Prayer

The recent suspension of Dr. Larycia Hawkins of the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois has thrust a difficult theological question into the often-hotter-than-lighter limelight of the national conversation: do we Christians worship the same God that the Muslims worship? It is a question on which even Pope Francis has weighed in, speaking from the official standpoint of the Vatican, which comes down fairly heavily on one side of that argument.

But what do we Orthodox think? Well, as I’ve recently discovered, it’s actually kind of complicated. But truth so often lends itself to simple faith rather than to instant and easy comprehension.

On the most elementary and basic level, and pace certain evangelical Protestants, like the administrators of Wheaton College (and also Adam Ford and Matt Cochran), Pope Francis and Dr. Hawkins actually have the right of the matter. Though Cochran in particular claims to be talking about a person rather than an abstract idea, it is precisely this part of his argument that he gets completely backwards.

Hopefully, we Christians can agree that when we are talking about God, we affirm that we are talking about a person (or, in our case, three persons), not merely an impersonal collection of attributes, a depersonalised essence or a depersonalised nature. And persons can be identified by what they have done, particularly in relation to us, just as Chris Hemsworth can be identified by his filmography. The God that Christians worship, first off, is the God of Abraham. As our Nicene Creed has it, our God is One, the Father Almighty, the Maker of all things visible and invisible, in Heaven and on earth. Our God is the One who revealed His divine presence to Moses in the burning bush and gave His laws to the prophet upon Sinai. There is no conflict with Muslim belief here, as yet. How do we know this? Well, for one thing, Muslims consider Torah and the Hebrew prophets to be authoritative. (As do, naturally, Jews.) The short rap is that Pope Francis is right – about this point. Proclaiming a Father other than the one worshipped by Abraham, and other than the one who revealed Himself to Moses and led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, is actually a fairly old heresy, that preached by Marcion in the 140’s AD. It’s also one into which the evangelical Protestants find themselves in danger of falling (yet again), if they deny the personal identity of the Father Christians worship with the El Shaddai of Judaism and the Allah of Islam. The end consequences of that denial are, shall we modestly say, not good.

But we can’t stop there, as so many œcumenists may want us to do, and put the brakes hard on further exploration once a single shallow point of agreement has been reached. There remain very obvious – and, doctrinally, very urgent – reasons why we can’t stop there. As our late beloved Patriarch, His Holiness Alexius II of Moscow and All Russia, said in response to an open letter from 138 Muslim clerics, shortly before he met his repose:
Christians and Muslims have many similar aims, and we can unite our efforts to achieve them. However, this unity will not occur if we fail to clarify our understanding of each other’s religious values. In this connection, I welcome the desire of the Muslim community to begin a sincere and open dialogue with representatives of Christians Churches on a serious scholarly and intellectual level.

Christianity and Islam are engaged today in a very important task in the world. They seek to remind humanity of the existence of God and of the spiritual dimension present both in man and the world. We bear witness to the interdependence of peace and justice, morality and law, truth and love.

As you rightly put in your letter, Christians and Muslims are drawn together first of all by the commandment of the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour. At the same time, I do not think it is worthwhile for us to identify a certain minimum that seems to fix our convergences in faith and to be theologically sufficient for the individual’s religious life. Any doctrinal affirmation in Christianity or Islam cannot be viewed in isolation from its unique place in the integral theological system. Otherwise, one’s religious identity will be obliterated to give rise to a danger of moving along the path of blending the faiths. It seems to be more fruitful, therefore, to study the integral faith of each side and to compare them.

In Christianity, a discourse about love of God and love of one’s neighbour is impossible without a discourse about God. According to the New Testament revelation, God is revealed to human beings as Love. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John. 4, 8). “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him” (1 John. 4, 16). One cannot help seeing in this an indication that the Divine nature itself also has love as its most essential, characteristic and important property.

A lonely isolated essence can love only itself: self-love is not love. Love always presupposes the existence of the other. Just as an individual cannot be aware of himself as personality but only through his communication with other personalities, there cannot be personal being in God but through love of another personal being. That is why the New Testament speaks of God as one Being in three Persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is the unity of three Persons who have the same divine nature, which belongs to each of them in its fullness so that they are not three but one God. God the Trinity is the fullness of love with each hypostatic Person bespeaking love towards the other two hypostatic Persons. The Persons of the Trinity are aware of themselves as “I and you”: “just as you are in me and I am in you” (John. 17, 21), Christ says to the Father. “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you”, Christ says about the Holy Spirit (John. 16, 14). Therefore, every Hypostasis in the Trinity refers to the other Hypostasis, and, according to St. Maxim the Confessor, it is “eternal movement [of the Trinity] in love”.
It is worth reading this pronouncement in its entirety, naturally; I just quoted the first handful of paragraphs here. But it is important to note two things about this extraordinary and painstakingly-careful document: two positions which are held very firmly in tension with each other. The first is that nowhere does His Holiness deny that Christians and Muslims worship the same God; indeed, in several places, particularly in his opening paragraphs, he very intentionally identifies the Christian God with the Muslim God when speaking of our common aim and tasks in the world. But the second is that no right glory is given to God by reducing our knowledge of Him to its lowest and most basic common denominator in the search for a shallow œcumenical unity. As Patriarch Alexius subtly illustrates here, our disagreements with Muslims on the nature of God do have some fairly wide-ranging consequences, particularly and most importantly with regard to how we experience and understand the love of God. We hold that we can know God only by loving Him and by being loved by Him; and that love is one which inheres in His Triune nature: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons, yet one in essence and undivided.

Again, Dr. Hawkins and Pope Francis are not wrong – at the very least, not on the level at which they are engaging. To start from treating God as an intellectual exercise rather than as a person, and dividing Him up by His attributes and nature, as Marcion did, is incredibly dangerous. It led him to deny that the Father preached by Christ is the same God as that worshipped by the Jews, based on the very same logic that is being used by evangelicals to deny the identity of the Christian Father with the Muslim God. But neither can we or should we shy away from proclaiming the love of that same Father to the world, as beautifully and truly expressed in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It may seem a fine line to hold, but no one ever said giving God right glory was easy.


  1. I like the fact that you sppreciate this is not as straightforward question as is often made out to be.

  2. If multiple religions (Christians, Jews, Muslims) have some similar abstract ideas about their God, does that really mean they are all worshiping the same God? Claiming one's God is the God of Abraham, but then not living according to that revelation, in my opinion, is useless. The Pharisees claimed the God of the Hebrew scriptures, but our Lord told them their father was the devil.

    In a similar manner, St. Gregory of Nyssa taught that if anyone prays the Lord's Prayer and addresses God as their Father but they are not actively pursuing a life of purification and illumination, then they are fooling themselves because Satan is their father.

    It is good that Muslims claim the God of Abraham, but if they reject God's revelation (as Christ being the divine Son of God) then it brings no benefit to them.

  3. Hi Jerome! Thanks for the comment! (And always happy to meet a fellow fan of Miyazaki-sensei and the Inklings. You have excellent taste, sir!)

    I agree with you completely that right actions have to accompany right beliefs, though that strikes me as a different argument than the one you're getting at later. Islam is not a 'right belief', of course. But like Judaism and Christian heresies of a similar nature, it has certain elements in place that need to inform our attitudes and approach to evangelisation, elements that I think the Evangelical Protestants overlook.