The Same God? 5 May 2015
Josef Linnhoff reviews Miroslav Volf’s Allah : A Christian Response
The ubiquitous ‘Islam and the West’ debate is arguably becoming the defining issue of our time. In the West, Islam is increasingly not just a religion, but the religion being talked about. It appears that any issue relating to Islam – extremism, women’s rights, sharia law – invariably provokes heated debate. As Islam occupies this important, and controversial, place in the public sphere, Christian theologian and Yale Professor Miroslav Volf has tackled arguably the most controversial question of all – do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? In his work, Allah: A Christian Response, Volf strongly argues that they do.
At the outset, it is important to recognise the significant asymmetry within Christian-Muslim relations. Islam, as a post-Christian religion, contains inbuilt teachings about Jesus and Christianity, as found in the Qur’an. The Muslim learning about his own faith, will therefore simultaneously acquire an understanding of (the Muslim view of) Christianity.
This is not matched on the Christian side. The Gospel writers predated Islam by some 500 years and thus had no ‘Islam’ to talk about. It is therefore possible to be raised, to study and to live as a Christian and yet know nothing of Islam (however unlikely this sounds in the current day and age). This lack of symmetry is found in the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The Qur’an decidedly states that the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims is the same (29.46). The Bible, however, is obviously silent on the matter. In this light, how is the Christian to respond? This is what makes Volf’s work so important. For Volf, recognising that Muslims worship the same God as Christians is the inevitable result of adopting what he calls the “proper Christian stance towards the God of the Qur’an”.
In his introduction to Allah: A Christian Response, Volf openly states his main concern is social and political coexistence. Volf is concerned with “the ability of Muslims and Christians to live a peaceful, well-ordered life in this world” and live together “under the same political roof”. Recognising that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is crucial to this. Volf views a ‘shared’ God as having the potential to improve relations between Christians and Muslims and this is the central impulse in his work. As he states, “believing that Muslims worship a different God is good for fighting, but not for living together peacefully”.
Nonetheless, in spite of these temporal goals and motivations, Volf’s arguments are purely theological. Volf’s main argument hinges upon his idea of “sufficient similarity”. Volf does not ignore the differences between the two faiths (more on that later) but argues that the similarities between Islamic and Christian doctrine clearly outweigh the differences between them. For example, Volf highlights that both faiths believe God is one, God is good and God created all that is not God. This leads Volf to claim that, “sufficiently similar descriptions of the object of worship imply that the object of worship is the same”. Volf also looks at what God commands in both faiths. Love of God and love of neighbour are central ethical commands to both faiths. This confirms for Volf that the object of Christian and Muslim worship is the same; “the commands of God are sufficiently similar for us to say that Muslims and Christians have a common God”.
Alongside his notion of ‘sufficient similarity’, Volf’s thesis is strong on other points. He makes the important point that ‘Allah’ is but the Arabic translation of ‘God’, and that millions of Arab Christians worship Jesus as ‘Son of Allah’. This is a salient fact that some readers may find surprising. This is especially important in light of recent legal developments in Malaysia, for example, where the High Court has barred the Christian population from using the word Allah in their Bibles.
These strengths should not detract from the problems in Volf’s argument, however. Volf’s work is open to various critiques. Primarily, the very premise of Volf’s argument has been questions. Volf premises his work on the idea that the relationship between Muslims and Christians is the fundamental issue of our time. This leads to the somewhat bold statement that the question of a common God between Muslims and Christians, “decides whether we live in peace or not”. Volf goes on to state that, “at the level of discourse…(his book) is how wars are prevented and the road to peace is paved”. However, this basis can be questioned. The Jesuit theologian Dan Madigan neatly summarizes this point and rejects Volf’s argument at its very foundation;
“Let us not be misled into thinking that Muslim-Christian conflict is the world’s greatest conflict or even that war is the most serious threat to human future… What of the millions of African children who die every year for want of some clean water? What of the world’s poor who live under crushing burdens of foreign debt and corrupt domestic tyranny? What of the devastating effects on the earth of our poor stewardship of its resources?”
Furthermore, sectarian conflict within religions challenges Volf’s notion that peace can ensue across Islam and Christianity if they are recognised as worshipping the same God. Historical antagonism between Catholic and Protestant, or Sunni and Shia, prove that recognition of the same God offers no bulwark against conflict. Madigan adds, “More Muslims are killed daily by other Muslims than by Christians….(and) the last 15 years in Africa have seen millions of Christians slaughtered in horrendous civil wars by their fellow believers.” Volf fails to recognize and address this issue.
Furthermore, Volf uses the internal diversity found in each religion to argue that Muslims and Christians worship the same God;
“it would be very easy to find Christians who disagree amongst themselves so radically that we may be tempted to conclude they do not worship the same God…just as different Christian groups do, Muslims and Christians disagree about the God they both worship”.
Volf’s point, however, ignores that Protestants and Catholics do not disagree on the fundamentals of their faith. Protestants and Catholics agree on the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, for example – a crucial tenant that Islamic doctrine rejects. The comparisons between Catholic and Protestant, and Islam and Christianity, are therefore misleading. Volf’s argument fails to recognize the Qur’an’s explicit rejection of Christian fundamentals. Jonathan Bartlett of Christian think-tank Ecclesia offers a more sober assessment; “There is a fundamental tension at the heart of interfaith dialogue that neither side wants to face up to…the orthodox Christian view of Jesus is blasphemous to Muslims and the orthodox Muslim view of Jesus is blasphemous to Christians.” The differences between Islamic and Christian doctrine arguably present a bigger obstacle than Volf is prepared to admit.
Volf’s notion of ‘sufficient similarity’ is also open to critique. This is seen most clearly in his discussion on the Trinity. This is important, for the Trinity forms perhaps the biggest obstacle to Muslim and Christian understandings of God. Volf’s argument on this point uses Judaism. Christian theology affirms that Jews and Christians worship a common God despite Jewish rejection of the Trinity. Volf proposes that the Christian accommodation of Jews be extended to Muslims; “consider religious Jews…Do Christians conclude that Jews do not have the same God that they do? They overwhelmingly do not. Jewish rejection of the Trinity…has not led Christians to assert Jews as believing in a different God”. Volf continues; “let’s shift now from Jews to Muslims…the Muslim critique of the doctrine of the trinity is no more radical than the Jewish critique”.
Volf’s position here is open to critique, however, for Islamic rejection of the Trinity is more problematic than he acknowledges. The crux of the issue here is the historical timeline. As a post-resurrection religion (unlike Judaism), Islam consciously rejects Jesus’s divinity. The Qur’an acknowledges the doctrine of the Trinity as held by Christians, and yet fiercely rejects it. This makes the Islamic rejection of the Trinity distinct from Judaism and unique in its own right.
Indeed, the Islamic Jesus poses a peculiar challenge for the Christian. Jesus may be a prophet in Islam (a phrase ubiquitous to inter-religious dialogue), yet in Islam Jesus is a distinctly Muslim prophet. This ‘Muslim Jesus’ is distinct and even hostile to Christian beliefs about him; as seen in 5.116 where Jesus denies ever having spoken of his own divinity – a powerful rebuttal against Christian doctrine. The Qur’an also talks of “cleansing” Jesus from Christian doctrine, in 3.55. Tarif Khalidi, in his work The Muslim Jesus, neatly summarizes this problem when describing the Qur’anic Jesus as a “controversial prophet…the only prophet in the Quran who is deliberately made to distance himself from the doctrines that his community is said to hold of him”. In this light, Volf is wrong to claim, “Christians should treat the Muslim rejection of the trinity the same way they treat the Jewish critique”. Volf overlooks that the ‘supercessionism’ of Islam, as a post-resurrection religion that appropriates Jesus and utilizes him against Christianity, is a unique challenge in its own right.
This perhaps leaves a mixed picture of Volf’s work. Volf’s arguments vary in strength yet ultimately he deserves credit – if not for theological rigor then for raising an important question that is directly relevant to our current context. This is especially so given he is the first Christian thinker to directly address this issue. In this light, even the criticisms Volf receives are important and welcome additions to the discussion. Volf’s argument may be flawed theologically, yet to overly criticise may miss the point. Of most importance is not the strength of Volf’s argument per se but rather the importance of his raising this discussion itself.
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