Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On "Worshiping the Same God"

Religious buildings (churches etc) with symbols of various religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Image source.
So if you haven't heard what's been going down at Wheaton College, here's a summary: Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor at Wheaton, decided to wear a hijab during Advent to show solidarity with Muslims. She made this statement: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." Then Wheaton put her on administrative leave, because it's not okay [in evangelical Christian culture] to say Christians and Muslims "worship the same God."

(and here's an article with some more information)

Since then, a lot has been written on the question of whether Christians and Muslims "worship the same God," like this post which says that both Christians and Muslims trace their faith back to Abraham, so it's the same God.

This strikes me as a bit odd. To say whether something is "the same God" or not is just a question of language- there is no objective right or wrong here. Christians and Muslims believe different things about God- are those differences great enough that we're actually talking about 2 different gods here? Or are they both describing the same god, but one side has a whole lot of incorrect information about that god?

This is literally a matter of opinion. It's all based on the context you're applying it to, and the most helpful way to conceptualize different views of God in that particular context.

For example, I have said before that the God I believe in now is a different God than the one I believed in when I was a Real True Christian, and that I actually follow a different religion now- even though I am still a Christian. Because in the past, I did the whole "personal relationship with God" thing, and I truly did have a very close personal relationship with ... something. With a nasty god who believed nasty things about people- believed that everyone deserves to go to hell, believed LGBT people are "confused" and wrong about their own identity, believed that people are so sinful we can't be trusted to make our own decisions, believed that atheists secretly know God exists but they hate him, believed that women who aren't "pure" don't respect themselves, etc etc etc.

If I just say that back then, I believed in the same God but had some incorrect perceptions, that doesn't really capture the truth about my experiences. That nasty version of God controlled my life- I was 100% devoted to him, and I prayed every day to find out what he wanted me to do, how I could be more obedient to him. It's not enough to say I had a few things wrong about God back then. That thing I followed was REAL. Not "real" as in, the actual all-powerful creator of the universe, but "real" as in, I actually felt a connection, and I did my best to obey everything it wanted me to do.

And now, my entire concept of God is different. My entire religion is different. And the best way to describe this situation, the most accurate and succinct way, is to say that the god I follow now and the god I used to follow are actually two different gods.

It's a question of language and point of view, and there is no objective "right answer." But those are my reasons why it's most helpful to conceptualize it as two different gods.

On the other hand...

Whenever I talk about how evangelical Christians judge other religions- and even judge other Christians as "not real Christians"- I frame it in terms of everyone following one God, with varying degrees of wrongness in their beliefs.

Like, in church I learned that you have to believe a specific set of facts about God in order to have a "real relationship with God" and go to heaven. But why those facts? Everybody has some wrong beliefs about God- why would those specific ones be dealbreakers?

For example, I was taught that Mormons aren't "real Christians" because ... uh ... something about believing Jesus was created by God the Father, err... I don't know, the details were unimportant, all that mattered was that they had an error in their understanding of the structure of the Trinity, and that was a dealbreaker. That meant the entire Mormon church is all wrong and bad and a cult.

Also, I believed that Christians go to heaven and non-Christians go to hell. Which translates to, as long as you refer to your god using the name "Jesus", you're good. Seriously, what? I think that anyone who values love, equality, and justice (no matter their religion, or lack thereof) is closer to the truth about God than a Christian who believes God hates all the same people they do.

In the context of drawing lines to say who's in and who's out, it's much more helpful to view all people (with maybe a few exceptions) as following the same God, but we all have some incorrect beliefs about that God. Some are more incorrect than others, but does that really matter?

So, when faced with two different descriptions of who God is, the question "Are we dealing with two different gods here, or the same god but one [or both] parties have some incorrect beliefs about that god?" has no objective answer. It all depends on the situation, and which language is more helpful in describing that situation.

Which brings us back to Wheaton College.

It's useless to argue about whether the statement "Christians and Muslims worship the same God" is, by itself, true or not. As I've said, there is no true or false about a statement like that. It's a matter of which language fits the context in which the statement is made. So it's clear that Dr. Hawkins and the leadership of Wheaton College have very different views on what that context is.

Dr. Hawkins's goal is showing support for Muslims, especially since anti-Muslim hatred has been growing in the US. So she said "Christians and Muslims worship the same God" to emphasize what we have in common. So that Christians will see Muslims as our brothers and sisters and siblings, rather than some scary "other." To set an example of what it means to "love your neighbor as yourself." The statement "we worship the same God" by itself is unimportant- what matters is this context and the example that Dr. Hawkins is setting, inspiring Christians to support and love Muslims.

And on the other side, we have the good evangelicals for whom the phrase "worship the same God" raises all kinds of red flags. No, we can't say Christians and Muslims worship the same God! That makes it sound like Muslims' beliefs are okay! But in reality, Muslims go to hell, because, obviously, for everyone who is not a real Christian, their life sucks and they will go to hell. It's dangerous to imply that there's anything OKAY about following religions which are not the RIGHT religion. People are going to hell and we have to WARN THEM!

So really, it's a question of which approach Christians should take towards Muslims: show support and empathy by emphasizing our commonalities, or send a warning about beliefs which lead to misery and hell by emphasizing our differences.

(I don't believe in hell, and I don't believe non-Christians are intrinsically miserable, so you can guess where I fall on this question.)

And Dr. Hawkins was put on leave not because there's any conflict between her statement and Christian beliefs, but because "we worship the same God" is not a helpful way to conceptualize things if your goal is to show non-Christians how wrong they are and how they need to convert- or else.

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