Tag Archives: knowledge of God

The Same God? A Plea for Precision

Triggered by recent events at an evangelical Christian college, there has been an explosion of discussion about whether Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” In my experience, most people think the answer to the question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” is very obvious. What’s fascinating, however, is that some of those people think the answer is obviously yes, while others think the answer is obviously no!

One immediate pitfall is the ambiguity in the word ‘same’. If someone says “John and Julie have the same phone,” that’s a different kind of statement than “John and Julie have the same father.” There are two phones, but only one father! Now consider this statement: “John and Julie read the same book.” How many books were there?

So the basic problem is this: the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” is ambiguous as it stands, and thus susceptible to different answers depending on exactly how one interprets the question. In reality, when people raise the question they often end up conflating a host of related but distinct questions, such as the following:

  • Do Christians and Muslims refer to the same Deity when they speak about ‘God’? In other words, do both groups refer to the one true God, the Creator of the universe? (A closely related question: Do the Bible and the Quran refer to the same Deity? Does the Quran make false assertions about the real God or does it make assertions about a fictional deity, analogous to ancient Greek claims about Zeus?)
  • Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same Deity, despite their (very significant) disagreements about the nature and character of God?
  • Is the worship of Christians and Muslims directed towards the same Deity? If it is, does it follow that Christian worship and Muslim worship are equally acceptable to God?
  • Do Christians and Muslims conceive of God in the same way when they worship? (A closely related question: Do the Bible and the Quran depict God in the same way?)
  • If Christians and Muslims don’t conceive of God in the same way, do they conceive of God in a sufficiently similar way? (That in turn invites the question: sufficient for what?)
  • Can both Christians and Muslims be said to know God? If so, exactly what kind of knowledge are we talking about here? Purely intellectual knowledge? Personal relational knowledge? Saving knowledge?
  • If Christians and Muslims do share some common knowledge of God, does it follow that both groups respond appropriately to that knowledge?

This list of questions isn’t meant to be exhaustive, only illustrative. And equivalent questions can be asked of Christians and Jews, Christians and Hindus, Christians and Mormons, and so forth.

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Is It Arrogant to Claim to Know God?

In a debate with Rabbi David Wolpe in 2008, the late Christopher Hitchens inveighed against Wolpe’s claim to have knowledge of God:

By what right, rabbi, do you say that you know God better than they do, that your God is better than theirs, that you have an access that I can’t claim to have, to knowing not just that there is a God, but that you know his mind. You put it modestly, but it is a fantastically arrogant claim that you make — an incredibly immodest claim.

I was reminded of Hitchens’ objection, and similar ones in his exchanges with Douglas Wilson, when I saw the following tweet by proselytizing atheist Peter Boghossian (retweeted, presumably with approval, by Richard Dawkins):

I take it Boghossian doesn’t mean exactly what he says here, because as a matter of fact some people have made both claims. Rather, his point is that one cannot consistently make both claims. Why? Apparently because he thinks it’s inherently prideful or arrogant to claim to know God’s will. The same would go for the claim to know other things about God, such as his purposes for us and for the universe as a whole. And of all things what could be more arrogant than the claim of Christians to know God personally?

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