Friday, 27 March 2015

Do Jews and Christians worship the same God?

This question is even harder to answer than the question addressed in the previous post whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Christianity is sometimes spoken of as a daughter religion of Judaism. It is more accurate to speak of them as siblings. Both have the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament as their first canonical document. Both have arguably been shaped as much or more by a second volume, the New Testament in one case, the Talmud in the other. Events in the first century were obviously crucial for the development of the Christian faith; the destruction of the temple within a generation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was arguably just as decisive for Judaism.
But this is not the chief obstacle in addressing the question of the title. The chief obstacle is that being Jewish is an ethnic and cultural identity at least as much as a religious one. Many Jews are agnostics or atheists.[1] A good few Jews are Christians. Some Jews dabble in New Age spiritualities, others follow one of a number of ultra-orthodox traditions. There are  orthodox, conservative and liberal interpretations of Jewish faith and traditions.
In other words, it is perfectly impossible to generalise about Jewish theology. Christianity and Islam have of course their own divisions and denominations but what they are agreed on arguably provides a sufficient core for at least addressing the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
I see no benefit in developing a detailed taxonomy but maybe four things can be said by way of a rough sketch of some configurations.
(1) Jewish atheists do not worship the same God as Christians.
(2) Jewish Christians worship the same God as non-Jewish Christians.
(3) The concept of God held by many Jews is probably less definitive than that held by most Muslims. For Muslims the Quran offers an authoritative account of God which is explicitly formulated over against the Christian faith.[2] With a less definitive picture it becomes harder to say whether an account is an inadequate portrayal of God or an account of a different “God”.[3]  
(4) Forms of Jewish belief in which the Hebrew Bible is read through the lens of a more definitive theology which has been developed in monistic or other anti-Christian ways are closer to presenting an account of a fictional character based on a real person (as I have suggested for Islam) than forms of Jewish belief which are open to a variety of experiences and descriptions of God.
And two final points, not so much by way of conclusion but as a reminder:
(5) There is a significant difference between a (Jewish) prayer whose words a Christian can appropriate without qualms and a (Muslim) prayer which makes claims that a Christian cannot affirm.
(6) A Christian prays in the name of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit to the Father or to Jesus or to the Holy Spirit.  

[1] It is not generally considered possible for a Muslim or Christian to be an atheist and rightly so. An atheist can emerge from a Muslim or Christian background but they cease to be Christian or Muslim (in anything but maybe the vaguest cultural sense) when they identify as atheists. A Jewish atheist does not cease to be a Jew.
[2] The Christian faith is misrepresented in the Quran but this misrepresentation is canonical and there is no ground for believing that a properly understood Trinitarian faith would be acceptable to any school of Islamic theology.
[3] The same question arises with regard to other, modern movements. Mormonism may be closer to misrepresenting the true God, while Deism present a different “God” from Christianity.

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians? has quickly become the most viewed post on my blog and by some distance. This is a re-written and abbreviated version of the earlier post. 
Some think it “bizarre” to deny that Muslims worship the same God as Christians. Others phrase the question differently and ask “Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus?” to which the answer is “Of course not.” What are some of the things we should consider here?

“Allah” is Arabic for “God” and has been used by Arabic speaking Christians from before Muhammad was even born but “Allah” was also used by pagans to refer to the moon-god worshipped in Mecca. Just because the same word is used to refer to two entities does not mean that they are the same.

But, it could be argued, “God” (capitalised, distinguished from “god”) refers to someone unique, the Creator of heaven and earth, the only one to be worshipped as God. Is not this the one whom we praise and to whom we direct our prayers whether we are Christians or Muslims? It is certainly not possible that there are two of this sort. God is one of a kind. “God” (capitalised) cannot take a plural.

The difficulty is that God is characterised in the Quran in ways which do not merely diverge a little from the God worshipped by Christians but are significantly different. The portrayals of “God” in Bible and Quran overlap but there are also big contradictions that go to the heart of who God is. At best only one of the portrayals can be true.

If their God is the same, either Muslims or Christians (or both) bear false witness about him. Those who affirm the truth of the Quran cannot but deny that the Christian Scriptures accurately testify to the truth about God; those who affirm the Christian faith cannot but question the characterisation of God in the Quran.

The question is how significant these divergences are. Consider this: Allah-who-does-not-beget and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be the same person. The God-who-became-human is not the God to which Muhammad testifies. The God-who-lives-in-Christians-by-His-Spirit is not God as recognised in the Quran. The God of which the Quran speaks is not tri-une and therefore cannot be Love, Love-among-persons-from-all-eternity.

So the question is whether these ways in which I have just described God are secondary to a more basic idea of a Deity that is the grand architect of the universe or whether they are fundamental to how we must speak about God.

In truth, I believe God is essentially Love, essentially Trinitarian. It is the fact that he created the universe which is secondary. If that is so, the Allah to which the Quran bears witness may be better described as a fictional character (loosely) based on a real person.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Scattering Ashes

Every now and again I get asked about the scattering of ashes. My answer is that the scattering of ashes within a Church of England churchyard is not permitted and that I cannot officiate at a scattering of ashes elsewhere, e.g., on the Common. The following explains this in a little more detail.
The Church of England practice of disposing of the ashes of a cremated body is governed by Canon B 38.4(b) which states: “The ashes of a cremated body should be reverently disposed of by a minister in a churchyard or other burial ground in accordance with section 3 of the Church ofEngland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 1992 or on an area of land designated by the bishop for the purpose of this sub-paragraph or at sea.”
In practice this means that except for rare occasions (“at sea”) the Church of England only gets involved in the burial, not the scattering of ashes. The section from Church law which I cited can be read as indicating that the opposition to the scattering of ashes within the Church of England is qualified rather than total as in other Churches. But scattering is only envisaged “at sea”. Consecrated ground is not available for scattering and a phone call to our Diocesan Registrar’s office confirmed that any non-consecrated land designated for the purpose of the reverent disposal of ashes is designated for the burial of ashes, not their scattering.
Why? One reason that may spring to mind for not allowing ashes being scattered in the churchyard is piety, simple reverence for the dead. It is one thing to add someone’s ashes to the burial place of their husband or wife; it would be quite another thing to scatter them over the grave of someone with no connection to the person whose ashes are scattered. Few people would deliberately do that and yet if you scatter ashes in a churchyard they will cover someone’s else grave, nearly inevitably so.
Maybe a more important reason is a concern for corporeal integrity. The ashes of a deceased person are still human remains; keeping them together respects the integrity of the body. After a plane or train crash which leaves several people dead we would not collect the various body parts in one random heap; we’d try to keep together what once belonged together. It is a sign of respect. Maybe that same respect should be extended to ashes. For Christians, keeping ashes together in one place also offers a better witness to the belief in the resurrection of the body.
The belief in the redemption of our physical bodies has been a central hope of the Christian faith from the beginning. Scattering ashes is an action that fits better with a concept of “becoming one with the universe” or some belief in a non-physical future for human beings. It does not offer a good picture of the Christian belief in the bodily resurrection.
Scattering ashes seems to say that what remained of this person’s body has no longer anything to do with that person. It does not reflect an expectation that one day God will take our mortal remains and reconstitute and transform them into a glorified body.
But, someone may ask, “Why would God bother restoring what has been laid to rest? Can’t He just create a completely new body out of nothing? Of course! However, by opening the graves and tombs and transforming our dead and decomposed bodies into glorious, incorruptible bodies, God declares once and for all: O death, where is your victory (1 Cor. 15:55). As Paul explained, When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Cor. 15:54). By snatching our mortal dust and ashes from the grave and transforming them into something eternal and glorious, God will demonstrate that Satan’s attempt at destroying humanity failed.” (Michael J. Svigel)
Our God will not be at a loss in dealing with scattered ashes. We need have no fear here. But what Christians want to affirm about death and resurrection cannot easily be said at a scattering of ashes. There is therefore no liturgy for it in the Church of England.
But should not those who do not hold the Christian faith in the resurrection of the body be free to scatter ashes, especially the ashes of people who did not believe in the resurrection either? I do not object to that. I only ask that they respect the beliefs (and burial places) of others by not doing so on the churchyard.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Of Gods and Demons

Building on Volker Gäckle, Die Starken und die Schwachen in Korinth und in Rom (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), Ro Mody, who came to Christ from Zoroastrianism and is now a clergyman in the Church of England, explores this possibility
Krishna, for example, seems to be a spiritually real and living god who will bring blessing if worshipped but it may be a fictitious role played by a demon in order to deceive the worshippers of Krishna. The cult image of Krishna may be the image of the disguise of a demon, and to worship Krishna’s cult image would be to worship the cult image of a demon in disguise.
Like an actor playing a role or a spy taking on a false identity.
Today it would mean that Allah, Buddah, etc. are fictitious roles played by demons in order to trick their worshippers into false worship.
This would mean that demons are able to co-opt religious worship “in order to bring pagan worshippers under their sphere of power or influence.”

Empty and Evil: The worship of other faiths in 1 Corinthians 8-10 and today (Latimer Studies 71; 2010), citations from pages 29-31

Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians?

In short, as explored in the previous two posts, this is not in fact the only question that matters in deciding whether to open a church to a service of Muslim prayers, and the answer to the question is not as clear-cut as some seem to think.

Kelvin Holdsworth considers it “bizarre” to deny that Muslims worship the same God as Christians. Glen Scrivener asks the slightly different question “Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammed?” and answers “Of course not.”

Here are some incomplete considerations. 

Language. “Allah” is Arabic for “God” and it must therefore follow that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. This line of argument reflects a basic confusion of terms and referents.

True, “Allah” is Arabic for “God” and has been used by Arabic speaking Christians from before Muhammad was even born until today to refer to our God, maybe except for places where the local government doesn’t allow non-Muslims to use the term. In addition, before Muhammad came along, “Allah” was regularly used by polytheists to refer to the moon-god worshipped in Mecca.

The English word “God/god” has Germanic roots and was used to refer to Odin, the chief Teutonic deity who was thought to live on top of the world-tree and to have created the first humans with his wife Freya, a blonde, blue-eyed goddess of love and fertility.

Are these then all the same? The Tri-une God is Mohammed’s Allah is the moon-good is the husband of a blonde, blue-eyed goddess just because various people use the word “God” (“Allah”) to refer to these entities? Of course not.

Referential uniqueness. But what about the fact that some things are said of Allah (God) in Islamic theology and God (Allah) in Christian theology which can only be predicated of one and the same person? Thus Allah is said in the Quran to be the only one to be worshipped just as the Bible affirms that only God is to be worshipped. Muslims seek to direct their worship to the Creator of the universe, so do Christians. From this perspective the Muslim Allah and the Christian God cannot be two different, competing gods. But does this necessarily mean that the Allah of the Quran and the God of the Bible are in fact the same God (Allah)? No, because it is possible that one (or both) of them is fictional or that false claims are made about one or the other (or both).

Characterisation. The God to which the Bible bears witness can be characterised in one way, the God of which the Quran speaks must be characterised in another way. The portrayals overlap, even allowing for the fact that "compassionate" and "merciful" etc. do not necessarily mean the same in these different contexts, but there are also significant contradictions so that (at best) only one of the portrayals can be true.

The question here is what sort of divergence can be tolerated before it becomes impossible to affirm that we believe in the same God. Do those who hold out placards saying “God hates fags” believe in the same God as I do? Maybe, maybe not. At the very least, I would want to say that they bear false witness about God. 

Those who affirm the truth of the Quran cannot but deny that the Christian Scriptures accurately testify to the truth; those who affirm the Christian faith cannot but question the characterisation of God in the Quran.

Christians and Muslims who sit lightly on their respective Scriptures may find more common ground in a less specific notion of God (or one that is specific in some respects but vague in others) but those who affirm the historic Christian faith can do hardly other than conclude that the God of the Quran is either a false God or a false picture of the true God.

Experience of worship. Kevin Holdsworth argues, “If Paul could recognise those worshipping “an unknown god” as people who were worshipping the same God as he was and then use that recognition to go on to share his experience of God with them, then it doesn’t seem to me to be that difficult for us to presume that the Muslims are worshipping the same God as we are worshipping.”

Alas, there were lots of temples in Athens dedicated to one god or another. Paul picked up specifically the devotion to “an unknown god”. Why? Because he was looking for a starting point to share the truth of the Gospel and the idea that the Athenians were worshipping someone they did not know served the purpose well. In John’s Gospel Jesus tells even his Jewish opponents that they do not know God. It is a tenet found elsewhere in the NT that those who do not know Christ do not know God. Hence "unknown god" is a suitable starting point.

The situation with Islam is rather different. Muslims do not acknowledge that they worship a God they do not know. As a post-Christian religion Islam contradicts the Christian faith explicitly. The starting point is therefore different, even if the end point (faith in Christ) were to remain the same.

Can those who worship in one tradition really know what it is like what worship in another tradition means? We can listen to one another. Should we privilege the witness of converts (in either direction) because they have insider experience of both religions? Maybe, but this is not likely to be conclusive. Converts report various levels of discontinuity, some more compatible with the view that we are talking about one true and one false God, others more compatible with the view that Islam and Christianity present one true and one false portrayal of God. The devout would have had to unlearn some things, while continuing with other things.

What are the options?
  • Some claim that referential uniqueness demands that we identify the Islamic-conceived Allah with the God in whom we Christians believe. As indicated above, this is a logical fallacy, as it excludes other conceivable options.
  • Others say that the overlap, especially with regard to characteristics that can only be assigned to the one true God, allows us to presume that we are worshipping the same God, even if we have serious reservations about the portrayal of God in one or both religions.
  • Still others insist that because it is not possible for someone to have and not have a son, Allah-who-does-not-beget and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be the same person. 
Which of these options we find most attractive will also relate to our own conception about what or who God essentially is. 

Those for whom God is essentially “the ground of our existence” (or some such thing) that manifests itself to some but maybe not to others in personal ways will cast their nets most widely, maybe even claiming that in the end all human beings are striving towards the divine regardless of the religious or non-religious forms through which this happens.

Those for whom God is first of all the grand architect of the universe (or some such thing) who secondarily can be said to send prophets and have a son etc. will likely be attracted to the second option.

Those who believe that God is essentially tri-une (Love between persons, even before the creation of the world) will likely be attracted to the third option. 

While I do not exclude the possibility that "you worship what you do not know" may apply to Muslims in the sense that their worship is directed to the one true God but without personal knowledge of that God, I lean towards the third option. Muhammad's Allah is not the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth. Muhammad's Allah is not the Son who sets us free. Muhammad's Allah is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Muhammad's Allah is not tri-une. The Allah to which the Quran bears witness is maybe best described as a fictional character (loosely) based on a real person.

PS: To what extent angels and demons might make use of worship of a fictional character is another discussion again.

An argument in favour of equating the Allah of the Quran with the God of the Bible is put forward by Miroslav Volf in his Allah: A Christian Response, reviewed by Mark Durie here.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Churches Hosting Non-Christian Religious Services

The previous post suggested that radical Christian hospitality does not mean being willing to host just any event in church. But a Muslim prayer service is not a brothel or a loan shark booth. It is a religious service. So among those who accept that the church must exercise discretion about the sort of events it hosts, the next question is which criteria should be considered when deliberating whether an invitation is extended to a non-Christian group to hold a religious service in a church.

This is a question of our theology of religions. Those who consider all religious expressions to be more or less legitimate and helpful ways of feeling our way towards the divine presumably will see little ground for differentiating between them – let a thousand flowers bloom and why not also in church, as we certainly do not have a monopoly on truth about God?

Those who consider religions a mixed bag with some fresh or not so fresh expressions doing more harm than good may well want to limit hospitality to the more beneficial and healthy forms of religion. I suspect that Canon Giles Goddard was rather more willing to host a prayer service by “Inclusive Mosque” than a more mainstream or radical expressions of Islam. Surely love of our neighbour includes a desire to protect them from harmful ideologies.

Some, mindful of the warnings against idolatry in the Bible, may for this reason distinguish between the religions, ruling out a Hindu service but allowing for a Jewish one, for example. This need not imply an affirmation that all that is Jewish is good or all that belongs to Hinduism is bad (which would be a ridiculous claim) but it would affirm that idolatry dishonours God and harms people and if that is true we would not want to promote idolatry.

But what is true of idolatry may be true of false religion more generally. If it is possible to worship the one true God in a dishonourable and harmful manner, then we would want to guard against this and do nothing to encourage others to persist in harmful and dishonourable ways.

The question is at first theoretical. In other words, is it conceivable that there are false religions and false ways of worshipping the one true God? Someone who adheres to the Christian faith as received by the Church of England (among others) can hardly deny that there are indeed harmful ways of being religious.
But if that is so, giving the green light to a Muslim prayer service in a church needs to be built on more than a desire to be hospitable and a conviction that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. We must also be reasonably confident that (a particular version of) Islam is not a religion that encourages people to go in the wrong direction.

Here is why some will distinguish between Judaism and Islam. Islam, as understood by non-Muslims, is post-Christian. (Muslims consider Islam eternal and Christianity a corruption of the original.) The Quran was written in opposition to the Christian faith, or maybe more precisely in opposition to a misunderstanding of the Christian faith. Thus, speaking in very broad terms, while most forms of Judaism are non-Trinitarian, Islam is anti-Trinitarian.

(Judaism and Christianity are siblings from a common root that have developed side by side, sometimes in conscious differentiation from each other but Judaism is nevertheless not as explicitly anti-Trinitarian as Islam and Unitarianism or so it seems to me. I am not aware of any Islamic school of thought that has tried to come to grips with the fact that the traditional Islamic understanding of what “Trinity” means within mainstream Christian faith is fundamentally wrong.)

Many Christians will find it relatively easy to join in with many Jewish prayers, especially of course where the Psalms are used, maybe considering these prayers to be deficient (not brought in the name of Jesus Christ) but not offensive. This makes it easier to conceive of hosting a Jewish prayer meeting.

It is rather more difficult for Christians to join in Muslim prayers, even or maybe especially if they know Arabic. There is no Islamic praying in which it is not affirmed that Muhammad is Allah’s prophet and the prayers may well include (in Arabic) “Say: He is Allah, the One! Allah is He on Whom all depend. He begets not, nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him.”

Now Christians can of course affirm that God “begets not” in the sense that “God did not, does not and never will have sex with Mary or any other woman” and we can also affirm that God is not “begotten” in the sense that God was not born as a result of a sexual union. (Well, those of us who affirm the virgin birth anyway. Those who affirm the divinity of Christ but deny the vrigin birth may have an issue here.)

But it would still be an odd prayer in which case the question arises whether prayers should be invited in church of the sort which we who have responsibility for what goes on in a church cannot wholeheartedly pray ourselves. It is a question that maybe only arises for those of us who are in the habit of only using prayers which we can or at least want to be able to pray. So it is maybe not just a matter of our theology of religions but a question of our own theology and practice as well. 

Welcoming People, Hosting Events

Much has been written about the service of Muslim prayers held at St John’s Waterloo earlier this month. Excerpts from the service, and interview clips with participants, have been made available on YouTube.

Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream, suggests that “the motive behind this service was probably to build trust, to reconcile where there is division, to bring different communities together for greater cooperation and mutual understanding,” while offering “a radical and prophetic challenge to both faiths to be more ‘inclusive’ – Mosques should allow women to lead, and churches should include other faiths in their understanding of salvation.”

But, as Andrew Symes points out, offering a church as a venue for an Islamic prayer services contravenes canon law which states that all divine service must be in accordance with Church of England doctrine. Indeed, even cultural events hosted inside a church need to be “consonant with sound doctrine.”

Why object to Muslim worship in a church but tolerate it in a mosque or conference centre? The language of sacred space is probably not helpful here. Maybe the distinction between printers and publishers helps. Muslim (or indeed Christian) printers who refuse to print cartoons of Mohammed might get into trouble in contemporary British society, if their customers are willing to take them to court. But there is good reason why such cartoons are not published by the International Islamic Publishing House (IIPH). One can argue that printers should not refuse any customers whose printing demands are within the law, while strongly believing that it would be entirely inappropriate for the IIPH to publish them.

Conference centres, like printers, fulfil a certain role in our society. Their owners presumably cannot choose whether or not to host a congress for climate change deniers or a gathering of publishers of pornography. Church buildings, like publishers, also fulfil a certain role. They cannot host such events in the same way.  One does not need a concept of sacred space to allow that for Westminster Abbey to host the UKIP party conference would be inappropriate. Indeed, there are civic spaces, maybe a large town hall, which would be similarly inappropriate as a venue for any one political party.

The church is of course to practice radical hospitality. But it is the hospitality of welcoming people into our homes and indeed welcome them to come home to God. Hosting events is a different hospitality which may or may not be appropriate.  To follow Jesus who welcomed tax collectors may mean for a church to host a financial advice centre but radical hospitality does not mean that a church should make its facilities available to tax enforcement agencies and loan sharks. To follow Jesus who welcomed prostitutes might mean that a church building is kept open for longer hours with church members offering hot drinks and a safe space to sex workers; radical hospitality does not mean that a church might as well allow a brothel to operate within its facilities.

For some, among them Kelvin Holdsworth, it is perfectly obvious that a Muslim prayer group in need of a room should find shelter within church buildings – no questions asked. What is less clear is whether this is based on a concept of Christian hospitality which demands that we must make space to each and any group or whether Muslim prayer groups are “all right” (in ways in which other groups might not be) because we are after all worshipping the same God. Arguments have been brought forth both from hospitality and from the view that we are co-religionists (Kelvin Holdsworth considers it “bizarre” to deny that Muslims worship the same God as Christians).

In any case, it should not be too difficult to see that there is a difference between being hospitable to people and hosting events, between inviting Muslims to a Christian act of worship and, say, inviting them to proclaim the Shahada in church.