Theology

Muslims and Christians: Reframing the “Same God” Debate

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I recently listened to Miroslav Volf and Nabeel Qureshi on Julie Roys’ Seeking Truth podcast debating the issue: Do Muslims and Christians worship the “same” God? These two were the perfect choices to debate the “yes” side and “no” side of this debate. Volf is the author of Allah: A Christian Response (2012) and the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Qureshi is a Muslim convert to Christianity and an itinerant speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM).

The Debate

The debate was respectful, intelligent, and at times impassioned, but the debate ended in an utter stalemate. It seemed like they continued to talk past each other on the crucial issues, particularly Qureshi. They failed to engage in the ideas presented by the other regarding the primary issue of the sameness, or lack thereof, of the God worshiped in these two global religions.

Qureshi tended to repeat his primary argument that Muslims deny both the Trinity and the deity of Christ and therefore do not worship the “same” God as Christians, without providing much response to Volf’s argument that Muslims, like Jews, worship the one God of creation.

Volf makes the case that if Muslims worship a different sort of god, then they are worshiping an idol. Qureshi indicated that Volf’s point was a false dichotomy, but he did not offer much of a response outside of clarifying that he is not claiming Muslims are guilty of idolatry. He also failed to respond to Volf’s strongest argument that Jews deny both the Trinity and the deity of Christ and yet most of us feel uneasy saying Jews and Christians do not worship the same God.   

“Same” vs. Sufficiently Similar

Qureshi did concede that Muslims and Christian have some common ground in “what” God is, but differ significantly in “who” God is. Volf did not respond to Qureshi’s bifurcation at this point in the debate. Qureshi created too stark a contrast between God’s attributes (“what” God is) and God’s personality (“who” God is). A good reply, for example, would have been Karl Rahner’s often quoted claim that “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity.” Nevertheless, while I disagreed with Qureshi on this point, I felt that this moment was as close as the two men came to agreement on the central issue in the debate.

In Allah, Volf is clear that what he means by “same” is “sufficiently similar.” Volf never argues that Muslims and Christians worship the identically same God. In the debate Volf admits Muslims and Christians have significant differences but that their “conception about God partly overlap.”

I do not recall Qureshi weighing the merits of how sufficient the similarities are between the Christian view of God and the Muslim view of God, which is at the heart of Volf’s argument. Instead he quoted heavily from the Quran to defend his position that the differences between Muslims and Christians prevent him from claiming they worship the same God.   

An Overwhelming “No”

After listening to the podcast, I scrolled through the comment section of the post of this debate on the RZIM Facebook page. The comments were not crude, but they were overwhelming on the “no” side of the debate. Some of the comments were dismissive of the entire debate, comments like: “Why is there a debate? The answer is NO.” and “A waste of time [and] space, with this idiotic question.”

The debate over whether Muslims worship the same God is certainly not a waste of time. Click To Tweet

This debate is certainly not a waste of time, particularly in light of Wheaton College’s initiation of a process to terminate Professor Larycia Hawkins after she publicly stated her belief that Muslims and Christians worship the “same” God. At a time when we see knee-jerk reactions to violence committed in the name of Islam and some confusion in the Christian community concerning the beliefs of our Muslim neighbors, I think the debate, or rather the discussion, regarding the “same God” issue is important, but the conversation needs to be reframed.

An Overly Simplistic Question

Same

First, the question: Do Muslims and Christians worship the “same” God? is far too simplistic. Too many Christian react with a quick “no” because we worship the God revealed supremely in Jesus and Muslims worship the God revealed by the prophet Mohammed. A clear difference, right?

To be honest we all agree there are some similarities and some differences between the concepts of God in Christianity and in Islam. (It is a matter of clear fact that both religions are monotheistic so there is at least one similarity!) I fear we will not make much progress in this discussion when we state the question in this manner. When we do not agree on what we mean by “same,” we will simply continue to list all the similarities or differences between our two religions and continue to hammer home the argument we have formed as we remain entrenched in our positions. We should use more nuanced language like “sufficiently similar” instead of “same.”

Worship

Second, I find the word “worship” to be problematic. When we discuss worship, we will begin to think of the liturgical practices of each of the two religions, which are obviously different. As Volf says in the debate, Christianity and Islam are indeed different religions. It also seems to me that Christians begin to have an emotional reaction to any conversation about the sacred practices of worship. We can stay clear of any emotional interference from cluttering up our conversations if we choose to talk about the “conceptions of God” or “views of God” in each of these two different religions. In this way our conversation becomes much more about theology than religion.

Towards Productive Dialogue

My suggestion for a more productive dialogue would be to frame question this way: Do Christians and Muslims have sufficiently similar concepts of God that gives us common ground to have a dialogue regarding our differences?

In this rewording of the question, the debate becomes reframed around the sufficiency of our common beliefs about God. Asking the question in this manner focuses on the core issue of the debate which is not about tallying the similarities and differences between the God Christians and Muslim worship to see if we have more similarities or more differences. Rather the core issue is about the sufficiency of the similarities.

Furthermore, the debate in this reframed context does not center around worship, but about shared beliefs and whether or not those shared beliefs are significant or not. I believe phrasing the question this way gets at the heart of Volf’s work, namely that we work towards empowering and encouraging our fellow Christians to have respectful dialogue with, and mutual love for, our Muslim neighbors.

Can we stand together in solidarity with Muslims and work towards peaceful neighborliness? Click To Tweet

We know Christians and Muslims have theological differences, but do our theological similarities give us enough common ground upon which we can stand together in solidarity and work towards peaceful neighborliness?

The Necessity of Common Ground

If we reform the question as I suggested above then I think we can re-evaluate Volf’s position that Christians and Muslims share the following common concepts of God:

  1. God is one and only.
  2. God is the creator of all that is not God.
  3. God is separate and different than all that is not God.
  4. God is good, merciful, and just.

If we are asking if these foundational statements about God are sufficient enough to have common ground with our Muslim neighbors, I think the answer is clearly “yes.”

Some may disagree and attempt to build an argument against the necessity of finding common ground between Christians and Muslims, but I find value in searching for common ground because some kind of commonality gives us a place to stand together. If all we do is point out our differences, we will continue to stand at arm’s length from each other which will only magnify our stereotypes and biases.

Genuine love requires a step closer to one another. Click To Tweet

Genuine love requires a step closer to one another. Finding common ground can also be helpful for those laboring to preach the gospel in predominantly Muslim areas where the church searches to contextualize the gospel in those settings. For we Christians living in places where Muslims are the minority, it gives us open doors to love those who seem to be so different.  

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37 responses to “Stuck between Mohler and McLaren: The Incarnational Approach to Leading in Our Disagreements

  1. Disclaimer: I’m not a heresy hunter.
    I am confused by what you mean here:

    “In this way, the community of the Spirit where He is Lord determines the issues concretely that need to be discerned, because they perculate organicly to the surface becoming an issue for the whole body. Here orthodoxy cannot be defied only extended into new terrotory – new orthodoxy.”

    I think it would help if you gave a concrete example, because I’m not tracking with what you mean by new orthodoxy, but a mini-case study may help me track.

  2. David,
    This is a very important issue and I appreciate your comments here. I think you have rightly identified the democratic form of leadership as another form of the autocratic. My question relates to the incarnational type of leadership you propose. I was tracking with you and getting excited about helping a future body I am a part of embrace such an approach, but then I got confused when you said:

    “If after several sessions, this issue remains unresolved proving it is too important for who we are and the people/problems we are engaging, we call a “Council” of all the people in the church interested in this issue, to pray, listen, to hear those recognized in the study of Scripture, to submit to one another, to die to ourselves and recognize our own sin, and out this discern together for a common agreement – so that we can say to the church ..”It seems good to Holy Spirit and to us ……”(Acts 15:28).”

    This sounds really good, but at the same time, who is the person or group who decides what comes out of that council? If there is still not unanimous agreement there, is not a small group of people again engaging in a form of autocratic leadership, where they say “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to US” (though not to some of you) “to come down on this side of this issue.” Do you understand what I am saying? It seems that on some issues, especially an issue that you mentioned like homosexuality, the fervor is going to run high for some people to the point that they cannot and will not see the issue the way the rest of the community does. In other words, if there is not unanimous agreement, at some point someone is going to have to say “This is what we as a community believe; this is what the Spirit is leading us to.”

    How does this line up with/differ from the autocratic and democratic forms? I am asking honestly, trying to work this out for myself…

    Kevin
    shalomer.blogspot.com

  3. Nice post! I especially resonate with the statement of being “amidst pos-christendom that has not arrived yet.” These are difficult and marvelous times!
    Kevin,
    what I think is a difference here in the incarnational way is the dynamics that are given space when people come together and listen, submit to each other, and die to themselves. It is in this space where some real conversation can happen as opposed to talking past each other or trying to find out who is right/wrong. Likewise, if common agreement is not found then more gatherings need to happen until common agreement happens. Its unefficient according to American business models yet crucial to a people who are trying to figure out what it means to live together participating in the Mission. This inefficiency will also tend to avoid the whole autocratic circumstance.

    so, to make it short, I disagree with the statement that people will not be able to listen if there is submission and dying to oneself. Likewise there should not have to be someone declaring, “this is what we as a community believe.”

    chad

  4. […] I participated in a couple of years ago. I may try to connect with him near Chicago in April. David perceptively draws out some points about leadership as he thinks through the issues floating a…. As Bill Kinnon tweeted, David is smarter and more gracious and brings Mohler to the table. […]

  5. David,I really appreciate the incarnational approach you mention. It certainly opens the way for the Spirit to speak.

    I wonder if part of our issue here is the scale of our disagreements and the medium. I really wrestle with how we use blogs to air our grievances and to challenge one another. I’ve made my share of mistakes on this one, and it seems like disagreements on such a large scale and impersonal medium can flare up so easily.

    This raises obvious problems then with a controversy surrounding someone’s very public book. While I really like your approach, I wonder if that means we need A New Kind of Conversation… and if we do, I’m honestly not sure how to do that with a book such as Brian’s. Any thoughts on that?

  6. Ed,I agree with you that a new kind of conversation is needed. Those of us who work within academia are used to the fact that when we publish, not only have we already been submitted to a group of critics/scholars, but we expect alot more of it. That’s the academy. But then there are rules – like we can’t discuss someone’s personal life. Yet, this ends up detaching scholarship from real life. More and more, the Academy of Religion becomes a conversation unto itself … and soon there will be few left who care about it, because it has little to do with church, or anyone who care about living with God (the Academy lives off the university system which seeks only to study religion as a sociological phenomenon. But who’s left who thinks that matters?)…
    I digress eh?
    My point is, the blog world, and the publishers have set the tone for determiniung the future direction of theology and the church in N. America and we have very few rules if any … The true work of theology however I contend will start from the life of a community incarnating Christ in the world … here real theology will bubble to the surface and be publishable .. and its merits will be evident … I think the discerning conversations must not be “cohort” like .. but be based in committed Christian communities … engaging life and Mission … Here we can report on what’s happening and speak theologically about we’ve learned… people then should have the right to ask about our communal life, our personal life in that community… no? Because we cannot separate life from theology.
    So there’s a tension here eh? I think we are right to ask about the personal lives of people speaking … but we can’t make judgements about these same personal lives unless we are in community with them … I think the easiest answer might be … the church that I am a part of is the marker of my credibility …
    Somehow .. theology and practice … how we discern the way forward doctrinally must be attached to the everyday life of living in Christ together as a people for God’s Mission in the world.

    All these things would contribute to a more productive furtherance of orthdoxy into Mission …
    Blessings .. sorry I rambled .. DF

  7. David:
    Very thought-provoking post! I agree that Brian and Al seem to function at times as mirror images. And I like the gist of what you say about incarnational leadership, particularly about the practice of discernment–we would really need to grow up into Christ to do that! I am not clear what you mean by “a new orthodoxy.” Can orthodoxy really be “extended into new territory” by a local congregation? How would this new orthodoxy relate to other local congregations? Would it be binding on them? And did the Jerusalem gathering (Acts 15) define a new orthodoxy, or did it enunciate a wise beginning step for Jew-Gentile relations that Paul would further modify in Romans, etc.?

  8. Chad,
    I understand and appreciate what you are saying. And I agree that we must seek out resolution even if it is not “efficient.” But I was not really making a statement about how things are; I was more asking the question: if there is not unanimous agreement on an issue, despite MANY meetings and councils, what is the way forward?

    David,
    I’d love your thoughts on my questions, or anyone else with insights here…

    Kevin

  9. Kevin …it depends on what you mean by unanimous agreement … when we all sat down to discern women’s ministry at our church, there wasn’t unanimous agreement … rather we came to a joint consensus .. of which 2 out of 35 agreed to trust and consent to the agreement – even thoiugh that some reservations… in this way “we came together to the mind of Christ.”
    On those who ask about the “new orthodoxy,” I’m referring to the way orthodoxy is extended into new territory… into new questions. So perhaps it’s a bad turn of phrase. When “the Trinity” was discerned in the 4th century councils … it was engaging questions that had not been asked before (Arianism etc.). Today the Trinity is orthodoxy (even though not in the Bible … this extended orthodoxy into new territory, drew on the Scriptures and past understandings to asnweer new questions and also shape the language to better communicate the realities of which we speak. This is what I meant by new orthodoxy …

  10. Thanks for those thoughts, and that definitely fills out what you are saying more. At some point there needs to be trust from those who do not agree, to go with what the vast majority feels led to. I suppose a key in this is making sure any who are a part of such a community (or council) have humble hearts and are willing to submit… If not, I suppose that person may be asked to not take part in such a council…
    And thanks for your clarification on new orthodoxy–I actually understood where you were going with that and really appreciated that insight. I had never thought about how since this is Jesus’ church, and the Spirit is still leading us day by day, we will confront heresy regularly as it comes up among us and must respond in the leading of the Spirit, thus creating a new orthodoxy in a sense. The challenging part is that the councils of the early church, at least in theory, were ecumenical, church-wide councils deciding on these issues. If your community in Illinois decides on a new direction of orthodoxy for a heresy it is confronting, while another church in California has not taken part in that leading of the Spirit or that controversy, the two churches may be on different pages theologically. This is the only part of the equation that is still a question mark for me…

  11. David,
    Interesting you bring up the women-in-ministry question, as well as alluding to Brian McLaren’s words on homosexuality in the church. Both issues are contentious, I believe, because gender and sexuality are such deeply rooted human experiences.

    Can you clarify about the consensus you reached? It sounds like you’re saying you reached a joint consensus that only 2 of 35 people agreed with. Which doesn’t really sound like consensus at all. If God works in conflict, then it’s okay if there’s no consensus, to a point.

    But what do we do with the situation where people on either side of an issue draw their own line in the sand? How do you incarnationally lead a person or group of people who say, “I cannot ever compromise on this issue, and I will not listen to anyone who proposes a consensus that is anything other than what I currently believe?”

    Like Kevin says, At some point, doesn’t someone–perhaps the Council–make a pronouncement about doctrine? It could be the council says, “consensus on this issue is not critical–we will tolerate differences” Or the Council could say “after prayer and discussion, we discern this position, set of beliefs, as the truth God has revealed to us.”

    I think you are spot-on to see the problems with “autocratic” and “democratic” handling of conflict, but I think the incarnational approach eventually results in one or the other–it’s just done with more patience and in real relationship.

  12. If there is a commitment to community then dying to self, seems to allow the idea of consensus and ultimately the Acts 15 result. I suspect there is also the idea of a shaping/formation of the community, so while the community may at times take the form of the autocratic and/or democratic, with the commitment and the shaping, seems like incarnational may indeed emerge.

  13. David, I haven’t read all the comments, but here’s something that occurs to me:
    Wouldn’t both Mohler and McLaren say their approach emerges out of a community discernment, which they are expressing as individuals?

    How often do we hear Brian say he’s connected to many others who think as he does? And doesn’t Al express the judgment of a host of evangelical Southern Baptists, now with a Reformed theology?

    So, while some might push back by suggesting the incarnational approach will struggle to survive the autocratic stripe, I suggest the autocratic and the democratic only gain strength in their voice because they emerge from a group’s beliefs.

    Anyway, great post brother.

    Time for coffee again with you.

  14. […] A great piece by David Fitch on church leadership. There is an option other than democracy and autocracy: The Incarnational Approach to Leading in Our Disagreements […]

  15. Greetings Scot,I think you have a point … the group beliefs you refer to I think are related to the post Christendom culture/assumptions that undergird such versions of authority… The So Baptist Neo Reformed don’t need the communal hermeneutic … they are well secure in a Christendom based hierarchy and it is unquestioned for now. The “emerging church cohorts of democratic tolerance” … can live off the common agreements from the Christian past … sufficient enough to have a reason to gather … and entertain wides differences which don’t mean anything because everybody gets to goe home and do their own thing …

    However, in post Christendom … seeking what it means to live in Christ for His Mission … into the world … we must discern differences for how we will live transformed lives in the world …
    For me this is still one of the telling differences between the two “emerging” theologies … (emergent versus missional).

    At least that’s my take.

    This summer … we’ll do that coffee … and this time I’ll pay 🙂 … I promise

  16. […] has written a thoughtul post On the McLaren Nay-sayers and David Fitch has offered some thoughts on The Incarnational Approach to Leading in Our Disagreements. And you don’t have to dig very deep into the comments to discern that we’ve got some […]

  17. […] David Fitch reflects on the two most common approaches to leading through conflict: autocratic, and democratic. He argues that these are really the same, or more exactly that they share the same problems. […]

  18. Nate,
    I think Dave was saying that the 2 who did not agree with the other 33 were willing to be part of a joint consensus — as opposed to a unanimous consensus — which suggests the 2 have felt heard and respected and are willing to go along.

    Great post, Dave!

  19. […] Church conflict.   The very words can raise blood pressure.  David Fitch at Reclaiming The Mission searches for balance between the autocratic approach to church government and the democratic approach; and finds it in The Incarnational Approach to Leadership. […]

  20. What you call democratic doesn’t seem to bear much relation to being democratic at all, and this mislabeling may result in other problems in your analysis, including mischaracterization of others.
    You seem to be focused on determining doctrinal parameters. Perhaps this is not what should be key in a faith community. It isn’t in mine. We have agreed that the center is Jesus Christ and we have agreed on a vision which is quite broad. The agreement signed by new members has no doctrinal statements, but does have broad principles on how we live as a community. We have ways we operate as a community, but we don’t exclude people. People who find themselves in substantial disunity with those ways generally leave at some point for a community with which they are more in unity, but they are never pushed out.

    Major matters are worked through the congregation over a period of time using a variety of means such as congregational gatherings, opportunities for feedback to members of a team set up to guide the process, etc.

    We have continuing opportunities to wrestle with major questions, including in our neighborhood discipleship groups and feedback sessions with church leadership. Currently we have a discipleship series in which we go over ways we generally approach things in the church, including key questions such as how we view the Bible. There is free and open respectful discussion of these matters.

    The process for dealing with issues of who we are as a community would seem naturally to be very different from the one used to deal with personal conflicts. There seems to be a confusion between the two in the blog post.

  21. […] Church conflict.   The very words can raise blood pressure.  David Fitch at Reclaiming The Mission searches for balance between the autocratic approach to church government and the democratic approach; and finds it in The Incarnational Approach to Leadership. […]

  22. […] being said, I think that David does something in a recent post which is not authentic. He is discussing how to deal with conflict in the community of believers. […]

  23. Great post, Dave. Very thought provoking. My comment here is more of a meta-reflection, however. You write about the leadership approach of three white men, and the blog lights up with discussion. You write about the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., or ask if missional communities need to be racially diverse, and it’s crickets. I think that shows us something about how courageous the missional church really is when it comes to doing church in a different way.
    If we continue to cave to the racism inherent in American churches, then the missional movement will solve little.

  24. yo Bill…I’m using “democratic” within the general usage of democracy as a political means of reaching agreement …Bill you say “You seem to be focused on determining doctrinal parameters. Perhaps this is not what should be key in a faith community. It isn’t in mine.” But then you say immediately following “We have agreed that the center is Jesus Christ and we have agreed on a vision which is quite broad.” Although we both find distasteful some of the exclusionary implications of “doctrinal paramenters” … and we both acknowledge we should flesh these out together … it appears you’re contradicting yourself … here eh?… or at least nuancing in a way I would be favoruable to …

    Hey Matt … ouch!! thanks …

  25. […] different than the one most associated with (what was) the emergent church as I articulated over here. So before I actually outline pos. 3 on these two questions, I’d like to show why Missional […]

  26. […] in salvation. Yet there are differences as well which I tried to make clearer previously over at this post. This incarnatiuonal, post Christendom driven understanding of life and truth in the gospel leads, […]

  27. […] series of posts that began here (and continued here and here and probably should include this post here as necessary background). The three posts to follow all deal with this last and probably most […]

  28. Hi David,
    As Scott said, I haven’t read the entire comment thread, but I do have a thought on the matter… That is, there must be a middle ground between authoritarian and democratic. I’ve often said that, when it comes to conflict, liberals change the subject (“if we disagree about something, we won’t talk about it”), while conservatives change the venue (“if you disagree with us on something, you can go somewhere and talk about it… or we will”). Both see conflict as a sign of dysfunction, they just deal with it differently.

    I’ve been suggesting that we adopt a transcendent paradigm that views conflict as normative and even an opportunity for all to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. In my book “Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them” (http://www.practicingparad?oxy.com/), I suggested “Incarnational Orthodoxy” as way to describe a theological orientation that transcends the doctrine-driven “Propositional Orthodoxy” of conservative Christianity and the praxis-driven “Ethical Orthodoxy” of liberal Christianity in a way that incorporates (“gathers into a body”) the strengths of each without turning them into idols.

    Incarnational Orthodoxy returns the term “orthodoxy” to its literal roots (ortho=right/appropriate, doxy=praise/worshipful response), so that our experience of the all encompassing love of the incarnate Christ drives both what we are, what we are becoming, what we believe, and what we do. It is not “anything goes”/”let’s change the subject” and it is not “my/our way or the highway.” But a sense that the living Christ IS all truth, that none of us cannot contain it fully, and that we need each other to draw closer to the truth…

    In Christ’s love,
    Ken+

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