Idolatry and Islamophobia

Charisma magazine has taken down Gary Cass’ original call for Christians to take up arms against Islam in response to public outcry, but Cass remains unrepentant. Now he has renewed his defense of ‘Islamophobia’ in the form of a commentary on his original article. I have already blogged about the ‘generalization of outrage‘ by which Cass and company redirect their legitimate outrage against ISIS to all ‘Islam’ in general. I’ve also commented on the deep problems with the way he and others appeal to Scriptural texts about swords to draw general conclusions about taking up arms.

In this post, I want to look carefully at Cass’ argument that ‘Allah is not the God of the Bible.’ His argument, typical of what we hear from many conservative Christians, is important not because it’s wrong, but because it’s obviously wrong. This may sound like an overstatement, but hear me out, because his error cuts at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Here is what he says:

Allah is not the God of the Bible. Anyone who says we worship the same God is simply wrong or intentionally deceitful. Christians confess there is only One True and Living God who exists eternally in Three Persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No Muslim would ever agree to that. So if they are not worshipping the one true God, then they are worshipping some idolatrous invention of Mohammed. Idolatry is demonic. (1 Corinthians 10:20)

Muslims, of course, would agree that there is only one true God; the question at issue is the Trinity, so that his argument boils down to this:

1. All Christians confess that God is a Trinity.

2. All Muslims deny that God is a Trinity.

3. Therefore, Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.

This argument is seductive because it seems to uncompromisingly uphold Christian claims about God. The Trinity is nothing less than a succinct way of reciting the core assertions of the Christian Bible: God the Creator and Redeemer of Israel became incarnate in Jesus and poured out the Holy Spirit upon His followers. How could one deny this and yet claim to worship the same God? Isn’t it just wishy-washy liberalism — or worse, ‘intentionally deceitful’ — to say otherwise?

But consider another formally identical argument:

1. All Christians confess that God is a Trinity.

2. All (non-Christian, religious) Jews deny that God is a Trinity.

3. Therefore, Christians and Jews do not worship the same God.

I think it’s obvious that any Christian must reject this argument. Christians and Jews certainly disagree on a great deal — including the Trinity — yet a Christian cannot deny that she worships the God of the Jews. Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity itself affirms that the God of the Jews is the Father of Jesus Christ! To deny this is Marcionism, the first and greatest heresy of the church. Marcion’s theology is superficially plausible, but ultimately so fundamentally at odds with Scripture that even he had to take scissors to the Bible to pull it off.

Think about what this means. The Trinity doesn’t just summarize what Christians must think about God, the ‘Christian worldview.’ It also proscribes how we must hold those convictions in relation to others who profess to worship God. For by asserting that Jews and Christians worship the same God, the Trinity teaches that even enormous theological disagreements about the acts and character of God are not (necessarily) disagreements over which God we worship.

This is why the pious exclusivity of Marcionites and fundamentalists can become a radical denial of the God who rules and orders all. The true God is not so small that his worshippers must understand him perfectly. You can be too quick to identify an idol as well as too slowDidn’t Paul tell the Athenians — not monotheistic Jews, but agnostic pagans! — that the ‘unknown God’ they already worshipped was the same God who raised Jesus from the dead?

The way Christians think is not a neutral matter. How could it be, if Christ is the Logos?

It’s possible to deny God not only by what we affirm but by what we exclude. So Cass, who assumes that he must exclude as demonic everyone who diverges from his core affirmations, ends up deceived by an argument that leads inexorably to the denial of the God of Israel. And while most bad arguments don’t lead to calls for genocide, surely there’s a connection between the violence of Cass’ argument and the violence of his conclusion.

‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ Is it not Cass himself who is in danger of confessing another God?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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4 thoughts on “Idolatry and Islamophobia

  1. So Mark you have rightly demolished a poor example of a bad argument poorly stated, but not in any way established the assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. A progression through the outworking of God’s plan for salvation through the Jewish spiritual roots on to the culmination point of Biblical Christianity is not a difficult thing to understand. Man has changed and God speaks in ways we can understand and connect with. However, if you assert the same thing for Islam, and divine inspiration/revelation of the Koran you are looking more at a return to a pre Christ stage. If God is the same God(aside from all the discussions about the name Allah as Eli and Midianite historic connections back to the source) and you accept the transmitted scriptures of Islam are worthy of comparison to the Bible in veracity and efficacy in knowing God, then it appears that either God has made a step backwards, or in fact it is not true that Muslims worship the same God at all. Is there only one God? Agreed. Can you find Him through the Koran or in Muslim practice ultimately? No I think not. The koranic scriptures were spoken, transcribed and recorded via a single messenger. The Allah of the Koran does not speak to His creations, can not be known, or seek intimate contact with his creations. One of His koranic names is chief of deceivers which should create some questions in any one’s heart. Are we really talking about the same God. It seems more like an exercise in semantics. If muslims really worship the “true God” they are worshiping the same one as us. However they are probably not really likely to be true Muslims then. If they are worshiping the God of the Koran, they are not worshiping the same God as us. Either way this falls to make me convinced. I think that the problem has been that in giving value to people who are Muslims (as we should)and made in the image of God like all others, we do not have to give value to what they believe. Islamophobia is an interesting term and like a lot of new terms speaks of a deeper agenda. Most people have no understanding of Islam or much of an opinion. They see what people do who use the religion as a rallying call. Do not forget that the Islamic invaders came a long way over other people’s countries before they were stopped in Europe and then receded. Theoretical conversations are interesting, but lets not be naive about the reality of the history of real people’s lives, outside of the liberal cause driven revisionist agenda, or the conservative jingoistic justifications for past misdeeds. The Crusades did not happen because Muslims were staying in their own countries or fitting in to prevailing mores or accepted forms.

  2. Thanks for your comments. A few points:
    1. You’ll notice I neither affirmed nor denied the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, largely because I think there is a huge amount of confusion over what this even means.

    2. That said, the question of ‘sameness’ is not merely a question of semantics. The pressure to resolve the issue comes from the 1st Commandment, ‘worship no other gods,’ i.e. no gods that are not the same as the Lord. Cass is ultimately worried about idolatry, and I think he’s not wrong to do so. I’m certainly not calling for some easy liberal identification of all religions as ‘the same.’ (I will talk about this in my next blog post).

    3. Cass’ error is to reason from disagreements about God to the claim that we do not worship the ‘same’ God. Jews and Christians have extraordinarily deep disagreements about God, not least about whether Jesus is God incarnate. But one cannot infer from these disagreements that they worship a ‘different’ God (so that we must regard one another as idolaters), only that they say different things about the same God. This is a crucial distinction, yet few people make it. The point is not merely ‘theoretical’ because people kill and die over idolatry.

    4. Your arguments make the same error. You reason that unless Christians and Muslims substantially agree about God, they cannot worship the same God. This must be fallacious, as my post argues. Very real and substantial disagreements need not be construed as disagreements about WHICH God we worship. They may be, rather, arguments about what we ought to affirm of the SAME God. If Jews and Christians worship the same God, even though they deny that our Scriptures are from that God, why can’t Christians and Muslims worship the same God, even though we deny that their Scriptures are from that God?

    5. I have no idea whether the Koran calls God ‘chief of deceivers,’ but I do know our Scriptures speak of a ‘lying spirit from the Lord’ and have a prophet say to God, ‘you have deceived me!’ Let us judge our neighbors with equity and charity.

  3. I’m not sure that the previous respondent understood the author’s point so I thought I would offer a different angle on the same conclusion. I find it bizarre (and disturbing) that this conversation keeps referring to ‘God’ versus ‘Allah’. Arabic-speaking Christians have always called the god of the Bible as Al-lah (lit. ‘The god’ in Arabic). They were doing so before Muhammad’s birth and back when the Germanic word ‘god’ only referred to pagan deities. Are we talking about Christianity versus Islam or Americans versus Arabs?(Christian Arabs be dammed, at least when they oppose invasions like in 2003, though we seem to discover their suffering when we need pretexts to attack).
    Its fine not to subscribe to various Muslim teachings, I certainly don’t, but why not refer to Muslims as heretics as medieval Christians did? American Christians don’t seem to have a problem admitting that Mormons claim they are worshiping the god of Abraham even when Christians reject Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Why not just admit that Muslims make this same claim (and revere Jesus too for that matter)? If you don’t want to call this weird behavior Islamophobia what should you call it?

    You don’t see a lot of people defending the crusades these days, but since you mentioned naivety about everyday life, lets not pretend that those 11-14th century European armies were suddenly interested in retaking holy lands lost back in the 7th century because they cherished the territorial integrity of the Byzantine Empire. Pope Urban was tired of endless wars in Western Europe and sought to export the troublemakers. Richard the Lionhearted and Saint Francis both displayed their respective visions of Christian piety but if you chose to revere the war leader (and support current war leaders) rather than the monk who put away his sword, are you glorifying the life example of Jesus or of Muhammad? Of course you could say God/Lah didn’t mean for all faithful believers to always be pacifists, but we would not want to say God/Lah is moving backwards to the militaristic days of the Old Testament now would we? If we want to talk about being practical in distinguishing these two faiths over the centuries this is a more promising, if politically inconvenient, angle. A ‘practical’ look
    at the Trinity is more likely to reveal that Christians believe something many admit they don’t understand.

  4. Thanks for writing on this topic, Mark. I was glad to have a chance to talk with you in person about this. 🙂  I have pondered the assertion that Jews and Christians worship the same God and have something to say. I’m NOT commenting here on the assertion that Muslims also worship the same God.

    In my pondering, my mind first went to the gospel of John chapters 5 and 8 where Jesus shocked the religious leaders of his day by saying they did not follow the God of Moses and were not children of Abraham. I found this compelling, but believe this was a claim of practice, not the framework of the faith of the Jews.

    Then, I reread Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11, an aching cry of grief and hope for Paul’s Jewish people, expressed to Gentiles. That tied in with the Prophets and the Law and led me to agree that Jews and Christians worship the same God, though imperfectly. Unbelief is embraced in the over-arching plan of God for both. Thank God!

    Ezekiel 20 shows God the Lord describing a future for Israel where idols are unheard of, a glorious future in contrast to the history of idolatry that Ezekiel lays out in ch 19 and 20. Yet, at the time when Ezekiel was speaking, Israel is directed to “Go, serve your idols,” but not to expect God to answer their requests for insight. This is stark, but in keeping with the many times Israel’s prophets said, “Here’s the word of the Lord, but you’re not going to obey and thus and such will happen to you until you return to the Lord who continues to love you.” (my phrasing)

    Modern followers of Jesus may not fabricate idols in the style that is depicted in the Law and the Prophets but they are subject to the same type of error. American middle-class followers of Jesus are subject to the bane of prosperity – pleasures, riches and worries – which are the thorns of Jesus’ parable about sowing seed (Mark 4:18-19). For example, we may rely on financial security systems, personal or societal, for comfort and peace in the present. (So, a majority of Baby Boomer voters instruct legislators not to “touch” Social Security, though the system as currently devised favors our generation at the expense of those following.) Picking on my social subset as a white Gentile Jesus-follower who is the daughter of educated parents, I see that the advantages of family and class status and the exercise of maintaining it can and do dilute devotion to the one God and this dilution must be attended to. (Much of my time is expended to make money and handle money and property, to wisely purchase, sort, use, store, clean, repair and dispose of my purchases. This kind of activity is comprehended in the command to “Dominion the earth” but can eclipse God’s supremacy in my life.) Am I no longer worshipping the true God as I wrestle with modern idolatry? I say that with Israel, I am an unbelieving believer and God continues to love me and advocate for me. Though I and those like me may deviate from obedience to God in our practice (and are subject to continual confession and restoration on this point), God’s faithfulness is surer than my faithlessness.

    So, God shows obstinance in loving His people, the Jews he chose and the Gentiles who benefit, in the face of our unbelief and disobedience, until “the whole house of Israel” (Ezekiel 20:40) worships and is blessed on God’s holy mountain. Or as Paul says in a counterpoint to John 5 and 8, speaking to Gentiles, “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery-so that you will not be wise in your own estimation-that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25, 26 NASB)

    God the Lord is the God of the Jews and the Jesus followers in His own long, compassionate view.

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