What’s in a Name?

It wasn’t long ago that my newsfeed was graced by two provocative image macros, each shared by a variety of different people. I want to share them with you today in order to reflect, critically, on what they mean, and to comment on a way that they are strikingly similar. The first image features a description of the “real” meaning of the Confederate flag. The second features the image of a priest describing a nonthreatening use of “Allah” in Christian worship. Here are both images now:

Confederate Flag Meaning

God-is-Allah_Palestinian Christian

You may be wondering why it is that I think these two images are strikingly similar, and the reason lies in the logic they utilize to make their case, a logic I find deeply troubling among many of my fellow Christians. There are two components to their similarity.

1) Both images consciously ignore the fact that names have history. There is a reason, today, why we don’t name our children Adolf or Judas. There is a reason why Chernobyl and Hiroshima continue to make us shudder. These names, for varying reasons, carry with them the baggage of their narratives—baggage which distinctly inflects the meaning of the names. And herein lies the key we must remember—names point to a history, point to a heritage. The history of a name is the unveiled history of its character. They don’t exist in abstract; they carry narrative baggage.

This is what is so very crucial about the unveiling of the name of God in the Old Testament. Previously, He was a kind of idea—an El, a God, possibly among other gods. But after Moses He was known by His own self-designation, YHWH, I am that I am, I cause to be what is. From that moment on the dealings of the Israelites with the being named YHWH constituted a developing narrative of character. No longer would general terms be as suitable, because God had taken control in a striking way of His own self disclosure. Want to know about god (el) generally? You’re going to have to get to know YHWH.

Burning Bush

So, when our priest claims that “Allah is just our name for God” there is a two-way sleight of hand. On one side, he is consciously neglecting the importance of God’s self-revelation in time through the narrative of YHWH’s actions. On the other hand, he is consciously side-stepping the narrative identity of Allah. Allah may have once meant ‘God’ in a vague and nondescript sense, but it can do so no longer, for in the machinery of Islam it has gathered to itself its own narrative baggage. Allah no longer means simply ‘god’ anymore than Baal means simply ‘god.’ As soon as it became a name it took on an accretion of historical data.

2) Both images consciously ignore the fact that symbols have a life beyond their etymology. I can describe in great detail the etymological meaning of the word Negro. I can talk about its links to the colour ‘black,’ how it represents a basic description of encounter between Caucasian and non-Caucasian persons. But no amount of explanation can overcome the fact that, within living memory, the word “negro” was used to exclude and marginalize, often visibly on signs like this one.

No Dogs Negroes

Decoding symbols and defining terms is important, crucial work, but we mustn’t neglect the fact that their use and application in history adds levels of meaning and determines their interpretation. No matter how one describes the Confederate flag (and, for the record, the description in the image macro is false), its use in rebellion, in the defence of slavery, and in the narratives of white power, render it ultimately reprehensible. The flag, like the word “negro” is an object of thought that, whatever its origins, now carries a symbolic weight beyond its ‘meaning.’ It is irresponsible, if not dishonest, to ignore that symbolic aspect.

The flag has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. Allah has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. No amount of equivocating can sidestep these difficulties. And yet both these images operate from the same basic premise: if I explain a thing a certain way, all its troubles disappear. The rhetorical claim is something like this, “Here. This is what this thing really means. So relax, it’s no big deal, right?” Formally, this is logical fallacy called “Cherry Picking”—it’s where you point to one data set (favourable) and consciously ignore or neglect the rest of the data (unfavourable). In the cases above, the authors point to certain data sets (re: Allah, Confederacy), and neglect significant other ones (history, symbology).

Muggeridge5For me, this takes on an even more grievous slant, because in the hands of Christians—who are supposed to love the Word and what it means—it becomes a form, if you will, of exegetical abuse. I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm Muggeridge,

In the beginning was the Word, and one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically then rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time. (Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, 2)

Muggeridge’s words haunt me, echoing through my mind as I read, and listen, and observe the world. And nowhere do they grieve or astonish me more than when the Church, that great steward of the Word, participates in the destruction of its own sacred trust. Granted, it’s hard work to be faithful to the Word. The truth is that there’s enough cherry picking and equivocation in the world that, very often, the Christian message must begin with a proper definition of terms. But when we participate in these kinds of equivocation we discredit those places where we really do have a point to make about interpretation and misinterpretation. Abuse in one rhetorical field discredits us in others.

So let’s be critical of what we post and read, and let’s use our sacred trust—the treasury of the Word—wisely, faithfully, and with piercing clarity.

God, Allah, and the Woman at the Well

800px-Angelika_Kauffmann_-_Christus_und_die_Samariterin_am_Brunnen_-1796Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The recent suspension of Wheaton College Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins has given visible and caustic exposure to this question. Publicly declaring her intention to wear the Hijab as a show of solidarity with Muslims, Professor Hawkins also claimed (as partial grounding for her actions) that “we worship the same God.” Those claims caused the Evangelical college to place her under suspension due to their conviction that it conflicted with the college’s statement of faith.

A horde of commentators has weighed in on this controversy, with many immediately misinterpreting the situation as an episode in bigotry or racism. And yet the primary disagreement has been about Dr. Hawkins’s theological claim that the Christian and Muslim God is the same. In this, it appears that some four positions have emerged. One group that we might call Kneejerk Liberalism is marked by their contempt of any fundamentalism. Zealous to focus on love, rather than the knowledge of God, these commentators reject any absolute claims about the nature of God. “Of course Allah and God are the same, so long as the good (and true) followers of each religion love. Love, after all, is the main idea.” Unfortunately, these commentators are theologically lightweight, if not inept. On the opposite side of the spectrum is an ironically similar group, which we might call Kneejerk Conservatism. This group, similar in its theological ineptitude, recoils in horror from any claim that Islam and Christianity might be similar. Their grounding is a healthy fear of the blurring of categories, combined with an unhealthy and uncritical Islamophobia. Neither of these groups of professed Christians contributes effectively to the discussion.

However, there are two more groups of thinkers, both far more theologically grounded. One group, perhaps typified by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, argues that, indeed, when Christians and Muslims speak about God, inasmuch as we are able to speak about God, we do indeed mean the same thing. The other group, which doesn’t have a typifying figure but is represented by traditional orthodoxy, argues that the differences between YHWH and Allah are too great to conflate, and that the claims that they are the “same God” are unhelpful both to Christians and Muslims alike.

These two positions are worth unpacking further, because they draw us to the nature of language and of our ability to speak about God in any meaningful way at all. We might begin with a question: To what degree does any human speak accurately when he/she speaks of God? It should be clear that no individual is ever able to speak with complete accuracy, but only ever with provisional accuracy. We always speak in approximations. This is one of the reasons for the theological diversity within the Church—no group is able to claim with infallibility that they are worshipping God truly while everyone else is wrong (although many have tried). So, first of all, the question of accurate speech about God is muddied by the problem of human epistemology. We are, in short, not omniscient.

The proposition regarding Christianity and Islam, then, seems to be as follows: to the degree that Muslims and Christians succeed in speaking about God to the best of our epistemological abilities, to that same degree we are speaking about the same God. In other words, the best thoughts of Muslims about God are similar enough to the best thoughts of Christians about God to claim that we are speaking of the same God.

There is something commendable about this line of thinking, namely, that it serves to encourage Muslim/Christian dialogue and that it calls us to a kind of epistemological humility. But there are also a few significant problems. The first and gravest of these is that Islam categorically rejects both the Divinity of Jesus and, by extension, the Trinity. Islam, as a monotheistic religion, is in this respect both actively and aggressively anti-Christian. This introduces an initial logical problem. For the Christian, Jesus is God, but for the Muslim it would be abhorrent to claim that Jesus is Allah. Furthermore, the Christian claims that God is Trinity, but for the Muslim it would be an abomination to claim that Allah is Trinity. His oneness is violated in an essential way by Christian theology. So, at the first, we can see that the initial claims of sameness crumble the moment we step from the abstract to the particular.

Dome of the Rock

The inscriptions inside the Dome of the Rock, built on the historic site of the Jewish temple, specifically reject anyone who says God is “three,” and specifically urge people not to make too much of Jesus.

A second problem is based in methodology. The claim that Christianity and Islam agree in our theology about God draws its strength from the attributes of God—for example, His eternal nature, His unchanging goodness, that He is creator, His holiness, and His monotheistic nature. However—and this is terribly important—our best thoughts about these subjects remain our thoughts; they are human categories which we employ to describe and understand God as He has revealed Himself. The danger comes when we begin to abstract these ideas about God from God Himself. In doing so we begin to elevate our thoughts about God above God, and in the process we inevitably turn those thoughts into idols. God’s goodness means nothing apart from the actions of the God who has revealed Himself to be good. To say that Allah and the Christian God are the same is to say so on the basis of these, our decidedly human, categories.

What Christianity claims, and clings to, is the idea of both History and Revelation. We do not worship God who is the sum of our best thoughts, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, called Yahweh, Who is revealed in power through the person of Jesus Christ. These claims, as the basis of Christian faith, are not abstractions, but records of a real history and a real revealing. On these grounds, to claim that the God who spoke through Jesus is the same who speaks through the Prophet Mohammed is a patent absurdity. The claim reduces God’s self-revelation to a series of contradictions, something that He Himself claims He does not do.

Perhaps an illustration will clarify this difference further. Imagine a German and a Frenchman discussing the nature of nationhood together. To begin, they dGermany and France Flag Pinsiscuss the attributes of nationhood together—love of the fatherland, love of local cuisine, proficiency in local language, similar features in geography, social service, government, and so forth. From one perspective, speaking in the abstract, they can agree that they have many of the same ideas about nationalism, and both might potentially agree that they are nationalists. But the moment you begin to argue that Germany and France are in fact the same the discussion falls apart, smashed upon the rock of history. However similar the conceptions of nations might be, when history is involved two places of different origin cannot be the same. In this historical sense, Christianity and Islam are fundamentally inconflatable.

The attentive thinker will wonder, at this point, about the Jews. If Islam and Christianity are not the same, then to what degree are Christianity and Judaism to be distinguished? Jews worship YHWH, and so do Christians. Do you claim that they are different Gods? The solution, interestingly enough, might be found in Jesus’ words to the Woman at the Well in John 4:19-23

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.

We should note that Jesus divides those who worship God into three categories. The first category, that to which the Samaritan woman belongs, is those who “worship what they do not know.” The Samaritans, of course, were a kind of half-breed Jew, bred from the members of the exiled northern kingdom with the nations to which they had been exiled. Their worship of YHWH was fundamentally corrupted, much like whatever worship of God exists today in modern Islam, through Jehovah’s witnesses, or Mormons. Each is a group worshipping something they don’t know. The second category is the Jews, who worship what they do know. The Jews, as recipients of God’s call and revelation in history, are worshipping according to that knowledge. They are tradition-grounded worshippers, and the modern Jews should fall into this category unchanged. But here we must observe the third category of worshippers, those who are coming who will worship “in spirit and in truth.” These, clearly from John’s gospel, are the followers of Jesus. There is, therefore, a new worship, centered on Jesus, which supercedes both the false worship made by those who do not know, and the true but incomplete worship of those who do know (at least provisionally).

Christian witness, especially in the Islamic world, will not be served by conflating and minimizing the differences between our two religions. Nor is it served by either the fear of kneejerk conservatism or the contempt of kneejerk liberalism. Instead, after the pattern of Jesus, we must faithfully and graciously reassert the essential points of our historic faith, while at the same time inviting the partial knowledge of our discussion partners into the completion found only in the knowledge of Christ. To do anything less is a disservice to the Church, to our public witness, and to the Lord that Christians claim to worship in Spirit and in Truth.