The Malaysian Church, in recent decades, was engaged in a prolonged legal battle with their Islamist-influenced government which prohibited non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to the supreme God and creator. Church leaders received directives stating that several words of Arabic origin, including Allah, Nabi (prophet) and Al Kitab (Bible) were not to be used by non-Muslims as Arabic was the language of Muslims. Usage by Christians would sow the seeds of “confusion”. The import of Malay Bibles printed in Indonesia (which used Allah) was effectively banned.
Christians countered by pointing out that Allah was the common term used to refer to the supreme God long before Islam came into existence in North Africa. Arab Christians continue to worship God as Allah and Malay-speaking Christians have also been using Allah for centuries. Far from sowing “confusion”, it has facilitated communication and promoted mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims.
Clearly this was more than a matter of official historical ignorance. Islamists fearful of the conversion of Muslims sought to deter the latter from reading the Bible by claiming that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. They have been successful. Christians lost the legal battle, with dire consequences for the future of social justice and religious harmony in Malaysia.
How ironic, then, to find these Islamist arguments flourishing among conservative Christians in the so-called American Bible Belt.
Earlier this month, the authorities at Wheaton College, a prominent “evangelical” liberal arts college aligned themselves with the Islamists. They suspended a tenured professor for referring to Jews and Muslims as “people of the book” (a common Qur’anic expression, distinguishing Jews and Christians from polytheistic pagans), and stating that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God”. In the statement of suspension, the professor was accused of not “upholding theological clarity”. The obsession with “clarity” and fear of “confusion”- at the expense of other intellectual virtues such as desiring truth and tolerance of different theological opinions- have long been hallmarks of religious fundamentalisms.
The eminent logician Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) famously drew an important distinction between the referent of a word/phrase and its sense or meaning. He took the example of the planet Venus which is, paradoxically, described as both the “Evening Star” and the “Morning Star”. The two expressions have different senses or meanings, but they have the same referent, namely the planet Venus.
The earliest Christians, most of them Jews, found themselves worshiping Jesus as Lord and ascribing to him all the titles and functions that applied to Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible. They were not bi-theists. Nor were they rejecting Yahweh. As they reflected more deeply on their experience, they eventually came to articulate a deeper and fuller understanding of who Yahweh is. They became Trinitarian monotheists.
Arab Christians share many beliefs in common with their Muslim neighbours. Not only do they both worship Allah as the unique creator and sustainer of the universe, but Christians accept most of the 99 Beautiful Names for Allah in the Qur’an. The differences, of course, are crucial and decisive. Belief in God as Trinity, as Incarnate as the person Jesus of Nazareth, as crucified for the salvation of the world… these are foundational to all Christian believing and living. It grieves Christians that these are misunderstood and rejected by Muslims (and Jews). Therein lies the great challenge to communication. Christians ascribe a different narrative identity to Allah and Yahweh. But if there were no overlapping areas of agreement, no dialogue between Christians and Muslims (and Jews) would be possible. (Indeed, even argument would be impossible because argument presupposes that we are arguing about the same subject matter). And Christians, Muslims and Jews have engaged in mutually fruitful dialogue for centuries in Europe, Africa and Asia (along with monotheist Hindus and Sikhs).
All the distinctive Christian truths are paradoxical. Christians, therefore, should be at home with paradoxical thinking and not shun it.
So, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Yes and No. To use Frege’s terminology, the same referent but different senses.
But why is this question not raised in conservative American circles in relation to Jews and Judaism? (This is what makes many suspect that underlying this debate is fear or even animosity towards Muslims. If so, it would be deeply disturbing.)
The actions of the Wheaton College authorities, like much of what is done in the U.S., reach a global audience. I can imagine how they will be seized upon by Islamists around the world as ammunition to deploy against Christians. And how betrayed Malaysian Christians must feel.
American Christians- especially those studying and working in colleges and universities- cannot remain complacent with theological, historical or political naiveté. Wilful ignorance is inexcusable. Americans have ready access to a wide range of scholarly literature and the latest information technologies that the rest of us envy. They don’t have to watch Fox News or listen to the latest chauvinist or demagogue demagogues. Some of the finest biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers and historians are found in the American Church (sadly, it is not their works that are exported to the rest of the world).
Moreover, every American city is multi-cultural and multi-religious. You can meet Christians from all over the world, as well as thoughtful Muslims from every Muslim sect, Jews, Sikhs, Jains or Buddhists. You can have your prejudices dispelled, your viewpoints and worldviews enlarged through such encounters and friendships.
If American Christians do not avail themselves of the resources and opportunities on their doorstep, they will remain culturally marginal, intellectually lightweight, politically reactionary, and a deep source of embarrassment to the rest of the global Church.
Vinoth Ramachandra was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he also had his secondary schooling. He holds both bachelors and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of London. Instead of pursuing an academic career, he returned to Sri Lanka in 1980 and helped to develop a Christian university ministry in that country. In 1987 he was invited to serve as the South Asian Regional Secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), a post he held until 2001.
He currently serves on the IFES Senior Leadership Team as Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement. His multi-faceted ministry includes promoting the vision among students and professors of a holistic engagement with the university; giving public lectures and participating in dialogue events in universities; and helping Christian students and graduates think and respond as Christians to some of the social, cultural and political challenges they face in their national contexts throughout the world.
Vinoth lives in Sri Lanka with his Danish wife, Karin, whom he married in 1998. She is a trained counselor and also a Bible teacher. They often travel and minster together at student and graduate conferences. Vinoth has also been involved for many years with the Civil Rights Movement in Sri Lanka, as well as with the global Micah Network and A Rocha (a world-wide biodiversity conservation organization). He is the author of several essays, articles and books including The Message of Mission (2003), Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues that Shape Our World (2008) and Church and Mission in the New Asia (2009).