Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Degree vs. Category

Leftover thoughts from our Islam and Christianity seminar on Sept. 12.

While the seminar was positive and constructive, there were a few moments when tension and anxiety filled the room. At least two who attended weren't pleased with the overall message of reconciliation, hospitality, love and understanding. And one question that wouldn't seem to go away: "Do Muslims worship a different God than Christians?" Andy wouldn't quite go there; one woman who is a leader in the local interfaith movement seemed to balk at the idea that anybody would try to elevate one religion above another; and one or two seemed offended that Andy wouldn't categorically denounce Islam as a false religion, and Muslims destined for hell.

But it's got me thinking, this question of whether or not Christians and Muslims (or anybody else, for that matter) worship different Gods. The traditional answer is "of course." Behind that answer is the often unspoken assumption that, while we say we worship different Gods, the reality is that we worship the one true God, and they worship a false idea of a false god.

In other words, it's an issue of category. 'Our' God is over here in this category of 'true,' and 'their' god is over there in the category of 'false.' We worship a real God, they worship a thing that doesn't exist except in their minds.

I wonder, though, if we're looking at it wrong. That it's not an issue of category (real vs. false, true vs. fake), but an issue of degree. That we're all in some sense worshiping the same God, it's just that some are closer, and have a clearer understanding of God, while others are further away, and have only a hint of God - but worship God as much as that hint allows.

Christianity teaches that there is one God, and that the clearest representation of God is known to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself taught that the only true way to come to God was in following him. Our worship of God comes from the knowledge that God has saved us through Jesus, and now lives in us in his Spirit. I would make the case that this means, on the whole, Christians are closest in scale to worshiping God as fully as humanly possible.

But the Hebrew prophet wrote of God placing eternity in the hearts of humankind. The Psalmist tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God. There seems to be this belief within Christianity that only those enlightened by the Spirit can sense and worship God, and everybody else is worshiping either their own imagining, or a satanic misrepresentation. But could it be instead that people of other religions can still sense the working of God in the world; in their hearts and souls, there is some recognition of the reality of the One True God, and they are worshiping that One True God - just not to the same degree as those who have met God in Jesus?

Supposing Mohamed simply had a sensitive soul; supposing he spent hours under the desert sky pondering the nature of the universe and the working of God, supposing he sensed in his deepest places the marvelous reality that is at work behind all we see and hear and touch. . .supposing he truly was sensing the One True God only, in the absence of knowing Jesus, he couldn't grasp the true nature of God in Jesus. In the absence of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he couldn't come to see the reality that is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Paul, Peter, Luther, and me?

You could look at it this way: A lot of people around Washington see Mt. Rainier off in the distance, and have a distant understanding of what's actually up there. We all have a picture in our mind, but only a fraction of those people have actually climbed it, and know what it looks like when you're actually standing on it. It's still the same mountain, but we know it to different degrees.

I think perhaps this is a better way of looking at all the dueling religions: most (not all) have some sense of the reality of God, they are, in some sense, worshiping the real God. It's just that a relatively few have actually met that God and are worshiping him, in the words of Jesus, in Spirit and in truth.

Of course, the idea of degrees of closeness will still rankle people who don't believe any religion ought to claim a greater understanding of truth. Their are those who want to believe that every religion is legitimate in its own way, that none has a greater degree of 'correct-ness.' But I can't go there. I can learn to respect and love people of other religious faiths, but in the end, Jesus was the one who said "No one comes to the Father except by me." That's a claim to singular truth, a claim that all other paths are dead ends. So I hold fast to the truth that God is known to us in Jesus, that our salvation is won in Jesus.

But this idea that Muslims worship a false God. . .I'm not so sure. Maybe they are worshiping the God of the Bible, just not to the same degree of fullness that followers of Christ are.


the line/the fragment said...

how much better to find degrees of similarity than categories of division? Does love seek to list differences of rejoice in commonality?

the line/the fragment said...

i sent the blog to a friend and he made a great point:

"Do Christians even worship the same god amongst themselves?"

Dan said...

Well, there again. . .category vs. degree. And a need for humility on our part to say "let God be the judge." Taking the question seriously (realizing it may have been in jest), I would say that, in general, those who follow Christ are closer by degree to knowing God, and thus worshiping God 'more truthfully' than non-followers-of-Christ. But labels are deceiving, because not all who call themselves 'Christian' really are. Many in that day will say "Lord, Lord," and he will answer them "Depart from me, for I never knew you."

It's really the whole 'bounded-set' vs. 'centered-set' conversation.