At River Oaks Church I am teaching a twelve-week Adult Sunday School series entitled, “Beyond the Headlines: Christian Engagement with Islam.” It will run from August 21 to November 6.
In light of the rapidly escalating and multi-frontier conflicts the Global West is heading into with various Islamic groups, I thought it was about time for me to finish my short series on the “Clash of Monotheisms.” In this post, I deal with the claim put forth by many Muslims that the Bible is not to be trusted because Christians changed and corrupted it.
[The longer, original version of this post has been accepted for publication by a journal. Once in print, I will provide a link to it here.]
A few years back I had the chance to ride in a car with former Muslim from central Asia who is now a church-planting missionary in Europe. I had the chance to ask him a question that had been perplexing to me for a while: “When a Muslim accepts Christ and converts to Christianity, do thy perceive that they have changed from worshipping one deity (Allah) to worshipping another (the Christian Triune God)? Or do they think they are still worshipping the same God, only now correctly (or more fully)?”
I was surprised by his answer.
For a while I had been trying to get my head around the answer a different missionary—an American from a Christian background who had served in Southeast Asia for many years—had given to that question. His perspective was that Muslims who become Christians do not see themselves as “changing” from, say, a lesser or false god to the true God, but rather they have more or less added Jesus to their conception of Allah. In other words, prior to conversion they did not worship the wrong God, but rather worshipped the only true God, just inadequately (because they lacked Jesus).
The answer I got from this missionary who himself had converted out of Islam (and who is native to one of the most strict Sunni Islam nations in the world) was surprising because it was the precise opposite: “Greg, yes, in my experience, when a Muslim experiences the heart change by which they accept Jesus, they always describe it to me as a total conversion, exchanging the false for the one true God.”
So what do we make of this issue? Which is correct? Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians?
As it turns out, it is question that is much harder to answer than one might expect.
When I was a pre-teen, I received my first Swiss Army Knife. Not a Wenger knock-off, but the real deal.
It was a thing of beauty. I loved that knife, and many small saplings were far worse off due to my newfound ability to saw them in two, strip off the bark, gouge a hole, whittle into a spear, and so forth.
I even had a pretty fantastic leather case that I could use to attach said Swiss Army Knife to my olive green Boy Scout shorts.
The key thing about a Swiss Army knife—aside from the sheer oddity and uselessness of the tools on the backside of the knife (has any 12 year old ever successfully used the awl, corkscrew, or the strange hooked thing?)—is its division of labor.
You have one knife; one identity; one essence as a perfectly crafted exemplar of Swiss ingenuity.
But each component fulfills a different role that contributes to the greatness of the whole. The knife does one thing; the saw does another; and the bottle opener does yet another.
This very rough analogy, with which I am admittedly violating my prior comment about how there are no sufficient trinitarian analogies, leads us to a final discussion about the difference between the Islamic conception of the works or activities of Allah and the Christian understanding of the Trinity.
A funny thing happens when you are married to someone for a long time: you start becoming more and more like each other.
More specifically, you begin to borrow attributes from the other person that you never had as a single person. You may start liking music that you’ve always detested because, through your spouse, you have been repeatedly exposed. You may start liking coffee or enjoying romantic comedies.
You may even find that you heretofore dry feet start adopting your spouse’s proclivity for sweaty feet.
You start getting gray hairs at the same time. Your knees and back go bad at the same time. You start finishing each other’s sentences more and more.
Eventually, you increasingly begin looking like each other. And I’m not just talking about wearing matching nylon track suits. I’m talking about physically merging features in this bizarre and amazing way as you age.
The net effect is that you have two distinct persons who have grown so close together through marriage that they share in an increasing way in the same attributes.
This is a very rough analogy for an important doctrine within Christianity that runs counter to the Islamic understanding of Allah. Let’s dig in further.
“God is like an egg.” You have a shell, a yolk, and the egg white. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One egg…three parts.
“God is like water.” One oxygen + 1 hydrogen + 1 hydrogen. Or, if you prefer: solid (ice), liquid (water), and gas (steam).
“God is like a triangle.” Three sides but one shape.
“God is like a business team.” One person leads the team, one person does the work, and one person cheers them others on. One team, three team members.
“God is like the sun.” You have the light-emitting orb, the light itself, and the warmth of the light.
All these so-called analogies that attempt to capture the idea behind the Christian doctrine of the Trinity have been used before and, sadly, fall well short of the mark (almost comically so, in some cases). On the one hand, the spirit is in the right place, for the makers of such analogies want to capture the unity of God and the pluralness in person that exists within the Godhead. On the other hand, such a task turns out to be very hard to do when relying on analogies from our day-to-day experience. In fact, most theologians today suggest that analogies may be helpful in describing certain aspects of the Trinity, but there really is no analogy for the Trinity in its fullness.
What such failed analogies do reveal, however, is the immense challenge of explaining—using limited human reasoning and tangible experience—the intrinsic or essential plurality of God who is eternally one as well. How can one adequately explain such a deep mystery without it sounding like a paradox?
This issue of “paradox” lies at the heart of Muslim-Christian debate concerning how we respectively understand Allah on the one hand, and God on the other. Most Muslims would argue that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is fundamentally an irrational paradox. In the next three posts, I will probe the Islamic conception of Allah and his undifferentiated, non-plural, absolute oneness—and how it relates to the historic teachings of the Christian church regarding the God who is revealed in the Bible.
The New Atheist ring-leader Richard Dawkins once described the “cosmic bully” as a god of “maniacal jealousy, bloodthirsty massacres, and xenophobic relish.”
In light of the recent horror of the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Sunni/Wahabi extremist group Boko Haram, we might expect such harsh words from Dawkins—who himself relishes in spreading his theophobism equally among all gods among the world’s religions—to be referring to Allah. Indeed, he regularly lashes out against the chief deity of Islam with just such rancor.
The fact that these words are actually leveled against the Christian God should, however, give us pause. Dawkins looks at things like the Crusades and draws the implication that all Christians today are insane and either militant or, worse, ignorant slaves of a militant God. It’s a horribly narrow-minded caricature, obviously, but it is one shared by countless opponents of Christianity.
It is imperative that we Christians avoid making the same mistake as Dawkins and his entourage: however much we may disagree with Islam as a religion and worldview, let us not base our understanding of it on its worst extremes like Boko Haram. In face of such excessive violence and insanity, it is very tempting to draw conclusions about what all Muslims do/think/etc. But let us remember that there have been plenty of deluded maniacs in Christianity’s own history who have done horrible things because, like the leaders of Boko Haram, “they thought God told them to do it.”
If we want to have an effective Christian witness to the Islamic world, we must try our best to understand it on its own terms, according to its best and most well-articulated forms. Much like we lament that the news media tries to paint all Christians in negative light by picking out Fred Phelps/Westboro Baptist, as opposed to honestly dealing with the Tim Kellers of the world, so also we should try to be fair in how we approach Islam (or, rather, Islams).
In other words, we should be thoughtful to make sure we know who exactly this Allah of Islam really claims to be.
With this post I am beginning a new series dealing with a handful of core teachings of Islam and, in particular, key apologetics issues related to the “clash of monotheisms” of Islam and Christianity.