“A Rose by any other name…”

Genesis 14:19-22 and Acts 17:23-24

Wishing to express solidarity with American Muslims who face growing hostility, Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor on the faculty of Wheaton College (IL), posted a comment on her FaceBook® page on December 10, 2015.  “…as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”  Saturday February 6, 2016, Hawkins and Wheaton’s academic

leadership issued a joint announcement stating that, after a tumultuous period of investigation, suspension, firing, and rehiring, Hawkins and Wheaton were parting ways. The controversy over the question of whether Christians and Muslims (or Christians and Jews, for that matter) “worship the same God” brings to the fore a number of issues related to naming, “defining,” and knowing God.  More, perhaps, it exposes the level of energy people are devoting to “othering” Muslims.  In order to explore the question, although not fully to answer it, I want to consider it from three perspectives:  linguistic, interpersonal, and biblical.

Linguistically, of course, Allah (Arabic), god (English), el or elohim (Hebrew), Gott (German), and dieu (French) are not proper names, but generic titles.  Like all nouns in all languages, all these terms for “god” are conventional symbols that refer to a “person, place, or thing.” The symbol should not be confused with the referent. As used by a monotheist – whether a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim – it typically refers to the one God, the creator of the universe.  Since a monotheist believes that there is only one God, it is difficult to conceive of how three monotheists, one each from the three monotheistic faiths, could use the word “God” without referring to the one God, Creator and Lord of the universe. Arabic-speaking Christians have no options in their language.  They speak of Allah as the Father of Jesus Christ.

The word is the same; the referent is the same.  The debate, then, seems to be over whether the Muslim (and Jewish) understanding(s) of who the one God is, of what the one God is like coincides with the Christian understanding.  The answer, of course, is substantially but not entirely.  All three monotheistic faiths believe in one God who is the creator, merciful, personal, and just.  The chief distinction involves Christian Trinitarianism.  Christians believe that the one personal God can best be known in and through Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Incarnate Word.

Abraham and Amos did not believe that. How could they have believed it?  Did they worship a different God because they worshiped a God who had not yet revealed God’s self in Jesus?

Worship and believing are aspects of knowing God in relationship.  Suppose three people who know me have a discussion about my personality.  One, a new student in my 8 am class, which has met only twice so far, cannot possibly know me as well as my colleague of fifteen years.  Further, my colleague clearly does not know me as intimately as my wife does.  The student may even have significant misperceptions.  Nonetheless, when he mentions “Mark Biddle,” he refers to the same person that both my colleague and my wife have in mind when they say “Mark Biddle.”  These three individuals, however, understand “Mark Biddle” in different degrees and with varying accuracy.  Furthermore, I am not identical with their ideas of me, but I am not three different persons because there are three different perceptions of me.  Ultimately, after all, even my wife does not know me perfectly.  If fullness of understanding is necessary for worshiping God, no one worships the true God.

Fortunately, the Bible records at least two incidents that offer analogies to the contemporary controversy.  On Abram’s return southward from his expedition to free Lot, the kings of Sodom and Salem met him to congratulate him.  Melchizedek, the king of Salem, a Canaanite and a polytheist, said “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth;  and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Gen 14:19-20 NRSV).  The phrase translated “God Most High” (Hebrew el elyon) employs the title.  It could be paraphrased ‘Blessed be Abram by the head god….’ Significantly, Abraham did not contradict Melchizedek.  Instead, in his response to the king of Sodom’s reward offer, he supplied the true identity of this ‘head god’ by simply adding YHWH (represented, by longstanding convention, not with a translation, but with the substitute, “LORD”), the proper name of Israel’s God.  Abram said, “I have sworn to the LORD, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth….”(Gen 14:22 NRSV).  In sum, Abram had no difficulty with identifying Melchizedek’s “God Most High” as Israel’s YHWH.  Paul employed a similar tactic in a public address delivered on the Areopagus in Athens:

For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands….” (Act 17:23-24 NRSV)

By now, many Christian readers of this blog may be thinking about the real dangers of relativism or the matter of “saving knowledge.”  As to relativism, if I did not believe that the Christian understanding of God lies closer to the whole truth about who God is, I would cease to claim to be a Christian.  At the same, however, to identify the Christian understanding as absolutely, fully true would be arrogant and to confuse my idea of God with God, God’s self, would be idolatry.  Concerns about “saving knowledge,” it seems to me, border on Gnosticism.  I cannot imagine that the merciful God whom I understand to be best seen in the Crucified and Risen One would refuse any who call upon God’s grace, regardless of the depth of their understanding of God’s person.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet….

            (Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” Act II. Scene II)