is ‘god’ the same ‘god’ as ‘god’?

You’ve heard it before: “Is God the same as Allah?” or “Is Allah the same as the God of the Bible?”

You’ve also probably heard both simple ‘yes’ answers and possibly simpler ‘no’ answers.  My response would be to answer with a question: “Is ‘god’ the same ‘god’ as ‘god’?

Words are incredibly slippery little animals.  ‘God’, of course, is an English word (used variously with lower or upper-case ‘g’) to refer to various kinds of deities or supernatural beings.  Origin, usage, context and other factors determine the meaning of a word.  Consider the word ‘cool’ in the following sentence: “Outside is cool.”  The word ‘cool’ could refer to a (relative) standard of temperature, or to an equally (or more so) relative standard of cultural interest.

The choice of the word ‘God’ has more to do with one’s culture and language than one’s religion.  I use the word ‘God’ as a Christian, and so does a friend of mine who is a Muslim sheikh.  Are there differences between Christian and Islamic theology?  Along with some similarities, yes of course there are differences.  Some cosmetic and cultural, and other deeply rooted into the heart of both religions.

So whilst ‘the God of the Bible’ and ‘the God of the Qur’an’ have both basic similarities and important differences, the flexibility of the term ‘God’ means that ‘Allah’ is indeed the ‘God’ of the Bible, in the sense that ‘Allah’ is the word used for ‘God’ in the Arabic Bible; just as it is the word for ‘God’ in the Arabic Tanakh (Judaism) and the Arabic Qur’an (Islam).  In Aotearoa (New Zealand), we might also say that ‘Atua’ is the God of the Bible, more particularly Te Paipera Tapu (the Holy Bible in Te Reo Māori).

You’d think that the English Bible, Tanakh and Qur’an would all use the English term ‘God’.  However, my parallel English-Arabic copy of the Qur’an has ‘Allah’ in it.  My understanding is that for Muslims, the Qur’an ceases to be the Qur’an when it is translated out of the original Arabic.  This special appreciation for the Arabic language (much like many Jews treasure the Hebrew language) may be related to the desire to use the term ‘Allah’, which is a transliteration of the original Arabic: له (‘Allah’).  Jehovah’s Witnesses also have convictions around God’s name, and use ‘Jehovah’ to translate the original Hebrew: יהוה (‘Yahweh’).

The insistence on using these terms are meant to protect the respect or accuracy that God deserves.  But even using the terms ‘Allah’ and ‘Yahweh’ do not guarantee either devotional respect or conceptual accuracy.

It is here that the authors of the New Testament, reflecting the earliest convictions of the earliest Church, use words that point us beyond concepts, titles or names, and toward the person of Jesus Christ.

In a mind-blowing moment in the gospel according to John, the Jewish leaders accuse Jesus of saying he was greater than Abraham, the Patriarch of all Jewish patriarchs.  John, writing in Greek to Greek readers, records the response of Jesus, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  The Greek phrase ‘ego eimi’ translates as ‘I am’, and reaches back to the burning-bush moment of revelation in the Hebrew Tanakh or Old Testament (compare surah 28 verse 30 in the Qur’an) where Yahweh gave Moses the personal name ‘Yahweh’.  Passages John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:5-11 speak of the person of Jesus, who was human, as also somehow being divine; the ‘Word’ who was God, or ‘equal’ with God.

For these New Testament authors, knowing God is not a matter of getting the right word in the right language.  ‘God’, rather, can be known because God showed up in, through, and as the person of Jesus, who made ‘the invisible God’ visible.

All of our ideas about ‘God’ need to bow to the God revealed in Jesus – or as John V. Taylor words it, “the Christlike God”.  All of us, even those of us who believe in Jesus, tend to see God as we want to see God, rather than how God has revealed ‘God-self’ in Christ.

So then. Whether you use the term ‘God’, ‘Allah’, ‘Atua’, ‘Jehovah’, ‘Yahweh’, or something else: Is your ‘god’ the same as “the Christlike God”?

parallel

Before we knew that galaxies tend to form the familiar fractal shape, we perhaps should have rightly expected this from the persistence of this pattern in the parts of nature we do observe.  Indeed, I’m curious if we will observe a fractal pattern in sub-atomic phenomena at some point in the future (or if we already have? any particle physicists stumbling upon this post?).

But more generally than speculations about the universality of the fractal form, it seems an obvious though oft-neglected fact (perhaps precisely because of its obvious nature) that in both our speculations about physical  phenomena we have yet to see, and our descriptions and language employed of that we do see, our scientific vocabulary is restricted to borrowing from pre-existing terms.  Thus, we speak of the brain ‘stem’, the ‘core’ of the galaxy, the ‘heart’ of this, the ‘edge’ of the universe, and so on.((I don’t wish to deny that science is immune to neologisms, but I suggest that all neologisms are either accidental or intentional combinations or corruptions or otherwise representations of existing terms.))  What else could we do?

Theology (particularly natural theology, as distinct from a theology of revelation) shares the same semantic limitations.  Every bottom-up God-word (shall we say every ‘theologism‘?), attempting to speak of the unseen and ineffable, is borrowed from the world of the seen and effable.  Thus, in Judeo/Christian Scripture (neither limited to, nor exempt from the language of natural theology), God is said to be a ‘rock’, a ‘fire’, a ‘woman in labour pains’, a ‘Father’, a ‘mother hen’, a ‘lion’, a ‘lamb’, a ‘land owner’, etc.  What else could we do?

But of course, uniquely, Christian theology claims that the impenetrable veil of perception has been pierced from the other side.  God not only sent an authoritative message or book about Godself, but, to quote (and admiringly negate) Forrest Gump, “God showed up.”  And this revelation has both affirmed and transformed (even subverted) the former types and shadows.  That which was unable to be described with words was the Word made flesh.  “Nobody has ever seen God, but the only begotten Son, in the bosom of the Father, has made him known”, wrote John the seer (John 1:18).  God is not just ‘like’, but was active, present and revealed as a self-giving, dying, rising man.  The nakedly anthropocentric – yet still universal – Lord of All.  In scientific terms, this would be the parallel (not ‘equivalent’) of an extra-cosmological entity (indeed if there be such a thing) entering our cosmos, our Milky Way, our solar system, our planet, our research institutions, and in a Mount-Sinai-like moment, engraving the equations down as the cosmologists shrunk back in a mixture of reverence and fear.

distinguished Cause

Words are only so good.  What words do we use to distinguish the kind of cause God must be from the kind of causes we see in nature and cosmology, etc.?

As long as we have the ability, resources, time, interest and basic assumptions about nature, we will always be able to look ‘further out’ and ‘deeper into’ our universe.  We can always find more layers and deeper levels of (physical) causal activity.  But God is not ‘just another physical cause’, which begs the question of what caused that cause.  [insert turtle standing on turtle metaphor here]  God is a wholly different kind of Cause.

God is imagined to be the ultimate cause in relation to our world.  ‘Ultimate’ can be conceived different ways, two of which come to mind – temporal or structural (both are metaphors, of course):

  • In terms of temporal language, ‘first cause’ would distinguish God from all merely subsequent causes in terms of the causal past, and ‘final cause’ would distinguish God from all merely transient causes of both the past and the future.
  • In terms of structural langauge, ‘bottom cause’ or ‘ground of all causes’ would distinguish God from all causes ‘resting upon’ this cause.

The distinctions between primary & secondary, or necessary & contingent, however, can transcend the metaphors of time & architecture – and therefore are appropriate for less overtly metaphorical ways of discussing the distinction.

Most if not all (my money is on the latter) languages have terms for distinguishing ‘this’ (sameness, sharedness) from ‘that’ (otherness, separation) or ‘a’ (the indefinite article) from ‘the’ (the definite article).  In this sense, distinguishing God from the world is perfectly easy with simple langauge.  God is not ‘this’ kind of a cause, but ‘that’ kind of a Cause.  God is not just ‘a’ cause among various others, but ‘the’ Cause like no other.

Of course a short hand way to distinguish God from any other cause is to simply capitalise the ‘c’ – God is the first, final, bottom, primary and necessary Cause.

fundamental distinction

If we take words patiently and technically, asking if God ‘exists’ or not is like asking if God is physically alive or dead, moving or still, blind or seeing, takes up space or not, heavy or light, hot or cold, tall or short, hard or soft, or any other question which could be asked about things we see, touch, feel, hear, smell or taste – or in other words to make a fundamental category mistake.  I think it was Paul Tillich who wrote that anyone who says God [merely] ‘exists’ is an atheist [or perhaps a kind of pantheist].

On the other hand, if we use words colorfully and metaphorically, this category distinction is less (if at all) problematic.  Two examples of metaphor: Christian tradition calls God “father”; Science calls stuff “matter”.

teleological indifference

The word ‘produced’ carries around a bag loaded with connotations of intentionality or goal-endedness.

Is there a teleologically indifferent word for ‘produce’?

Because if it is utterly wrong (which, biologically/scientifically speaking, it necessarily is) to say that evolution ‘had humans in mind’ (or any particular species for that matter), then this word would be nice to have to keep us from sweeping intentionality under the rug with such phrases as “evolution produced humans”.