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”?

similarities and differences

I’ve been so much enjoying my chats with a young Muslim man who’s been attending church for the last few weeks.  He expressed a keen interest to learn more about the Christian religion.  He is doing very well learning English, and having to use simple terms has been a very, very, very good exercise for me – if you know me you’ll know what I’m talking about!

Far from taking an “Islam/Qur’an/Muhammed = wrong | Christianity/Bible/Jesus = right” approach, we’ve explored many similarities between our faith.  When discussing differences, I’ve tried to be very respectful and patient.  But today he emphasized (he’d indicated it less strongly before) that he really enjoys “direct”-ness.  So he thanked me for being able to say, “I think the Qur’an is wrong about Jesus.”  (In the Qur’an (4:157), Jesus does not die on the cross, but rather another person who was made to look like Jesus did.)  It was a bit of a reminder how PC-ism can keep people from having conversations that are wanted by both people.  This guy wants me to be “direct” and tell him where I think his religion is wrong, and not constantly talk about similarities and common ground.  I look forward to future chats with him!

easy hard

quick reflections:

  • It’s easy to paint Islam as a) inherently evil/violent or b) docile/dormant and harmless – it’s hard to patiently assess what Islam is actually like.
  • It’s easy to tell a woman considering abortion a) that she’s a murderer or b) that whatever choice she makes is the right choice – it’s hard to journey patiently, lovingly, understandingly, etc-ingly, with not only the her, but the father, her family, her friends, her community in and through difficult and complex times.
  • (repeat with all kinds of issues…)