Monday, January 25, 2016

Why the God vs Allah Debate is Important – 4 Obstacles to Overcome

More than a month after Wheaton College decided to take disciplinary action against associate professor Larycia Hawkins, the debate over the central issue of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God continues. 

Friday, Christianity Today offered a summary article of the extensive occasional paper offered by the Evangelical Mission Society (EMS). This morning, David Garrison, author of “Winds in the House of Islam” and President of Global Gates, offered his well-informed response to the core question. I encourage you to read them both.

Debate is healthy as long as it leads us, individually, to challenge our own presuppositions and not just accept the status quo of our theological constructs. We are a people of reformation because we value rethinking what we do know and understand. It is always healthy to rethink our positions with an open mind so that we don’t become the Pharisees that Jesus needed to correct, who were stuck in old thought patterns that hindered other people’s access to God. 

The importance of the God vs Allah debate must likewise challenge our presuppositions about Muslims. There are at least a few obstacles to overcome for the sake of the Gospel: 

I.                     Fear of Muslims

As I have interacted on this question, I find it alarming the amount of fear that exists amongst U.S. Christians towards Muslims. I was even accused of heresy by one Facebook ‘friend’ for simply posting the link to the scholarly EMS occasional paper addressing this question. The very idea that Christians and Muslims could be worshipping the same God seems to illicit a visceral response from some. The media has done a disservice to the American people by drumming up unwarranted fear of Muslims. A leading Presidential candidate is stirring this fear by declaring that we need to close our borders to all Muslims. Certainly the ISIS threat does require sound policy considerations by our government but fear is not a healthy response, even as our national history informs us. Fear has no place in the life of a Christ follower. How do we move beyond the fear into a healthy Christ-like view of Muslims? A more robust grace centered Christology must be the answer (2 Timothy 1:7-9). 

II.                   A Caricature of Allah

Thinking about this core question is important if it helps Christians to move past any caricature of Allah as other than an Arabic word for God. There is some thinking that Allah is a “moon god” because the Islamic flag has a crescent moon. But do Muslims believe they are worshiping a pre-Islamic “moon god?” Of course not. They believe they are worshiping the God of Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Not only is such a caricature of Allah uninformed of the origins of Islam, it is insulting to 1.6 billion Muslims. We need to pursue with intellectual honesty the answer to this question, not give into portrayals that lack historicity. Misrepresenting what others believe is unhelpful in sharing Jesus with them, especially when they have an honor/shame worldview. Can we move beyond the caricatures while reconciling the difference we have between two-thirds of the world’s population? Yes, as we study the question for its cross-cultural mission implications (1 Corinthians 9:22-23). 

III.                 A Demonization of Muslims 

I have dear Christians friends who must think they are doing some service to God by posting memes that demonize Muslims. Yes, there are certainly cultural practices that need to be addressed in the Islamic world but we must avoid generalizations and stereotypes of all Muslims. The Islamic world is a huge diverse people with good and bad, just as in any culture including our own. Let’s instead apply the Golden Rule, even on Facebook. This debate can be important toward that purpose since it demonstrates we have much to learn about Muslims, their beliefs and culture. Are we willing to enter into their world, their hurt, pain and fears to share Jesus with them or do we simply want to portray Muslims as evil and towards what end? I pray for the first, for such a time as this, toward the eschatological mission of the Church (Matthew 24:14). 

IV.                Lack of Proper Focus

Many Evangelical leaders have weighed into the conversation on theological grounds, arguing from a soteriological perspective while dismissing the philosophical. But what about the missiological? No one I have read or spoken with who is of the “same but different” camp is suggesting that there is not a dichotomy of how salvation is understood between Muslims and Christians.  As I have previously pointed out, Muslims believe they are born forgiven whereas Christians believe we are in need of God’s forgiveness available only through Jesus Christ. Our understanding of the person and work of Christ is clearly different, with some similarities. But the Biblical example in both John 4 and Acts 17 is that people worship in ignorance without the revelation of whom the Messiah is for them. It is important that we have a proper focus with regards to the answer to this question. Isn’t the question we, as Christ-followers, need to be asking is how do we make Christ known to Muslims? Let’s hope so, because that’s our commission (Matthew 28:19-20). 

Last week I had the pleasure of being with Dr. Darrell Bock, one of the foremost theologians today and the head of Intercultural Studies at DTS. I asked Professor Bock his thoughts on this very question, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” His response in short was “Yes and No.” To that, I say Amen! This answer should inform us that the question is not as black and white as we would like. We live in a complex world with complex issues. The “No” part of the answer should challenge us to think as messengers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20) in a diverse culture, which was the subject Professor Bock was addressing. 

Do we care enough for the least the last and the lost to ask the right questions? 

It is vitally important today that we overcome the obstacles of our preconceived ideas about Muslims so that we can respond properly informed to their spiritual needs to know Jesus and worship God in spirit and in truth. That too is the way of Living Sent Today.

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