What do we mean by “God”?

I was privileged to attend both a seminar and a public lecture by Dr. Miroslav Volf last week, and I’ll be posting bits about them periodically as I have time.

The topic of his lecture was “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?”

I thought he was particularly good at breaking down the aspects of this question, the first of which I’ll describe here.

Before you can answer “do we believe in the same God”, you have to clarify what you mean by God. One way to do that is to inquire about the referent of the word “god”.

As monotheists, Volf pointed out, Christians and Muslims believe certain very basic things about God:

  • there is only one God
  • God created (is the source of) everything that exists
  • God is qualitatively different from everything-that-exists

So, if we could point to the God we worship…

…which, he pointed out, we cannot: not because God is too distant, or omnipresent, but because God (the kind of God that monotheists believe in) is fundamentally not the kind of thing that can be pointed to. God does not exist in space and time, but is rather the source of space and time. An analogy I’ve used when trying to explain this is that God is the computer hardware on which the universe (space-and-time) is running as the operating system. A variable in a program running on my laptop can’t point to the laptop, because the laptop doesn’t exist in its universe. The laptop is fundamentally unobservable by the variable.

… but if we could point to God, would we be pointing at the same thing?

He concludes the answer is yes, because given the monotheistic definition of God given above, there would be nothing else to point to.

Thus, we can say, Christians and Muslims at least refer to the same entity when they say “God.”

This is similar to an opinion I’ve held for a long time, although more clearly stated. It seems to me that if one is really a monotheist, then one must inevitably conclude that all people who pray are praying to the same God, because there is only one God “up there”. It doesn’t matter what name is on the envelope: all prayers go to the same address!

This is also why I have no problem in principle praying with people of other faiths. I may have a problem with the content of a spoken prayer — that’s different. But to stand together with other theists of any faith who say “Let us pray”, and then to pray silently together, or to assent “Amen” in response to very basic prayers of praise, thanksgiving, or intercession — really, I have no problem with this no matter what name is used for God, and I have trouble understanding how anyone who does can claim to be a monotheist.

Now, we may have very different understandings of, or beliefs about, that one God to whom we are all pointing… but that will be the topic of another post. 🙂

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