All the Gods


(Spectrumbot) #1

When I was teaching a world religions class from semester to semester I would sometimes ask my students a question: Are God and Allah the same entity?

It was a complex question, but it would invariably provoke a simple response. At first there would be a momentary silence, with faces looking back at me in shock or puzzlement, as if they were waiting for me to say, “Just kidding!” But I wasn’t, and then the hands would go up and we were off, with questions and assertions ricocheting around the room for the next few minutes.

The lines of consensus would usually form up in some fairly consistent ways. There was one group that was unequivocal: Allah is not God, no way, not ever. How could they be sure? Well, look at the kinds of horrific crimes against humanity that the followers of Allah have perpetrated. How could a real…god…be in charge of such a cruel and capricious lot?

Others would then point out the crusades of Christians against Jews and Muslims, the genocide by American Christians against Native Americans, and the centuries of slavery. The Holocaust would be raised and apartheid in South Africa would be recognized.

Having fought to a draw, both sides would then stand down, panting a little. Then a hand would be raised. “Yes, I think they are both the same entity.”

But why?

“Because God can appear as Allah if He wants. He can do anything He wants. Besides, who are we to say who God is or what He does?”

If we think of this response as illustrating an epistemological pebble causing a ripple, then the degree of certainty expressed diminishes rapidly as the energy dissipates outward.

The question about God and Allah is complex because we cannot prove, by the usual standards of observation or deduction, if there are such entities, much less ones that answer to this name and not that one. What this question does first is to stop us in our tracks as it reveals the limits of language in the service of knowledge. As Job says into the whirlwind, “I have spoken of things I do not understand.”

This is not a concession by Job to withdraw his demand that God answer his charge of injustice, but an admission that, putting his charge aside, Job cannot grasp all that God is. But this does not stop him from addressing the God he does know, nor should it stop us.

The mystery is that God is more than we can know, but not less than we can desire.

Traversing the terrain of God’s nature in this way is throttled by some people when the conversation about the divine leaps into the higher elevations. Often, in the midst of animated conversations after the church potluck, someone will play the Homo sapiens card: “Now you’re thinking man’s thoughts. If they speak not according to the word it is because there is no light in them.” The fact that it took human cogitation to come up with that sentence is lost on such a person. For him the Bible is a literal transcript of pronouncements God gave in dictation to selected secretaries over the course of thousands of years. In his view it is an answer book for vexatious questions and a recipe book for doctrinal casseroles.

The problem with such a fundamentalism is, strangely enough, a coldly indifferent lack of respect for God. The metaphors of God that ring through the biblical stories are about a being who is fiercely—and tenderly—involved with His creations. By contrast, the contractual obligation of the fundamentalist God is to deliver on the promise of an eschatological gated community in return for fulfillment of stipulations on conduct and creed. It keeps God at a distance, a being so abstract that the only indications of its existence are the myriad ways it is not like us.

There is no intellectual curiosity, but even worse, no spiritual wonderment and awe.

But there is a second purpose for such a question, and that is for us to discover the values that form our descriptions of God and how those values shape our action in the world. Like Parent, like children, you might say. Who do we think God or Allah is? How do we characterize them? How do the values we attribute to our gods align with those we live by? What do those values have in common with believers in other religions? And most importantly: What practical effect do such “God-shaped” values have as we learn to live with others and their divine values?

There are two ways of thinking about this. Conceptual thinking reasons out the problems and is useful when we try to add to our knowledge of the world. Situational thinking involves an experience. We need them both.

Abraham Heschel, the great twentieth-century rabbi and philosopher, says in God in Search of Man, “Situational thinking is necessary when we are engaged in an effort to understand issues on which we stake our very existence.” The nature of God, and our relation to people of faith in all religions would qualify for both kinds of thinking. Conceptual thinking would explore the history of the ideas, the development of nuances in religious philosophies, the sources of wisdom in the traditions. But situational thinking would look to events, the times and places where the gods touch the earth, and the songs and visions and psalms that well up from those springs.

Somewhere, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it produces.” On the face of it the hearer might nod and agree, thinking, perhaps, that the proof is in the pudding and that our puddings should be of the highest quality, lest they be spewed out of the mouth of the Lord. But then a second thought occurs: Wait! Given our record as human beings and the monumental capacity we display for turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear, what hope is there for any religion? Considering the many shortcomings and pure screw-ups of any given denomination, especially one’s own, surely this is a bar no one can reach, a standard that cannot be achieved?

We do, however, have Jesus saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” and cursing a fig tree for not producing fruit in due season, and stories about cutting down trees that don’t produce. Behavior seems to matter to Jesus.

I would amend it to read: “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it is producing.” We are not end-products; we are in process. The gardener knows the tree will thrive when it has the nutrients it needs.

Christian Wiman, poet and essayist, notes in his wonderful book, My Bright Abyss, that “An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive.”

In the loving embrace of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, we may sense, rather than see, the One who is closer to us than the vein in our neck.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Image Credit: Val Vesa / Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8708

(Kim Green) #2

I know that I am picking and choosing through your thoughtful essay but the following struck me this morning while engaged with Ultra conservative Adventists on another article:

“The problem with such a fundamentalism is, strangely enough, a coldly indifferent lack of respect for God.”

“There is no intellectual curiosity, but even worse, no spiritual wonderment and awe.”

The non-realization of what God is is what leads to lack of respect which further brings the individual to no intellectual curiosity, no spiritual wonderment and awe. Sad.


(Sirje) #3

If I had been brought up by wolves, I’d have to say both God and Allah are two names for the same entity. But, in this case, it’s not just about the CREATOR spoken in a different language, but a totally different concept/entity moulded by a different culture. In essence, we create “GOD” in our own image. Where we go searching for God - in the Bible, or the Koran - determines what we find. For Christians, God is Jesus, the Christ - the lens through which we see/understand the God entity. If we use another “lens” we see a different God.

Personally, I’ve wondered if maybe GOD is the great unifying formula that science is searching for; but my thoughts are tempered by - “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Not exactly “tabula rasa”.


(Barry Casey) #4

In the Hindu tradition there is a way of depicting some of the gods with many faces, each looking in a different direction. The way I understand it is that the many faces represent the many ways Brahman, the one force behind all the named gods, can appear to diverse people, meeting them where they are. I see something of that thought in your remarks.


(Tim Teichman) #5

As written this makes no sense. “Allah” = “God”. Neither “God” nor “Allah” identifies the name of the god. So there’s really no sensical answer to the question.

The old testament includes two gods the chosen people worshiped, El and Yahweh. They were later merged into one god as a way to unify the people and the priests of Israel and Judah.

This is reflected in English translations, where El is translated as God, and Yahweh as LORD.

See El, Yahweh, and the Original God of Israel and the Exodus


(Barry Casey) #6

For beginning students from the Christian tradition this is a good way to begin a discussion without undue confusion. After a good discussion we can get to the specifics and go deeper from there.


(Tim Teichman) #7

Well, I’m a beginner from the Christian tradition and the lack of precision adds confusion for me.

Even if there were not two ancient gods in the bible, this would be a non-starter for me.


(Barry Casey) #8

Perhaps you start from more knowledge than my students did, but for most people who have only a hazy notion of Christianity, “God” is the term they recognize. So we start with that and then work back to El and Yahweh. They’ve heard about “God” and “Allah,” so that’s the place to begin.


(Allen Shepherd) #9

The discussion of Allah/God brings many responses, but the one that Casey will never condone on any level is his perception of fundamentalism. It is ALWAYS incorrect or short. If he is willing to give the Islamists a break, and even the Hindus, perhaps a bit of leeway there would also be in order as well. At least a bit of understanding. The other attitude seems too much like the Pharisee looking down on the tax collector.

That being said, Ellen tells us the Syrophoencian woman had consulted her idols before she appeared at Jesus’ feet seeking help for her child. And THEN she comes to Galilee for a second opinion. And when he rebuffed her, and she persistently importuned him, he gave her one of the most wonderful complements in the NT. “Great is your faith!”

God meets his children where they are, overlooking the errors they all have embraced, even those of the fundamentalists. EVEN those of the broadminded liberal Adventist philosophers! He has compassion on all of us,

But some trees will never be nourished, or produce fruit. We like to think that all have a chance, and they do, but many, as Jesus said, do not find the narrow way. To acknowledge that is not an error. Nor to see the way that many turn from truth is not an error either, though it may be observed by a fundamentalist.


(Barry Casey) #10

You seem to be an authority on me and on my views about fundamentalism! No doubt there are many who would identify as fundamentalists who would not act as I’ve characterized them. Fair enough. But many Christians seem to look on their relation with Christ as a contractual one–a perception that I think falls far short of a relationship based on faith and grace, one that sustains and uplifts us. At least that is the impression they give unapologetically. You are so right that “God meets his children where they are,” and thus provides a path ahead from that point. In the parable the gardener asked for another season for the tree in the hope that it would flourish. If, after that, it did not produce then it would be cut. But there was that chance. That was the point I was making. By the way, the term is “Muslims” or “Moslems,” not “Islamists,” which these days has a ideological and political connotation.


(James Peterson) #11

If I may sit in your class for a while …


Perhaps, the answer could be arrived at more quickly if the question were whether God could be seen in both the Koran and the Bible, in either one but not both, or in neither – skipping the charges and counter-charges against imperfect believers. And I’m not speaking about token phrases here and there, but about the over-arching paradigm.

As Christians, our conception of God is not limited by what we can interpret from the written Law, the narratives about the patriarchs, and the words of the prophets. We have something much more valuable, even priceless. In Jesus of Nazareth, God was with us. We have seen Him. We have met Him. We have sat and conversed with Him. We have walked and talked with Him. And the experience has propelled us to glorify His name, i.e. to tell of the wonderful things that we heard and saw in His company.

If religions were like characters in a maze, then Christianity would be the one with the map. Jesus Christ said, “I am the Way, the Truth and Life. No one comes to the Father, except through Me.” This is not reason to boast, but makes it doubly incumbent upon us to help the world.

“All the Gods,” yes; but where is THAT GOOD NEWS in the Koran?


Would my speech have received a thunderous applause, Barry?

///


(Barry Casey) #12

Thunderous, James, absolutely thunderous!


(Robert Lindbeck) #13

If Allah is not God, then Arabic speaking Jews and Christians are in strife. Both groups use the word “Allah” for God


#14

Barry, you wove in Rb. Heschel thought gem rather nicely!


(Website Editor) #15