Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Topological Theology

A friend wrote in:

>Don't Muslims believe in the same "god" that Christians and Jews do?  

Sober orthodoxy of each camp would doubtless concede that the others “believe in” the “same” God (whatever it means to “believe in” something ultimately unknowable  this side the grave, and whatever “same” means  when comparing finitely described infinites); adding simply, that they worship Him amiss.

In the matter of the actual ontology of the Godhead, only Christianity is vulnerable here, owing to the doctrine of the Trinity.  Those who have not plumbed the subtlety of this doctrine  may be forgiven for imagining we worship three of Him.  And indeed, when jihadists fulminate against “polytheists”, they mean us, and on this account.
As for Islam, it really wreaths God in no new doctrines.  G.K. Chesterton quipped that Muslims were really Christians who had clung to the Arian heresy.

>And furthermore, doesn't the Jewish faith also teach that
>Jesus was a prophet instead of the son of God?

Jews do not recognize Jesus as a prophet; for his reception by the Sanhedrin, see Matthew 26:65-66.
Muslims do. You will see his name followed by “PBUH” (Peace Be Upon Him), just like that of Muhammad. Muslims even uphold the doctrine of the virgin birth (though not of divine paternity).  Jesus’ standing is quite high – Jesus and Muhammad are supposed to hold some sort of joint prayer breakfast at the Masjid al-Aqsa, at the end of time.

> If so, why is it then so critical to reject Islam and okay to tolerate Jews?

What’s going on  is that these religions have been constructed to be “backwards compatible”. Christians embrace the Old Testament, and add to it the New.  Muslims in principle recognize both OT and NT (though actual practice is gingerly), calling Jews and Christians “people of the Book”; and add to these, the Qur’an.  In this respect, Islam is in the same position “topologically” as the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, for they too embrace OT and NT but say: Behold, new Scripture.

In other words, the nodes of the Judeo-Christian family tree may be defined by the most recently acknowledged holy book in each case.  Graphically:

                                     OT [Judaism]
                                     NT [Christianity]
                                    /  \
            Koran[Islam]        Book of Mormon[LDS]

[Lord knows what this’ll look like by the time it’s got through the mailer; it’s supposed to be shaped like an inverted “Y”.]
In this unmetrical-geometric perspective, Muslims & Mormons have equal claim (should they wish to make it) to be some sort of post-Christian Christians or Reformed Christians or Turbo Christians, just as Christians preserved-while-transforming [Hegelians have a word for this: “sublating” (aufheben)] much of the richness of Judaism, but defined themselves by their new scriptural contribution.  They (the M&M’s) even coincide, oddly, in having historically embraced something that utterly sticks in a Christian craw:  polygamy.

So much for the (theo-, topo-)logical view.  Culturally/metrically, the reality is of course quite different.  Most Americans (forgetful of Galatians 1:8) probably think of Mormons as being some sort of Christians, “you know, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they come to your door”.   Whereas Muslims are seen as decidedly Other – to the extent that, our correspondent suggests, many Americans don’t realize that “God” and “Allah”, like “Dios” and “Dieu”, are synonyms.


[Postscript: The New Yorker 22 Aug 2005 reported Billy Graham’s son Franklin  as having declared that Islam was “wicked, violent, and not of the same God.”]

For the views of our colleague Murphy on all this, see
Murphy on the “Allah”/”God” question
(in the "from the Cracker Barrel" feature, in the gutter along the right).

[Update 3 November 2014]  Murphy wrote that “Allah/God” riff, by way of encouraging Christian tolerance towards Muslims.  But these days, the bulk of the intolerance is on the other side, even with respect to this linguistic issue:

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia — As the students knelt in a circle at a Christian kindergarten near the shores of the South China Sea, a 6-year-old girl in pigtails read out a chapter from a children’s Bible: “Sepuluh hukum dari Allah” – God’s Ten Commandments.
Technically, she broke the law.

According to a series of government orders and rulings by Malaysia’s Islamic councils, the word for God in the Malay language – “Allah” – is reserved for Muslims. Malay-language bibles are banned everywhere except inside churches. State regulations ban a list of words, including Allah, in any non-Muslim context.
Malaysia, with its collage of ethnic groups and religions, has a long history of tensions over issues ranging from dietary differences to the economic preferences enshrined in Malaysian law for the Malay Muslim majority.
Zainah Anwar, the founder of Sisters in Islam, a women’s rights group, describes a “headlong descent into a puritanical, extremist, intolerant brand of Islam in this country.”
“Malaysia’s moderate Islam is only touted for Western consumption.”



  1. Jews do not recognize Jesus as a prophet

    This is a complex issue because Judaism no longer has a Sanhedrin so there is no "official" source of doctrine.  In Reform Judaism, each person is supposed to make up their own mind so no "All Jews believe..." statements can be made.  On the one paw, the word "prophet" in Jewish tradition is reserved for people who lived before the First Temple, so of course the word is inapplicable to Jesus.  On the other paw, people are still reading the NT 2,000 years later, and longevity of readership is one of the ways we can detect whether someone was a prophet.

    why is it then so critical to reject Islam and okay to tolerate Jews?

    This is not a theological question, but a political one.  Jews are now "insiders" while Arabs are still "outsiders", so fear-based politics requires that rejection of Islam and acceptance of Judaism and Mormonism.

    whatever it means to “believe in” something ultimately unknowable this side the grave, and whatever “same” means when comparing finitely described infinites

    Truth is indeed a harsh mistress.

  2. For more on this vexed question, check out the wise old Murphy, two-fisted pre-Conciliar private eye, and his homespun remarks re the “Allah/God” controversy, which you can savor here:

    Oh and -- while there -- Why not stock up with some exciting Apostolic detective stories, for you and your loved ones, this holiday season? Yule B glad U did !!