Will Worshipping Just Any God Do? Reply to Beckwith and Rea

CaptureOn December 17 the Washington Post reported (not entirely favorably) that Wheaton College had suspended professor Larycia Hawkins over a Facebook post in which she claimed that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” [link]. Naturally, this created something of a firestorm in the media, including the Christian media. What could possibly be so wrong with Prof. Hawkins’ tame remark that would justify placing her on a paid leave?

Enter highly respected philosophers Frank Beckwith (Baylor) and Michael Rea (Notre Dame). What Wheaton did was most certainly wrong, they say. And at least part of the reason for thinking so is that Prof. Hawkins is being penalized for stating no more than the sober truth. Muslims and Christians do worship the same God. Indeed according to Rea, “everyone who worships a God worships the same God, no matter how different their views about God might be” [link].

What makes Beckwith and Rea think they’re right? Nothing, I will argue, that should convince us that they are.

Thomas Jefferson and the Trinity

Beckwith offers an intriguing analogy (see here). Imagine that Fred and Bob are having a disagreement about Thomas Jefferson. Did he or didn’t he sire several children with his slave Sally Hemings? Fred answers in the affirmative; Bob in the negative. Thus

(1)  Fred believes ‘Thomas Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings’

and

(2)  Bob believes ‘Thomas Jefferson did not have children with Sally Hemings’.

Beckwith then asks: “Would it follow from this [i.e., from (1) and (2)] that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man?” His answer: “Of course not.”

Now that certainly seems right. But consider Beckwith’s Muslim/Christian analogue. Let’s say that Fred and Bob tire of the Jefferson debate and happily move on to more sublime matters. Is God a Trinity (as Christians think) or not (as Muslims think)? And suppose things cash out this way:

(3)  Fred (a Christian) believes ‘God is a Trinity of persons’

and

(4)  Bob (a Muslim) believes ‘God is not a Trinity of persons’.

What follows? In particular, does it follow that Fred and Bob are not referring to (hence praying to, thinking about, worshipping) the same God? I should think a sizeable number of Christians (and no doubt Muslims as well) certainly think so. But why so? For this basic reason, says Notre Dame’s Michael Rea:

Those who think that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God commonly justify their opinion by appeal to the vast dissimilarity in Christian and Muslim beliefs about the nature of God (Huffington Post, Dec 21 ’15 [link]).

Rea thinks this is a mistake, and so does Beckwith. For just as disagreeing about whether Thomas Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings doesn’t mean Fred and Bob aren’t talking about the same person; so too their disagreement about whether God is Trinitarian won’t show they’re not talking about the same God.

Now as far as analogies go, this one leaves a good deal to be desired. For one thing, in the Thomas Jefferson case, we are given a priori that Fred and Bob are referring to (/talking about) the same person. For built right into the example is the idea that Fred and Bob have fixed the reference of ‘Thomas Jefferson’ (up front) in the same way. Notice how Beckwith puts it. Fred and Bob can squabble as much as they please about the Sally Hemings affair. Still, they won’t disagree “that the Third President of the United States was the same man.” Which man is that? The only one mentioned in the example: Thomas Jefferson.

In other words, Fred and Bob’s disagreement is premised on their prior (implicit) agreement about how to fix the rigid designator ‘Thomas Jefferson’: Thomas Jefferson is the Third President of the U.S. Once that is established, disagreeing about whether Jefferson did this or that will of course be beside the point. It won’t show that Fred and Bob are talking about different people.

Will Just Any and Every God Do?

Unfortunately, when we turn to (3) and (4), things aren’t nearly so tidy. Given the “vast dissimilarity” (Rea) in how Christians and Muslims conceive of God, why should anyone think these two groups have the same referent in mind when they use the term ‘God’? On the face of things, that’s hardly obvious. Are we given, for example, that Fred and Bob have (implicitly) agreed to fix the reference of ‘God’ in like manner? Beckwith and Rea apparently part company here.

According to Beckwith, Fred and Bob are referring to the same God in their prayers and worship. He argues as follows:

[W]hat is known as classical theism was embraced by the greatest thinkers of the Abrahamic religions: St. Thomas Aquinas (Christian), Moses Maimonides (Jewish), and Avicenna (Muslim). Because, according to the classical theist, there can only in principle be one God, Christians, Jews, and Muslims who embrace classical theism must be worshipping the same God. It simply cannot be otherwise [link].

This is a curious argument. The thinking, I take it, goes as follows. Fred is a Christian, and Christianity entails classical (generic) theism. Bob is a Muslim, and Islam entails classical (generic) theism. However, on classical (generic) theism, ‘God’ refers to the object whose description results from the intersection of all and only what the Abrahamic faiths can agree on about God—perhaps something like:

GENERIC:   The x such that x is all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good, and the creator of the world.

GENERIC naturally suggests itself as a prime candidate for fixing the reference for ‘God’. (Don’t forget: it’s agreed upon by the major traditions.) We then observe that since Fred and Bob are committed – by way of other things they believe – to classical (generic) theism, it follows that each is referring (implicitly and by way of GENERIC) to one and the same God.

But clearly this line of thinking is wrong-headed. First, a sensible Christian isn’t going to agree for a moment that the reference of ‘God’ is to be determined by a consensus gentium—whether it’s the consensus of Western Philosophy (the so-called God of the Philosophers) or the consensus of “the Abrahamic religions.” What she will think, quite rightly, is that it is God himself who determines the reference of ‘God’—not we human beings (taken individually or collectively) in some grossly Promethean fashion. And if God happens to reveal (as many Christians believe he has) that the description fixing the reference of ‘God’ now includes ‘being trinitarian’, then GENERIC is unacceptably generic.

Secondly, if you think about it, GENERIC is wholly question begging (in the present context). You can’t properly determine the reference of ‘God’ by way of a description that has been deliberately engineered to include only what Muslims and Christians can agree upon (while setting aside all their differences), and then claim ipso facto that they are worshipping the same God. Of course they are, if that’s the way you’re jury-rigging things at the front end. But nothing is settled by a stipulative definition. Such a move can hardly be expected to convince those on the other side (say, the Wheaton administrators), which, I presume, is what the “Same God” philosophers are hoping to do. Surely this is not the way of true philosophy.

Here you might be inclined to object that this whole debate over reference is futile. It’s a moot point at best. For there is a far more direct argument to the “Same God” conclusion—one not mired in the quick sand of philosophy of language. Thus Michael Rea argues:

Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God; but they agree on this much: there is exactly one God. This common point of agreement is logically equivalent to thesis that all Gods are the same God. In other words, everyone who worships a God worships the same God, no matter how different their views about God might be [link].

To be sure, if this last sentence is true, then Muslims and Christians do worship the same God. But shockingly, so do the worshippers of Ra, Baal, Asherah, Molech, Dagon, Zeus, Hermes, the Wiccans, and countless others. Are we really to believe that the worshippers of these false gods were (and are) all worshipping the Christian God, the God of the Bible? If you think so, pause for a moment and consider what the Lord once said to his servant Gideon (Judges 6:25-26):

That night the LORD said to [Gideon], “Take your father’s bull, and the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the LORD your God on the top of the stronghold here, with stones laid in due order. Then take the second bull and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah that you shall cut down.”

Now why in the world would the Lord command a thing like that? It hardly makes sense. Gideon’s father was simply worshipping Baal and Asherah, and in so doing (on Rea’s “Any God-Same God” principle) he was worshipping Yahweh (!) What could be more laudable and praiseworthy than that? You don’t need to be a philosopher, a theologian, or even a Christian to see that something has gone badly awry here.

The philosopher Mary Midgley once said that “An ethical theory which, when consistently followed through, has iniquitous consequences is a bad theory and must be changed” (“Duties Concerning Islands”). One cannot help but think that Midgley’s Maxim has an obvious, powerful, and direct cross-application to these recent proposals from the “Same God” philosophers.

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10 comments on “Will Worshipping Just Any God Do? Reply to Beckwith and Rea

  1. Joshua Wood says:

    Hi Rich,

    I think that Paul thinks the divine nature ‘magnetise’ reference to God in the kind of way David Lewis thinks natural properties magnetise reference to ‘water’ despite ignorance about it’s atomic structure etc..

    Paul says

    [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world

    (Romans 1:20 ESV)

    Clearly many who use the term “Zeus” are not worshipping a divine being of eternal power because the Zeus of publicly sponsored Athenian worship is not eternal. Indeed jehovah’s witnesses despite using the term ‘jehovah’ in their worship arn’t worshipping a being with eternal power.

    However, Paul’s speech in Acts 17 seems to indicate that “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth..”(Acts 17:24 ESV) is the same thing as the thing in which “we live and move and have our being… for we are his handiwork (Acts 17:28 ESV– here Paul is quoting Greeks who use the term “Zeus”) And that these are all the same being that “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31 ESV)

    Baal and Ashera are evidently not supreme beings in that story because they are being worshipped side by side as a male and female sexual couple with distinct powers and abilities associated with heaven and earth respectively in contrast to the Lord of BOTH heaven and earth and everything therein.

    Cheers,

    Joshua

  2. […] Dr. Rich Davis, “Will Worshipping Just Any God Do? Reply to Beckwith and Rea“ […]

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  4. jasonfleet says:

    Reblogged this on Written For Christ and commented:
    One of my professors at Tyndale University college & Seminary wrote this in response to Washington Post’s article about Larycia Hawkins’ Facebook post stating Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

  5. Rich Davis says:

    Hi Dale — Oh, I’m really glad to hear you’re devoting some podcasts to this, especially w/ Bill Vallicella — a philosopher I deeply admire. Maybe I’ll wait to post something new until (a) I listen to your show over the next two Mondays, and (b) read Frank Beckwith’s forthcoming piece in ‘The Catholic Thing’.
    Cheers,
    Rich

  6. Peter Lupu says:

    Dr. Davis,

    A very intriguing post. I have a couple of inquiries.
    First, you argue that from a Christian point of view “…it is God himself who determines the reference of ‘God’—not we human beings (taken individually or collectively) in some grossly Promethean fashion.” But, surely, the term ‘God’ is part of a human language (in this case English) and the present debate pertains to how the reference of the term ‘God’, as used by different humans, is fixed. Could you clarify this issue. Second, do you maintain that the term ‘God’ is a rigid designator, in the Kripkean sense, analogous to the claim that ‘Thomas Jefferson’ is a rigid designator? If so, do you also agree that the referent of names, such as ‘Thomas Jefferson’ and ‘God’, is fixed via a causal-historical chain linking to an original term-introduction baptismal ceremony? I think that the position one takes on these question about reference-fixing of names is pivotal in deciding the issues you discuss in this post.

    Thank you in advance for your response, if you deem that these questions merit one.

    Peter Lupu
    peterlupu@yahoo.com

  7. […] “Will Worshipping Just Any God Do? Reply to Beckwith and Rea” by Rich Davis | Every Thought Captive, Dec. 29, 2015 […]

  8. Dale Tuggy says:

    Hey Rich – interesting post.

    Why isn’t this sufficient to fix the reference of “Allah” on God, that they have always centrally said that this is the god who sent Abraham, Moses, and Jesus?

    About your criticism of Rea. If “worshiping a god” just means directing the god-appropriate sort of honor and *something*, real or not, divine or not, then your disastrous consequence would follow. But I think Rea must be assuming that “worship” is a two-way interaction. Not only is prayer and worship sent up towards a being, but it’s a god, and he in some sense accepts or receives it, and may at his option respond. In this sense, it is doubtful that Rea or anyone else must admit that the worshipers of Baal or Zeus worshiped a god. But surely ancient Jews worshiped God in this sense, and without being trinitarians. And it is plausible that people going on natural knowledge of God or general revelation, or some monotheistic tradition, may be worshiping God. One would think they could refer to him by the description “unique, good and wise creator” or something like that.

    It seems to me that who worships him is sort of God’s business. Referring to God is one thing, but actually worshiping him requires his consent – more than just referring to him. Certainly God answers to “Allah” when Arabic-speaking Christians use it. Might he also respond when a penitent Muslim – let’s say, one who is never really exposed to the Christian gospel – uses it? I don’t see why not. But then, plausibly, they are referring to him. I suppose he could as it were butt in if they were talking to someone else. But we should all be familiar with God condescending to interact with us despite our confusions and false assumptions about him – even about his essential attributes.

    What do you think?

    • Rich Davis says:

      Hi Dale — thanks for these important comments! They are nicely put. I have a separate post coming that will grapple w/ some of them. Cheers, Rich

      • Dale Tuggy says:

        Hi Rich – great. I had the privilege of sitting down to discuss this with Bill Vallicella, so the next two Mondays, I’ll put out podcasts of our discussing this. I look forward to your further thoughts. God bless & Happy New Year, Dale

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