Sunday, November 18, 2007

Does the Catholic Church Equate Allah and Yahweh?

I think the concern reflected in my title is based on a misunderstanding. When the Church has referred to Muslims worshiping the one God, it is meant in the sense of both Christians and Muslims being monotheists. Monotheism includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, and more vague "philosophical theists" (also cults like Jehovah's Witnesses with their Arian God).

Thus, Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, states:
They [Muslims] worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth.
If you read closely, it isn't saying that "the Muslim God [Allah] and the Christian God are exactly the same." Not at all. Rather, the common bond is monotheism. Indeed, it could not possibly be equating Allah and Yahweh, because we believe God is a Trinity, and Muslims (and Jews) do not. Vatican II is using what might be called "diplomatic language" in its ecumenical statements. It's an instance where the context of the statement is supremely important in determining the exact meaning intended.

Moreover, one must distinguish between the two notions:
1) A Muslim worshiping the One he believes to be the true God.


2) The recipient of God-directed worship, even if erroneous in some respects, being the God Who Really Is, since Allah does not exist.
As an analogy (the best I can think of at the moment), imagine a child who was adopted but didn't yet know it. He or she might say, "I am really thankful that my mother gave me birth." Now, this person thinks that his or her birth mother is the woman who in reality is only the adoptive mother. But nevertheless, the attitude of thankfulness for having been given birth in a sense "transfers" over to the real birth mother.

In other words, it has to be the birth mother who is truly receiving praise because the person giving it intends it for that person who gave him birth: and that person is who she is whether the child knows this or not. The fact that there is a mistake concerning the actual person regarded as the birth mother does not change the fact of it.

Likewise, a committed Muslim is worshiping what he sincerely believes to be God. He is mistaken, of course, as to the actual definition and ontological reality, but he is worshiping in common with Christians, insofar as he is also a monotheist. He is worshiping, for example, the Creator insofar as he understands Who the Creator is. And Yahweh is receiving that praise in reality because He is the true Creator. In that sense the Muslim is indeed worshiping God, but since Allah doesn't exist, he is really (at bottom) worshiping Yahweh, in relative ignorance. And I believe that God (i.e., Yahweh!) takes this into account and the person gets some credit for what he does know and Who he wants to worship, even though he is mistaken in his theology.

* * * * *

The point is that words have to be read in context and in accordance with an overall worldview. As I have argued, no one seriously maintains that the Catholic Church has stopped believing in the Trinity. Therefore, when the Church says that Muslims and Jews worship the one God, it cannot possibly mean that "Muslims and Jews are trinitarian." Therefore, it must mean that "Muslims and Jews are also monotheists, as we are, and worship the one God." Context (and the writer's purpose) are supremely important. Many people isolate texts and assume things wrongly, and that is where the problems arise.

It sounds a lot better and is infinitely more positive in nature to say:
"Catholics and Muslims both worship the one God of Abraham," etc.
than to say:
"We believe that Muslims worship a false God, because Allah isn't trinitarian; therefore, He doesn't exist at all, so that Muslims worship a figment of their imagination; the only true God is the trinitarian Yahweh of the Bible."
That would rather defeat the ecumenical, diplomatic purpose, wouldn't it? And that purpose is precisely to find things in common, which monotheism is. I happen to think there is a great deal of value in ecumenism. The language is necessarily different, because the purpose and goals are different. It is finding common ground rather than squabbling over differences.

Ecumenism and apologetics don't clash at all. They are simply different, like apples and orange and vanilla and chocolate ice cream. We don't say that those contradict each other.

It is good to defend what one believes to be the truth (I've devoted my life and profession to that), and also to build bridges and rejoice in common ground. The Catholic Church urges both and thinks both are good and worthwhile endeavors.

I can debate a Muslim (as I have on my site, and sometimes in person) and also speak this more ecumenical language in other contexts. Any Catholic ought to do the same, per the instruction of Vatican II and the tone and tenor of ecumenical papal encyclicals. It is the Mind of the Church. It is also quite "biblical":

Dialogue on "Salvation Outside the Church" and Alleged Catholic Magisterial Contradictions (Particularly in the Middle Ages; With Emphasis on St. Thomas Aquinas's Views)

See also related papers:

Dialogue: Should the Pope Kiss The Koran?: Ecumenism as an Effort to Acknowledge Partial Truth Wherever it is Found (vs. David Palm)


What is a Catholic to make of Islam?

The Second Vatican Council noted that Muslims "adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.

"Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, his virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the Day of Judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting" (Nostra Aetate 3).

A basic assessment of Islam is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states: "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day" (CCC 841).

Does this mean that Islam is a means of salvation for Muslims?

No. What the Catechism says is that "the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator." That is not the same thing as saying that they are saved by whatever religion they are in, whether it is Islam or Zoroastrianism or any other.

To fully appreciate this, one must look at the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (LG), which the Catechism is quoting. LG 13 proclaims that "All men are called to be part of this Catholic unity of the people of God. ... And there belong to or are related to it in various ways, the Catholic faithful, all who believe in Christ, and indeed the whole of mankind, for all men are called by the grace of God to salvation."

All mankind is called to the "Catholic unity of the people of God" -- i.e., to become Catholics. Some have done so, and so LG states that some "belong to" the Catholic Church while others "are related to it in various ways." Those who belong to it are "the Catholic faithful," while those who are related in various ways include "all who believe in Christ" (who are related to the Church in one way) and "the whole of mankind" (who are related to the Church in a different way).

LG 14 stresses the importance of becoming Catholic: "Basing itself upon sacred scripture and Tradition, [this Council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. ... Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved."

LG 16 turns to the case of non-Christians, stating, "Finally, those who have not yet received the gospel are related in various ways to the people of God." Note that non-Christians are only "related in various ways" to the people of God and are not members themselves. Also note that they are spoken of as "those who have not yet received the gospel" -- implying that they need to receive the gospel.

It is only in this context that the text states, "But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims." The Council means that God desires their salvation and has made plans for their salvation, plans that include giving them graces that lead in the direction of salvation and the Church.

Is it possible for Muslims to be saved without becoming Christians?

It is possible, though this is an exceptional case. The further away from the fullness of knowledge and the means of grace that are found in the Catholic Church, the harder it is for a person to be saved. Those who know that Jesus founded the Catholic Church as God's means of conveying salvation to the world and who refuse to enter it cannot be saved. But if a person of any religion -- Islam included -- is innocently unaware of this fact and otherwise lives up to the degree of light and grace that God has given him, it is possible for him to be saved.

This does not mean that he is saved by whatever religion he is in. This is forcefully underlined in the document Dominus Jesus (2000) that was released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "It would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her" (DJ 21). "If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation" (DJ 22).

There should be no doubt that, while the Church recognizes that the followers of Islam do have elements of truth and while it is possible for them -- as for all men -- to be saved if they live up to the light God has given them, it cannot be said that Islam is a path of salvation or that Muslims do not need to become Christians.

The Catechism said that Muslims "profess to hold the faith of Abraham." What does that mean?

The operative word here is profess -- they claim to hold the faith of Abraham, whom they acknowledge as a prophet and patriarch (indeed, the Arabs are regarded as descendents of Abraham's son Ishmael). In reality, the Muslim faith is an imperfect version of the faith that comes from Abraham, but Muslims are trying to follow in the footsteps of Abraham, and the Catechism gives them credit for that.

The Catechism says of Muslims: "Together with us they adore the one, merciful God." How can that be when they do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity?

God does not require one to know a certain amount about him before one can talk to him or tell him how great he is. He is aware of and acknowledges all that is good and true in the worship offered to him, however imperfect an understanding of him a worshiper may have.

While Muslims, like Jews, do not accept the Trinity, they do acknowledge that God is the only true God, that he is merciful, and that he will judge all mankind on the Last Day.

This means they honor things that are true about God but have a limited understanding of him. Christians have a fuller understanding of God because he has revealed more to us about himself: specifically, that he is a Trinity. This doctrine cannot be deduced by human reason; it can be known only by revelation (CCC 237).

Jews worshiped God before the doctrine of the Trinity was revealed, and mere failure to accept this revelation of the Christian age does not stop them today from worshiping God, albeit imperfectly. The Church always has acknowledged that Jews worship God, even if it is not with the fullness of Catholic truth that God desires.

In the same way, failure to accept the revelation that God is a Trinity does not stop Muslims from worshiping God. It means that they know less about God and that they have erroneous corollary ideas, but it does not mean that they are unable to direct their prayers to God as Creator or that they cannot be awed by how he has made the world and by the providential care he has for mankind.

How does the Muslim view of God compare with the Christian view?

Both the Bible and the Qur'an ascribe marvelous attributes to God, among them perfect justice and perfect mercy. It is a mistake to portray, as some do, the Muslim view of God as a harsh deity devoid of mercy and compassion. Indeed, one of the most frequent names given to God in the Qur'an is ar-Rahman, "the Merciful."

Nevertheless, there is a difference. Islam holds that God is transcendent in a way that precludes the kind of intimacy he shows with mankind in the Bible. Though Islam acknowledges the closeness of God to man in one sense, saying that God is closer to a man than his own jugular vein (Q 50:16), it nevertheless denies God the fatherly intimacy with man that he reveals himself to have in the New Testament.

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote: "Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Qur'an, but he is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Mohammed. There is also mention of Mary, his Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology [doctrine of God] but also the anthropology [doctrine of man] of Islam is very distant from Christianity" (CTH 92-93).

Islam: A Catholic Perspective, Jimmy Akin, published by Catholic Answers, pp. 16-21.

[see also an extended discussion of this paper on my Facebook page]


1 comment:

Maroun said...

Hi Dave.
I like to quote what Hilaire Belloc said about islam . He said that islam is a christian heresy , actualy he said(catholic ) because for him christianity and catholic is one thing . Anyway it is a heresy with one major difference , it came from the outside of the Church and not from the inside like the other heresies .
Of course , like all the other heresies , islam also contains some truth , and on these truths we could as you said and as the Church says , we could build bridges , we have some common ground . But we must also be very careful ( and of course i dont mean that this is something you said ) we must be very very careful lets they think ( the muslims ) that because they believe in one God ( monotheists) it is enough to inherit God`s kingdom . In fact the kingdom is for the children , and without being born from water and the Spirit no one shall see the kingdom of God . ( i am not of course talking about those which through no fault of their own ) because we dont want to fall in the error of relativism .
Now what bothers me is that nowadays , many priests (especialy in Lebanon) on tv , tell the muslims that since we worship the same God , it is enough for them to be good muslims , and they also will inherit the kingdom of God , this of course is a lie , because these so called priests wants to have an easy life , and because of that they dont want to bother anymore to preach the good news , in fact they also say that we have no right to cancel the others and that we must respect the others and we shouldnt offend them , and that`s why they say , they dont talk with the muslims about Jesus and the muslims dont talk with them about Mohammed . Now that`s a big problem if you know what i mean?