Referring to God
Monday, December 28, 2015
Christians, Muslims, and the reference of “God”
The question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has become the topic du jour in certain parts of the blogosphere. Our friends Frank Beckwith, Bill Vallicella, Lydia McGrew, Fr. Al Kimel, and Dale Tuggy are among those who have commented. (Dale has also posted a useful roundup of articles on the controversy.) Frank, Fr. Kimel, and Dale are among the many commentators who have answered in the affirmative. Lydia answers in the negative. While not firmly answering in the negative, Bill argues that the question isn’t as easy to settle as the yea-sayers suppose, as does Peter Leithart at First Things. However, with one qualification, I would say that the yea-sayers are right.
Referring to God
Let me start by rehearsing some points that should be obvious, and which others have already made, but which are crucial for properly framing the question at hand. First, we need to keep in mind the Fregean point that a difference in sense does not entail a difference in reference. To use Frege’s famous example, the sense of the expression “the morning star” is different from the sense of the expression “the evening star.” But these two expressions refer to one and the same thing, viz. the planet Venus. Similarly, expressions like “the God of the Christians” and “the God of the Muslims” differ in sense, but it doesn’t follow from that alone that they don’t refer to the same God. By the same token, though the expression “God” is different from the expression “Allah,” it doesn’t follow that God is not Allah, any more than Stan Lee and Stanley Martin Lieber are different men.
Second, even a speaker’s erroneous beliefs don’t entail that he is not referring to the same thing that speakers with correct beliefs are referring to. Consider an example made famous by Keith Donnellan. Suppose you’re at a party and see a man across the room drinking from a martini glass. You say something like “The guy drinking a martini is well-dressed.” Suppose, however, that the man is not in fact drinking a martini, but only water. It doesn’t follow that you haven’t really referred to him. Furthermore, suppose there is a second man, somewhere in the room but unseen by you, who really is drinking a martini and that he is dressed shabbily. It doesn’t follow that you were, after all, really referring to this second man and saying something false. Rather, assuming that the first man really is well-dressed, you were referring to that first man and saying something true about him, even though you were wrong about what he is drinking. And thus you are referring to the very same man as people who know that he is drinking water would be referring to if they said “The guy drinking water from a martini glass is well-dressed.” Similarly, the fact that Muslims have what Christians regard as a number of erroneous beliefs about God does not by itself entail that Muslims and Christians are not referring to the same thing when they use the expression “God.”
Having said that, it is also true that not anything goes. As I noted some time back in a post about Peter Geach’s essay “On Worshipping the Right God,” it is possible for someone’s body of beliefs about some thing to be so thoroughly disconnected from reality that he cannot plausibly be said successfully to refer to that thing.
But exactly when do one’s theological errors cross this line, so that he fails to refer to the true God? Lydia McGrew says that the reason Christians and Muslims cannot in her view be said to worship the same God is that the differences in the ways they conceive of God are “important” and “sufficiently crucial.” But this is, I think, too vague to be helpful. Suppose someone knows that Plato was the student of Socrates but believes the legend according to which Plato was the son of the god Apollo, and also, for whatever reason, thinks that Plato wrote none of the works attributed to him but instead sold gyros and baklava from a cart in Athens. Such a person has obviously gotten “important” and indeed “crucial” things wrong, but he hasn’t plausibly thereby failed to refer to Plato. On the contrary, we know he is wrong in part because we take him to be referring successfully to Plato. We don’t think: “Oh, he’s really referring to some other guy named ‘Plato,’ not the one who was Socrates’ student.” We think that he is referring to the very same Plato we do, and for that reason that many of the things he says are importantly wrong, since they aren’t actually true of Plato.
Similarly, it is perfectly coherent to say that Muslims are “importantly” and “crucially” wrong precisely because they are referring to the very same thing Christians are when they use the word “God,” and that they go on to make erroneous claims about this referent. That the errors are “important” or “crucial” is not by itself sufficient to prevent successful reference. And since Muslims worship the referent in question, it follows that it also is not by itself sufficient to prevent them from worshipping the same God as Christians.
Even errors concerning God’s Trinitarian nature are not per se sufficient to prevent successful reference. Abraham and Moses were not Trinitarians, but no Christian can deny that they referred to, and worshiped, the same God Christians do. It might be objected that though they were not Trinitarians, this is only because they did not even know about the doctrine of the Trinity, whereas Muslims do know about it and positively reject it. But this is irrelevant. From the beginning of the history of the Church, Christians did not accuse others of worshipping a false God merely because they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. For example, those Jews who rejected the claim that Jesus was the incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity were not accused by the early Church of worshipping a false God. Nor were heretics generally accused of this. For example, at least some Arian baptisms were considered valid because of the Arians’ use of the Trinitarian baptismal formula, despite the fact that Arians held to a heretical understanding of the divine Persons. These baptisms could not have been considered valid had the Arian understanding been so radically deficient that “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” failed to refer to the divine Persons at all, but instead referred to false deities.
Failure of reference
This brings me to an example which does involve error of a sort sufficient to make successful reference to the true God doubtful. In the post on Geach linked to above, I cited the 2001 decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Mormon baptisms are not valid even though they seem at first glance to make use of the correct Trinitarian formula. The reason for the decision is that the Mormon conception of God is so radically different from the Catholic one that it is doubtful that the words truly invoke the Trinity. It is not Trinitarianism per se that is the issue, though, but rather the radical anthropomorphism of the Mormon conception of God. As an article in L'Osservatore Romano summarized the problem at the time:
[T]he Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are not the three persons in which subsists the one Godhead, but three gods who form one divinity. One is different from the other, even though they exist in perfect harmony… The very word divinity has only a functional, not a substantial content, because the divinity originates when the three gods decided to unite and form the divinity to bring about human salvation… This divinity and man share the same nature and they are substantially equal. God the Father is an exalted man, native of another planet, who has acquired his divine status through a death similar to that of human beings, the necessary way to divinization… God the Father has relatives and this is explained by the doctrine of infinite regression of the gods who initially were mortal… God the Father has a wife, the Heavenly Mother, with whom he shares the responsibility of creation. They procreate sons in the spiritual world. Their firstborn is Jesus Christ, equal to all men, who has acquired his divinity in a pre-mortal existence. Even the Holy Spirit is the son of heavenly parents. The Son and the Holy Spirit were procreated after the beginning of the creation of the world known to us… Four gods are directly responsible for the universe, three of whom have established a covenant and thus form the divinity.
As is easily seen, to the similarity of titles there does not correspond in any way a doctrinal content which can lead to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The words Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have for the Mormons a meaning totally different from the Christian meaning. The differences are so great that one cannot even consider that this doctrine is a heresy which emerged out of a false understanding of the Christian doctrine. The teaching of the Mormons has a completely different matrix. We do not find ourselves, therefore, before the case of the validity of Baptism administered by heretics, affirmed already from the first Christian centuries, nor of Baptism conferred in non-Catholic ecclesial communities…
End quote. The Mormon conception of deity, then, makes of God something essentially creaturely and finite, something which lacks the absolute metaphysical ultimacy that is definitive of God in Catholic theology and in classical theism more generally. Even Arianism does not do that, despite its grave Trinitarian errors. To be sure, Arianism makes of the second Person of the Trinity a creature, but it does not confuse divinity as such with something creaturely. On the contrary, because it affirms the full divinity and non-creaturely nature of the Father, it mistakenly supposes that it must deny the full divinity of the Son. It gets the notion of divinity as such right, and merely applies it in a mistaken way. Mormons, by contrast, get divinity as such fundamentally wrong. Hence their usage of “God” is arguably merely verbally similar to that of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, et al. They can plausibly be held not really to be referring to the same thing as the latter, and thus not worshipping the same God as the latter.
Now, say what you will about Islam, it does not make of God something essentially creaturely. That God is absolutely metaphysically ultimate, is that from which all else derives, that which not only does not have but could not in principle have had a cause of his own, etc. is something Muslim theology understands clearly. Hence from a Christian point of view Muslims clearly must be regarded as like Jews and Arians rather than like Mormons. They are in error about the Trinity, but not in error about divinity as such.
Now, being absolutely metaphysically ultimate, being that from which all else derives, being that which does not have and in principle could not have a cause of its own, etc. -- in short, being what classical theism says God essentially is -- is, I would say, what is key to determining whether someone’s use of “God” plausibly refers to the true God. If someone affirms these things of God, then there is at least a strong presumption in favor of the conclusion that he is referring to, and thus worshipping, the true God, even if he also says some seriously mistaken things about God. If someone does not affirm these things of God, then there is at least serious doubt about whether he is referring to and worshipping the true God. And if someone positively denies these things, then there is a strong presumption that he is not referring to or worshipping the true God. As Richard Gale once wrote:
The character played by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront said that he could have been a contender, even the champion; but it would be a violation of the meaning of God for him to have said that he could have been God or for God to say that he might have been a two-bit enforcer for the mob. (On the Nature and Existence of God, p. 5)
Anything that could have been a two-bit enforcer for the mob could not possibly be God. And anything that is less than metaphysically ultimate, or which is not the source of all things other than himself, or which could have had a cause of his own, could not possibly be God. If it turned out that what we’d been calling “God” was something which is less than metaphysically ultimate, had a cause of his own, etc., it wouldn’t follow that God really is all these things after all. Rather, what would follow is that there really isn’t a God after all.
Trinitarianism and reference
But shouldn’t a Christian hold that some reference to the Trinity or to the divinity of Jesus is also at least necessary, even if not sufficient, for successful reference to the true God? Doesn’t that follow from the fact that being Trinitarian is, from a Christian point of view, also essential to God? No, that doesn’t follow at all, and any Christian who says otherwise will, if he stops and thinks carefully about it, see that he doesn’t really believe that it follows. Again, Christians don’t deny that Abraham and Moses, or modern Jews, or Arians and other heretics, refer to and worship the same God as orthodox Christians, despite the fact that these people do not affirm the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus.
Or consider the following scenario. Suppose there is a cause of everything other than himself who is one, eternal, immaterial, necessary, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, etc. But suppose also that it turned out that the Resurrection of Jesus never occurred, that the apostles perpetrated a hoax, etc. Would this be a scenario in which atheism turns out to be true? Of course not, and no Christian would say so. It would be a scenario in which God exists but did not become incarnate in Jesus, did not cause the Church to be founded, etc.
Or consider another scenario. Suppose it turned out that there is no such thing as a cause of everything other than himself who is one, eternal, immaterial, necessary, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, etc. But suppose also that there really was a powerful being who sent Moses to deliver the Law to Israel, who sired Jesus and sent him as a prophet, who imparted preternatural powers to him and to the apostles so that they might found a Church, etc. But suppose that this powerful being was an extraterrestrial and that the events recorded in the Bible were all caused in something like the way Erich von Däniken describes in Chariots of the Gods. Suppose this extraterrestrial called himself “the Father” and that he had two lieutenants who called themselves “the Son” and “the Holy Spirit.” Would this be a scenario in which Christian theism turns out to be true? Of course not, and (I hope!) no Christian would say so. It would be a scenario in which atheism is true.
Notice that the first scenario is metaphysically possible even though God is necessarily a Trinity. For even though God is a Trinity, he could have refrained from becoming incarnate in Jesus, could have refrained from causing the Church to be founded, could have refrained from revealing his Trinitarian nature to us, etc. Even on the first scenario, God would (the Christian must affirm) be Trinitarian, but we would not know this about him. Yet this would not prevent us from successfully referring to him or worshipping him.
Now, the (first, atheistic part of the) second scenario is. I would say, not in fact metaphysically possible (even if it is epistemically possible -- that is, we could find ourselves in a situation where we falsely believe that the scenario holds). The reason it is not metaphysically possible is that it could not turn out (or so I would argue) that there is no such thing as a cause of everything other than himself who is one, eternal, immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, etc. God, if he exists at all, exists necessarily rather than contingently. Atheism, if false, is necessarily false rather than merely contingently false. But this has nothing to do with Trinitarianism per se. And that is true even though God is essentially Trinitarian. For it is not by virtue of knowing that God is a Trinity that we know that, if he exists, then he exists necessarily rather than contingently. Rather, it is by virtue of knowing that he is pure actuality, that he is subsistent being itself, that he is absolutely simple or non-composite, etc., that we know that, if he exists, then he exists necessarily rather than contingently.
What all this shows is that we need to distinguish between how God has to be and how we have to conceptualize God. What the doctrine of the Trinity entails is that God could not possibly be other than three divine Persons in one substance. But it does not entail that we cannot conceptualize God other than as three divine Persons in one substance. To suppose that, because the doctrine of the Trinity entails the former, it must also entail the latter, is to confuse metaphysics with epistemology.
None of this should be surprising given that, as Christianity itself traditionally teaches, the doctrine of the Trinity is not something which human reason could have arrived at on its own, but can be known only via special divine revelation. We can know that God is Trinitarian only if we first know that he exists and has revealed certain truths (via a prophet, scripture, tradition, or the teachings of the Church). Naturally, then, we must be able to conceptualize him in a non-Trinitarian way, otherwise we couldn’t ever get to knowledge of the Trinity. (Note that this does not entail that he could have failed to be Trinitarian. Again, to suppose otherwise is to confuse metaphysics and epistemology.)
Aquinas on referring to God
As always when looking for philosophical guidance on matters of theology, we cannot do better than to turn to Aquinas. On reference in general, he writes:
In the significance of names, that from which the name is derived is different sometimes from what it is intended to signify, as for instance, this name "stone" [lapis] is imposed from the fact that it hurts the foot [laedit pedem], but it is not imposed to signify that which hurts the foot, but rather to signify a certain kind of body; otherwise everything that hurts the foot would be a stone… (Summa theologiae I.13.2)
Whence a name is imposed, and what the name signifies are not always the same thing. For as we know substance from its properties and operations, so we name substance sometimes for its operation, or its property; e.g. we name the substance of a stone from its act, as for instance that it hurts the foot [laedit pedem]; but still this name is not meant to signify the particular action, but the stone's substance. The things, on the other hand, known to us in themselves, such as heat, cold, whiteness and the like, are not named from other things. Hence as regards such things the meaning of the name and its source are the same. (Summa theologiae I.13.8)
Aquinas’s example of the stone is, unfortunately, not as clear to modern readers of English as it would have been to his contemporaries. The idea is that the etymology of lapis (“stone”) derived (so Aquinas wrongly supposed) from its hurting the foot (when it is dropped on the foot, say, or when the foot kicks it). The literal meaning of lapis (again, so Aquinas supposed) is “that which hurts the foot,” but what we intend to signify thereby is not just any old thing which might hurt the foot -- dropped hammers, bear traps, clumsy dance partners, etc -- but rather stones, specifically. A modern example might be “housefly.” What we intend to signify by this expression is not any old thing which might fly around the house -- moths, escaped parakeets, the remote-controlled toy helicopter my youngest son got for Christmas, etc. -- but rather a certain specific kind of insect.
Now, what Aquinas is saying is that in some cases, we refer to things by way of some property they have, or some contingent characteristic they have, or some effect they cause, rather than by way of their essence. To hurt the foot is not the essence of stone, even if we refer to stones as “that which hurts the foot,” and flying around the house is not the essence of houseflies, even if we call them “houseflies.” What we intend to refer to by “that which hurts the foot” is whatever has the essence of stone, and what we intend to refer to by “housefly” is whatever has the essence of a housefly. There is a distinction to be drawn in these cases between that by virtue of which we refer to something and that to which we refer. (As Christopher Martin notes in the chapter on reference in his book Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations, here Aquinas anticipated a distinction Saul Kripke makes in Naming and Necessity.)
In other cases, though, we refer to a thing by virtue of its essence. Aquinas gives heat, cold, and whiteness as examples, and (as Martin also notes) the use Kripke makes in Naming and Necessity of the example of “pain” might be similar to the point Aquinas is making. Kripke’s idea is that “pain” refers to the sort of sensation we associate with pain, and that the essence of pain just is to be a sensation of that sort. The sensation is not something that merely follows from pain or is contingently associated with pain. Presumably Aquinas was saying something similar about heat, cold, and whiteness -- e.g. that being white not only involves having a visual appearance of a certain sort but that this is the essence of whiteness. (Aquinas’s examples are bound to be controversial in light of the modern physics of temperature and color, but the specific examples are not essential to the point he is making, which is that sometimes we refer to something by virtue of its essence rather than by virtue of some characteristic or effect it has.)
Now, where God is concerned, in Aquinas’s view we refer to him in the first sort of way rather than the second:
Because therefore God is not known to us in His nature, but is made known to us from His operations or effects, we name Him from these… hence this name "God" is a name of operation so far as relates to the source of its meaning. For this name is imposed from His universal providence over all things; since all who speak of God intend to name God as exercising providence over all… [T]aken from this operation, this name "God" is imposed to signify the divine nature. (Summa theologiae I.13.8)
The idea is that, in this life, we do not have the immediate knowledge of God, or beatific vision, that those in heaven enjoy. Our knowledge of God is not like our knowledge of pain (if Kripke is right about that) but rather more like the layman’s knowledge of stone or of a housefly, insofar as the layman knows them only by their effects or contingent characteristics rather than (as a chemist or biologist might) by virtue of their essences. In particular, we know God as that which has universal providence over all things -- that which creates them, sustains them in being at every moment, imparts to them at every moment their power to operate, and so forth.
Of course, we also know that God’s nature is Trinitarian, because this fact has been specially revealed to us. But that does not entail that we have immediate knowledge of that Trinitarian nature, the way we have immediate knowledge of the nature of pain (again, if Kripke is right). We do not have such immediate knowledge. To borrow a distinction made famous by Bertrand Russell, we might say that we know God’s Trinitarian nature only by description, not by acquaintance. Hence, even given divine revelation, the Christian no less than the non-Christian has to refer to God by way of his effects rather by way of direct knowledge of his essence. And where the most general of those effects are concerned (e.g. God’s creation and conservation of the world in being, as opposed to his causing of miracles), non-Christians can in principle know those as well as Christians can. Hence non-Christians can refer to God just as well as Christians can. As Aquinas writes:
Hence it is evident that a Catholic saying that an idol is not God contradicts the pagan asserting that it is God; because each of them uses this name GOD to signify the true God. For when the pagan says an idol is God, he does not use this name as meaning God in opinion, for he would then speak the truth, as also Catholics sometimes use the name in the sense, as in the Psalm, "All the gods of the Gentiles are demons" (Psalm 95:5)…
Neither a Catholic nor a pagan knows the very nature of God as it is in itself; but each one knows it according to some idea of causality, or excellence, or remotion... So a pagan can take this name "God" in the same way when he says an idol is God, as the Catholic does in saying an idol is not God. But if anyone should be quite ignorant of God altogether, he could not even name Him... (Summa theologiae I.13.10)
The idea here is that it is precisely because the pagan in question, no less than the Catholic, can understand that “God” signifies that which is the cause of the world, etc. that the Catholic and pagan can genuinely disagree about whether a certain idol is God. If the pagan meant by “God” nothing more than “this particular idol,” then there would be no disagreement. That is to say, if the pagan were using the word in this idiosyncratic way (i.e. if, as Aquinas puts it, he were “us[ing] this name as meaning God in [merely the] opinion [of the pagan]”), then he would be speaking the truth if he said “This particular idol is God,” because that would amount to saying nothing more than “This particular idol is this particular idol.” It is because the pagan means more than that by “God” that the Christian can say: “No, that idol can’t be God, given what you and I both know God to be.”
Now, if even an idolatrous pagan can successfully refer to the true God when he uses the name “God” -- that is to say, he really is talking about God even if he has gravely erroneous beliefs about God -- then obviously Muslims, who are as well aware as any Christian is that God cannot be identified with an idol, can successfully refer to the true God, despite their gravely erroneous rejection of Trinitarianism. And since they worship that to which they refer, it follows that they worship the true God.
As I said at the beginning, while I think it is correct to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I would add a qualification to that claim. The qualification is this. What I have said in this post applies to Christianity and Islam in the abstract and to Christians and Muslims in general. But it is nevertheless still possible that there are particular individual Christians and particular individual Muslims whose personal conceptions of God differ in such a way that they do not plausibly worship the same God. To develop a possible example, let’s consider something else Lydia McGrew says in the post of hers linked to above. She writes:
Christians believe… that the same Being caused the origins of Judaism -- the promises to Abraham, the Exodus, etc. -- and the origins of Christianity -- the resurrection of Jesus, etc. In that sense, the Christian says that the God of Abraham is the same entity as the God we worship… But no Christian should believe that the God whom Jesus represented is the same entity who caused the origins of Islam! On the contrary, we as Christians should emphatically deny this… [This] distinguishes what the Christian claims about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism from what the Christian believes about the relationship of Christianity to Islam. The point is not that only a Trinitarian can be in some sense worshiping the true God. Abraham was not a Trinitarian but was worshiping the true God. But Abraham, we believe, really was in touch with the true God. The true God really was the source of Abraham's revelations. The true God was not the source of Mohammad's.
End quote. Now, I certainly agree with Lydia that a Christian should not regard Muhammad as having had a genuine revelation from God. But this fact doesn’t do the work she thinks it does. She is arguing that Christians and Jews worship the same God even if (she claims) Christians and Muslims do not. Her argument seems to presuppose that by “God,” Jews mean “the source of Abraham’s revelations, etc.,” Christians mean “the one who raised Jesus from the dead, etc.,” and Muslims mean “the source of Muhammad’s revelations, etc.” Now if that were all that Jews, Christians, and Muslims respectively meant by “God,” then her argument would have force. For in that case, since Christians hold that the same God both revealed himself to Abraham, etc. and raised Jesus from the dead, etc., but think that God did not give any revelation to Muhammad, they could not regard their God as the same as what Muslims mean by “God.” The problem is that that is simply not all that Jews, Christians, and Muslims mean by “God,” at least not most Jews, Christians, and Muslims. For by “God” they also mean “the uncaused cause of everything other than himself, who is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, etc.” And because there is this considerable overlap in their conceptions of God, it is possible for them to refer to, and worship, one and the same God despite their disagreements, for the reasons given earlier.
However, suppose that some particular Jew, Christian, or Muslim did use the word “God” in the very narrow way Lydia’s argument presupposes. Suppose, for example, that some particular Muslim said: “No, actually, I don’t much care about all that other stuff. What I mean by ‘God’ is ‘the source of Muhammad’s revelations,’ and that’s all I mean by the word, and I would still worship God so understood even if it turned out that this source was not the omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good uncaused cause of the world, but something else.” In that case, I think you could say that that particular Muslim did not worship the same God that Christians do.
But I think you’d be very hard pressed to find a Muslim who would ever say such a thing, just as I think you’d be very hard pressed to find a Christian who would say that he would still believe the Bible even if it turned out to have been written by one of Erich von Däniken’s extraterrestrials. But perhaps there are Muslims (and Christians and Jews, for that matter) who are so attached to certain contingent claims about God made by their religion that they would rather give up belief in some essential divine attribute than give up those contingent claims. In that case there could be the sort of conceptual distance between believers that would entail that they are not worshipping the same God. So to that extent I would qualify the claim defended in this post. But the possibility does seem to me fairly remote and academic.