Do I Worship the Same God As Evangelicals?
A year or so ago there was a large controversy within American evangelicalism regarding the following question: "Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?"
The "Same God" debate, as it was often referred to, was sparked by a professor at Wheaton College (Larycia Hawkins) who decided to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women. She shared what she was doing on Facebook, and she included a statement referencing how, as she put it, Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Sadly, Hawkins was dismissed from her position at Wheaton in the weeks that followed her Facebook post.
Even after her departure, though, the theological debate which grew out of her embodied solidarity continued to roll on.
During this time, I had numerous conversations about this topic with friends and acquaintances. I got into some heated arguments as well. I learned a lot about myself during this time, and I also learned that the way I viewed God was drastically different than the way many evangelicals view God.
I began asking myself, "do I worship the same God as my evangelical friends?"
I was reminded of this question as I read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. In it, he talks about spiritual forces acting within the world.
Pressfield calls the forces that hold us back from our life's purpose Resistance. The forces that help us grow and do the work we're meant to do he calls Muse.
Every day when Steven Pressfield sits down to write, he prays the Invocation of the Muse from Homer's The Odyssey. He realizes this seemingly "religious" act might make some of his readers uncomfortable, so he takes a portion of his book to address those concerns.
Read this short explanation Pressfield gives:
"I plan on using terms like muses and angels. Does that make you uncomfortable? If it does, you have my permission to think of angels in the abstract. Consider these forces as being impersonal as gravity . . . Or if extra-dimensionality doesn't sit well with you in any form, think of it as a 'talent,' programmed into our genes by evolution . . . The point, for the thesis I'm seeking to put forward, is that there are forces we can call our allies."
From here, Pressfield gives a brief account which describes the various ways humanity has tried to make sense of these mysterious forces.
"The Greek way of apprehending the mystery was to personify it. The ancients sensed powerful primordial forces in the world. To make them approachable, they gave them human faces. They called them Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite. American Indians felt the same mystery but rendered it in animistic forms--Bear Teacher, Hawk Messenger, Coyote Trickster. Our ancestors were keenly cognizant of forces and energies whose seat was not in this material sphere but in a loftier, more mysterious one."
What does all of this have to do with evangelicals and God?
When the "Same God" debate was in full swing, I noticed that many of the people who were opposed to the Wheaton professor's statement were focused entirely on whether or not Muslims and Christians believed the same things about God.
This was because, to many of them at least, our understanding of God dictates to what being our worship is attributed.
Except, if you're a Muslim or a Christian, then you probably believe there are no other gods at all. There is only one divine being. There is no possibility of worshipping a different god because no other gods exist at all!
Many would agree with this, but then they would proceed to talk about how it's possible to worship and follow a falsity. In other words, they would say it's possible to believe in a god which doesn't exist.
(Side note: Paul Tillich once theorized that God is beyond or more than existence, and that to argue for the existence of God is to deny God.)
The problem here is that we aren't actually talking about physical beings or even spiritual beings, at least not really. The underbelly of the "Same God" debate that I saw so many people missing was the fact that we all have concepts of the divine.
Both Christians and Muslims have mental constructs of the divine which are used for communication, reflection, and application.
Do Christians and Muslims have the exact same mental constructs of the divine? Of course not. But, as I've said in the past, no two people in the entire world regardless of religion have the exact same mental constructs of God.
As Steven Pressfield so clearly highlights in the above-quoted passages, humanity has always observed the mysterious forces at work within the world and tried to explain and communicate them.
My point in quoting Pressfield was to highlight the following:
Knowledge and understanding of God (the divine) is not restricted to one particular group of people. Access to God has always been available to everyone everywhere.
This isn't some sort of new-age, trendy belief. It's a very old belief that is even seen in the Bible:
"For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse"
I think what a lot of Christians miss out on is the fact that the Gospel (Good News) didn't suddenly come into existence when Jesus was born. Jesus showed people what has always been from the beginning of time.
In other words, Jesus didn't come to suddenly create some sort of new Way; he came and showed the world the Way which has always been.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus was dispelling and confounding peoples' understandings and constructs of the divine (God).
"You have heard it said... but I say to you..."
Jesus was a light that shown in the darkness to reveal what people had been missing.
It is my belief that humanity has always been, on some level, in pursuit of the divine.
It is also my belief all of us (Christians and Muslims included) have a tendency to "worship" and follow the constructs and understandings of God that we have created within our minds rather than the thing (or no-thing) behind the thing. This isn't a conscious act, but it's an act we do nonetheless without realizing it.
For Buddhists, this reality can be summed up in the well-known statement "the finger is not the moon". We point at the moon (God) using our fingers (symbols), but we need to remain aware of what we're doing lest we begin to think our symbols are the thing we're pointing at.
A lack of this awareness might have something to do with why so many people got upset when the Wheaton professor made a statement that seemed to indicate that Christians and Muslims aren't all that different.
Isn't that sad?
We have a tendency to highlight and focus on our differences with other people rather than what we have in common. I see this tendency within myself; I assume it is within others as well.
What if instead of constantly talking about how we're different than the "other" person, we thought more about our shared human experience?
What if we thought more of how we are all spiritual beings trying to understand the world? What if we thought more about the fact that we all have flawed constructs of the divine? What if we thought more about the fact that God is not limited to my tribe's understanding of God?
What if, instead of commodifying God, we began to see how you and I, modern men and women, share the same yearning to understand the mystery at the heart of life that was present within the ancients who thought of the divine as numerous personified entities?
I think if more of us began to see the world in this way, then there would be less conflict and trouble.
I think we'd be able to better love people who are different than us. I know this is true for me as I try to love people who, despite the impossibility of this act, try to reduce and keep God within their control.
Which brings me back to my initial question...
So, do I worship the same God as my Evangelical neighbors?
If we're talking about the ways in which we go around simply worshipping constructs that we have created and then patented within our minds, hearts, and systems, then I would definitely say no.
I don't think about the divine in the same way as Evangelicals.
But, if we're talking about the universal human journey of trying to understand God which all of us are destined to stumble through like infants trying to walk, then I would definitely say yes.
All of this isn't to say we shouldn't try to think accurately about the divine. The finger may not be the moon, but the fingers definitely have implications as to how we relate to the moon.
Over the years, I've come to be burdened and downtrodden by many of the symbols evangelicals use. The angry God. The violent God. The God that is limited to the state of a super-being. The God that uses extreme-vetting. The God that endorses destructive gender hierarchy while condemning the people who don't fit in or assimilate.
I've come to be less and less appreciative of the exclusionary view of God evangelicalism promotes. I've seen it have disastrous effects in my life and in the lives of others.
Perhaps the evangelical understanding of God is beneficial to some people. I don't want to make people feel bad about that, but I also don't want to see them push that understanding of God down the throats of others. I don't want to see evangelicals teach people that the evangelical understanding of God is the only understanding of God.
I don't want people to feel trapped believing in a my-way-or-the-highway-to-hell conditional God.
That's really what I care about the most.
But, at the same time, I don't want to always highlight my differences with evangelicals. I do believe we're very much in the pursuit of the same thing.
So, I do worship the same God as evangelicals. But, I also don't.
I'm on a similar journey, but to move forward I had to set some things aside. I have a feeling I'll be doing this most of my life.
How about you?