Religions do not bring people to God
H. Kraemer in his influential book, The Christian message in a Non-Christian World, builds a strong case for the inability of religions, as human constructs, to bring people to God. The revelation of God in Christ is solely a redeeming act of God, and not aided by or a product of humanity’s attempts to reach God. Thus he claims it is “a mistake” (p. 137) to assume a one-to-one “point of contact” between the God and Father of Jesus Christ and the high deities of human religions and cultures. He bases this on a number of important arguments:
1) “No element of a living system of religion or culture can ever be taken in isolation…. Every religion is a living, indivisible unity” (p. 137). Every part of a religion is related to every other part so that it can never be fully understood without taking into account the extensive living unity of the worldview which gives that part its meaning.
Therefore, to view one part of another religion, such as the concept of Allah in Islam, and assume that it is understood in the same way as the high deity in another culture and religion, such as the God of western Christianity, is simplistic and reductionist. Every concept and idea cannot be taken in isolation but is dependent on and shaped by a number of cultural and religious assumptions and interrelationships. Comprehension of both the God of western Christianity and Allah in Islam is shaped by the worldview assumptions and cultural influences within which people live.
2) It is improper to assume that theistic concepts constitute proper thinking about God. In other words, opinions or doctrines about the nature of God – omnipotence, omnipresence, etc. – do not provide an adequate biblical view of God. Thus, although the understanding of Allah in Islam and concepts of God in western Christianity parallel important descriptions of God in the Scriptures (e.g. as Creator, Sovereign, etc.), the biblical concern is the relational aspects of God in his actions towards his people and his self revelation in Jesus Christ.
3) The idea that a composite picture of God may be gained by pooling different religious concepts, such as Allah in Islam and God in western Christianity, is faulty by assuming that human thought is capable of discerning the true from the false in considering the nature of God. A “common denominator” God distilled from a comparison of religions, is a non starter because it is not human creativity but God’s revelation of himself that guides right thinking about God.
The Right Questions
Therefore the appropriate question is not “Are Allah and God the same?” but “How can the concept of Allah in Islam and God in western Christianity be corrected and shaped by the revelation of God in Christ?” The goal is not to discard concepts of God in other religions that do not provide equivalent understanding according to our theology, but to work towards the transformation of everyone’s theology (including our own) according to God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. This requires a dynamic tension between culture and revelation within each person and each society. It is culture that provides that language through which God may be contemplated. It is God who provides the revelation in Christ within cultural forms.
The question is not “Who has the right God?” but “How can we be engaged in a process of correcting, refining and developing our relationship with God through the interaction of our lives with the revelation of God?” The goal of missions with respect to Islam is not to convince Muslims to abandon their Islamic views of Allah for a Christian theology of God. Such an approach only leads to confusion as there is much overlap between the theologies of these two religions. Such teaching can generate unnecessary anguish for Muslims attracted to Christ but think they must reject values and beliefs that have meaning and importance to them.
Seekers with Other Religions
A more appropriate orientation in missions is to recognize that, along with many Muslims, we are seekers after God. In our beliefs and the beliefs of other religious faiths there exists both continuity and discontinuity. Because we are created in God’s image (Genesis) and have God’s law in our hearts (Romans), and because we are living in a world in which there are common spiritual, moral and material struggles, there is much that resonates as truth in the answers that religions provide for their followers and for those outside their belief system. At the same time there is an important discontinuity that is the basis of the Christian faith: God has revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ. Thus, there is a both resonance (which provides communication) and tension (which provides transformation) between human theologies and God’s declaration of himself.
To declare that the theologies of western Christianity have the only right and true concept of God to which all others must conform is arrogant and leads to a dogmatism that resists transformation into the true image of God in Christ. At the same time “the missionary is the bearer of a message, the witness to a divine revelation, not his discovery, but God’s act” (p. 128). It is this revelation of God in Jesus Christ, devised not by humanity but solely the gift of God, to whom every knee and every concept of God must bow, whether in the west or east.
A Double Mandate
As Christians, therefore, we have a double mandate. First, we must constantly discover and rediscover the God we worship in Jesus Christ as we engage him through our cultural eyes. Second, we must be ambassadors of this vision by challenging those in other religions, including Islam, to reevaluate and shape their understanding of God according to the revelation of the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. What is required is “a permanent condition of openness in the missionary himself to the criticism and guidance of the Christian revelation, and a not less permanent openness to reality of the non-Christian religion with which he has to deal” (p. 139)