I would like to explore an important subject with you: worship. I beg your patience as this is longish post. But the subject deserves some careful and sustained attention. My thoughts are informed but yet exploratory. So, with your permission, and with your patience, join me as we explore a very controversial subject.
Do Mormons and Christians worship the same God? How about Muslims and Christians? These questions occupy time in the minds of many just now.
Since 9-11 it has been common to hear that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God, especially given that these three religions are commonly called “Abrahamic religions.” And some would add in Mormons, since Mormonism also resides in what could be termed the Abrahamic tradition.
When I ask Christians this question, most answer in the negative. But a few answer in the affirmative.
Is there a correct answer this question? What if it is the wrong question?
A Different Jesus?
In my recent post, But I Am a Mormon… Aren’t Christians Mormons Too?, I implied that since the Mormon Church teaches things about Jesus that not only are not found in the Bible but arguably are contrary towhat the Bible teaches, Mormons do not worship the Jesus of the Bible. And there is biblical support for asserting that people may follow a Jesus that is a different Jesus from the true Jesus.
But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, you put up with it easily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:3-4; NIV)
However, there are some additional considerations worth pondering as we wonder whether these verses might apply to Mormonism or to Islam.
On Objects and Objectionable Theology
First, commonly, when it is asserted that, for example, Muslims and Christians “worship the same God,” it is assumed that such worship is acceptable to God. After all, it is natural to suppose that if people are directing worship to God, then God is the object of their worship. And if God is the object of their worship, then, of course, God is the one being worshipped.
But this observation merely clarifies the object of worship, not whether such worship is acceptable to God. After all, we might readily agree that not all that people might do in their attempts to worship God would be acceptable to him. For instance, what if people decided to worship God by, say, tying ribbons around their necks. Well, perhaps that’d be a bit trivial. How about this: what if people decided to worship God by traveling through their neighborhoods breaking windows and slashing tires (or, tyres, as the Brits might say)? Or, to be a bit more aggressive, what if people decided to worship God by sacrificing their children? What if they decided to worship God by committing adultery?
The point is that not everything that people might act out in their attempt to worship God would be acceptable to God. In other words, God might disapprove. Indeed, if we take the Bible seriously, God has expressed strong disapproval of sacrificing children, of attempts to worship him with the use of idols, and more. So, if we take the Bible seriously, not all that humans might do to worship God would be received by him as worship. He not only disapproves, but some of the strongest intonations of judgment are directed at such practices.
So, not everything humans might do to worship God is acceptable to him. It would seem important to hear from God about what kind of worship would honor him and be accepted by him.
Now, a second clarification is in order. If we were to line up descriptions and definitions of God offered by Muslims, Mormons, and Christians, we would find that they don’t align very well. Muslims and Mormons reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Muslims and Christians are monotheists while the Mormon Church teaches that there are many Gods, and that humans can progress to become gods as well. Both Christians and Mormons affirm that Jesus is deity, though not in the same sense: the Mormon Church teaches that Jesus became a God in the preexistence, that he was a human spirit first who became exalted and deified. Muslims and Christians affirm the virgin birth while the Mormon Church has taught some things about how Mary was impregnated by God the Father (who is an exalted man) that bring into question their conception of virginity.
In light of these differences, some propose that we should cut away the differing views and attempt to find the core commonalities between such religions. Indeed, some suppose that we should find the core commonalities between all religions. I think that is an errant errand, one that could never be accomplished.
So, it remains that what Mormons, Muslims, and Christians say about God cannot allbe true. The descriptions and definitions do not align without divergent, even contradictory features.
On Wrong Worship and Blasphemy
Now, given these two clarifications — that not everything offered in the worship of God honors him or is acceptable to him, and that what Muslims and Mormons say about God is not the same as what the Bible or historic Christian theology says about God — a further consideration is in order.
If we read Paul’s speech at the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-31, we learn that Paul notes that he observed that the Athenians had an altar with this inscription, “To An Unknown God.” Paul then proceeds to reveal to the Athenians the identity and nature of this God, the true God, the one and only Creator of all. Paul proceeds to challenge the Athenians’ misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the true God. Their conceptions of God are mistaken. Their idolatry is worthy of wrath. And thus he calls them to repentance, noting that God has entrusted the judgement of the world to the resurrected Jesus.
What is notable here, to my mind, is that Paul does not say that the Athenians are worshiping the wrong god. (Now, to be sure, they were doing that as well, given the other altars to other deities.) Paul rhetorically grants, in effect, that the Athenians are worshiping the true God, though they are doing so wrongly, in an idolatrous fashion. What they say about God is mistaken, the descriptions they ascribe to him are distorting, and their religious paraphernalia is dishonoring to him. Hence Paul calls them to repentance.
One conclusion we can draw from this is that Paul might very well concede (at least rhetorically) that the Athenians are worshiping the true God, the right God. The problem is that they are doing so wrongly, falsely, in ways that bring the wrath of God. And if this is correct, then Paul is here tapping into a theme in larger biblical theology.
Worshiping God wrongly
is tantamount to
worshiping the wrong god(s).
Ponder this for a few moments: Worshiping God wrongly is tantamount to worshiping the wrong god(s). Worshiping false gods makes one worthy of divine wrath in biblical theology. But, just as significant, worshiping the true God falsely — in idolatrous ways, or ways that dishonor God — also makes one worthy of divine wrath.
Now, this biblical truth corresponds to another, one regarding blasphemy. Blasphemy is insulting God or showing irreverence toward God. Irreverence is failing to glorify God or treating the things and thoughts of God in contempt. The second biblical truth may be summed up this way:
Blasphemy is found in
ascribing to God what is false
and in denying of God what is true.
These two biblical truths are important guides in approaching the question of whether Mormons, Muslims, and Christians worship the same God.
Observations Thus Far
Lets draw together our observations thus far.
First, not everything done for or offered to God is acceptable to him or is honoring to him.
Second, the descriptions of God in Islam, Mormonism, and Christianity are incompatible. Arguably, how Islam and Mormonism describe God is fundamentally incompatible with the Bible. (And this make sense just on the face of it, given how these two religions criticize the Bible and otherwise offer alternative scriptures.)
Third, in biblical theology, worshiping the true God wrongly is tantamount to worshiping the wrong god(s). (This is well illustrated when Israel creates a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai. They made an idol of the true God. Their idolatry was deemed the worship of false gods. Hence the second commandment prohibiting idols of the true God.)
Fourth, in biblical theology, blasphemyis found both in denying of the true God what is true and ascribing to the true God what is false. Both bear false witness of God.
Now, lets ponder these observations further with reference to the question of whether Mormons, Muslims, and Christians worship the same God.
Right or Wrong Referent?
Imagine that you and I meet and begin to describe a man who lives down the street from us. This man’s name is Tom. He lives in an apartment complex at the end of the street. As we offer each other our descriptions of Tom, we find that our descriptions diverge. In fact, they not only diverge, at some points they are downright incompatible.
Now, it could be that one or both of us has some mistaken information, or that we misunderstood something. It is also possible that, at least at some points, we are aware of different things Tom is or does or wears or eats. As such, perhaps we could harmonize our thoughts and descriptions. But if we find that our descriptions actually are incompatible, then we could not both be correct (though we might both be mistaken). Now, without exhausting this illustration, there could be several reasons for the differences.
First, in an apartment complex, we could imagine two men with some similarities and some differences. It may become more reasonable to believe that we are speaking of two different people named Tom. We could imagine making the mistake of supposing we were speaking of the same individual when we were actually speaking about two quite different individuals.
Second, we might also imagine that some of our views were gained through direct contact and others through hearsay or errant inferences. Thus we might be referring to the same person but be doing so with misunderstandings, misinformation, or mistakes.
So, it might be that we are referring to two different individuals named Tom. But it might be that we are referring to the same individual and that either or both of us has gotten something wrong about him.
And how would this apply to our discussion?
Well, on the one hand, it is possible — given the conflicting descriptions supplied by Muslims, Mormons, and Christians — that we are worshiping different gods (that we have different referents).
However, on the other hand, it is possible — just possible — that all three religions actually are referring to the one true God, that they are directing their worship to the one true God. Even so, each would agree, I suspect, that not everything that everybody says about God is true. And each would agree, I should imagine, that whatever the other religions say about God that conflicts with or contradicts what they say about God is false or mistaken or confused.
What we cannot rationally infer, however, given biblical revelation, is that it does not matter what we say about God. And not one of these religions has stated (to my knowledge) that you can say anything you’d like about God, that he is honored by whatever you say or do for him or in his name, or that whatever you’d like to offer in worship would be acceptable to him.
Where does this put is with regards to the question of whether or not Christians, Mormons, and Muslims worship the same God?
To my mind, we simply cannot know whether we are worshiping the same God — whether we are directing our words and worship toward the same referent, the same God. Bear with me. Give me a moment to explain. It may very well be that the referent of our words and worship is identical, the one true God. But even if that is so, the content of our words and worship is not identical.
However, given the content of biblical revelation — how God has revealed himself to us — we observe that both Islam and Mormonism depart from biblical revelation, ascribing to God what is false and denying of him what is true. As such, their teachings, conceptions, and practices dishonor him. Islam and Mormonism deny of God what is true and ascribe to God what is false. Thus they blaspheme God.
The significance of this should not go unnoticed: if worshiping the true God falsely is tantamount to worshiping false gods, then we can infer that, on the one hand, if we are worshiping the same true God (if we have the same referent), Islam and Mormonism are doing so falsely. Again, worshiping the true God falsely is tantamount to worshiping false gods.
So, whether Mormons or Muslims are directing their words and worship toward the true God may be an irrelevant inquiry, in one sense. Asserting that they do could be either false, or trivial, or ultimately blasphemous. What we can know is that (some of) what Mormonism and Islam say about God is false and misleading. At best, their words and worship distort the truth about God, and the reality of his revelation to us, and thus dishonor God.
A Pragmatic Postscript
In light of the discussion above, permit me to offer a personal and pragmatic note. When I am asked whether Christians and Mormons, or Christians and Muslims, worship the same God, I tend to gauge the moment to see whether I have time to explain.
If I have little time, I tend to say that we do not worship the same God. I say this simply because it just is the case that what Muslims and Mormons and Christians say about God is not the same. And when my time is short, I want to be clear that what these religions say about God is not identical, and thus that one cannot simply infer that all is well.
If I have a bit more time to explain — to discuss the observations that I noted above — then I’m quite happy to note that we might not know whether or not we worship the same God, but that merely having the same referent does not imply that what we say about God is true and honoring, or that saying and worshiping God in ways that are dishonoring to him are acceptable to him.
So, in practice, I could answer the question, Do Muslims, Mormons, and Christians worship the same God?, with either a “yes” or a “no,” depending on how I gauge the opportunity. And it seems to me that this is practically useful given that worshiping the true God falsely is tantamount to worshiping false gods.