Praying to Aslan

by Bill Wood

‘Do Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God even if some have some false beliefs about God?’ I think the answer is yes. The line I would take is that Jews, Christians, and Muslims intend to worship the same God, and their intention is enough to fix the reference of their acts of worship so that they all pick out the same God.

It seems to me that the question of whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God resolves into the question of whether their acts of worship refer to the same God, so I think this is mainly a question about the theory of reference. (Mainly but not entirely—there are theological issues too, and we might also need a distinction between ‘minimal worship’ and ‘proper worship,’ as I discuss below.)

Suppose you and a friend are at a party and you see a man across the room who is drinking what appears to be champagne from a champagne flute and who appears to be wearing a nice watch. You say to your friend “That guy drinking champagne has a nice watch!” Now suppose your friend happens to know that the guy in question is drinking water, not champagne, from his flute. What if your friend then says to you “Ha! No one over there is drinking champagne! As a result of your false beliefs, your expression is empty and you have not referred to anyone at all!”

Your friend is being a jerk. You did refer to the man. You had a false belief about him, to be sure, but it was a false belief about him, that guy, the guy to whom you successfully referred. Philosophers will know that there is a large (analytic) literature about the theory of reference. I am somewhat familiar with that literature, and my views more closely align with theories of direct reference and the causal theory of naming. But I think the key determinant of reference is a speaker’s intention.

I think something analogous is going on with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim acts of worship. The Christian insists that God is triune, which the Jew and the Muslim deny. The Muslim insists that God revealed the Koran to Mohammed, which the Christian and the Jew deny. The Jew insists that God requires certain ritual acts which the Christian and the Muslim do not perform. And so on. There is a great deal of overlap among the three Abrahamic religions when it comes to the concept of God, but a great deal of difference too.

Nevertheless, they all worship the same God because they all intend to worship the one God of Israel. The first proto-orthodox Christians took themselves to have learned something surprising (very surprising indeed) about that same God— that he has a Son, who is also fully divine. They did not think that their God is a different God altogether. (Well, Marcion thought that, and so did some other gnostic Christians but that doesn’t actually complicate the point I’m making here.) Likewise for Muslims, mutatis mutandis. Jews, Christians, and Muslims intend to refer to the same God and so they do, notwithstanding the fact that (depending on what God is really like) some or all of them have a lot of false beliefs about that God.

The line I’m taking also explains why, intuitively, many people would say that Greco-Roman polytheists, or monotheists in non-Western traditions do not worship the same God as Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They do not intend to, and so they don’t.

Here is a potential counter-example to my view. What about a case like the following? Suppose that Bob intends to worship the God of Israel in the form of, say, a golden calf. He builds a statue himself, bows down to it, and says “Yep. This right here is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and that’s the God that I intend to worship!” Does he succeed in worshipping the same God as Jews, Christians, and Muslims?

I’m prepared to say that he does, at least in some circumstances. Those circumstances are unlikely to obtain, because the relevant intention is transparently self-undermining and so is very unlikely ever to be formed. Someone who really, truly, intends to worship the God of Christians, Jews, and Muslims will rarely be able to really, truly, intend to direct that act of worship at something he himself constructed. (“This thing I myself made just now is also the very God that spoke to Moses from the burning bush…”). But I’m willing to say that someone who sincerely does form that intention succeeds in worshipping God, notwithstanding his massively false beliefs about God.

This is where the distinction between proper or full worship and minimal worship might be needed. We should not infer from the fact that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God that they all worship God to the same degree, or in the right way, or in the fullest way. Nor, obviously, should we infer that all three religions are equally salvific or equally true. The position that I have taken is compatible with a variety of views on those questions.

A final story: When I was a child, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was very young. I was able to read it with pleasure, but I didn’t recognize that it was a Christian allegory. (In fact, that didn’t happen until I was embarrassingly old.) When I finished, I thought Aslan was pretty awesome— WAY better than Jesus, and way better than the God we talked about in Church. One day, semi-guiltily, I decided to worship Aslan—you know, just to see what would happen—and so I said a little prayer to him.

By my present lights, I did not pray to the Christian God, or to Christ, even though in a certain sense Aslan is meant to be Christ, or at least to represent Christ. (I’m sure there are additional complexities about fictional characters, but let’s leave them out.) The reason that I did not pray to Christ is that I did not intend to. I explicitly thought Aslan was a different God, and I explicitly said a little prayer to that God rather than to the God my family worshipped on Sundays.

Reader, I was a tiny idolator. Thanks, C.S. Lewis!


This article initially appeared on Floreamus, a blog for current and former members of Oriel theology.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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