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In Christianity,epistemology,Francis Beckwith,God,Islam,Justin Wishart,Muslim,Ontology,philosophy,Trinity

A Hijab and a Philosopher

By Justin Wishart

A short time ago, Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Wheaton College, was suspended for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.[1] Many people came out in support of Wheaton, while others supported Dr. Hawkins. The main controversy was over her Facebook comment: “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” One supporter of Hawkins is Catholic philosopher Dr. Francis Beckwith. He wrote two articles in support of Hawkins, and by extension his pope.[2] Much ink has been spilled commenting on Hawkins’ and Wheaton’s actions, so this article will focus on and analyze Beckwith’s articles.

It’s important to recognize the implications here and Beckwith’s desire to defend this position. “As the Church declared in Nostra Aetate (1965): ‘[Muslims] adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men. . . . Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet.'” Beckwith views this as Catholic dogma, and his desire to defend Hawkins becomes evident.

The Argument

His first argument is to point out that just because people use different names doesn’t mean that they are talking about something different. “Take, for example, the names ‘Muhammed Ali’ and ‘Cassius Clay.’ Although they are different terms, they refer to the same thing, for each has identical properties. Whatever is true of Ali is true of Clay and vice versa.” Beckwith points out that if one person uses one name for God and another person uses a different name for God, this does not mean that they are speaking about different gods. I agree. Even Christians in Middle Eastern countries call God “Allah.” “So the fact that Christians may call God ‘Yahweh’ and Muslims call God ‘Allah’ makes no difference if both ‘Gods’ have identical properties.”

holy-trinityThis is where Beckwith gets into his first bit of trouble. If his above argument is true, and I think it is, then the object in question must have “identical properties.” Anyone who has compared the Islamic idea of tawheed and the Christian idea of Trinity knows that they don’t share “identical properties.” Beckwith anticipates this objection. He attempts to argue that Islam and Christianity share concepts that are identical. “In the same way, there is only one being that is essentially God: the uncaused, perfect, unchanging, self-subsistent, eternal Creator and sustainer of all that which receives its being from another.” Both faiths have these identical beliefs about God; Beckwith rightly calls this “classical theism.”

Yet, the immediate question focuses around the differences between the two faiths. Beckwith anticipates this, as well, and argues that just because people have different notions about something does not mean they are talking about different things. He uses this analogy:

Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.” On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.”

Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not. . . . Abraham and Moses did not believe that God is a Trinity [How does he know this?], but St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Billy Graham do. Does that mean that Augustine, Aquinas, and Graham do not worship the same God as Abraham and Moses? . . . The fact that one may have incomplete knowledge or hold a false belief about another person—whether human or divine—does not mean that someone who has better or truer knowledge about that person is not thinking about the same person.

This is the distinction that holds Beckwith’s argument together. From this argument, he concludes: “For these reasons, it would a real injustice if Wheaton College were to terminate the employment of Professor Hawkins simply because those evaluating her case cannot make these subtle, though important, philosophical distinctions.”


For clarity, I will list Beckwith’s points succinctly:

1. Just because people use different names does not mean they are talking about different things. If they have “identical properties,” they are the same thing.

2. Muslims and Christians ascribe many identical properties to God, which is called “classical theism.”

3. Just because Muslims have less knowledge of the true God, doesn’t mean they are necessarily talking about a different god.

My analysis will focus primarily on point #3, as I essentially agree with the first two points.

The major blunder in Beckwith’s argument is that he confuses epistemology and ontology. Epistemology focuses around knowledge, for example, how one gets to know God; and ontology focuses around being, for example, what God is. Looking at Beckwith’s analogy, one sees this epistemological focus. It is because “Bob does not find the evidence convincing” that he doesn’t believe that Thomas Jefferson “sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings.” This clearly has no bearing on whether Thomas Jefferson actually “sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings.” Now, let’s make his analogy into an ontological analogy. If Fred’s Thomas Jefferson actually did “[sire] several children with his slave Sally Hemings” and Bob’s Thomas Jefferson actually did not “[sire] several children with his slave Sally Hemings,” then they cannot both be talking about the “Third President of the United States.”

To say that God is triune, or to say that God is tawheed, is not an epistemological expression, but an ontological one. As the Athanasian Creed states, “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God.”[3] This is clearly an ontological claim. Likewise, when Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips explains the meaning of tawheed, he says “that Allah is One, without partner in His dominion . . . One without similitude in His essence and attributes . . . and One without rival in His divinity and in worship.”[4] Since these are both ontological statements, expressions of what God is, the differences actually do make “God” different between the two faiths.

To make matters worse, the knowledgeable Christian denies tawheed and the knowledgeable Muslim denies the Trinity. It’s not as if Muslims believe in “classical theism,” which doesn’t contradict the Trinity, and when shown the Trinity he accepts it. It is precisely the opposite: it’s exactly the knowledge that has been shown to him that he rejects. To lump in Abraham and Moses into this discussion is to say that Moses only has “classical theism” in mind when talking about God, a dubious claim, and if shown the Trinity he would have rejected it as well. Does Beckwith believe this? Sure, it is probably correct to say that Paul had a more complete view of God than Moses. But Moses’ view of God never contradicts Paul’s. Yet, Mohammad’s view does.[5] It is the contradictions that equally matter. For Beckwith to focus on what Muslims and Christians agree on is to not really have a meaningful discussion on this subject. It’s not that Muslims have a lack of knowledge, it’s that they reject this knowledge. The laws of thought demand that we cannot be talking about the same thing anymore. Muslims do not worship the same God as we do.

Space does not allow me to point out that God Himself does not think He is like any other God, or provide the copious scriptural evidence to support this. Molech and Yahweh also shared identical properties, but God clearly didn’t say the Canaanites worshiped the same God. Why should we accept Beckwith’s “classical theism” as the benchmark for sameness while denying the similarities found within other religious conceptions of God? On what basis? Beckwith has not provided a meaningful argument here. It is disappointing that someone of Beckwith’s calibre produced this fallacious argument because he “cannot make these subtle, though important, philosophical distinctions.”

[1] Manya Brachear Pachman and Marwa Eltagouri, “Wheaton College Says View of Islam, Not Hijab, God Christian Teacher Suspended,” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 2015, accessed January 15, 2016, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-wheaton-college-professor-larycia-hawkins-20151216-story.html.

[2] Francis J. Beckwith, “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?,” The Catholic Thing, December 17, 2015, accessed January 15, 2016, http://www.thecatholicthing.org/2015/12/17/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god/, and Beckwith, “Why Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God,” The Catholic Thing, January 7, 2016, accessed January 15, 2016, http://www.thecatholicthing.org/2016/01/07/why-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god/. All quotations attributed to Beckwith are taken from these two articles.

[3] “The Athanasian Creed,” New Advent, accessed January 15, 2016, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02033b.htm.

[4] Abu Ameenah Bilaal Philips, The Fundamentals of Tawḥeed (Islamic Monotheism), 2nd ed. (Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House, 2005.), 17.

[5] “O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, ‘Three’; desist—it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs” (Quran 4:171, Saheeh International translation).

  • I don’t think it follows that just because two people have incompaitble views of the same person, that they’re talking about different people. Take the whole transgenderism debate — two people could have incompatible views on whether Alex is a man or a woman, whether Alex is a trans woman or whether that’s a term with real meaning, but it doesn’t mean they’re talking about a different individual. You can have deeply mistaken and incompatible views about the very nature of someone while still referring to the same person.

    So, your third premise isn’t stated correctly. Beckwith specifically says not just incomplete knowledge, but also false beliefs. Even if his example is more epistemological, I think it holds for more ontological disagreements too.

    Also, I think at least part of the particular link in Nostra Aetate is the Abrahamic link.

    • Thank you for the comment.

      It seems to me that you are confusing epistemology with ontology. Let’s look at your transgenderism example. The difference between person A and person B is epistemological. The disagreement is whether Alex is transgendered because of a faulty perception or an ontological reality. So, in this case, the question is on the nature of transgenderism and so person A and person B could both be speaking about the same Alex. ‎However, if we had a subject named Alex whos very property is that he has a faulty perception of himself and we had a subject named Alex who has the property that a woman soul (for lack of a better word) is inside of male body, then “Alex” cannot be the same subject between the two propositions.

      This is the difference with the Trinity and Tawheed. The Muslim claims that Allah IS Tawheed and the Christian that God IS Trinity.‎ Since this is purely an ontological claim, the same God cannot be referred to. To put it another way, God cannot be both Trinity and Tawheed.

      The difference between epistemological and ontological claims can be very thin. So, it might be better to express it negatively. Tawheed and the Trinity are two irreconcilable concepts. If God is one, he is not the other. So, if God is Tawheed, then He is not the Trinity. If God is the Trinity, then He is not Tawheed. Now, two people who have no dogma about God may, theoretically, argue about whether God is Tawheed or trinitarian and, theoretically, be speaking of the same God (I’m sceptical of this, but I will accept it for this argument). However, this is an epistemological question at this point. But, since both Christians and Muslims hold to their views dogmatically, this no l‎onger an epistemological question, but an ontological one. So, when a Muslim says that God is Tawheed, he is saying, by necessary deduction, that God is not trinitarian. Well, if a Christian says, with equal dogmatic force, that God is the Trinity, they cannot be speaking about the same being. So, any ontological claim that (a is b) cannot be the same if the other claim is (a is not b). You are eqivocating (a). Denying this would be to collapse the laws of thought and make thinking absurd, it seems to me.

      Unfortunately, I do not understand your second paragraph.

      Just because Muslims claim an Abrahmic link for Allah, and many others make the same claim as well‎, doesn’t make it so. I would argue that there is no such link, at least ontologically speaking. One may borrow an idea and make a false god from the true God, but this is an epistemological link. All false gods have this link. Yet, taking a true concept of God and changing it to make a contradictory concept of god does not mean the same God is being spoken of ontologically. But, this would require a Bible study and too big a topic to cover properly in the comment section.

      Again, thank you for your comment.