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The Same God?

May 24, 2010

It drives me nuts when people start saying that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same god. I’ve talked about this before on this blog, but I have a slightly new way of thinking about this.

The problem is establishing a referent to the word “God.” In his discussion of reference and referents in Sign, Text, Scripture, George Aichele points out that determining the truth of a statement usually involves establishing the referents in the statement. In addition—in quasi-fictional texts—a reference can be split between a fictional character and a real character. There was a real-world “Alice” (Alice Liddell) that in part inspired the “Alice” in Alice in Wonderland, but the two are obviously not strictly the same. The reference is a “split reference” in the sense that it is split between the fictional character and the real-world person.

Aichele rightly insists that establishing referents (or split referents) for fictional characters (such as “Alice” in Alice in Wonderland or “Jesus” in the gospel of Mark) is obviously highly problematic—which makes it almost or literally impossible to determine the truth of statements about such referents. He writes:

Unlike Alice Liddell, we have no knowledge of either of these characters [Jesus or John] apart from their appearance int he Gospel of Mark or other stories. … Even to assume (as many readers do) that the Jesus who appears in Mark is the same being as the character of that name who appears in some other story, such as the Gospel of Matthew, the film Jesus of Montreal, or the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, requires metaphysical postulates as well as religious beliefs that go far beyond any message provided by the Gospel of Mark alone. (80)

In sum, assuming that the referent of the sign “Jesus” in Mark is the same referent as the sign “Jesus” in Matthew, Jesus of Montreal, or Jesus Christ Superstar is highly problematic, and—I would even say—impossible to demonstrate.

Similarly, to say that the various uses of the word “God” for all Jews, Christians, and Muslims each have exactly the same referent is something that would be impossible to demonstrate—even if we conceded the dubious assumption that gods exist.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2010 6:00 pm

    Surely more sophisticated considerations of the reference to “God” in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam take this into account pretty well, don’t they? Whether or not you agree with their conclusions, I think there’s probably a spectrum of such an affirmation (of the unity of the referent “God” in the worship of the Abrahamic religions) going from fuzzy-popular-sentiment to theologically-astute-consideration. I imagine what drives you nuts is closer to the former than the latter.

    Another interesting question of “God” reference is the “God of the philosophers and savants” contrasted with the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”… I imagine that virtually the same split-reference issues are in play, only with different players.

    Another interesting question might be… to what extent is reference in the context of worship different than reference in the context of literature or discourse (e.g., Alice in Wonderland or gospel narratives). I don’t think it’s obvious that reference functions identically in these activities.

  2. May 24, 2010 6:45 pm

    I think I’ve misunderstood your post. I don’t have a problem with the three religions believing in the same idea – an all powerful creator with Christianity coming out of Judaism and Islam effectively coming out of both. It’s a more progressive tool to unite people as well. Just like I’d secretly rather people believed in a gentle cynic philosopher Jesus who didn’t preach hell. He’s not going to get tossed out for being irrelevant when we discover who he really was – that law abiding Jewish prophet who preached judgement and endtimes within a generation and eternal torment in hell for failed to turn to God – the fundies will select the apocalyptic bits to prove their case and leave out all the bits where Jesus got things wrong. Like the date. Sort of thing…

    The other thing …. Matthew and Mark share similar sources and there is a bit of dependence going on too – are you saying the sources aren’t tradition about the same person? And Jesus – are you saying he’s fiction? A myth?

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 24, 2010 7:04 pm

    Evan, I’m not sure I know of any particularly sophisticated defenses of this claim. I agree that the issue is compounded if you try to compare Aquinas’ god with, say, the god of Abraham. And you’re probably also right to point out that reference might again work differently (or perhaps not at all, of course), in other discursive or practical contexts. “God bless us” is not like “God is a necessary being.”

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 24, 2010 7:14 pm

    Steph, I agree that that rhetorical claim (they all worship the same god) does social work—i.e., it has a unifying effect on certain communities that might otherwise be at odds. But point out the work it does is different from considering its truth (or the impossibility of demonstrating its truth). On some days I agree with you: liberal religious people are better than conservative evangelicals. But on other days (like today) I effing hate liberals for passing themselves off as neutral, generous, fair, or whatever, when they take a tactical position just like everyone else. Pretending not to take a tactical position is HOW they take their tactical position, and when it’s done that way it’s incredibly difficult to bring pull their position under the microscope.

    The point about Jesus, Matt, Mark, etc.: I don’t contest their literary dependence on one another, and I don’t contest that Jesus existed. Aichele’s point, as I understand it, is something like this: if we have a sentence that says, “after rising from the dead Jesus appeared to his disciples,” then the referent of the word “Jesus” is split—of course it is intended to point to the historical Jesus, but since this is in part a fictional text, it also points to the Jesus in the fictional story. Alice in real life is not the same as Alice referred to in the novel, and Jesus in real life is not always the same Jesus referred to in the gospels (e.g., when we’re talking about a post-resurrection Jesus, right?). One is fictional and one is (probably) real, so it is a split reference. Does that clarify things? Aichele is not saying Jesus didn’t exist, he’s making a technical point about semiotics and how signs refer and what they might refer to when fictional elements enter a narrative.

  5. May 24, 2010 7:55 pm

    I know what you mean about bloody liberals.

    but oh dear I am being a bit literal and dense I think but Alice was never a real person was she? And as Jesus probably believed in resurrection and when he knew he would be killed he was sure that he would be vindicated by God and rise like the Macabbean martyrs and when he was killed, his grieving disciples (or some of them) felt sure he must have been right and Jesus (seemed to) appear (to one or two) of the disciples (in visions which they believed to have been real). So it was more an interpretation of the experiences of some disciples and the reports they gave. I think I do see his point though but I’m not sure if it’s a good example.

  6. May 24, 2010 9:31 pm

    Evan, I’m not sure I know of any particularly sophisticated defenses of this claim.

    No? Again, I wouldn’t expect you to necessarily agree with their conclusions, but to say that you haven’t encountered any particularly sophisticated stabs at it strikes me as a bit too bold. There are surely enough related narrative traditions about the work of God to offer a quite plausible defense of such unity. I think you’re highlighting difference here to a somewhat unobjective degree (and I’d say the same for your comments on the gospels as well). As I see it (and this is, again, where the God of the philosophers may come in as well), the biggest difficulty for arguing a united referent are doctrines like the trinity, that really cause difficulties for establishing a theological structure that’s similar. In the worship of the three religions, though, surely there’s plenty of material for quite sophisticated accounts of a single Abrahamic god. I’m really convinced you’re saying otherwise simply to be contrary.

    I agree that the issue is compounded if you try to compare Aquinas’ god with, say, the god of Abraham.

    So you’re lumping Aquinas’ god with the god of the philosophers? That’s interesting… I suppose you’re speaking of Aquinas’ more philosophical works rather than, say, his biblical commentaries or his sermons? This actually brings up an interesting point… you speak of split reference in something like a text. Can there be “split reference” for a person? Can Thomas qua philosophical theologian believe in one God and Thomas qua biblical theologian believe in another? This strikes me as less plausible than talking about separate texts by separate authors referring to various gods, unless Thomas intentionally set out to refer to different gods, which I rather doubt he did.

    And you’re probably also right to point out that reference might again work differently (or perhaps not at all, of course), in other discursive or practical contexts. “God bless us” is not like “God is a necessary being.”

    And my point in saying this was that split reference of the sort you find in Alice might not be applicable to the sort of dilemma you pose… of whether “Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same god”. So are you now agreeing that it probably isn’t appropriate to apply the idea of split reference in this case?

  7. May 24, 2010 9:41 pm

    Aichele’s point, as I understand it, is something like this: if we have a sentence that says, “after rising from the dead Jesus appeared to his disciples,” then the referent of the word “Jesus” is split—of course it is intended to point to the historical Jesus, but since this is in part a fictional text, it also points to the Jesus in the fictional story. Alice in real life is not the same as Alice referred to in the novel, and Jesus in real life is not always the same Jesus referred to in the gospels (e.g., when we’re talking about a post-resurrection Jesus, right?). One is fictional and one is (probably) real, so it is a split reference.

    This seems silly to me… couldn’t you say this about any historical text whatsoever? Beyond the rather mundane lesson that a textual character is not the same as the real person, I don’t know quite what this achieves. Do you think that the gospel writers were not intending to write about Jesus of Nazareth when they wrote of the post-resurrection Jesus? That would seem to need to be the conclusion, if you’re comparing it to Alice or to some modern literary rendition of Jesus that had as its intended referent a fictional character in addition to an historical inspiration.

    I’m not up on critical biblical scholarship, I simply do theology as a (naive?) adherent to the actual occurrence of the resurrection… but is it really plausible that the evangelists intended to write a fictional account of the resurrected Jesus? On what would such a conclusion be based? This isn’t, of course, a question of whether the resurrected Jesus was actually the same as the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but rather a question simply of the intended referent of the gospel writers. I’m asking honestly, not rhetorically (in case the is textual criticism 101 or something and you attribute to me the contrariness that I did to you in the above comment!).

  8. May 24, 2010 9:45 pm

    It’s this that I have trouble with:

    the referent of the word “Jesus” is split—of course it is intended to point to the historical Jesus, but since this is in part a fictional text, it also points to the Jesus in the fictional story.

    Is it right to say that the referent is split if the intended referent isn’t split? Why wouldn’t you just say that the referent is one thing, with varying levels of success in accuracy? In Alice and Wonderland, it seems obvious that Carroll was perhaps inspired by an historical person, but also writing purely about a fictional character. In this case, however, he was intending to point to two people. You say here, however, that the gospel writers were only intending to point to one.

  9. May 24, 2010 11:21 pm

    Focusing less on historical figures and more on God, it seems like the question of sameness of referent requires the question of whether reference succeeds to be settled first.

    If none of their statements successfully refer to anything, then surely it’s meaningless to ask whether their referents are the same?

    And if, say, Christian reference to God refers successfully to God, then won’t it be a religious question what the heathens are referring to (God under another name, demons, or nothing)?

    I’m not too sure about fictional characters, but if two books by different authors describe characters with the same name and the same traits, does it really make sense to ask whether they’re the same person? If so, then will it be true that Holmes and Watson were gay lovers, since it’s true in plenty of fanfic, which is supposedly about the same figures…

    I think I’m probably agreeing with you, though I’m not sure – sameness of referent of different religious traditions can’t really be meaningfully talked about, at least without giving a sufficient causal explanation of, e.g. which demon was misleading the Arabs.

  10. May 24, 2010 11:25 pm

    Oh, unless the three religions are three different continuities of the same franchise: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AlternateContinuity

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 25, 2010 10:08 am

    Steph, The author of Alice in Wonderland DID have a real world niece (?) named Alice (Liddell), which the character was apparently sort of based on.

    For Aichele, it’s not relevant whether or not the author of Mark intended it to be fiction—once the text moves toward fiction there is a fictional Jesus referred to by other passages in the text. The reference of some uses of the sign “Jesus” are the Jesus IN THE GOSPEL rather than the Jesus outside the gospel. Luke has the right idea: fan fiction about Sherlock and Watson have fiction has their referents.

    Again, it’s a technical point about semiotics and reference, not a claim about the historical Jesus or what the author of the gospels thought …

  12. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 25, 2010 10:10 am

    Luke: Yes, the alternate continuity thing is perfect. There’s a great article by a cultural theorist guy (whose name slips my mind at the moment) who did work on all the different versions of James Bond out there (between the different books and films, etc.). Establishing a referent for “Bond” become a tricky thing once there are a bunch of them out there!

  13. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 25, 2010 10:14 am

    Evan: There are traditions, say The Secret Gospel of John and Marcion, that argue that the Jewish god and Jesus’ god are not the same. I don’t know of any response to these charges, other than “nuh uh!”

    On Aquinas: I mentioned him because I don’t really find that eternal, all-powerful, perfect, unchanging, all-good, etc. god in the Bible (at least not without some sort of piecing together and amalgamating various strands).

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 25, 2010 10:19 am

    Evan: Could I make this point about any historical text? Yes and no—certainly it would only be worth saying about a text where fact is mixed with fiction to a substantial degree. Like movies that claim to be based on a “true story.” As I noted in some of the other comments, Aichele is writing a book about semiotics—he just uses examples from the Bible, but he could have chosen other texts.

    I don’t assume that the gospel writers INTENDED to write fiction, although I don’t know what the author of John could have thought he was doing if not that. In any case, it’s irrelevant whether or not they intended it to be fictional when it comes to the technical semiotic point. It’s a technical point about reference—one could take the same analysis to Freudian slips for instance, which are obviously not “intended.”

  15. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 25, 2010 10:22 am

    Evan: Can a referent be split if not intended? Sure, cause this isn’t about intention. If I honestly believe that my father was the president of the US, while he was not, in fact, we could take statements of mine (like: “My father used to play catch with me before doing some work in the oval office”) and do a semiotic analysis of the referents of the word “father” in such sentences. Perhaps my father did play catch with me, in which case this would be a split reference between a real father and a fictional father in my imagination/memory/whatever.

  16. May 25, 2010 11:21 am

    I didn’t express myself very well – yes, can’t remember without doing a bit or research but I think it was his niece called Alice. But wasn’t it written for her and not about her without using any ‘historical sources’? And the gospel writers writing in the shadow of a politician called Cicero who said ‘The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice’, I think might have intended to write history, follow sources faithfully while making a few ‘corrections’ along the way… I don’t think ‘Alice’ and ‘Jesus’ are both fictions at all.

    As far as the god referrent goes, perhaps no god believer refers to the same God at all. Everybody interprets individually and creates a different image and even that image changes from day to day. So as many American Christians don’t think that Pat Robertson believes in the same God as they do, and JIC don’t believe in the same god, nobody believes in the same god and even unbelievers don’t believe they’re not believing in the same god…

  17. May 25, 2010 12:25 pm

    Evan: There are traditions, say The Secret Gospel of John and Marcion, that argue that the Jewish god and Jesus’ god are not the same. I don’t know of any response to these charges, other than “nuh uh!”

    Now I’m quite confused. Is your problem with the inadequacy of certain polemical responses to non-canonical gospels, or with accounts of the unity of references to divinity in the worship of the Abrahamic religions? These strike me as two different things. I’m also curious to know what responses you would characterize as “nuh uh!”. Again, I don’t expect you to be convinced by any particular argument, but surely it’s a bit unhelpful to simply characterize religious polemic as a he-said-she-said. That hardly seems a critical stance, coming from someone who teaches this stuff.

    On Aquinas: I mentioned him because I don’t really find that eternal, all-powerful, perfect, unchanging, all-good, etc. god in the Bible (at least not without some sort of piecing together and amalgamating various strands).

    I thought you had already granted that the Bible is a pieced together and amalgamated text. Are you now using the idea of a unified scripture simply because it’s a convenient counter to Aquinas qua philosophical theologian? And what is odd to you about piecing together a cannon in accordance with one’s theological views? Isn’t this how we all read texts?

    Evan: Can a referent be split if not intended? Sure, cause this isn’t about intention. If I honestly believe that my father was the president of the US, while he was not, in fact, we could take statements of mine (like: “My father used to play catch with me before doing some work in the oval office”) and do a semiotic analysis of the referents of the word “father” in such sentences. Perhaps my father did play catch with me, in which case this would be a split reference between a real father and a fictional father in my imagination/memory/whatever.

    I suppose this is why I’m questioning the usefulness of a comparison between Alice/the gospels and the worship of the Abrahamic religions in the first place… I don’t see how this isn’t about intention if we’re talking about something like “which god are they worshiping?” It as least seems much more relevant a consideration than what you’ve taken it to be.

    I also have a sneaking suspicion that our whole disagreement here is rooted in a de dicto/de re problem… taking the idea that “Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same god”, you find it just weird as a de re statement, whereas I think that it makes much more sense to consider it de dicto… indeed, focusing on it from such an interpretation of intentionality would seem to make more sense if we’re concerned with gospel narratives and other aspects of the traditions as conduits for religious belief and practice. It almost seems as if you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too, remaining purely considerate of literary accounts to form your answer and yet treating these accounts against some outer reality that seems obvious to you (w.r.t. the post-resurrection Jesus or whatever else). I’m still not clear on why intentionality isn’t relevant for understanding religious worship, and given that it is relevant, I’m not clear on why it’s obvious that an understanding of a religious person’s or group’s worship depends on the accuracy of its correlation with reality in order to make sense of inter-religious comparisons.

  18. May 25, 2010 12:32 pm

    …do keep in mind that the final paragraph just came to me on a whim, and I may have stated it rather badly. But roughly, I hope, the problem that I see with our disagreement is clear (as mud?!).

  19. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 25, 2010 12:39 pm

    I’m starting to get lost here.

    There are some who say, like Marcion, that Jews and Christians don’t worship the same gods. I’m just saying that I’ve never seen a sophisticated response to that claim. Do you know of any sophisticated rebuttal’s of these sorts of claims? Particularly any that take into the account the messiness of finding referents for claims about gods?

    The point about god in the scripture vs. god for Aquinas: my point was merely that I don’t see Aquinas’ god anywhere in the Bible. You could pull quotes from here and there (about your god’s power, your god’s unchanging nature), put them together, and say “there, this is Aquinas’ god,” but this would be an amalgamation from different parts of the text.

  20. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 25, 2010 12:40 pm

    I don’t really follow that last paragraph …

  21. May 25, 2010 12:58 pm

    …that’s alright. I don’t much follow semiotics either. This is the blind cage-fighting the blind, I suppose. :)

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