President Bush has gotten in trouble with some of his fellow evangelicals. They don't think he's a real evangelical because of his comments about other religions. He says Islam is a good religion, that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God, and that the beliefs of other good religions like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. will help contribute to a better society. Meanwhile, Christianity (at least any Christianity that takes the scriptures as authoritative) states quite clearly that there's no other way to the Father except through Jesus. It says that God is three persons in one being, a Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), while Islam and contemporary Judaism insist that God is one in every way possible and that Jesus, a mere creation of God, is not to be identified or confused with God. Islam does believe he's a prophet and will return. They don't believe he died, never mind that he was resurrected. Judaism (except for Messianic Jews, if you count them) don't even believe that much about him.
What do we make of this? I want to explain what I think President Bush means when he says these things and why I think it's not just consistent with evangelicalism but it's what evangelicals should say. What the evangelicals who resist saying these things want to avoid is the kind of pluralism that attributes one reality to the multiple beliefs systems in world religions. They're all getting at the same reality but in different ways. I don't think that's at all what Bush has in mind, and I think a careful look at the nature of the language will show that the many repeated claims against Bush's statements are assuming an implausible view of how names function in natural languages like English.
We need to understand some philosophy of language to see this point. There are two sorts of theories you can have about how names function in natural languages. Bertrand Russell took the view that seems to be assumed by all this anti-Bush rhetoric. The idea is that a proper name is really just our way to abbreviate some extremely specific phrase that would technically be called a definite description. This would be something of the form 'the _____' where whatever follows the 'the' makes the expression uniquely referring. It rules out all possible contenders for the name's referent. So ';Jeremy' when used in a context that makes it clear that it's referring to me is really just an abbreviation for some definite description, e.g. 'the blogger who started Parablemania' or 'the Ph.D. student in philosophy at Syracuse University married to a hot chick from Barbados' or 'the author of the blog post that you're reading'. No other person or object can fit these descriptions. Which definite description is relevant depends on how you came to learn the referent of the name, but the name really is just such a description according to this theory. If 'God' in English is a definite description, then it would have to involve some uniquely referring content. As it turns out, English users have different views about God and are thinking about different descriptions when they use the word. If we take this view seriously enough, then we have to think 'God' has a different description for each user, who has at least a slightly different view of God from the next person's. I have a Reformed view of God. I have a good friend who is more Arminian. We disagree on whether God had certain people in mind to be saved from the beginning or whether God allows people to choose in a way that doesn't stem from some action of God's determining their choice. That's a pretty big difference in terms of God's character and God's ultimate desires. Can I and my friend say we believe in the same God? I don't think you can if you take the unmodified Russellian view that 'God' is just an abbreviation for whatever definite description you're thinking of when you use the term. If that's right, then no one believes in the same God, and religious pluralism is rampant, because each Christian has a different religion and a different God. That's contrary to actual Christian teaching, so that's a dead-end. This view is insane and can't really be held consistently with biblical statements that Christians are united in Christ despite disagreeing on minor issues.
The other option for a Russellian is to say that a particular core of the properties of God are the essential ones that count as the relevant description. How do you figure out which properties are in this core? Is it a core belief that God is a Trinity? Is it a core belief that Christ died for our sins? These are both core beliefs for Christianity. You can't be a Christian without believing in these things. But is it essential to the meaning of the word 'God'? When that sound is uttered, Christians will think these things are true of God. When the same sound is uttered, Muslims will not think these things. Is that because their private dialects have different meanings for the word? No. They both mean that God is the creator of the world and the one to whom we owe our allegiance. On a description theory of names, I'm not sure the name means too much beyond that. (I should point out that Aquinas took exactly this sort of view and concluded that Muslims mean the same thing, and much of his work was designed to be evangelistic toward Muslims, so he was no pluralist!) Muslims and Christians disagree not because they think the word 'God' means different things. They disagree because they believe different things are true of the being who is in fact the referent of that word. Both religions believe there's only one God, and each thinks that the other has false beliefs about God. That is not the same as saying that they think the other religion follows a different God that doesn't exist. A Christian should say that God exists. A Muslim will agree, and the Muslim really does mean the same thing the Christian does. Yet a Christian should also say that Muslims believe false things about God and worship him falsely or in vain (as a Muslim will say about the Christian). This seems to me to be what a Russellian definite description theory should say about how 'God' functions in English, and it's perfectly consistent with saying that Christians and Jews worship the same God.
The other main view about how names function is Saul Kripke's view that names carry no meaning content at all but just trace back to the object that was originally named with that name. There's a story about the causal history of the use of that name. When I was born, my parents named me "Jeremy". That's the source of the use of that name for me. A series of uses of that name to refer to me continued on to the current time, when people still use that name to refer to me. On this view, 'God' is a name. I don't know the philological history well enough to give details that I'm sure of, it seems right to say that 'God' came to be used in English because Christianity at some point had reached English-speaking people who used that name to refer to the being they worshiped. That's why it's correct to say that 'God' in English has the same referent as 'Deus' in the mouth of a Latin-speaking Christian during the time of Augustine, which traces back to Greek-speaking Jews who used the word 'Theos', which in turn has a causal connection with Hebrews who used the term 'El'. But what about contemporary Judaism? That's easier to see than Islam. After all, contemporary Jews trace their use of the English word 'God' back eventually to uses of the Hebrew 'El' and 'Elohim'. The causal chain there is fairly clear. Abraham worshiped God and called him 'El' and other names. His children called God the same names. Eventually the use of the term led to interacting with people who used a different word in a different language, and eventually it hit English-speaking Jews in the 20th century, say Joe Lieberman's parents. Their use of the term led to his. This causal chain runs independently of those that led to George Bush's use of the term, but both trace back to Abraham's use, and both refer to the same being that Abraham referred to with 'El'. Therefore, Christians and Jews today in the United States are using the word 'God' as a name for the same being. It's just that many of them disagree with each other about what's true of God. They even worship the same God, though God has made claims about what counts as legitimate worship and what is worshiping him in vain. So an evangelical Christian should say that Joe Lieberman worships God but in vain (with a hope, of course, that it won't continue to be in vain).
What about Islam, then? Certainly there's a big difference. Muhammad came along hundreds of years after the time of Christ, writing some scriptures that he said were in the tradition of Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. He said that this was a continuation of the revelation God had been giving since the time of Abraham. He said that this was the God of Abraham that he was worshiping. Yet the things he said about this God conflicted not just with what Jesus said but also with what Abraham, Moses, and David would have said. Muhammad's explanation for this is that the scriptures had been changed, and he had come along as a new prophet to set things straight. Does this mean that the God of Islam is not the same God as the God of Judaism and Christianity? I don't see how. All it shows is that Islam teaches different things about God. The causal history view has to admit that, even at the beginning of Islam, Islam teaches different things about God than do Judaism and Christianity, but that in itself shows no more than that even at the beginning Islam had different views about God. It doesn't show that the term 'Allah' in the mount of an early Muslim was intended to refer to a different God. In fact, Muhammad says the opposite. He says he is talking about the God of the Bible. He just says the people of the book (i.e. Jews and Christians) believe false things about God. Therefore, the causal use of the term 'Allah' in the mouth of a Muslim today (and therefore 'God' in the mount of an English-speaking Muslim) does trace back through a chain of causes to the use of 'El' by Abraham. Therefore, on the causal view of names, the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are indeed the same God. It's just that the two religions teach different things about God.
I conclude that President Bush was speaking the truth when he said that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all worship the same God. This isn't the whole truth, and I won't say that it's not misleading, but I don't see how anyone can say that his statements on these matters would constitute an endorsement of the kind of pluralism that counts all religions as equally valid paths to the same salvation, and I don't see how these statements require a misunderstanding of the differences between Christianity and Islam. I reject that kind of pluralism, and I know full well the differences between Christianity and Islam (having read most of the Qur'an and having spent a summer in a Muslim country), but I agree with President Bush's statements on this matter. Denying them involves a fundamental mistake about how names function in language, on either of the primary theories of how such terms work.
Addendum: There was some helpful discussion on this post where it first appeared. You can view that conversation at the Wayback Machine's archive of the post.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.