Can God Make a Rock So Heavy He Can't Lift it? Why Muslims Object to the Incarnation

Once again, Sandro Magister does us all a favour by making available, in English, a dialogue between a Catholic (Alessandro Martinetti) and a Muslim (Aref Ali Nayed) on his website www.chiesa. The dialogue focuses on the relationship between God and Reason in Christianity and Islam respectively, and it is a very high quality exchange of views. It is, of course, a continuation of the Regensburg Affair, which is turning out to be like the proverbial pebble thrown into the pond–the ripples just keep coming (see our special report on the EIC’s Website).

Nayed’s reply to Martinetti is very enlightening. Among other things, they get into a discussion of the type of objection to God’s omnipotence that goes along the lines of “If God is omnipotent, can he make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?”

In the same category, Nayed places the question of whether God, in his omnipotence, can create a square circle. No, says Nayed, because in both Christian and Muslim theology, the square circle is something that cannot exist–it not only breaks the principle of non-contradiction, but it directly contradicts being/existence itself. A square circle cannot BE–it can have no existence, and therefore it makes no sense to say that God is not omnipotent because he cannot make such a thing.

THEN comes the really interesting part. Nayed says that this is why Muslims cannot accept the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, because a “man-god” is a thing that cannot BE. Just as a circle can never be a square or vice versa, so God cannot be man or vice versa. The two categories are mutually contradictory.

Which makes their rejection of the doctrine completely understandable. But why have Christians not raised the same objection? My guess is that here we come very close to a completely different understanding of the relationship between God and Man in Muslim and Christian thought. In Muslim thought, God and man are as far removed as the Carpentar from the Table (as one Muslim once put it to me). They are, in essence, different “shapes”. But in Christian thought, God made Man in his own image, so that Man is, if you like, “God-shaped”. To use the analogy of the square circle, Man and God are both circle-shaped, the only difference being that God is an infinite circle and Man a finite one. You are then left with what is still a arguable a pretty impressive miracle (that the Finite is capable of containing the Infinite), but you don’t have the mathematical contradiction of the square circle.

Does that mean that we are talking about completely different Gods? A Muslim one and a Christian one? Well, here I thank Nayed for stating for the first time from a Muslim point of view what some of us had already worked out from the Christian point of view. Nayed says that Islamic philosophy makes a distinction between “reference” and “sense”. The God who is our “reference” is the same, but the “sense” in which we speak of and understand the nature of this God is different, even contradictory. Useful.

I am certainly looking forward to reading Martinetti’s response.

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2 Responses to Can God Make a Rock So Heavy He Can't Lift it? Why Muslims Object to the Incarnation

  1. Athanasius says:

    Interesting post. As well as the Incarnation, I think that Christian Trinitarianism also has some relevance here. Trinitarianism means (amongst other things) that God somehow contains ‘community’. So for us to commune with God, we don’t need to _create_ community with God, we only have to _join_ community with God. It is through the Incarnation that we are invited to join this community.

    But if you are a ‘unitarian’ e.g. a Moslem, it’s very hard to see how that kind of participation in God is possible. Of course, a relatrionship is possible, but it will be a very different kind of relationship to the Christian ‘not slaves but sons’.

  2. Schütz says:

    Yes, Nayed mentions the Trinity in his reply to Martinetti in connection with the Incarnation. So it is a recognised issue. Did you know that the Koran actually presents (and naturally rejects) a mistaken doctrine of the Trinity, namely that the Trinity is God, Jesus and Mary? I can’t for the moment recall the sura and verse, but it is interesting that the first task is to clear up what exactly the doctrine of the trinity is and what it is not.

    I find the best writing in regard to the unity and (as you say) community of God to be Ratzinger’s classic “Introduction to Christianity”. There (page 125 in my edition) he refers to the fact that the hebrew word for the One God (El = Arabic Allah) is a plural word Elohim, “an extension that also hints at the process of transformation that even the El-figure needed,” comments Ratzinger.

    “People realized, if still quite unreflectively, that while God is indeed radically One, he cannot be forced into our categories of singular and plural; rahter, he stands above them, so that in the last analysis, even though he is truly one god, he cannot be fitted with complete appropriateness into the category “one”. In the early history of Israel (and later on, too–for us especially) this means that at the same time the legitimacy of the question implicit in polytheism is admitted. The plural, when it refers to the one God, means, so to speak, “He is everything divine”.”


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