Belief in God is, naturally, the major and most consequential component in all theistic belief systems — including their sense of ethics. While theologians and lay people alike have expended considerable time and effort trying to understand the nature of God, one question that has, regrettably, often been overlooked or neglected is what kind of God is ethically worth believing in.
Like other monotheistic traditions of the Axial Age, in the Islamic tradition — to which I belong and with which I identify — the question asked by theologians regarding the concept of the nature of God was primarily framed in terms of what kind of God is worthy of worship. Moreover, the answer to that question has predominantly placed the emphasis on the Divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence. Such approaches to the concept of God which emphasise transcendent attributes — whether they be in the Jewish, Christian, or Islamic tradition — not only tend to come at the expense of conceptions of Divine relational love, but are also unable to exonerate God from failing to prevent the occurrence and persistence of evil. This amounts to endorsing what I would refer to as unethical conceptualisations of the Divine.
But what does it mean for one’s concept of God to be ethical? It means, at very least, a refusal to conceptualise the Divine in ways that would allow us to ascribe to the nature of God characteristics that we would find offensive if we encountered them in human beings. According to this litmus test, any belief in the Divine that conceptually allows for the existence of an evil that God could in theory prevent but, for whatever reason, permits to take place, or a belief in Divinely sanctioned misogyny, can never be ethically (and therefore theologically) justified.
In the Islamic tradition, the Divine is the source of the attributes of Majesty (jalal) and Beauty (jamal). Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, particular conceptualisation of jalal and jamal have often failed this ethical litmus test by endorsing a concept of the Divine that sanctions oppressive patriarchy, or by offering theological justifications for a concept of an all-powerful and all-loving God that cannot be reconciled with the persistence of evil at the hands of human beings or the occurrence of natural disasters.
However, some contemporary progressive Muslims scholars, whose concept of God is based on process-relational and/or Muslima cum feminist approaches to Islamic theology, are challenging these dominant conceptualisations of jalal and jamal, and are, in this way, articulating what I would call a concept of the Divine that is ethically worthy of worship.
Now, some believers who adhere to “classical theistic” conceptualisations of the Divine might object to this ethical litmus test of who God is or ought to be on the grounds that my approach effectively anthropomorphises God. I would counter that any account of theism that is unable to pass this litmus test exists in an uncomfortable tension with the biblical notion of humanity being created in the image of God (imago Dei) — a version of which is compatible with the Qur’an. Moreover, I would insist that any theology based on Divine Command Theory leaves us with highly problematic and ultimately insoluble ethical-moral conundrums, including indefensible accounts of theodicy and belief in a God who sanctions misogyny.
Another possible objection to this ethical litmus test is based on an invocation of the much abused (most frequently by Muslim militant and radical groups) maxim, “Allahu Akbar” (which, translated, means “God is greater”). This amounts to a version of Divine Command Theory in the register of the predominant form of Islamic theology — namely, Asha’arite-Maturidi theology — which contends that human beings are not able to judge God’s actions on the basis of human standards. But that is not the only form or expression of Islamic theology. Indeed, some Muslim theologians have applied precisely this ethical litmus test to the Divine qua the Divine.
But I would argue something slightly different. I would contend that God’s “greatness” should only be applied ontologically — in the sense employed within Islamic philosophical mysticism — and not to Islamic ethics and jurisprudence. Indeed, God’s inexhaustible attributes of Majesty (jalal) and Beauty (jamal) should produce in human beings their ever more ethically beautiful expressions, which in turn contribute to ever better forms of human flourishing and the flourishing of the entirety of God’s creation.
In the final analysis, it is imperative for us to recognise that our concept of God has important implications — not only for what kind of abstract theological beliefs we might hold, but also what kind of ethical values we should abide by as believers. It is my profound hope this Ramadan that all believers in the Divine would seriously ponder whether our idea of God can pass the ethical litmus test I’ve proposed. For it is only in this way that we can be assured that the object of our worship is indeed ethically worthy of that worship.
Adis Duderija is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and Society in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, and a Senior Fellow in the Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue, Griffith University. He is the co-author (with Halim Rane) of Islam and Muslims in the West: Major Issues and Debates, and co-author (with Alina Alak and Kristin Hissong) of Islam and Gender: Major Issues and Debates.
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