Do Catholics and Protestants Worship the Same God?

You may be aware of the recent scandal in which Wheaton College, supposedly the “evangelical Harvard,” fired a black female professor (the only one on the entire campus) for stating that Christians and Muslims worship the same god:

This post is not about this incident, which has been discussed in great detail elsewhere. Rather, I’m going to write about whether Catholics and Protestants worship the same god.

Admittedly, the question of whether X religion and Y religion worship the same god is an odd question, since if you claim to be a monotheist of the Abrahamic variety, then you believe that there is one and only one god, and any other deities, like Shiva or Zeus, are simply demons leading people astray. I suppose that the problem for Christians, Jews, and Muslims is that each group claims that they have the best idea about what god is like and wants from humans, while the others have a distorted view. But even within these major religions, there are further disagreements about who god is and what this deity wants us to do.

The “Catholic god” is a sacramental god, who makes his will known through material objects and can be swayed through the intervention of the “Church Triumphant.” The cult of saints traditionally functioned as a sort of divine patronage, where you would promise something to a saint, and they’d do something for you in turn. If the saint in question didn’t follow through on the favor, you could go to another saint and pit the two against each other, including different apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, during the early middle ages, the cult of the saints, especially that of the local saint, was more important in many parts of Western Europe than worship of Jesus Christ. For more on this, see Furta Sacra by Patrick J. Geary:

While the modern cult of saints, at least as manifested in the English speaking world, is conceived of as merely a bunch of saintly role models so as not to scandalize the Protestants, in much of Latin America, they still fulfill the “divine patron” role.

In comparison, the Protestant god has no use for the cult of saints, as he prefers to deal directly with individuals and their souls. There are no “super Christians” to get you behind god’s heavenly velvet rope; it’s all up to you and your faith. Of course, Protestant denominations differ greatly among themselves as to what god wants, from liturgy to church governance. It’s not unusual in the South to have churches split over the color of carpets, which somehow becomes a burning theological issue for too many congregations. But suffice to say, Protestant “soul liberty” can be seen as a lonely thing when compared to having thousands of supernatural patrons in the cult of saints, which is probably why so many people during the Reformation were loathe to abandon the concept.

While Protestant churches teach that there is only heaven and hell, with nothing in between, Catholicism has purgatory, where the hoi polloi and even some errant “religious virtuosos” like Innocent III hang out, until they are deemed worthy enough to enter heaven. However, the flames of purgatory are exactly the same as the flames of hell proper, the only exception being that the pains of purgatory are finite. The anxiety surrounding the indeterminate nature of purgatory is what gave rise to indulgences. Although the Catholic church gets a lot of flack for the idea of indulgences from Protestants and atheists alike, they make perfect sense within the context of Catholic theology. Imagine, if you will, a giant supernatural bank filled up with the merits the saints have accumulated over the centuries. Jesus and the Virgin Mary are sort of like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, as they fill up this bank with a near infinite amount of merits. The Catholic church controls access to this bank, and indulgences are sort of like checks that can be cashed in exchange for merits. When I was “orthodox,” I loved the idea of indulgences, because it was like a celestial social security system.

Protestantism gets rid of this whole system, and you get separated out for eternal bliss or eternal fire the moment you die. However, some groups that emerged out of the Millerite movement, like the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe in “soul sleep,” in which everyone who dies enters a period of unconsciousness until the Final Judgement:

Does god want priests or ministers? The Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper? Seven sacraments or two? Does god believe that tradition trumps the Bible or vice versa? These issues were considered to be so important that most of Western Europe engaged in mortal combat over religion, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War and the Treaty of Westphalia. Today, most Westerners believe that one shouldn’t go to war over theological issues, but if you take god and Christianity seriously, the presence of all these warring sects and churches is extremely problematic, because they all have dueling theologies and notions about god. Even within a church or denomination, individual members will have different ideas about god; the members of the LGBT-friendly Holy Redeemer parish in San Francisco will have a very different idea about god than those who attend the traditionalist St. John Cantius parish in Chicago, for example. And even within these parishes, everyone will have a slightly different notion of god.

I would conclude that not only do Catholics and Protestants not worship the same god, but individual Catholics don’t worship the same god in the same way as all the other Catholics, and individual Protestants don’t worship the same god in the same way as all the other Protestants. Nineteenth century philosopher Ludwig Feurbach said that god is essentially a psychological projection, the personification of the individual’s highest ideals, and that’s the take I have on why the nature of god is so radically different from person to person. If belief in god really led to a single objective set of morality, I doubt that god would be so different from religion to religion, denomination to denomination, and individual to individual.