Wheaton College has made the news this week for putting a tenured professor on "administrative leave" for having asserted that Christians and Muslims worship "the same God." Here's a brief account of the details via Inside Higher Ed:
Wheaton College, a Christian institution in Illinois, has suspended Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science who has attracted considerable attention for saying she would wear a hijab throughout Advent to express solidarity with Muslims. A statement from the college said the suspension was not for her wearing the hijab, but because of "significant questions regarding the theological implications of statements" she has made. "Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution's faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity. As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the college's evangelical statement of faith," said the college's statement on the suspension.
The particular statement that got Professor Hawkins into trouble, as described by Christianity Today is this: "“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book, ... And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
There are a number of strands of this controversy which are difficult to unravel. On the one hand, there's the question of academic freedom, in that as a faculty member at a university, Professor Hawkins should be permitted to make statements in her capacity as a professor without fear of institutional reprisal. Yet, at many religiously based colleges and universities today, those rights are to one degree or another curtailed. Yet it undermines Wheaton's credibility as the "Evangelical Harvard" as it claims to be.
Then there is the issue of Professor Hawkins' decision to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslims. Wheaton insists that this was not a factor in their decision. And perhaps it wasn't, but it's hard to disentangle her public display of solidarity from the words she used to express that solidarity. It seems that Wheaton was uncomfortable with the degree to which professor Hawkins was acting "too Muslim" for them. As Miroslav Volf noted in the Washington Post today: "When Hawkins justified her solidarity with Muslims by noting that as a Christian she worships the same God as Muslims, she committed the unpardonable sin of removing the enemy from the category of 'alien' and 'purely evil' other. She also drew attention to the simple fact that most Muslims aren’t enemies."
Then there is the issue of whether Professor Hawkins' defense of her position is "too Catholic" for Wheaton, given the school's history of firing faculty for the "crime" of converting to Catholicism. But at bottom, the school's claim is that she has violated its statement of faith via her assertion that Christians and Muslims worship "the same God." But why should this be controversial?
Certainly there are Christians who are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that Christianity has anything at all in common with Islam, as well as those who can't comprehend how Christians and Muslims could worship the same God. However, Islam has always insisted that the God it worships is the God of Abraham, the same God attested to in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Thus it places itself firmly in the Abrahamic religious tradition. But the fact that Muslims believe they worship the same God as Christians and Jews doesn't necessarily require that Christians believe that, does it?
Well, Muslims assert that they worship the God who was revealed to Moses and the Prophets, just as Christians and Jews do. They assert that the God they follow is one God, just as Christians and Jews do. In many respects in fact, the way that Islam conceives of God is much closer to the Jewish conception of God than the Jewish conception of God is to the Christian conception of God. If Christians and Jews worship the same God, then in what sense would Muslims not do so?
Indeed, as Professor Hawkins statement notes, this position has been officially recognized within the Catholic Church. According to Nostra Aetate:
“The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth (Cf. St. Gregory VII, Letter III, 21 to Anazir [Al-Nasir], King of Mauretania PL, 148.451A.), who has spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his Virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting.
Of course, as noted above, Wheaton has some issues with Catholics as well. But there is certainly nothing alien to the idea that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God. Of course, this is not the same thing as saying that we understand God in the same way. Our conceptions of God are relevantly similar, but not identical. This is again, clearest when one contrasts the Christian conception of God as one, but also triune, as eternally spirit, but also incarnate in the flesh of Jesus Christ. And in terms of salvation, as Christians we affirm that God saves humanity through Jesus Christ, while both Judaism and Islam believe that it is accomplished through God's law and covenant as attested in the Torah or the Quran. These are deep and relevant differences between these traditions, but acknowledging these differences is quite distinct from saying that each tradition is not, in its own way, seeking to follow the same God.
What's more, if, as many Christians affirm, all truth is one, then anyone seeking to faithfully follow God, whatever tradition they embrace, is following the same God. This position, which was powerfully illustrated by C. S. Lewis in his book The Last Battle implies that one can be mistaken in the substance of one's belief, while still truly following the true God. As Volf states:
All Christians don't worship the same God, and all Muslims don't worship the same God. But I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same. The description of God is partly different.
A key problem in understanding what is going on at Wheaton has to do with how they understand what it means to "do theology." This is a perennial problem within the evangelical community, and one that I've encountered in conversations with conservative Christians time and again. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: from the conservative Christian perspective, theology is not something that takes place in the context of a particular time and place. It is not a response to the revelation of God. It is not an attempt to engage in an understanding of the tradition to which we belong. Rather, conservative evangelical theology is about obedience to and adherence to authoritative texts, whether those texts from the Bible, particular creeds and confessions, or -- as in this case -- your school's statement of faith. This "received theology," is then declared to represent an uncrossable line, and the decision about who has or has not crossed that line winds up residing with authoritative bodies, like church bodies or university administrations. It constitutes a form of dogmatic theological positivism which does not allow allow any room for actual response to the contextual arena in which God is actually live and moving in the lives of believers.
Contextual theology, by contrast, recognizes that theological work is an ongoing and imperfect project, which takes place in the life of the church, in conversation with tradition and scripture, but always in light of the current situation in which it is being done. What it means to think contextually is to ask the question, as James Gustafson has put it: "What is God enabling and requiring us to do here and now?" This requires us to be open to the leading of God into new situations, to be willing to take risks on behalf of our faith in God, and to act confidently in God's grace when we stumble and fall. While the received, dogmatic theology of conservative evangelicalism is rooted in fear -- specifically fear that God will abandon us if we affirm the wrong propositions about the divine nature -- contextual theology reaches out to new situations in love, acting confidently in the knowledge that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). Professor Hawkins was engaged in a contextual theology, rooted in love for her Muslim brothers and sisters, and in recognition that, as the God of Jesus Christ was the God of Abraham, both Christians and Muslims must worship the same God. Her response wasn't a rejection of Wheaton's Statement of Faith, but it also wasn't simply a dogmatic adherence to it. Rather, it was a contextualization of that statement in light of what God is enabling and requiring of us today.
In the final analysis, there is no good reason for Christians to assert that Muslims follow any other God than the one God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, even though they do not recognize our account of that revelation, or what we understand it to be telling us about God. What Wheaton has done is shameful, and as Volf notes, has more to do with Professor Hawkins' attempt to "de-other" Muslims, than with any matter of substance having to do with Christian faith or Wheaton's Statement of Faith. Professor Hawkins has done an admirable thing, and by doing so she has drawn attention to the continuing relevance of this key theological question to the ongoing relationship between Christians and Muslims in the United States. More's the pity that there are plenty of Christians around, happily condemning others to hell, who refuse to see the commonality between us and our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Note: This essay has been updated and expanded.