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Evangelical Christian college suspends professor for posting that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God"


In this Dec. 13, 2015 photo, Larycia Hawkins, a Christian, and an associate professor of political science at Wheaton College, a private evangelical school in Wheaton, Ill., wears a hijab at a church service in Chicago. The school said in a statement Tuesday Dec. 16, 2015, it has Hawkins placed on administrative leave because of statements she made on social media about similarities between Islam and Christianity. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune via AP)

A professor at Wheaton College - an evangelical Christian school - posted this on Facebook, together with a photo of herself wearing a headscarf (see also Kirkland An's post on this at the Post's Acts of Faith blog):

I don't love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American.

I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity.

I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind - a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.

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.

But as I tell my students, theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all. Thus, beginning tonight, my solidarity has become embodied solidarity.

As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws (read: unconstitutional and Islamophobic), and at church.

I invite all women into the narrative that is embodied, hijab-wearing solidarity with our Muslim sisters-for whatever reason. A large scale movement of Women in Solidarity with Hijabs is my Christmas ‪#‎wish‬ this year.

Perhaps you are a Muslim who does not wear the veil normally. Perhaps you are an atheist or agnostic who finds religion silly or inexplicable. Perhaps you are a Catholic or Protestant Christian like me. Perhaps you already cover your head as part of your religious worship, but not a hijab.

***I would like to add that I have sought the advice and blessing of one of the preeminent Muslim organizations in the United States, the Council on American Islamic Relations, ‪#‎CAIR‬, where I have a friend and Board colleague on staff. I asked whether a non-Muslim wearing the hijab was haram (forbidden), patronizing, or otherwise offensive to Muslims. I was assured by my friends at CAIR-Chicago that they welcomed the gesture. So please do not fear joining this embodied narrative of actual as opposed to theoretical unity; human solidarity as opposed to mere nationalistic, sentimentality.

Document your own experiences of Women in Solidarity with Hijabs #wish.

Shalom friends.

She has now been suspended; Wheaton College explained the suspension this way:

In response to significant questions regarding the theological implications of statements that Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Larycia Hawkins has made about the relationship of Christianity to Islam, Wheaton College has placed her on administrative leave, pending the full review to which she is entitled as a tenured faculty member.

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.

I'm no theologian, but I would have thought that the professor's statement - that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God" - is at least defensible even from an evangelical Christian perspective, and likely even correct. They both believe that they are worshiping the Creator of the universe, though of course they have different understandings of who his prophets are, different beliefs about the Trinity, and different understandings of the law that God wants us to follow.

And even if the statement is viewed less literally, I would think that Prof. Hawkins' point, which is that Christians should love Muslims, and that they should stand together with them in "human solidarity," would also be unobjectionable. The brotherhood of man, saved and unsaved, orthodox and heretical seems to me to be fairly standard Christian theology. I can certainly see why Wheaton might object to claims that Islam is theologically sound - but I don't think that would be the "theological implication[]" of Prof. Hawkins' statement.

But I'm happy to be enlightened, by those who are more familiar with Wheaton's brand of Christianity; please let me know what you think.

My view is that people who teach at religious colleges, which have as their mission to "serve[] Jesus Christ and advance[] His Kingdom" - rather than to pursue knowledge, wherever it might lead - can rightly be expected to follow religious orthodoxy. Such requirements of orthodoxy strike me as bad for the pursuit of knowledge, but I presume that faculty members and students go into such institutions aware of the requirements, and able to evaluate the costs and benefits of those requirements. (I'm much more bothered when institutions that claim to be all about untrammeled inquiry and challenges to orthodoxies try to constrain faculty and student views; that strikes me as a sort of bait-and-switch.) I'm just surprised that Wheaton's religious orthodoxy would condemn Prof. Hawkins' position.

UPDATE: Some people suggested that Muslims don't worship the same God as Christians because they don't believe in the Trinity, and in Jesus as the son of God. But I take it that this would mean that Jews and Christians don't worship the same God, either. Yet I had thought that Christians generally believed that Jews and Christians do worship the same God, though maybe I'm mistaken. Or is there an important theological distinction between Jews' rejection of the divinity of Jesus and Muslims'? (I realize that there are other distinctions between Christians and Muslims that aren't focused on the rejection of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus; here, I'm just focusing on "they don't believe in Jesus as the son of God, so they don't believe in the same God" argument.)

UPDATE: A reader sent me this, apropos the controversy and the analogy to Jews, and I thought I'd pass it along to others:

[This is] a problem of theology tangled up in problems of language and philosophy. To answer the question "Do Christians and Muslims (or Christians and Jews) worship the same God?" we have to decide what characteristics two religions' concepts of God must share before we can call them "the same God." What I suggested earlier reflects a narrow answer, one I think fairly characterizes how Wheaton could defend its decision. Not every Christian sect agrees. For example, Catholicism's Catechism says: "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day." (You might cheekily say some evangelicals parse this issue more jesuitically than actual Jesuits.) Any answer to these questions depends on how one resolves not only the problem of theology (What is God like?) but also what one means to communicate by saying the concepts are "the same." (My own take: It is indisputably true that the Allah of Islam and the God of Christianity have overlapping characteristics. It is also indisputably true that orthodox Muslims deny things that orthodox Christians affirm about God's nature. So calling the religions' concepts of God "the same" is only true at a level of abstraction so high that the statement doesn't mean much other than "We are all monotheists who draw on a common Abrahamic heritage.")

Anyway, back to Wheaton. Wheaton requires its faculty members to affirm (and, implicitly, deny) certain propositions about God. To effectively police the community's borders, Wheaton can't let its faculty members wriggle out from underneath that commitment by abstracting away the content of its terms. What level of abstraction is too high is a subtle question of religious judgment best reserved to the community itself. And - where I hope I've added some value - as one familiar with evangelicalism (though familiar with Wheaton only by reputation), Wheaton's judgment on this question doesn't surprise me.

Now, to your question: The relationship between Judaism and Christianity is a controversial one within evangelicalism. As you've intuited, the hardest-line answer would be "No. God revealed Himself as He is in and through Jesus. Religious Jews have rejected that revelation. Accordingly, they do not worship God as he is, but as they imagine Him to be." Another view would be to say Jews do worship the same God, but not in His fullness, and He will eventually redeem those Jews who genuinely seek to obey His earlier self-revelation. The second answer is not, of course, wholly consistent with the reasoning I offered below for rejecting the claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.