Wheaton professor leaves over religious dispute

This week appears to mark the end of a several-month-long feud at Wheaton College which began back on Dec. 10, 2015. Professor Larycia Hawkins posted photos on social media of herself wearing a hijab to class.

Wheaton College responded to the posts by putting Hawkins on temporary leave. The next morning Hawkins made a Facebook post further affirming her view that Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God, and that she wore the hijab to show support in the midst of an anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S.

Wheaton explained that the central issue for Wheaton was not the hijab, but rather the declaration that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, further extending Hawkins’ suspension to a paid administrative leave.

Last month a letter came from the Wheaton Faculty Council, and the signers unanimously agreed that the institution should reinstate Professor Hawkins. The Wheaton administration responded that it was open to reconciliation talks with Hawkins, but required that Hawkins participate in further theological discussions with the school — even after she submitted a four-page theological statement defending her “same God” assertion.

Wheaton’s provost, Stanton Jones, initially pushed for her to be fired, and even began the firing process. But early this week Jones told faculty that he had revoked his recommendation that started the termination process. He then proceeded to contact Hawkins and offered her an apology

Only several hours after his apology was released to the public, Wheaton College president Philip Ryken and Dr. Hawkins held a joint press release, during which the news broke that “The administration and Dr. Hawkins have come to a place of resolution and reconciliation. With a mutual desire for God’s blessing, we have decided to part ways.”

Ryken understood that the decision would leave many students and faculty unhappy, and continued by saying, “This does not mean that reconciliation is easy or that it is always perfect. Saying that Wheaton College is reconciled with Larycia Hawkins, we’re not saying that everyone on every side of this conflict is thoroughly satisfied, nor are we saying that we simply move on without addressing the matters that brought us to this place.” The details of the agreement are not known, and will likely be kept behind closed doors.

Dr. Hawkins told the Wheaton Record later that day, “Like I’ve said from the beginning, I will bless Wheaton College, I will not curse it. This isn’t me versus Wheaton. What the world needs to know is that we’re Christians by our love, and that’s win-win for me.”

Gary Burge, a New Testament professor, was one of those who were not satisfied with the agreement for a “mutual” parting. “This decision by the provost is a tribute to his integrity and courage,” Burge said, “But many of us are wondering why the president’s reconciliation with Dr. Hawkins did not include her remaining on our faculty.”

It’s not every year that the doctrine of God is a national topic of discussion, although the question of who God is has always carried provocative connotations. Dr. Larycia Hawkins’ Facebook statement that said, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book … we worship the same God,” has sparked a vigorous discussion since some have considered her words highly controversial.

This discussion between Christians and Muslims has raised two important questions, first, who is God? Second, how do we live from the claims about God that we believe in, confess and worship from in a pluralistic North American context?

For Christians, the question of who God is has caused numerous theological battles throughout history. Orthodox Christians throughout time have often answered this question by confessing that God is the communion of three persons, specifically Father, Son and Spirit, but yet one being. Particularly central to this Christian understanding is that of Jesus Christ as the revelation and incarnation of God. From this fundamental point in orthodox Christian theology, many Christians have argued that this is not the same being many Muslims claim God to be.

Christians and Muslims are often categorized together as the “people of the book” in the Qur’an, and both stem from the Abrahamic religion, meaning that they both profess that there is only one divine being who is God. However, Islam heavily emphasizes the oneness of God, and thus to claim that God is anything else other than one is in danger of heresy. Because of this, Muslims have often understood the Christian conception of the Trinity as tritheistic and heretical.

Others have also advocated a view that draws a distinction between religious worship and theological beliefs. While worship deals with the spiritual intent of the worshipper, belief connotes the specific ideas a believer holds of God. According to this understanding, then, Christians and Muslims do worship the same deity, but affirm different beliefs and understandings of this deity.

Lydia McGrew of The Gospel Coalition addressed similar arguments inspired by the philosophical work of logicians such as Gottlob Frege and Saul Kripke. At its basic form, these arguments claim that it is possible for two people referring to the same thing to have radically differing ideas of that one thing. Using the analogy of Superman, McGrew points out that Clark Kent and Superman both designate the same person. Thus, when someone is talking to Clark Kent they are also talking to Superman, yet this person may have no idea that Clark Kent is a superhero.

Translating this analogy into the same God debate, some have argued that Christians and Muslims do designate the same divine being but with different names such as Allah and Yahweh. But these names also connote fundamental differences between Christians and Muslims in their particular theological understanding of God.

However, McGrew argues that the Clark Kent/Superman instance is not analogous to the same God discussion between Christians and Muslims. Rather, McGrew asserts that “Christians presumably don’t believe most Muslims, when praying to Allah, are experiencing real contact with the one true God. And Christians definitely shouldn’t believe Muhammad had a genuine encounter with God that led him to found Islam. The Clark Kent/Superman analogy, then, doesn’t contain any special insight requiring us to believe Muslims and Christians worship the same God.”

However, according to professor Doug Howard of Calvin’s history department, “You start with an experience with God, and when I read what others write, their experience is very similar to what I experience. So a good starting place is I acknowledge the religious experience of others.” From this, Howard argues, “Muslims can’t be worshiping another God because we agree there’s one. Of course there are differences between Muslims and Christians, and the central difference is what we think of Jesus Christ. The difference between us is what we would call theological differences. We have theological differences with Muslims and Jews; we both worship God, but we differ in our theology.”

With Islam among Howard’s research interests, from what he has observed in the press and over social media, he believes that “the debate about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God seems to be analogous to the discussion of whether our societies are the same or we are the same as Muslims.”

Howard suggests that people’s reservations in considering that the two religions share a common God is due to a fear of association. “It still seems that because people take their religious faith and their worship of God as an aspect of their identity, the talk about whether Christians worship the same God as Muslims is about ourselves and whether we are the same.”

The remaining question for Howard is, “How many Gods are there?” Howard believes that in a broad sense there are two answers. “If we can agree that God is one, then Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Or else what you’re saying is that one of us worships the God and the other doesn’t … [and] they can’t be worshiping another God,” Howard said, “because we agree there’s only one.” For Howard, it is important to acknowledge that there are differences between the religions, but that they are what we would call theological differences and should be treated as such.

The contentiousness of this “same God” discussion is highlighted by the fact that there is little agreement from both Christian and Muslim perspectives. In the interview, Howard highlighted this point by saying, “First you need to realize there are many Muslims that would say, ‘no, we don’t worship the same God’; you will find Muslims that are just as exclusivist as Christians. There is the Allah debate — ‘Is Allah the Christian God?’ — that goes on in the Muslim world and it breaks down in almost the same way. Muslim-Christian relations will always be difficult, but I think for Muslims and Christians to acknowledge that we both worship the same God, and we worship that God differently, it’s a start in acknowledging the reality of the experience of the other.”