Thursday, January 7, 2016

Wheaton College, Larycia Hawkins, and the One True God

As a grateful Wheaton College alumnus (BA, 1981), I have been observing with dismay the controversy surrounding Wheaton College’s reaction to Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins’s expression of solidarity with Muslim women who face hostile treatment because they wear the hijab, and in particular to her comment that Muslims, after all, worship the same God. I will not bother providing links to news coverage. If you are not already closely tuned in to that news, you probably aren’t going to be interested in what I have to say here.

If you are tuned in to the controversy, but have not seen Dr. Hawkins's own statement, it is worth reading. Find it here.

For my part, I will start by saying that Islam is not Christianity, Muslim understandings of the implications of monotheism are incompatible with Christian trinitarian theology, and certain elements in the Quran and in Muslim practice are incompatible with Christian understandings of the character of God; and in that sense the Muslim god is a different god from the Christian god. I think any informed Christian or Muslim would agree with these statements.

I further reckon that the Muslim god (whom Muslims call simply God) is more different from the Christian god (whom Christians call simply God) than is the Jewish god (whom Jews call simply God, and whom most Christians will say is the same God), though I do think some of the Christians who assert that Muslims worship a different god because they are not trinitarians need to pause long enough to ask themselves what St. Paul (the author of the Epistle to the Romans, including chapters 9–11) would say if he caught them asserting that anyone who claims to worship the god of Abraham, but denies trinitarian Christian theology, is worshiping a different and false god.

So I will go on to say also: in a sense one can say that not only Jews but also Muslims worship the same God as Christians. Others (see, e.g., Kelly James Clark’s blog post) have offered such arguments, so I won’t elaborate, except to note that Christians, Muslims, and Jews all affirm that there is no god but God, the god of Abraham. In a very obvious sense, notwithstanding the very significantly different Muslim, Jewish, and Christian understandings of God, they are all talking about the one true God who called Abraham.

But is something beyond that obvious but limited sameness at stake in same-God claims? Maybe so. Maybe what is really going on is the assertion of legitimacy by proponents of a later development, and rejection of that assertion by apologists for the earlier orthodoxy. But there is more than one way to reject the legitimacy of a later development. You can (1) reject the same-God claim, saying they are worshiping a false god (i.e., they are idolatrous); or you can (2) allow that they are trying to worship the same God but point out that they are getting some important things very wrong (i.e., they are heretical).

Thus Paul and other early Jesus-followers (Jesus-following being, historically speaking, a later development of Israelite religion and theology) were very definite in asserting that the god they were worshiping was the same God that Abraham and David worshiped. In that case, as far as I can see, Israelites who did not become Jesus-followers (much less trinitarians) did not say Christians were following a different god—rather, they said Christians were heretics, i.e., taught falsely about God.

To complicate the picture, though, we have to admit that “they are idolatrous” and “they are heretical” are not the only two options for describing those who believe and worship differently. The range of possibilities would include these two and others:
  1. They are idolatrous (worshipers of a false god; their religion and theology are illegitimate and perhaps morally culpable).
  2. They are heretical ( trying to worship God, but so gravely mistaken on essential points that we must deem their theology and religion illegitimate and perhaps morally culpable; we cannot be in formal religious fellowship with them).
  3. They are mistaken (we have differences, and they are wrong, but not so badly wrong, or not on such key points, as to render their faith and worship illegitimate; we can be in some kinds of religious fellowship with them, though maybe not full communion).
  4. We really do disagree, but I will not claim that we are right and they are wrong.
  5. What they believe would be wrong for us but is OK for them.
  6. We all really believe the same thing.
To take some test cases:
  • Most Christians in the big Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant-Evangelical-Pentecostal tent, in speaking about each other, would say something in the range of 3–6 and would regard those who say 2 about fellow Christians within this range  as fundamentalists (in the pejorative sense of the word). Any who said 1 about fellow Christians would simply be beyond the pale.
  • Most Christians in this same range, in speaking about Jews, would say something in the range of 2–5 and would regard Christians who say 1 about Jews as Marcionites or the worst kind of supersessionists. (Strangely, in the context of the current flap over whether Muslims worship the same god as Christians, I am nevertheless hearing Christians express their anti-Islamic polemic in ways that by unavoidable implication would require them to say 1 also about Jews.)
  • A marginally relevant bonus observation: Wheaton Christianity and Roman Catholicism say 3 about each other. From the Wheaton side: you are Christian, but you can’t teach with us (the Wheatonish equivalent of full communion); from the Catholic side: you are Christian, but you can’t take communion with us. (I regret both sides of this ongoing mutual excommunication.)
  • Some liberal-revisionist Christians are willing to say 5 about Islam and other religions. Wheaton Christianity can say 5 about Judaism and about very little else, certainly not about Islam.
  • Another possibly gratuitous bonus observation: a Christian who is able to say 6 about Islam, or Judaism, or even other varieties of orthodox Christianity either doesn’t know much or doesn’t much care. 

By the way, not sure where to throw this in, so will put it here: what are we to make of Paul’s identifying the God whom he proclaimed with the “unknown god” of the polytheistic Athenian monuments in Act 17? Of course it is a rhetorical stratagem. But I don’t think we want to say that in using it Paul transgressed the truth of the gospel, do we? So sometimes there is an option 7: they simply do not know the truth, and we should stretch as far as we can to find something to affirm in their current beliefs in hope of winning them over to the truth. If Paul thought this was a possible Christian stance toward paganism, maybe it is another possible Christian stance toward Islam.

Also by the way: I locate myself among those who believe that it is more respectful and loving to say that another is wrong than to obliterate the other’s beliefs by claiming we all believe the same thing when we do not, and that it is simply fatuous to say that two mutually contradictory beliefs are both right. I am blessed to have very friendly Muslim neighbors, and I hope that if they happen to read this they will understand that I am very glad that they are my friends.

Which brings us back to this: What must traditionally orthodox Christianity, including Wheaton Christianity, say about Islam?

Between Islam (the later development) and both Judaism and Christianity (the predecessor faiths), Islam has an interest in legitimizing itself by claiming to worship the same God, while traditionally orthodox Judaism and Christianity, which cannot legitimize Islam, have to decide whether to say: (1) no, you have a different God, or (2) yes, but your understanding of God is heretical. (Liberal or revisionist Jews and Christians might say something in the range of 3–5 about Islam.)

Now, here is the really interesting thing: as a historical matter, Christian theologians contemporaneous with the rise of Islam (notably St. John of Damascus) said 2: Islamic theology is heretical! (On this, see the chapter on Islam in David Wilhite’s new Baker Academic book, The Gospel according to Heretics.)

I conclude that Christians today who want to make denial that Muslims worship the same God not just a preferred theological judgment (which might be a solidly grounded judgment) but an essential tenet of orthodox Christian theology have some explaining to do: they need to explain why they are not just departing from but condemning the teaching and practice of unquestionably orthodox Fathers like John of Damascus. (We might also think of the Pope and Miroslav Volf and others.) I don’t think they have explained. I suspect that some of them may actually be unaware of the relevant history.

Whether they are aware of the history or not, this appears to be what Wheaton’s leaders are setting forth as the Wheaton position:
  • Wheaton says 1 about Islam. —I think this could use some nuancing but at least in a sense is right.
  • Wheaton says 1 about Islam in a way that seems to require Wheaton to say 1 about Judaism as well. —This is a blunder.
  • Wheaton says that Wheaton’s statement of faith requires saying 1 and not 2 about Islam. —This is simply not true as a matter of straightforward exegesis of the Wheaton statement. I think Wheaton’s statement of faith may well require saying either 1 or 2, or both, about Islam, but it certainly does not rule out saying 2.
  • Finally, Wheaton seems to be teetering on the brink of saying that if you say 2 about Islam instead of, or along with 1, Wheaton will say definitely 3 and probably 2 (the expressions I have seen are blurry on this point) about you; so Larycia Hawkins has to go because she said Muslims worship the same God. —This would be not only mistaken but mean and ugly. In fact, this last bullet point appears to me so nonsensical theologically speaking as to require some other explanation. Since it is not the conclusion of a plausible theological argument, is it a symptom of messy relational dysfunction or of money-related politics or of something else I haven’t imagined? Or maybe they really aren’t thinking about saying this, which would make me glad.

I think the leaders at Wheaton must be aware of the serious disconnect between their actions and their reasons. How else to account for the fact that the Wheaton College web page on this issue, in its putative answer to the question “Is it true that Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” (Question 7 on the page) does not even address, much less answer, that question, then diverts to an emphatic statement on a different (uncontested) question. It’s just pounding a shoe on the table.

Similar questions could arise, by the way, with Mormonism. Mormons want to say they follow the same God, and the same Jesus, as Christians. It seems to me that traditionally orthodox Christianity can reply either: (1) no, you don’t: you follow fabrications of your own, applying to them names that you appropriate from our scripture and tradition; or (2) OK, but your understanding of God and of Christ is heretical.

If, with Islam and Mormonism alike, both tacks—1 and 2—are in some sense legitimate, i.e., if (as I believe) it makes sense to say “in a sense 1, but in another sense 2,” then why would you choose to say one rather than the other? It seems to me that you choose 1 emphatically, to the definite exclusion of 2, if you want to say to the Muslim (or the LDS believer): “I reject you, I don’t want to cooperate with you in anything, I don’t want to converse with you, and I will not express solidarity with you if you are mistreated, and I may possibly blame you for the egregious misdeeds of others who call themselves Muslims”; you choose 2 if you want to say: “I think you’re wrong, but I do not want to reject your dignity and your goodwill, I will not blame you for what some others who call themselves Muslims have done, and I will find a way to express solidarity with you if you are mistreated, because I think there are some things we can do for good together in this world, and also because I hope that I may be able to persuade you to modify your views in the direction of the truth that is in Christ as understood in historic Christian orthodoxy.”

In other words, the choice between “same God” and “different god” is not a matter of abstract truth, and certainly not a matter of creedal fidelity, because you could say either, or both, depending on how you define sameness; rather, it is a matter of rhetorical intent. Do you want to reject and denounce, or do you want to engage and persuade?

I favor engagement and persuasion. I think it’s the more Christian way (although there is ample precedent in Christian scripture and history for both ways). And it seems to me that those (at Wheaton or SBTS or elsewhere) who react so grimly against fellow Christians who either naively or with deliberate generosity acknowledge Muslims as worshipers of the same God are manifesting (yet again!) too much anxiety about the fragility of Christian orthodoxy (as though one might, by uttering a generous word to a fellow human being, cause the whole edifice of Christian truth to crumble into oblivion) and too little generosity toward the good-faith efforts of some (orthodox!) Christian believers to show forth not only truth but grace. They seem, incredibly, to have failed to grasp the difference between a properly Christian expression of solidarity with a fellow human being on the basis of some generously sought bit of common ground and a blanket endorsement and adoption of the other’s entire belief system.

For myself, while I reject the same-God claims as a matter of precise theological description, I also accept them as a strategy for humane collaboration and for apologetic and evangelistic (Acts 17!) engagement; and I do not think there is any contradiction in this simultaneous rejection (in one sense, for one purpose) and acceptance (in another sense, for another purpose). One has to have an ear, and a mind, for critical distinctions. And a loving heart. My alma mater is, or ought to be, of the same mind—and heart. I’m pretty sure I learned some of this there.




15 comments:

  1. Hi James,
    Good to read your post. It's been a long time since our Wheaton days together. You have a lot of good thinking here and I appreciated reading it very much.

    I think my position would be more in line with your #2. I agree that it is not an easy question, but I would probably be more inclined to say that they claim to worship the same God (the God of Abraham), but that their understanding of him is wrong (heretical).

    There is one point that you made that I do disagree with. You said:

    "It seems to me that you choose 1 emphatically, to the definite exclusion of 2, if you want to say to the Muslim (or the LDS believer): “I reject you, I don’t want to cooperate with you in anything, I don’t want to converse with you, and I will not express solidarity with you if you are mistreated, and I may possibly blame you for the egregious misdeeds of others who call themselves Muslims”

    I believe that if you or I were relating to an "animist" who believes that the mountain is god, we would not be inclined to think that he/she is worshipping the same god that we worship. However, I don't think that would mean that we should say we are rejecting them, or cannot cooperate with them in anything, or cannot converse with them, etc. We are called to reach out to all people whether they believe in God or not, whether they are heretics or not. Maybe you were just trying to make a point, but it seemed a little extreme to me.

    Otherwise, I appreciate your good thinking on this issue.

    God bless you,

    Dan Agee ('81)

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    1. Hi, Dan, thanks for your comment. (I had a hard time figuring out how to make it actually show up here, then it was here twice!) Anyway--yes, you are quite right, the part of my comment that you quote only makes sense with reference to Christian response to newer religions that take up Jewish-Christian scripture as their own, add their own new revelations, and claim to be worshiping the same God. It would not apply in cases (like your animist example) where the other is not claiming to be worshiping the same God. In such a case (as in Paul's outreach on Mars Hill), it would be surprising and risky for a Christian to suggest to the animists to that what they have been worshiping (in the dark, as it were) as a mountain is now being proclaimed to them as the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ. For the Christian missionary not to make that gambit would not be an expression of hostility or indifference!

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  3. Thanks for this well reasoned attempt at nuance. In general, I find myself in substantial agreement with your conclusions, as well as your overall theology. If I do have a criticism, it stems from the comment you made lamenting the mutual exclusion of full communion between Wheaton and Catholicism. As a Catholic, i find that exclusion to be evangelical in nature and thus meaningful. Obviously the brokenness of the Christian community is rightly to be lamented, but signifying that brokenness in a concrete praxis is not only to be expected, it is to be lauded. If there were nothing in the life of a church by which important theological differences could be signified, then all theological distinctions would be functionally meaningless, logically and practically speaking. This is why Catholics see excommunication as medicinal rather than penal, because the act of excommunication forces those who have removed themselves from full unity to confront their error. Having been raised a protestant, i can testify to the power of confronting that exclusion as a question to my own theological certainty. Every time I went to a catholic mass I wanted to communicate, like in the other protestant churches i attended, and there was nothing material stopping me. The priest would have doled out the body if that is what i wanted. But i didn't go down because I knew the act would have been meaningless to me, since its principle purpose as a communal act is to establish full community. And I didn't at the time agree with Catholicism, so why would i even want to participate in an act which signified my unanimous agreement? I was forced to confront the nature of my desire, in other words, and what I wanted the eucharist to mean. That put me on a road back to Rome. Anyway, my personal example aside, I can say that surely if you think 2-3 in your list are possible, then these should be reflected in the sacramental life of the church, and some good comes out of exclusion (which is really always a self-inflicted exclusion anyway). It is better that that be reflected in the Eucharist rather than in baptism, which the Catholic church at least recognizes as fully legitimate in Protestant churches, since this is, in a very palpable way, the most significant of the sacraments (with respect to salvation, at least). Now this brings me to the final thing I would be interested to hear you nuance: what constitutes idolatry in your understanding, since this is (presumably) worth firing a teacher over? Put differently, even Jesus rejected and denounced some of the time. Can't we see this as other means of engagement and persuasion of heretics/idolaters? Where is the limit, in other words, between heresy and idolatry, when has one crossed over? In a certain sense, your distinction is artificial, since wrong teaching about the nature of God necessarily leads to worshipping something other than the true God. I grant your (augustinian) distinction between essential and non-essential beliefs, but I am not sure heresy vs. idolatry best captures that distinction.

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    1. Jared, I don't think anyone has suggested that Dr. Hawkins has committed idolatry. The question is whether she has committed heresy, or breached the Wheaton statement of faith, by saying that Muslims worship the same God. The answer I suggested in my post is that she has done neither.

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  4. Thank you for a thoughtful post. I appreciate the six options that you have listed. I personally fall into category #2. It seems inaccurate to apply #1 to Islam, because (a) it identifies God as the transcendent Creator who has freely brought the world into existence, and because (b) it clearly distinguishes God from the world and therefore is not formally guilty of idolatry.

    As I have commented on my blog, it's simply a matter of reference: when Muslims pray to "Allah," they are directing their prayers to the transcendent, infinite Creator; and by definition, there can be only "one" such Creator. I put quotes around "one" because of he oddity of numbering when speaking of the One who transcends all he has made.

    I also appreciate you bringing everyone's attention to St John Damascene's identification of Islam as a heresy. One might also note that 1st millennium Arab Christians, in their apologetic responses to Islam, would often speak of Allah, Word, and Holy Spirit, remaining faithful to the Eastern construal of the monarchy of the Father (https://goo.gl/Avn7P4).

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  5. I have at one point proposed to speak of Muslims worshipping a fictional character based on a real person. The question can be looked at from different angles and for different purposes (pastoral or philosophical, theological or kerygmatic), maybe leading to different answers depending on context. I do not know enough about Wheaton to speculate on motives. I suspect that knowing what exactly happened in 2008 when its leadership withdrew signatures from the Common Word Statement would help. But like Dan I would be reluctant to conclude that those who insist on the necessity to affirm the non-identity can only do so as a result of bad motive. It is maybe surprising in the first place that Larycia Hawkins offered the "same God" claim as a rationale for her act of solidarity, as if solidarity may only be shown to people who worship the same God. But again maybe I am missing some background here.

    I would agree also with Jared that the distinction between and may not be as great as is sometimes claimed.

    People have been drawing unwarranted conclusions on both sides. Claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God does not mean that they understand God in the same way with only minor differences. But neither does claiming that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God mean that Muslims must worship a demon or another god, nor does it entail (even if you were to believe that Muslims worship a demon) that you must hate Muslims.

    The insistence on the tri-unity of God (which is to say that his threeness is as essential as his oneness) does indeed raise issues for the question whether non-Christian Jews and Christians (Jews and non-Jews) worship the same God but these questions are not necessarily exactly the same as in relation to Islam. I have tried to outline this in a blog post in which I argue that the key question is which path is chosen to establish identity or non-identity, whether a narrative path("biographical" or really revelation-historical) or a definitional path which I subdivided into "philosophical" or "theological" to highlight the differences between an approach which would allow for the definition of "Godhead" (what makes God God) without reference to any relationships and a theological approach which insists that God cannot be successfully referred to (defined) without indluding a relational element, see http://hadleyrectory.blogspot.com/2016/01/referring-to-god.html

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    1. "But like Dan I would be reluctant to conclude that those who insist on the necessity to affirm the non-identity can only do so as a result of bad motive." Not everyone who says that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God does so out of a bad motive. I did not say that. I said that it is possible for an absolutely orthodox Christian to say both (a) that Muslims and Christians worship the same God and (b) that they do not; that a Christian who wants to express solidarity with mistreated Muslims, or to be in dialogue with Muslims--even and perhaps especially dialogue aimed at converting them to Christianity!--might well say (a) without saying (b); and that a Christian who wants to dismiss and denounce Muslims will say (b) without saying (a). (Please recall that IF X THEN Y does not imply IF Y THEN X.

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    2. I am glad if that is what you wanted to say. Your "It seems to me that you choose 1 emphatically, to the definite exclusion of 2, if you want to say to the Muslim ... “I reject you..." sounded to me very much like "Y is chosen only if X."

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  6. From what I know the question is answered differently among Muslims as well: http://talktoislam.com/452/do-muslims-christians-and-jews-worship-the-same-god claims that we do not worship the same God, http://www.alnoorcet.co.uk/index.php/discover-islam claims that we do.

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  7. David Gushee suggests that the doctrinal complaint is a cover for trying to get rid of a politically liberal prof to placate politically conservative donors: http://www.religionnews.com/2016/01/08/what-the-larycia-hawkins-case-means-for-evangelical-colleges-commentary/.

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  8. James,

    I think that it is great that this issue has made you think like this and I appreciate your getting out your thoughts here. I found your #2 to be really interesting: "They are heretical (trying to worship God, but so gravely mistaken on essential points that we must deem their theology and religion illegitimate and perhaps morally culpable; we cannot be in formal religious fellowship with them)." It seems to me that this is definitely true. How could Christians see themselves in formal religious fellowship with anyone who rejects Jesus Christ as God? I have been taught that Christ and His cross are the crux of the whole issue, so would also not say that Jews who reject Jesus could be in fellowship with a Christian. Of course, none of this means that we cannot respect and lovingly engage with persons who reject Jesus - as a matter of fact, we are obligated to show love and kindness to all persons. We are all created in the image of God, including our enemies. You addressed a lot of nuances in your post, and I tried to do something similar in a post I wrote on the issue as well from a conservative Lutheran perspective. Perhaps you might want to check it out. It is on patheos at the Just and Sinner blog, titled: "Do Proponents of Other Abrahamic Faiths Worship the Same God? The Answer is Not in Philosophy but in the Distinction Between Law and Gospel".

    +Nathan

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    1. Thanks, Nathan. I look forward to reading your post later on. Link to Nathan's post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/justandsinner/do-proponents-of-other-abrahamic-faiths-worship-the-same-god-the-answer-is-not-in-philosophy-but-in-the-distinction-between-law-and-gospel/

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  9. I continue to be amazed by people who post arguments that Muslim and Christian theology are very different and seem to think that they have thereby addressed (even settled!) the Wheaton question. Does no one take a basic logic course any more?

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  10. Thank you for a thoughtful post. I appreciate the six options that you have listed. I personally fall into category #2. It seems inaccurate to apply #1 to Islam, because (a) it identifies God as the transcendent Creator who has freely brought the world into existence, and because (b) it clearly distinguishes God from the world and therefore is not formally guilty of idolatry.

    As I have commented on my blog, it's simply a matter of reference: when Muslims pray to "Allah," they are directing their prayers to the transcendent, infinite Creator; and by definition, there can be only "one" such Creator. I put quotes around "one" because of he oddity of numbering when speaking of the One who transcends all he has made.

    I also appreciate you bringing everyone's attention to St John Damascene's identification of Islam as a heresy. One might also note that 1st millennium Arab Christians, in their apologetic responses to Islam, would often speak of Allah, Word, and Holy Spirit, remaining faithful to the Eastern construal of the monarchy of the Father (https://goo.gl/Avn7P4).

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