Witness

The Professor Hawkins Controversy: On Why Wheaton College Has No Business Telling Muslims What They Believe

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It’s always dangerous to comment (or make judgments) on conflicts internal to a particular community. You don’t have inside information. You have no access to the relational dynamics internal to the matter. So much of what is going on has little or nothing to do with what is actually being said publically. This is why I prefer to not speak as an outsider on who’s wrong or right in the Wheaton College conflict over the suspension and potential firing of Prof. Larycia Hawkins. Instead I’d like to comment on two specific parts of the controversy: the wearing of a hijab by a Christian, and the statement “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” which professor Hawkins declared on FB. And then I’d like to make a general recommendation to Wheaton as an alumnus of that esteemed institution.

On wearing a hijab, I believe this reflects a posture of being “with” those among us who are under duress, even persecution, for their beliefs and identity. And I believe this is a commitment to which all Christians are called. Be with, inhabit the space, of the other. Be present. Connect. Before you say anything, before you assume anything, before you presume anything, go and identify with the other person. It is only from this place of presence that the gospel can be proclaimed.

It is only from a place of presence that the gospel can be proclaimed. Click To Tweet

Call it missiology 101. It runs deep in texts like Luke ch. 10 or Matt 25. It is one of the central meanings of the incarnation itself. And so I think this is so foundational to the Christian life that we should all be able to affirm this, teach this and be this. To my knowledge, I don’t think Wheaton had any problem with prof. Hawkins wearing a hijab and I applaud her for wearing the hijab in solidarity with her Muslim sisters. I think all institutions self-identifying as Christian, including Wheaton College, should affirm this.

On saying “Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” I believe there are ways to say Muslims and Christians do refer to the same God. We all know those arguments. But there is also a grammar to the way Christians worship God, that is different than the way Muslims worship God. I understand the missiological posture of looking for places where the two faiths can meet and dialogue. So this statement seems at first glance to be a grace filled attempt to engage. But I contend there are issues with the posture of a Christian, and or Christian institution, that make a public statement like “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” an unhelpful posture for mission. I argue it is bad for three reasons.

1.) It is Presumptive. It could be interpreted as saying I know what you Muslims believe and you believe the same thing as us about God. You just don’t know it yet. Because if you did already know it, I wouldn’t have to be saying this to you right now.

I think you should only say this kind of thing after you sit down and listen to some Muslims who have become friends. And you say it to them personally out of a space of dialogue and exchange. You say, “O, wow, when you said that, and referred to that ancient patriarch, that is the same way we talk about God.” You say it to a group of friends while you’re drinking some Turkish coffee. I don’t think you make public statements that groups all Muslims together. Because in fact, if anything has proven true these past ten years, not all people who claim to be Muslim believe the same thing. There might be a meaningful moment, when a group of Muslims and Christians together might say publically together, “Hey, we have spent much time together, and we have discovered that we are speaking about the same God. And we think this might be helpful to other people”

Now I know prof. Hawkins has spent much time with Muslims who are her friends. I imagine certain Muslim organizations may even sign on to her statement. Nonetheless, I think, as a Christian, if I heard a Muslim at a particular Muslim university make a public statement about Christianity saying ‘you Christians and us Muslims believe in the same God” I would hear it as presumptive, dismissive of our differences, and a power move. Which gets me to my next point.

2.) It is Imperialist. Saying “Christians and Muslims believe in the same God” assumes a posture of power. It acts like (even if it is unintended) I get to speak for someone who is not me, the Muslims in the world. This is what a public statement does, that goes public, with various signals that I am speaking for the broader culture. It usurps. I believe as Christians we are to take the humble vulnerable posture as we live with people. Now, if the statement is meant only for Christians, or say only students who attend my community college, then this might be different. It might actually do some work to open a pathway to further dialogue from these people to Muslims as they consider them differently. But if it is made as a public pronouncement, then (and I still am not entirely sure which is happening at Wheaton College) I suggest this works against dialogue. Which gets to my next point.

3.) It Forecloses Dialogue. When you make the public statement “Christians and Muslims believe in the same God” it makes conclusions, which then prevent further exploration in dialogue. For the Christian, before ever encountering the devout Muslim, it pre-determines what I believe about him or her. I have pigeonholed them and prevented a space to be opened for true dialogue. It locks in their status. It forecloses in some way what even God might do in such conversations. “Do we worship the same God?” is a great question to have a listening time with someone of another religion. Unfortunately, an answer that predetermines the answer for both sides forecloses such a space.

I suggest this kind of question is best left to Christians to sort out among ourselves. I have serious doubts as to whether Joel Osteen and I worship the same God. And I would welcome the opportunity over a cup of Houston java to talk about it. And I would be all for making a public statement for other Christians only that would clarify whether indeed Joel and I are Christians and how we should live our lives and worship accordingly. I would define this as an internal discussion among Christians. That’s different than making conclusions about all Christians and all Muslims.

Summary

In closing, I view Wheaton College as a type of Christendom institution. It was born out of the movement of evangelicalism (albeit the Holiness side of that world) at a time when evangelicalism was ascending to prominence with some significant power in American culture. (Think Billy Graham in the 50’s). I’m a graduate. I love Wheaton. But if I were at Wheaton College, I would applaud the positive contribution of prof. Hawkins to mission in the wearing of the hijab. And then I would announce, out of respect and love for our Muslim brothers and sisters, Wheaton College (and its employees) will not make pronouncements on what other religions believe or do not believe. I would say, as a Christian institution, we have no business telling Muslims what they believe, and whether they believe in the same God as us evangelical Christians. But we’d love to talk about it over coffee.

We have no business telling Muslims what they believe. But we'd love to talk about it over… Click To Tweet

What do you think? Is it presumptive for Christians/Christian organizations to make a pronouncement “yea or nay” on whether Christian and Muslims worship the same God?

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