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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 coffee. 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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32 responses to “The Professor Hawkins Controversy: On Why Wheaton College Has No Business Telling Muslims What They Believe

  1. Isn’t it just as imperialist and presumptuous to express those “doubts” about Osteen? I’m not sure why an exercise in comparative theology has to be understood through a power lens. I can read Muslim theologians charitably, and then conclude that since we both believe in one God who is maker of heaven and earth and who revealed Himself to Abraham, we are seeking to worship the same God. And from that basis I can try to answer Islamic concerns about whether the Trinity and Incarnation compromise God’s oneness, which might lead to a rich conversation about what exactly the Church Fathers were trying to do at Nicea and Chalcedon. It’s the Arians, after all, who were finally considered outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

  2. Like I said on FB, the difference here is… I am assuming (maybe wrongly – and I’ll take your argument on this one) Osteen and I both assent to a creedal understanding of what it means to be a Christian grounded in a history .. therefore a discussion between us on the subject would be intratextual – for the furthering of each our growth in our shared faith. The statement on Muslim and Christian faith is extratextual with all the inherent assumptions therein. Hope this clarifies.

  3. While I appreciate and support your points about talking with and getting to know our Muslim neighbors, I must comment that it is very possible to objectively know what Muslims believe by studying the Koran, which clearly states that Jesus is NOT the Son of God, and which to me is the central question to this entire discussion—Is He or isn’t He? The answer, directly from the text of the Koran, is an emphatic NO. If an imam proclaimed in a mosque or f Islamic school that they worship the same God as Christians, he would be drummed out and declared an infidel. Additionally, I must respectfully comment on your approval of and encouragement for Christian women to don a hijab in solidarity. There are multiple widely published articles I’ve read in which Muslim women are asking that we NOT do this, as it is a powerful symbol, to them, of their oppression.

    1. It’s not possible to know what Christians in America believe by reading the biblical text. So how would it be possible to know what Muslims believe from reading the Koran?

      1. I disagree. It is highly possible. God has clearly revealed Himself in the Bible from cover to cover. True Christians affirm and embrace a basic body of beliefs about the Trinity and other central doctrines, as put forth in the Creeds. It is the same of true Muslims.

        1. The doctrine of the Trinity did not come into being for the Christian church until several hundred years after the life of Jesus. So to suggest that it could be easily, or clearly understood by the biblical text, isn’t accurate. To think you could have a clear understanding or the sacraments would also be difficult. To this day, the catholic church and the protestant church still disagrees on the number of sacraments.

          I simply believe that you are fooling yourself to think that someone can understand the Christian faith without a living and breathing community the emulates it. Even the Apostle Paul was pretty clear when he said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

          1. Not fooling myself. I cannot no longer encounter a living breathing community of ancient Eqyptians but yet can understand that they worshipped Pharoah and other gods and not the God of Moses from their iconography, hieroglyphics, artifacts, etc. I don’t need to hang out with Buddhists to understand that their path to “enlightenment” does not include the incantation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Son of God. I have never known a Satanist but can bet that they have no devotion to Jesus Christ. Likewise, we can safely make the assumption that if one identifies as a Muslim, the tenets of their faith and required adherence to the Koran precludes that they do not worship the Triune God of the Bible. If you ask my friends who are missionaries living in Istanbul and working among the Muslim people if Muslims worship the same God as Christians, they are quick to say NO, as their converts to Christianity will testify. Belief in Jesus as the Son of God and the only way to eternal life is very different from debate among Christians about the nuances of the faith. There is a body of belief upon which those who identify as Christ followers agree. If not, then the Creeds are of no value.

          2. Many converts to Christianity testify the opposite. In fact, this convert to Christianity, who now believes that Muslims worship a different god, admits that when he first converted he believed that Muslims _do_ worship the true God: http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god. The entire Christian proclamation rests on the belief that God was already known, though imperfectly, before the coming of Jesus–that the God proclaimed by Jesus and the Apostles was the same God known to Jews and in a more shadowy way to pagans. It is neither Biblical nor orthodox nor rational to say that belief in the Trinity is essential in order to believe in the true God (that is _not_ the same thing as saying that belief in the Trinity is necessary for having a right relationship with God). I wrote about this in more detail here: http://stewedrabbit.blogspot.com/2016/01/why-incarnation-requires-us-to-believe.html

    2. Nope. You are simply wrong. You should try talking to Muslims sometime. They believe that we do worship the same God. They believe that we “associate partners” with this God. I.e., they believe that what we call “God the Father” is Allah, but that the Son and the Spirit should not also be called God. A vital starting point for dialogue with Muslims is the clear affirmation that not only do we worship the one God, the only God there is, whom Muslims also worship, but that we believe the entire Trinity (not just the Father) to be this God (i.e., to use language that avoids any suspicion of tritheism).

      1. The Muslims I have met would be cast out if they openly say they worship the same God as Christians. Your comments only serve to affirm that indeed Muslims do NOT worship the same God, as you say they do not acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, which is the central question on the table, nor the Holy Spirit, which the Bible clearly addresses. End of story.

        1. Are you sure you aren’t confusing believing in the same God with believing Jesus is the Son of God? Since you think these are the same things, aren’t you possibly assuming that your Muslim friends are assuming the same thing?

          I understand why it seems pious and orthodox to say “end of story,” as you do, but in fact that view makes nonsense of the Christian faith, since people clearly believed in the true God for centuries and millennia before the coming of Jesus. Hence, it very clearly isn’t the end of the story at all.

          1. It is not pious to assert that CHRISTianity is not Christianity without Jesus, the only way to salvation through His incarnation, death and resurrection. From the revelation of Jesus, all is changed from those millennia you refer to, because since then believing in the God of the Bible means Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 3 in One. It makes nonsense of the Christian faith for you to say that those who do not wholeheartedly believe this, which is essential and central to the Christian faith, worship the same God, which applies to Muslims. If one cannot answer YES to the question “Do you worship Jesus as the Son of God” then one is worshipping, by definition, a different God. That IS the end of the story.

          2. I wouldn’t go so far to say that it isn’t pious, only that it’s hasty and implicitly unorthodox. (I think you are using “pious” in a pejorative sense, which I am not.)

            Your move is, of course, the typical one. But it simply doesn’t follow. If a person in 100 B.C. who believed in one God was believing in the true God, then a person in A.D. 100 who held exactly the same beliefs clearly was as well. To say otherwise is irrational. The spiritual status of such a person might be different than the person who lived before Christ, but the referent of their belief couldn’t possibly be, it seems to me.

          3. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.1 John 5:10-12. It does all boil down to Christ. Even the Pharisees, who would have far more in common with Christianity theologically than Muslims do, were not considered by Jesus to be worshiping the same God. Even the false teachers within the Christian community were labeled more as antichrists, false apostles, and teaching “another Jesus” and a “different gospel”. Obviously not worshiping the same God.

          4. I came into this conversation sort of by accident. It seems that the Muslim’s Allah is being equated with Jehovah? Muhammed’s Allah was the leading desert god, the Moon goddess. It is rather ironic that Islam that so degrades the woman should be worshiping a female goddess. Israel knew of this goddess as the Queen of Heaven and was warned by Jehovah God to not worship her as did the nations surrounding Israel. She has been worshiped by many nations and tribes under different names.
            Rosemary E Hyslop
            http://www.jesusatoninglife.com

          5. Nope. “Allah” was never the name for the moon goddess. Some people claim that some other Arabs, in a completely different part of Arabia, called the moon god “el-ilah,” because Arabs gave that title to whichever god they thought of as supreme. I know of no evidence that Allah in Mecca was ever regarded as a moon god, and he certainly was not a goddess, although he was believed to have three daughters, which may be what has confused you.

            Christians believe, historically, that there is only one God. Paul recognized even pagan poets writing of a supreme deity as speaking of the true God (Acts 17). In Romans 1 Paul says that the pagans “knew God” (and then sinned by worshiping lesser gods instead of the one supreme God whose existence they acknowledged). And of course Islam draws on Judaism and Christianity and thus isn’t in the same boat as paganism.

          6. I myself don’t find it pagan enough. Christianity is more pagan. That’s one reason why I’m a Christian 🙂

  4. How does historicity of Persons/Being(s) involved play in to this dialogue? Jesus Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection aren’t just good conversational topics. They have root in history and substancia – not merely conceptualis – Respect? Yes. Love? Of course. Ceding the reality of homoousious? May it never be! It’s part & parcel of our Lord’s missional mandate. Blessings.

  5. One of the inscriptions in Arabic on the inside of the Octagonal Arcade of the Dome of the Rock: “Nor utter aught concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a Messenger of God, and His Word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and say not ‘Three’ – Cease!” That’s just one among many. At least Muslims seem to be clear about which God they worship.

  6. I strongly disagree with this argument. Saying that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God is simply a claim that we Christians worship the one God, the Creator, the only God there is. Muslims I’ve talked to (and these were conservative Muslims who were up front about the fact that they thought I would go to hell if I didn’t become a Muslim) are pretty confident that we worship the same God (as “God the Father” in our case) and utterly puzzled by why Christians would say anything different. There is nothing at all imperialistic or arrogant about saying that we worship the same God. There is something very “presumptive” (in the author’s term) about accusing Prof. Hawkins of not having talked to Muslims about this. I know that I have, and that’s one reason I’m so certain and so passionate about this issue.

  7. um…………. Do Christians and Jews worship the same God? Do Christians think that Jews have it “wrong”? The question of whether or not Muslim’s and Jews and Christians worship the same God is easily answered with a yes. Do we all believe the same things about that God? no. Do we all worship this God the same way? no. To say that Christians worship the one, true Triune God is offensive to Muslims AND to Jews. But, this is just not the point of the discussion. Christians in opposition to the statement “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” do not seem to have listened well. Instead, what these Christians seem to hear is “Islam and Christianity are just different paths to the same God. Both are equally true and effective and both will get you into heaven.” Now, there is a lot to dissect and discuss about that statement, but that’s a completely different discussion. Jews, Christians and Muslims are all people of the Book and are all attempting to worship the same God – although very differently. This is not really up for debate. Mormons, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses – even Westboro Baptists (!) are all trying to worship this same God. Now, if we want to discuss who’s “doing it right”, then that’s a different discussion.

  8. David: Appreciate your comments on what is an illuminating situation in many respects. An important take away from your post is the importance of epistemological humility. I too have concerns that the words we employ as Christians to forge unity or build relationship. Even symbolic actions, like wearing a hijab, can be miscontrued by the intended party. They can objectify others and even be appropriated for our own self-serving ends. Part of practicing humility is to avoid being presumptive about the shape unity with our neighbors, which including our monotheistic ones, might take. I also hear in your words a call to be bold in our invitation to dialogue with diverse neighbors.

    But I have a caution as well. The conversation that has unfurled in social media, about Christian Higher Ed, theology, and language, has despite some dust ups, mostly been helpful in giving more light and clarity on the theological implications of the statements that have been made. However, it’s ironic that a full airing of views has seemed more possible off, rather than on campus. I would also add that the spirit of boldness in dialogue is squelched when we create an environment where every utterance in digital or in person conversation must be elevated to the status of confessional statement. The ability for academics and students from various disciplines to practice well-considered risk in conversation is as necessary to the academic enterprise as it is the missiological one. You have been the recipient of that freedom as you test out views and thoughts on your blog. Even if Dr. Hawkin’s statement isn’t air tight, it is still a legitimate contribution to a pertinent conversation.

    One last consideration: Have you given thought to the ways that sibling language in this case, as used by Dr. Hawkins, relates heavily to the African American religious vernacular? The embrace of intersecting and fictive forms of sibling relations are a common way of building bridges among AA’s and many people of color. And while I do not employ it indiscriminately, it is a vernacular I have and continue to use. I do affirm that Christians of color can legitimately express solidarity with other people of color even if we are not brothers or sisters “in Christ”. So for me a key question becomes: How do we prevent majority white Christian institutions from holding Christian witness captive, even if unwittingly, to their own cultural and linguistic preferences?

  9. I’m a happy Wheaton grad, and I appreciate you taking a humble posture toward this controversy as an outsider–but I’m also grateful that you’ve pointed out a Muslim angle on the debate that no one has really seemed to acknowledge. Namely, that the statement “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” could be offensive to Muslims as well as Christians!

    I’ve also wondered how Muslim women who wear the hijab would perceive its use by a non-Muslim, even as a symbol of solidarity. Not surprisingly, though, I haven’t seen any Muslims weighing in on this controversy, since they have understandably little stake in a debate among Christians that has been stoked by the media into a gleeful bonfire. If I were them, I’d steer clear of the flames, too!

  10. Thanks for sharing David.

    I think the trouble is that the book Muslims submit to (Qur’an) and the book Christians submit to (the Bible) are different in central message and teaching. Furthermore, the man Muslims follow, Muhammad, is very different from the Man Christians follow, Jesus. Oh and Allah and Yahweh are not the same at all either.

    Even the argument of claiming the same patriarchs or prophets is weak. It’d be like you saying because you have a friend named “Henry” that you know me, or he’s similar to me. Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, may appear in both books, but they are not the same people, they do not preach the same message, and they do not worship the same God.

  11. Does it help to say even though Christians and Muslims “worship the same God” we worship and believe differently about the same God? This might be a very nuanced point, but I can objectively say that what Muslims call “Allah” point to something transcendent and is what Christians call God as expressed in the Trinity. However, we believe differently and worship differently. So Hawkins claim, public or otherwise, is not only true, but made in also solidarity with Muslims.
    So I can say that Joel Osteen of my beloved Houston worships and believes differently of the same God that I worship. This way I really don’t presume to know what is in Osteen’s heart (and bright smile), but can say he worships the same God. I can make that public a public statement or not. I’m not sure it matters.
    However, I’ll be happy to sit with you David over a cup of Houston Java to talk about it.

  12. Its almost funny, how, in all of this Naive discussion – trying to justify saying something “Nice” to Muslims? – this discussion about saying something, regarding Christianity & Islam, that Purely & Simply, is on its very face, NOT true. You can argue semantics & Redefine words untl your face is blue, but NOTHING will Change the fact that the God of the Bible is DISTINCTLY & Blatantly Different & Very Nearly a Polar Opposite of the god of the Qur’an.

    Completely Missing from the Conversation is this fact: Islam is an Oppressive, Totalitarian, Religio-Political, Abusive, Violently Coercive, Dogmatically Dominating, Hatefully Intolerant, Manipulative & Controlling, Deceitfully Sabotaging System, Designed to Enable & Justify World Domination, and unrestrained, sexual Immorality. In Countries already under the control of Islam, it is Openly Abusive, as describe in great detail above. But in Nations where they are in the vast minority, they go thru’ several stages of behavior, working their way to domination. The First Stage is to be nice & deceitful, claiming to have things in common with others, seeming very tolerant. Of especial implrtance, in the case of Christian Nations, like America, they TALK about worshipping the same god, in ORDER to win US over & get us to accept their Presence, allowing them to get in where they can begin slowly teaching their heresies. The Qur’an even talks about the PRACTICE of LYING to gain domination. Its called Taqiya. Its what Obama practices & can be heard repeated Frequently when News Organizations call in an Islamic Expert, who tells us “Islam is a Religion of PEACE”. Its a Blatant Lie, The latter verses of the Qur’an talk MORE about WAR & Violence than about peace. The Peaceful Earl;y verses are taught to prospects & new converts, the Latter, more Violent Verses are taught Later, when their Dominance has been established, or atleast, the culture is rather disarmed.

    Why is this so important? What does it have to do with the controversy? Here it is: We MUST do two things. Tell them the Truth to save them; AND KNOW the Truth to save ourselves. This applies BOTH Physically AND Spiritually. If we proceed in Naivete’, saying that we worship the same god, Islam will eventually dominate us & we will no longer be free to worship the ONE TRUE God w/o being abused, Taxed, Robbed, Beat, and ultimately Slaughtered. If we Speak the Truth in Love, we may survive and they may be saved.

    The God of the Bible calls himself the Truth. The god of Islam calls himself the Great/Chief Deceiver.

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