God, Wheaton, and Larycia Hawkins

This past week Wheaton College, my alma mater, placed Dr. Larycia Hawkins, associate professor of political science, on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into her comments about Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God.

For those of you who may not be aware, Wheaton College is an evangelical Christian institution that requires all members of it's faculty and staff, along with all students, to sign a document indicating agreement with it's Statement of Faith.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, Wheaton tends to take what you might term a strict constructionist approach to its Statement of Faith with professors, and a more lenient approach with students. In other words, Wheaton would not prohibit a student from enrolling based on a minor theological dispute or discrepancy, but it would likely remove a professor for one. (If you're interested, you can read more about the situation with Dr. Joshua Hochshield.)

We could argue about Wheaton's strict constructionist approach to its Statement of Faith if we wanted to, but the fact is that it exists.

So what about Dr. Hawkins and her statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Does it conflict with Wheaton College's statements about God?

Take a look at both of them:

Larycia Hawkins Wheaton College

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.

WE BELIEVE in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons: the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life; and we believe that God created the Heavens and the earth out of nothing by His spoken word, and for His own glory.

WE BELIEVE that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was true God and true man, existing in one person and without sin; and we believe in the resurrection of the crucified body of our Lord, in His ascension into heaven, and in His present life there for us as Lord of all, High Priest, and Advocate.

So do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Yes... and no.

To conflate the Islamic and Christian understandings of God is to do a disservice to both faiths. Each of them ascribes different characteristics to God and believes God desires to be worshipped in very different ways.

But believing different things about God does not necessarily mean that they believe in different gods.

Consider this scenario.

You're walking down Main Street and round the corner onto First Avenue just in time to see a 6'2", 200 lb, muscular man wearing all black punch another, much smaller man in the face. The larger man proceeds to tackle the smaller one. You, not being very physically imposing yourself, decide not to engage directly but run across the street and call 911. Within 60 seconds the police show up, and since you're already running late to a meeting, you continue on your way.

Now, let's look at the same story from a different perspective.

You're walking down First Avenue towards Main Street. You see a man and a woman fighting, and the man pulls out a gun. You grab your phone to call 911, when out of nowhere another man punches and tackles the assailant, keeping him pinned down until the police arrive.

The two eyewitnesses in this story probably believe two very different things about the larger man, nearly opposite things in fact. The first eyewitness likely believes he's a terrible criminal. The second almost certainly views him as a selfless hero.

But the fact that they believe different things about the man does not mean that they're describing different men. Sure, one person gets the description right and the other gets it wrong, but they're not describing different men. They're describing the same man differently.

I would argue that the same is true for Christian and Islamic descriptions of God. Muslims and Christians both describe God as all powerful, all knowing, etc. Both hold that there is one God. There is enough in common between the descriptions that a reasonable person could conclude that they're talking about the same being, even though there are obviously some irreconcilable differences in their descriptions.

What does all of this mean for Dr. Hawkins continued employment at Wheaton?

Going simply by her public statements, it seems to me that Dr. Hawkins still holds to Wheaton's Statement of Faith, even when taking a strict constructionist approach to that statement.

In fact, I would argue that only someone with a particularly overconfident and narrow-minded (read: Pharisaical) understanding of who God is would be able to state with 100% certainty that Muslims and Christians worship different gods.

You can hold that belief while still leaving room for others who disagree, but it takes a great deal of hubris to take that belief a step further and claim it is something about which you cannot be wrong.

Perhaps in private conversations Dr. Hawkins has expressed reservations or doubts about the exclusivity of Jesus or argued that Islam and Christianity are equally valid ways of approaching God.

If that's the case, Wheaton College isn't the best place for her. If you have significant doubts about the core mission of an organization, you probably shouldn't be working there. The Democratic National Committee isn't going to hire a dyed in the wool Republican, and a school with the stated goal of training students in Islam isn't likely to hire a Christian professor.

But assuming that what Dr. Hawkins has said in private is no different than what she has said in public, she should be reinstated immediately.