Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Hawkins Questions at Wheaton

There is confusion.

The pertinent question with regard to Wheaton College's process against Larycia Hawkins is NOT any of the following:

  • Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
  • Are Allah and Jesus the same God?
  • Is it appropriate or inappropriate for a Christian woman to wear a hijab to express solidarity with Muslim women who are mistreated because they wear a hijab?
  • Is Islam true?
  • Is Islamic theology compatible with Christian theology?
  • Are Muslims saved or damned?
  • Is Allah really Satan in disguise?
  • Is Christianity true?
  • Is there salvation in any other name than the name of Jesus?
  • Is God a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • Can Christians be Democrats?
  • Can evangelical Christians be politically liberal?
  • Should Wheaton have a Statement of Faith?
  • Should adherence to Wheaton's Statement of Faith be a condition of employment as a faculty member at Wheaton College?
  • How do politically conservative big donors feel about politically liberal professors at Wheaton?
  • Is Larycia Hawkins politically liberal?
  • Should Wheaton College exclude or embrace women and people of color?
  • etc., ad infinitum

Some of the preceding question are interesting, and some of them are stupid. But they are not the pertinent question.

The pertinent question is this:
  • Has Larycia Hawkins, by commenting, in the context of an expression of solidarity with Muslim women who are mistreated because they wear the hijab, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, breached the Wheaton College Statement of Faith?

The answer is: certainly not.

Answers to the other questions are not answers to this question.

A further pertinent question is:

  • Is Larycia Hawkins in any other way out of step with the Wheaton College Statement of Faith?

Answer: she says that she is not, and I have not seen any credible suggestion that she is.

Further question:

  • Why is this so hard?

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.