I’m sure many of you have heard the debate about the suspension and now intention of Wheaton College to fire Prof. Larycia Hawkins for her Facebook comments about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. CT has a good piece on the story for those who want an orientation. You can also read a response from Hawkins on her website here.
I think Hawkins’ desire to wear a hijab is commendable as an act of solidarity with Muslim refugees from Syria who are facing perilous journeys, uncertainty for the future, and hostility from their point of origin and even at their intended destination. It is particularly commendable in light of the anti-Muslim bigotry propounded by hate-mongering ideologues like Donald Trump. And hey, don’t forget, Christian women were wearing head coverings long before Muhammed arrived on the scene.
More problematic is Hawkins’ remarks that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Well, Christians and Muslims are both monotheists, they both claim to worship the God of Abraham, they venerate Jesus in their own ways, and they both have high regard for a shared set of sacred books. And if there is only one divine being, then there is only one God to be worshipped by anyone, so in that sense, sure, they worship the same God.
However, the description of the nature and character of this one divine being in these two religions is fundamentally incompatible.
First, Malaysia is a Muslim country who’s highest court has upheld a government ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in their Bibles (see Guardian news report). If Christians are not allowed to use the word “Allah” to describe their God, then that kind of settles the question as to whether they worship the same God, at least for Malay Muslims.
Second, the biggest difference is that Christians worship a triune God, one God in three distinct persons. Christians believe in the uncreated Father, the eternally begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son (sorry, Orthodox friends, I’m sticking with filioque clause for now). This view of God is precisely what Muslims must ritually deny when they daily profess “God does not beget and is not begotten.” That confession is a straight out denial of the distinctive identity of the Christian God as one can imagine.
Third, I am wary of the religious pluralistic mantra that there are many paths up the same mountain. Stephen Prothero has written a book on the various world religions and I think his conclusion is right: there are not many ways up the mountain, but very different mountains. The tendency of religious pluralists is to flatten out the distinctives of each religion and try to compress them onto a procrustean bed of universal religion rather than allow them to articulate their own God, in their own grammar, narrative, diversity, and history. The greatest respect we can pay to the adherents of other faiths is not to tell them who their God is – “Your God is just like ours but with a few funny quirks,” which sounds terribly condescending – but to allow them to speak of their own God as their God without turning him/her/it/them into an avatar of one’s own God. Respect for “others” is not about denying the differences, but respecting those differences as what makes someone else’s faith precious to them.
Fourth, there were some great articles on Muslim-Christian relations by Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (see links in the comments section). Otherwise, I recommend two books by Bob Robinson and Daniel Strange on how Christians should think about other religions.
I offer no opinion on the rightness or wrongness of the actions of Wheaton College and Prof. Hawkins. This is a complex process encompassing US labor law, Wheaton’s evangelical statement of faith, the faculty reconciliation processes, and cultural pressures towards religious pluralism. My point is, standing up against anti-Muslim rhetoric is good, but saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is misleading and unhelpful.
Photo from drlaryciahawkins.org