Wheaton College has suspended its political science professor Larycia Hawkins for saying that Christians “worship the same God” as Muslims in explaining her decision to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslims throughout the season of Advent. To be clear, she didn’t just say that as her own statement; she was quoting Pope Francis. So Wheaton College is effectively declaring the pope to be anathema by making this move. But what’s really at stake here? What does it mean to say that Christians worship the same God as Muslims? Everything depends on what you mean by the word “same.”
Do Christians believe the same things about God that Muslims believe? Absolutely not.
Does the word “worship” mean the same to Christians that it means to Muslims? No. We don’t believe that you have to face east to pray five times a day or make a pilgrimage to Mecca or fast during the month of Ramadan or refrain from eating certain foods.
But is the same God the object of our worship? Unless we’re going to say that “God” is merely a projection of our ideas of God and not the real, actual creator and ruler of the universe, then we have to say yes. As a Christian, I don’t believe that each group of people has a different god. I believe that there’s one God who is perceived and worshiped with different degrees of intimacy and accuracy. If somebody else says there are actually ten gods, I’m going to say you’ve split the attributes of the real God into ten pieces.
Different religions have different names for this God and different myths that they believe about this God. I believe that the story that Christianity tells about God is the truest and most beautiful story about God that exists. Otherwise I wouldn’t be a Christian. But I don’t think that means I have to affirm that everything every other religion has to say about God is utterly false.
I’m not sure why certain conservative evangelicals feel the need to say that Muslims are worshiping a false god rather than worshiping God with some false presumptions. As a Christian, I necessarily believe that Muslims have some things wrong, just as they believe I have some things wrong, but that doesn’t require claiming that they direct their prayers and adoration to somebody different than I am. When I got into a Facebook conversation with a conservative evangelical about this, he immediately told me that I was being a “universalist” to say that Muslims worship the same God as Christians. What?!
Here’s an imperfect analogy I would make. Say you’re in a high school where everybody knows the star quarterback Jake, but not everybody really knows him. Jake’s football teammates have certain running inside jokes with him, but what if Jake shares the most intimate details of his life with the nerdy kids who are in his AP physics class? If Jake’s football teammates get into an argument with Jake’s AP physics classmates about what Jake is really like, it would be nonsensical for Jake’s physics classmates to tell the football players that they’re actually talking about another guy named Bob, not Jake. They would say instead, “You just don’t know Jake like we do.”
When Jesus is having a conversation with a Samaritan woman whose people had a completely different religion than Judaism, he says to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). So whatever religious practices the Samaritans were doing that caused Jesus to say they did not know the God whom they worshiped did not mean to him that they weren’t actually worshiping God.
Likewise when Paul evangelizes the Athenians in Acts 17, he says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (v. 23). He incorporates the writing of their poets into his evangelism (“For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”, v. 28). This means that to Paul even the insights of polytheistic pagans were not utterly alien to the nature of the true God. Furthermore, Paul argues in Romans 1:20, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” So to Paul, it’s not that the Roman pagans are worshiping different gods, but they are inadequately worshiping the one true God.
I suspect that certain conservative evangelicals are paranoid about a slippery slope. If we concede that Muslims worship the same God, then does that mean that God was at least somewhat behind the revelation that Mohammed received? And if that’s the case, then how can we be sure that only Christians go to heaven? And if we can’t be sure of that, then what’s the point? For certain conservative evangelicals, every other religion has to be based entirely upon the deceit of some kind of malicious spiritual being like Satan, or else the truth claims of Christianity are under catastrophic threat.
To be honest, I have a lot of trouble believing that the same God who has been working on me for 38 years is actively involved in the lives of my fellow Christians who believe this way. But I’ve had to accept the mystery that the God who has been teaching me “I desire mercy not sacrifice” is the same God who’s in relationship with people who love their fire and brimstone. When they cry out to God for greater wisdom, God is not loathe to honor their request, even if the wisdom they receive completely contradicts the wisdom I receive when I cry out to God for the same thing. I cannot believe that one of us is really talking to a demon and the other one to God as the explanation for our theological differences.
One of the basic truths I believe about God is prevenient grace, that God is proactively reaching out in love to all of God’s creatures. I don’t believe that God refuses to have anything to do with us until we believe the right things about God. God is in relationship with every human being, whether they’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, B’hai, or even those who don’t believe in God at all. I do believe that a definitive difference exists in the way that we are in relationship with God when we accept the grace that God has shown us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But to say that we’re not all striving after and trying to worship the same God is to make God into a tribal deity instead of the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty in the universe.
In any case, Dr. Laryicia Hawkins’ courageous gesture of solidarity in wearing the hijab and her explanation for it are completely in line with my understanding of how Jesus taught us to live. To suspend her for doing either of these tells me a lot about the character of the administration of Wheaton College. I’m not going to say they don’t worship the same God that I do, but as the apostles James and John both tell us in the Bible, the genuineness of their love of God is revealed by how they treat people. Dr. Hawkins is the Christian martyr in this story; may her bold witness draw more of her fellow Christians into a deeper intimacy with God’s amazing love.