Here We Go Again: An Evangelical Controversy over Whether “Christians” and “Muslims” Worship the Same God
About one year ago I posted my response to that controversial question here. I re-post it below this lead-in paragraph. According to Christianity Today (on line article entitled “Wheaton College Suspends Hijab-Wearing Professor after ‘Same God’ Comment, December 15, 2015) evangelical Wheaton College (Illinois) has suspended, not fired, African-American, female professor Larycia Hawkins (political science) for claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The article annoys me because it fails to mention or take into account the complexity of the statement itself. That complexity is the subject of my blog post (below) which I published here a year ago. I don’t know if the Wheaton administration is taking that complexity into account. It’s not a simple question or statement. But also, I have great trouble with any college suspending a professor ONLY for making such a claim. Perhaps there is more to the situation that hasn’t been publicly reported, so I give the Wheaton administration that benefit of the doubt. I have been in and around evangelical Christian institutions of higher education long enough to know there’s often “more to the story” than ever gets out–especially in cases of difficult personnel decisions. Still, insofar as the impression is true, fits the facts, that Dr. Hawkins was suspended ONLY for that statement, I oppose the decision. A liberal arts college or university, even one with a mission to be evangelical Christian, needs to make room for controversial issues to be explored without punitive results–especially insofar as they do not blatantly contradict the institutions’s written statements of belief or ethics known to the person when he or she joined the institution (as student, faculty or staff).
Before re-posting my essay from a year ago, I can’t help but point to a great irony–insofar as the Christianity Today story (and other similar ones) are true and complete. Wheaton College is as place of great reverence for two Christians who BOTH said more or less what Dr. Hawkins said. I refer to C. S. Lewis and Billy Graham! As I pointed out in my essay re-posted below, Lewis more than implied that God will sometimes accept as worship of him worship of other gods. The logical import of such a statement is that, in effect, the person was worshiping “the same God” whether they knew it or not. Billy Graham, of course, stated very publicly in a video recorded interview with Robert Schuller, that he did not think only Christians could be saved. (The later back pedaling especially by close relatives of Graham’s is irrelevant to my point. He said what he said and I have heard it.) You can find that interview on Youtube.
Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?
Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? It’s not as simple a question as it appears and therefore no simple, straightforward answer should be given. The question itself begs analysis—before any answer can be given. I worry that people who jump to answer “yes” may be motivated more by political correctness and/or fear of persecution (of Muslims) than by clear thinking about the theological differences between Islam and Christianity. I also worry that people who jump to answer “no” may be motivated more by Christian fundamentalism and/or fear of terrorists than by clear thinking about the historical-theological roots of Islam in Jewish and Christian monotheism.
So, let’s analyze the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”
First, both Christianity and Islam are diverse religions. Do all Christians worship the same God? What all is being included in “Christians” in the question? What all is being included in “Muslims” in the question? Which Muslims? Which Christians? I know enough about the diversity of Islam to wonder if they all worship the same God. And I seriously doubt that all who claim to be Christians worship the same God. Does a liberal Christian who denies the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity worship the same God as an orthodox Christian who affirms them?
Second, the question could be interpreted as asking whether Muslims and Christians are thinking of God sufficiently alike to be worshiping the same God. Then my answer would tend to be “no”—they are not worshiping the same God. For orthodox Christianity “God” includes Jesus which is heresy if not blasphemy to most orthodox Muslims.
Third, the question could be interpreted as asking whether God accepts sincere Muslim worship of Allah as worship of himself. That is a very different question from whether Muslims and Christians are thinking sufficiently alike about God to be worshiping the same God. That latter question (discussed in the paragraph above) is an epistemological question with a more or less empirically (or at least sociologically and philosophically) determined answer. That is not to say equally astute scholars won’t disagree; it is only to say it can be researched. The question whether God accepts Muslim worship of Allah as worship of himself is very different and much more difficult to answer because answering it presumes knowing the mind of God.
Of course, some Christians will answer “no”—God does not accept worship of Allah as worship of himself—based on Jesus’s saying in John 14:6 that no one comes to the Father except through him. But, a problem with that, as I have pointed out before here, is that most of the same people who quote that verse to claim that God never accepts non-Christian worship as worship of himself admit that even when Jesus said it (sometime around 33 AD) there were Jews whose worship of God without Jesus was accepted by God as true worship of him. The question then becomes when God “cut off” all worship not centered around Jesus? When Jesus died on the cross? Then did the cross “unsave” thousands, if not millions, of Jews and God-fearing gentiles? Did God suddenly turn a deaf ear to them just because they did not know of Jesus? (Most Jews and gentile God-fearers lived outside of Palestine during Jesus’s earthly life, death and resurrection.) To say that God “grandfathered them in,” as one fundamentalist pastor said, is absurd. What about their sons and daughters who also never heard of Jesus before dying? When did God stop accepting worship by people with Abrahamic faith in God’s promises? So simply quoting John 14:6 does not settle the question whether God has ever accepted worship that does not include faith in Jesus Christ as worship of himself.
I do not think we can answer the question of what worship God accepts as worship of himself with any degree of certainty. To be sure, there are some “worships” that we can say with certainty God does not accept as worship of himself (such as worship of Satan). I admit that I am uncomfortable even with C. S. Lewis’s scenario of God accepting Emeth’s worship of Tash as worship of himself in The Chronicles of Narnia. That’s partly, however, because of the way Tash is described in the stories. Still, and nevertheless, I do not think we can say with assurance that God does not accept any Muslim’s worship of Allah as worship of himself.
On the other hand, I tend to think the theological differences between Allah in orthodox Islam (both Shia and Sunni versions to say nothing of Amadiyyah) and orthodox Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) are strong enough to doubt that, in most cases, Muslims and Christians are thinking of the same God when they worship Yahweh and Allah.
Having said that, however, let me also say that, as a Christian theologian, my main concern is whether all Christians are thinking of the same God when they worship. But that’s a subject for another post.