Thanks But No Thanks: How a Noted Theologian’s Defense of Larycia Hawkins Goes Bizarrely Astray

"God Is Love: drive-by photo, South Allentown" courtesy flickr user Morah Daniels via Creative Commons

Last week, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, the eminent Christian theologian, respected entrepreneur of high-level Christian-Muslim dialogue, and Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf came to the defense of Larycia Alaine Hawkins, a fellow Christian academic suspended by Wheaton College for her assertion (via social media) that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

(As a Roman Catholic, I believe it’s worth noting that Prof. Hawkins’s “unorthodox” belief is quite “orthodox” for the world’s billion Catholics. But then again, it’s also worth noting that many conservative evangelical theologians do not consider these billion baptized members of the body of Christ to be true Christians, either.)

In his post Volf vigorously defends Hawkins and accuses Wheaton of “enmity toward Muslims,” rather than any theological concern. He also notes that he himself has skin in the game. He’s writing, in part, to reassert his own contention, argued in his landmark monograph, Allah: A Christian Response (and cited by Hawkins herself) that many Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God.

In an appropriately pointed critique of religious worldviews based on a stark cosmic dualism between the “us” of true believers and the “them” of the “unbelievers,” Volf maintains: “In the realm of religious convictions, enmity demands exclusivity of in-group convictions. It is not just that we insist that we aren’t our enemies; we cannot have anything in common with them either.”

Which is why what follows in the essay struck me as quite an unexpected turn.

As if to exemplify the very “exclusivity of in-group convictions” he associates with interreligious enmity, Volf writes that

“In addition to contesting the Trinity and the Incarnation, Muslims also contest the Christian claim that God is love — unconditional and indiscriminate love. There is no claim in Islam that God ‘justifies the ungodly’ and no command to love one’s enemies. But these are the signature claims of the Christian faith. Take the redemption of the ungodly and the love of enemy out of the Christian faith, and you un-Christian it.”

The problems with such a statement are manifold.

The first is methodological and evidentiary. Who are Volf’s “Muslims” and who defines Volf’s “Islam”? When he axiomatically declares that “Muslims contest the Christian claim that God is love—unconditional and indiscriminate love,” which “Muslims” is he talking about? Does he mean all or even most Muslims? Is he referring to traditionally trained scholars from conservative backgrounds, Muslim scholars trained in more Western academic contexts, Muslim scholars who have studied Christianity from a Christian perspective, Muslim scholars who only understand Christianity through the lens of polemic and debate?
RDinboxOr might he be speaking of the vast majority of theologically untrained Muslims whose informed opposition to the claim that “God is love” is frankly more difficult to imagine than it is impossible to account for  or measure. Are we talking Sunnis or Shi’ites? Those whose piety is shaped primarily by the traditions of tariqa tasawwuf (i.e., Sufism), or those whose piety is shaped more by a predominantly neo-Hanbali scripturalist spirituality?

Another problem has to do with a critically important clarification concerning what precisely Volf’s “Muslims” might be contesting. Is Volf imagining these “Muslims” contesting the very idea that the divine ontology manifests in a unique way the reality we humans refer to (in English) as “love”?

Or might he mean that many or some Muslims reject certain peculiarly Christian expressions of this manifestation?

As Volf himself points out at the top of the same paragraph, the latter is certainly true if, for example, we are talking about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation. But to say, for example, that conventional Muslim theology explicitly rejects the doctrine of the Incarnation as an accurate expression of the nature of God’s love in profound divine-human intimacy, should never be taken as evidence that Muslims reject the idea of a God who is essentially loving.

My experience with Muslim interlocutors of various types have taught me that, although they may reject the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, Muslims have their own different but equally powerful expressions of God’s love in profound divine-human intimacy.

Muslims personally testify in an abundance of ways to the immanence of God in their lives—the God whose active will is felt in the pulse of the very blood coursing through their veins. This sense of intimacy with a God who loves (His) creation is also echoed in classical interpretations of the two divine attributes attested in Islamic discourse above all others: “The One Who is (Him)self Compassion” and “The One Who Ceaselessly Acts Compassionately in (His) Relationships with All Creatures.”

I discussed this point with a Muslim colleague who pointed out that the Islamic emphasis on God’s rahma or “mercy” is the equivalent of Christian agape in that it is “flows eternally with no expectation of reciprocation.”

Not only have I read many books by classical and modern Muslim scholars which offer profound understandings of divine love from an Islamic perspective. The vast majority of Muslims I have met in my over 30 years in Christian-Muslim dialogue share and exhibit a profound sense of what I mean when I, as a Christian, profess God to be “love.”

Such a clarification is critical because to portray Islam as a tradition which monolithically “contests” the notion of a God who is essentially loving, is not only to commit a serious scholarly error—with echoes of age-old anti-Muslim Christian polemic. It is also helps to substantiate Islamophobic narratives that the DNA of Islam is somehow missing a key “love” or “compassion” sequence.

Yet another troubling aspect of this essay is Volf’s puzzling approach to interreligious difference. On the one hand, Volf appears to understand what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has famously coined the “dignity of difference”—that difference should not be taken to imply inferiority or deviation from a misperceived universal norm.

On the other hand, however, he seems almost to fault Islam for not speaking in a distinctively Pauline Christian idiom. “There is no claim in Islam,” Volf writes, “that God ‘justifies the ungodly.’”

If one were to reverse this critique, as a thought experiment, as if it were a Muslim comment on Christianity, it might look something like:

Although Christianity calls people to a God-centered life, it places no central emphasis on taqwa or ‘God-consciousness’ as the key to leading such a life. Furthermore, it fails to place sufficient emphasis on a life of ritual obligations as the sine qua non of developing and maintaining this essential spiritual virtue. In fact, some parts of the New Testament go so far as to claim that the law has no more value for the true Christian.

This indictment of Christianity for a lack of emphasis on “God-consciousness” and ritual obligation is as superficially true and yet as substantively false as Volf’s statement about the lack of a “justification” theology in Islam.

And as if these problems I’ve identified weren’t thorny enough, the unfortunate polemical turn of Volf’s essay becomes even more acute. In the context of burgeoning Islamophobia in the U.S. and rhetoric which propagates the falsehoods that Islam is an inherently violent faith and that Muslims are uniquely prone to violence in the name of their religion, Volf suddenly resurrects another age-old Christian anti-Muslim polemic. He declares, by way of implicit contrast with Islam, that “love of enemy” is “the signature claim of the Christian faith.”

This highly spurious declaration raises at least two questions.

The first is whether Prof. Volf is familiar with verses such as Q 41:34:

وَلَا تَسْتَوِي الْحَسَنَةُ وَلَا السَّيِّئَةُ ادْفَعْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ فَإِذَا الَّذِي بَيْنَكَ وَبَيْنَهُ عَدَاوَةٌ كَأَنَّهُ وَلِيٌّ حَمِيمٌ

“[Given the fact that] goodness and evil are not equal, defend yourself [against evil] with what is greater in goodness, such that the one between whom and yourself there is enmity may be as though s/he had always been your intimate friend.”

When I discussed this aspect of Volf’s essay with one of my own dear Muslim colleagues and mentors, this verse rolled off his tongue without the slightest pause or hesitation. And he was not the only one.  Many other Muslim colleagues adduced other verses in opposition to Volf’s assertion (e.g., Q. 5:54) as well as the fact that one of the sublime “names” for God is “al-Wadud” or “the Lover.”

The second question Prof. Volf’s declaration about the uniquely Christian character of the love of one’s enemies raises is whether a faith can actually have a “signature claim” that the vast majority of its adherents have historically, individually, and corporately either utterly failed to live by or have interpreted in ways which actually allow for the killing of the enemies Christians are commanded to love.

It raises the question of whether we should understand religious teachings primarily as mere abstractions, or whether the traditions of interpretation and practice of these teachings should shape our understanding of abstract teaching.

If one were to be less harsh on the record of Christian adherence to what Prof. Volf alleges to be Christianity’s “signature claim” and interpret the call to love one’s enemies to be compatible with notions of “just warfare,” then do not examples of such “love of enemy” abound in the record of Muslim practice? If we begin with the life of the Prophet Muhammad (s.) himself, it is clear that the virtues of mercy (rahma) and forbearance towards one’s enemies (hilm), a willingness to reconcile and rebuild trust especially in the aftermath of conflict (sulh), and an unflagging commitment to justice (`adl) are just some of the key virtues of the Sunna which amount to an obvious analogue for standard practical and historically attested Christian interpretations of the command to love one’s enemies.

And then there is Prof. Volf’s curious conclusion:

I wish that those who insist that Christians worship an altogether different God than Muslims latched on to this difference — that instead of wanting to ‘end’ Muslims they deem to be their enemies in the name of God, they would seek to embrace them in the name of Christ. If they did so, they would need to show how struggle against enemies is a way of loving them — an argument that many great theologians in the past were willing to make.

Here the good professor appears to be calling for his colleagues on the Wheaton theology faculty and administration to admit the possibility that he and Professor Hawkins may be correct in their shared assertion that many Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God.

Having done this, Volf seems to imply, Wheaton and other Evangelical Christian institutions and theologians can then get about the more important business of truly loving Muslims by showing them just how flawed their understanding of the God they worship really is.

As a Christian committed to the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim dialogue, I must respectfully offer my “thanks, but no thanks” to Prof. Volf’s well intentioned but ultimately troubling intervention in the controversy over Prof. Hawkins’s suspension.