Wheaton and the “Same God” Controversy: A Theological Opportunity Squandered?

When Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at Wheaton College, donned a hijab for Advent in solidarity with Muslims facing hostility and persecution, she explained her gesture in theological terms: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” Dr. Hawkins stated. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

The response to this gesture was evidently swift and troubling enough that Wheaton’s administration placed her on paid leave almost immediately, citing “questions” of an unspecified nature, coming from unidentified quarters, that the “same God” formula may conflict with Wheaton’s Protestant evangelical Statement of Faith.

It’s been argued, including in these pages, that the hijab and not the “same God” statement is the true cause of the disciplinary measure. But taking Wheaton’s administration at its rather parsimoniously-distributed word, is it in fact so destabilizing of Christian doctrine to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

There is considerable precedent for it, after all. Centuries before the appearance of Islam, Augustine argued that Plato believed in the same one, eternal, immutable God depicted in the Bible. He even took some trouble to argue that the philosopher could not, as some Christians had imagined, have learned this doctrine of God from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Thomas Aquinas, among other theologians of the high Middle Ages, incorporated the arguments of Jewish and Islamic thinkers into his massive syntheses of Christian philosophy (he calls Maimonides “Rabbi Moses” and Averroes simply “the Commentator,” gestures into which I prefer to read some collegial warmth).

Anselm, in his enormously influential Cur Deus Homo, makes an argument for the necessity of God to become human that seems designed to refute the objections of other faiths with a common conception of the monotheistic deity—that is, Judaism and Christianity. Dante puts Muhammad in the circle of hell containing Christian heretics and schismatics, reflecting a widely held view that Islam was an erroneous offshoot rather than a wholly other religion.

Francis is hardly the first pope to identify the God of Christianity with the God of Islam, either—Pope Gregory VII got there almost a thousand years earlier.

This is not to suggest that the relationship between the two religious communities was typically convivial, either on the page or in the world. But the idea that Christians and Muslims are addressing the same object when they pray or confess their faith is not new—and it is hardly marginal in the history of Christianity.RDinboxThese particular examples are not strictly weight-bearing where Wheaton College is concerned; it seems that neither Pope Francis nor Thomas Aquinas would be eligible to teach there in any case. But it’s worth asking why a historically mainstream view should become so toxic that it results in the kind of disciplinary response the college has made.

To some extent this may reflect the relative decline of classical philosophical monotheism in Christian discourse. Aquinas and his non-Christian influences had a common language for the nature of God—one, transcendent, necessary, eternal, not subject to change or decay, and so on. This language was at one time believed to be logically prior to revelation, and to be valid even if no revelation had confirmed it (this led thinkers of all three faiths into some risky territory with their co-religionists).

Moreover there were aspects of the revelations themselves—the “book” of which Dr. Hawkins spoke, quoting a common Islamic formula for the adherents of the monotheistic religions—that cohered in broadly shared themes. The world has an origin and a conclusion; humans are made for relationship with God; moral precepts are ordered to the knowledge and service of this God.

This philosophical language and these intertextual themes are less prominent in Christian thought today, especially among Protestants.

Where Christianity’s similarities with the monotheisms—whether of Greeks, Jews, or Muslims—were once central to Christian interfaith apologetics, now it is the distinctive marks that predominate. Some evangelicals have adopted a sort of slogan that Christianity is “not a religion but a relationship,” fully severing the anguished familial bonds with Judaism and Islam.

In other circles it is now more common to describe religion as constituted by its practices and its distinctive narratives, diminishing the abstract notion of God to something of a cipher.

Perhaps these factors, or others, led to Wheaton’s actions. Or perhaps they didn’t. The great sorrow of it is that the college’s discussion of the suspension has been so void of theological content. “Questions” and “concerns” seem like underdeveloped motives for such sternness. Whose questions? Voiced how, and with what available means of resolution?

Would the same “concerns” apply to a faculty member who said Jews (or Platonists) worship the same God as Christians? Why or why not?

Not, of course, that Wheaton College is under any obligation to satisfy the curious or concerned, either within or outside of its community. Religious colleges are and should be free to make personnel decisions by the dictates of their creeds, their social media mobs, and their influential donors. But it seems that an opportunity is being squandered. Instead of an opaque statement and a suspension, a college could convene scholars to identify exactly how its professor has erred, and offer her the chance to respond publicly.

Instead of a Rorschach-test controversy, it would be the oddest sort of religious argument: one from which people might learn.