The Muslim Response of Wheaton

As a still conservative alumni of Wheaton College, who could still sign their statement of faith, I’m very interested to see how the recent situation with Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor plays out.

Not only am I an alumni, I spent my time at Wheaton, and since, studying the history and content of Christian theology, and continue to teach it at an Evangelical institution.

The issue at hand:

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” she posted Dec. 10 on Facebook. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

From their official statement:
“Some recent faculty statements have generated confusion about complex theological matters, and could be interpreted as failing to reflect the distinctively Christian theological identity of Wheaton College.”

“Some recent faculty statements have generated confusion about complex theological matters…” Ha! No kidding. Faculty have been generating confusion about complex theological matters for a long time. That’s a big part of a rigorous academic education.

Wheaton isn’t a Bible college, after all, it’s an esteemed liberal arts college. Able to wrestle with complex theological issues without retreating behind artificial walls.

Wait, is this just about the issue with a poli-sci professor or in general? Oh, just about this one issue?  That’s a problem to me.

ct-wheaton-college-professor-larycia-hawkins-20151216In the past few years, I’ve tended to argue in a way that likely fits Wheaton’s stance.  Allah is not the Father of the Son.  Both religions would agree on that. There are important differences in the character and work of the God we’re talking about.

And yet, there is a shared story. Christianity, like Islam, did not arise from an isolated revelation. Christianity comes out of the Jewish story, stating something about that continuing revelation of God in Jesus.

The God of Abraham is the Father of the Son.  Yet, Jewish believers disagree with this statement, saying we have corrupted and co-opted their theology, that we do not serve the same God at all.

Islam began in a similar context, where Judaism and Christianity and pagan religions were known.  Islam pushed against the worship of idols to worship the One God, the God of Abraham.

There are important differences. Yet, there’s a shared starting point.  There is one God.  The God of Isaac is also the one who looked after Ishmael. God expressed a solidarity with Ishmael in keeping him safe. The God of Ishmael is the God of Paul the Apostle.

Jesus did not interact with Muslims, but he did interact with Samaritans, who worshiped the same God with very different theologies and worship. 

Jesus met the woman at the well, used the Samaritan as an example to the Jewish leaders about loving one’s neighbor.  He did not paper over differences (especially at the well) but neither did he break solidarity.  There was a common ground that Jesus highlighted.

There are many differences between Christianity and Islam in terms of God’s mission and God’s nature. There are, to be sure, also many differences between Christianity and Judaism. Both Islam and Judaism reject the Trinity, the identity of Jesus as God. Whereas Judaism rejects Jesus as Messiah, Islam has a very high regard for his mission and purpose.

Is this enough to say Christianity and Islam are the same, there are no important differences? No.  But it is enough to say there’s a common ground where an expression of solidarity indeed raises questions about complex theological matters. But such questions do not lead us away from a Christian faith, not even away from an Evangelical faith.

We are to be people who love, people of hospitality and friendship. We are to express a hope for a renewed peace and celebrate God’s goodness in the midst of different contexts. We can say that we share a common ground even with people who are different, because of what similarities we do share (there is one God, this is the God revealed to Abraham), and in the midst of our differences.

As Christians, as Evangelical Christians, we hold to a strong view of the Bible. Wheaton holds to a view called inerrancy, which is the idea that the Bible is true in every respect.

Sadly, in this case, from what I know through media reports, Wheaton is betraying its fundamental theological stance in order to take a rigid position on a subject which the Bible gives us space.

In light of Wheaton’s suspending Dr. Larycia Hawkins, I can’t help think that Wheaton is also a place that would suspend Paul the Apostle, who spoke of a shared foundation to the Areopagus, and also added a key command for women to wear headscarves.

I can’t help think Wheaton would also suspend Jesus, who expressed a solidarity with the Samaritans and others in his ministry, whose interactions and behaviors caused concern with the religious conservatives of his time.

He, shockingly, even included Gentiles, we who are not Jewish who have been grafted into the vine. Would Moses recognize us as followers of his God?

Wheaton decided that because a situation raised a complex theological question it leads to dismissal and silencing, rather than conversation about common ground, the kind of conversation that could help Wheaton truly live into its statement of faith and calling as an institution.

Such complex theological questions are not new to Wheaton.

Indeed, at the very beginning, the founder, Jonathan Blanchard, raised significant concerns about this current holiday season.

In his view, Christmas arose from pagan backgrounds and had nothing to do with the Son of God. He did not celebrate it and did not want to cancel classes during this Christmas season.

He was convinced by others to allow a break. Despite his real concerns, it was a holiday in which students could see their families and celebrate with them.

The complex theological issues about Christmas have not gone away. Jesus was certainly not born on December 25. The nativity scenes and many carols have significant Biblical and theological errors.  Yet, once again, Wheaton will take a Christmas break to show solidarity with our culture and traditions. Once again, Wheaton sends me an e-card that celebrates the birth of our messiah.

Because this fits within our cultural comfort and assumptions we are willing to paper over the complex theological questions.  “No sound does he make,” we sing in the carol, a carol that is quite docetic throughout.

All because that despite the issues, there is enough of a valid story in the Christmas celebrations that give us a place to celebrate God’s work.  We celebrate love, and hope, and peace.  We celebrate faith, a faith that God has for us, his people, to be a people who offer hope and love and peace to others.  We celebrate a gift. For God so loved the world, he sent the Son into this world.

God loves. God seeks. God shows a persistent solidarity with this world even though we all have sinned and fallen short. This is God’s work, not our work.

That is the God I believe in. The God of Abraham.

In claiming to hold onto its statement of faith in one way, it seems to me that Wheaton has rejected its statement of faith in other ways. Wheaton has bowed to the pressure of reactive others who would rather hold onto cultural patterns of division rather than find the common hope and peace and love that is our calling as Christians who serve the one God.  Wheaton has sought an easy way out of polarizing questions rather than follow the lead of the inerrant Scriptures they say they prioritize.

We are witnesses, and witnesses might disagree on key elements yet have common ground in a shared story. We can show solidarity with what we share without compromising on important differences.

There are times and places to discuss these differences. This season, this time, seems to one in need of solidarity and hope.

Follow the Scriptures, Wheaton. For Christ and his Kingdom, reinstate Dr. Hawkins.

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