In the wake of the drama surrounding former Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins, I offer this retrospective. The way I see it Dr. Hawkins started out just wanting to express solidarity with Muslims, fearing that because of Islamic terrorists like ISIS there would be backlash against all Muslims. Fair enough. But she sent two wrong signals in doing this.
1) She decided to wear the hijab as part of her Advent worship. I’m not an expert on Islam, but I understand that the hijab is not merely an Arabic cultural garment, it is a Muslim religious garment, and wearing it suggests that you worship Allah, which is extremely inappropriate for any Christian; to the extent that it is deliberate, might it be considered apostasy? Wheaton decided to ignore this, which was politically wise but I think was a theological mistake. I would expect a professor at an evangelical school to be disciplined for wearing the hijab, just as I would expect a professor at a Muslim school to be disciplined or fired for wearing a cross–especially as part of their worship for Ramadan.
2) She tweeted that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I think at the beginning this was just poorly thought through, but instead of choosing to back off the statement when challenged she doubled down, and forced a confrontation about it. In her tweet, she defended this theological statement by appeal to Pope Francis (?!). Francis is not the most theologically discerning of popes in the first place. In the second place, he’s the pope. I thought we were protesting that whole Roman Catholic thing? Not a good authority figure for an evangelical to pick.
Then she appealed for further support to Miroslav Volf; I’ve heard him called an evangelical, and I don’t know enough about him to say for sure, but I have my doubts–he seems more mainline to me. In any case, he does have better scholarly credentials than Pope Francis–and he is, at least, a Protestant. In fact, this issue is a major area of his scholarship. His basic argument, in my understanding, is that just because Muslims don’t believe in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and all the other things they disagree with about Christianity, doesn’t mean they don’t worship the same God. They worship the same God, they just have a lot of mistaken ideas about Him.
Volf himself entered the fray on Dr. Hawkins’ behalf, expressing this position–but more importantly, he demonstrated the level of his commitment to fair discussion by publicly slandering the Wheaton College administration, insisting that if they thought differently than him about this it was motivated not by genuine theological disagreement but by anti-Muslim bigotry. It was a tremendous display of either hubris or absolute confusion because of the heavily politicized culture we live in. He got called out for it in First Things (much more gently than he deserved), and like Dr. Hawkins he doubled down with a lame, “well, I could be wrong…but I’m not, the only reason I can think of that anyone would disagree with me on this is that they’re bigots.” So, there’s Volf for you.
But what about his argument? Do Muslims worship the true God, they’re just very confused about Him? I think if we’re going to say that, we would have to say that every religion, at least every monotheistic religion, really worships the true God as long as they believe one thing about Him that Christians also teach. So if I create my own religion, and tell you that I worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, the God of Joshua and Daniel…who is also an enormous and delicious pepperoni pizza, I can say to you “we worship the same God.” And you say to me, “no we don’t!” And I say, “sure we do, we both worship the God of Abraham” and you say to me, “no, we don’t, because my God is a Trinity, immortal, eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, etc…and your god is a pepperoni pizza!” Well, I could go on with this silliness. My point is that to the extent that the claim to worship the same God is true, to that same extent it’s almost meaningless. And I think the claim is meant to mean something, something significant, something that creates a sense of solidarity.
In the end, I look at the Scriptures and I see gods who shared certain characteristics with the Christian God; Baal, for instance, was thought to have power over the skies. The true God has power over the skies. So did God regard worshipers of Baal as worshiping Him? No, He regarded them as worshiping idols, in opposition to worshiping Him. The story of Elijah on Mt. Carmel expresses this eloquently. That’s why I think Volf, and Dr. Hawkins, are wrong, and that being wrong on this matter is equating God with an idol.
Now, as I thought about this matter, over time, two questions troubled me. Providentially, the Gospel Coalition put out excellent answers to what I consider the thorniest aspects of the issue:
What about the Jews?
What about the Athenian “unknown god”?
So, the Wheaton administration went forward, and set in play a process that could lead to Dr. Hawkins’ termination. Some students protested and expressed support for her–well, protesting is the thing to do when you’re a college student. Far more disappointing is that some faculty took a stand by Dr. Hawkins; their concerns may have been more about due process and academic freedom than theological agreement with her statement, but nonetheless it sends the wrong message.
One of them in particular was willing to be quoted in that ultra-liberal standard, Religion News. As might be expected, race and gender are brought in by those who wish to impugn the administration’s motives. But now a Wheaton professor has stooped to the level of assuming bad faith on the part of the administration–if he qualifies it with the suggestion that it may be unintentional. How very penetrating his insight must be, to see through people’s actions to their subconscious motivations. Granted he’s a psychology professor, but my wife has insisted to me that a degree in psychology does not confer the ability to read minds. Perhaps only when you get a doctorate?
But a couple of questions come to mind:
A) Is the truth really incapable of surmounting gender and racial differences? Isn’t it possible that propositions (such as “Jesus is God” or “Allah is not God”) can transcend these boundaries and be understood and affirmed by people of any race or gender? Aren’t there Christians of every race and both genders who would agree that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God?
B) Is Mangis correct to identify the problem as Hawkins not sounding like a white male American evangelical? Consider the two luminaries she appealed to first in defense of her position: Pope Francis (white, male, not American, not evangelical), Miroslav Volf (white, male, American–but Croatian by birth, evangelical?). It seems her position has a very fine white male pedigree. The media gives ample evidence of how American it is. So perhaps the real question is whether her statements sound like the views of an evangelical–which, I believe, has been the problem all along.
And, in the end, the titanic clash wound down, with Wheaton and Dr. Hawkins deciding to go their separate ways. In my opinion, it leaves the door far too open to the idea that she wasn’t wrong to say what she did, or that the administration was wrong to discipline her. But that’s where things have landed.