Martin E. Marty
Last Thursday a front-page Chicago Tribune (Dec. 17) story by Manya Brachear Pashman and Marwa Eltagouri awakened us locals to upheavals at suburban Wheaton College, which some—I among them—call the evangelical flagship in higher education. The first impulse was to be humble and dismiss the flap as an over-stressed local story, sub-headed as it was, “Prof suspended for views, not scarf…” This line seemed to report yet one more administrative fracas at one among hundreds of colleges. Yawn?
A few days after the professor’s suspension, however, we find responses on the internet, e.g. AOL, to be running in the hundreds of thousands. Google the name of Professor “Larycia Hawkins” to see for yourself how widespread and diverse responses are to her decision to wear a hijab in an effort to spread understanding and good will.
Those of us who have reason to admire much about Wheaton College—graduate education admissions officers and faculties recognize intellectual standards and achievements there—have had to make our way through the competitive releases and, less pleasurably, through many over-heated blogging respondents on both or all sides of the event.
Thus, at one extreme, readers will find viral evangelist Franklin Graham remaining viral even at the very idea of Hawkins’ choice to wear a hijab during Advent to identify with Muslims, millions of whom are targets of viral and menacing attacks. They are guilty-by-association with murderous ISIS enemies of peace and freedom abroad and politicians and pundits at home.
The hijab, the issue of solidarity, and Hawkins’ decision to wear one were not what led Wheaton to suspend Hawkins, however hard it may be for many in the Wheaton constituency and larger public to stomach. Let it be noted that both at Wheaton and, increasingly, in “mainline evangelicalism,” sophisticated understandings and expressions of tolerance are growing.
It was the other half of Hawkins’ expression that created controversy among Christians across many parts of the tolerance-spectrum. Citing the authority of Pope Francis, she averred that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
She thus waded or splashed into one of the muddiest issues of theology, dogma, doctrine, piety, and practice in Christianity. The Second Vatican Council (in the document Nostra Aetate 3) can be read as being on the professor’s side. Hawkins also can cite Protestant theologians like Yale’s Miroslav Volf, and many more.
Still, recalling associated issues like the Christian access to God only through Jesus Christ, as evident in the New Testament and, through the centuries in conciliar and personal debates plus sermons by profound Christians who hold conferences and seminars on all sides of the issue, many will wish that the current round of ponderings on the subject could have been occasioned by other sources. Many will wish, as well, that these ponderings could have been occasioned on other fronts, and in other contexts than those which cannot now be sequestered while Islam is being featured in so many political debates.
But, however unfortunate the current framework for discussion of the subject may be, it is certainly valid, since witness to and concepts of God are central to both faiths in question.
The best use of the administrative and public relations brouhahas, it seems to us who view them from Sightings' windows, is to accept the terms and enter new discussions, on conciliar, conferential, and personal levels.
If participants can resist being viral and condemnatory or fire-branding, it is possible that this week in Wheaton can serve as one more inspiration for serious believers to take up the issue of the uniqueness of particular faiths. Some who participate, one hopes, may wear clerical robes; some, T-shirts; still others, hijabs as they take up the tasks newly forced upon them as well as freshly open to them.
Pashman, Manya Brachear and Marwa Eltagouri. "Wheaton College says view of Islam, not hijab, got Christian teacher suspended." Chicago Tribune, December 16, 2015, News.
Heath, Nathan and Ciera Horton. “Why we, Wheaton College students, are condemning Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks on guns and Muslims.” Washington Post, December 10, 2015, Acts of Faith | Opinion.
Jenkins, Jack. “Professor Suspended For Saying Christians And Muslims Worship The ‘Same God’.” ThinkProgress, December 16, 2015, Education.
An, Kirkland. “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same god? College suspends professor who said yes.” Washington Post, December 17, 2015, Acts of Faith.
Smietana, Bob. “Wheaton College Suspends Hijab-Wearing Professor After ‘Same God’ Comment.” Christianity Today, December 15, 2015, People; Theology.
Hauser, Christine. “Wheaton College Professor Is Put on Leave After Remarks Supporting Muslims.” New York Times, December 16, 2015, U.S.
Kosar. “Professor Said Christians Are The Same As Muslims—Rev. Graham’s Response Is GOING VIRAL!” The Political Insider. Accessed December 20, 2015.
Nelson, Libby. “Why a Christian college could fire a professor for expressing solidarity with Muslims.” Vox, December 16, 2015, Identities.
Beckwith, Francis J. “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?” The Catholic Thing, December 17, 2015.
Image: Wheaton College Assistant Professor of Political Science, Larycia Hawkins, talks to reporters during a Chicago news conference, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015. Hawkins, a Christian teaching political science at the private evangelical school west of Chicago, is wearing a headscarf in solidarity with Muslims. Hawkins was put on leave Tuesday after making statements about the faiths' similarities that the college said conflicted with its "distinctively evangelical" identity. Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
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John Kloos (January 23, 2015):
The Sightings above features the conflict between Wheaton College and its political science professor Larycia Hawkins, who wore a headscarf during Christmas holiday travel. She proclaimed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God; they are “people of the book.” Wheaton rejected the first claim. This dispute will come to a head in two weeks, on February 11, when the school’s faculty personnel committee hears from persons taking part in the termination process, including Hawkins.
Sightings encouraged more discussion on the similarities and differences between the two faiths. To that end, I wish to suggest that the problem lies not in the claim of worshipping the same God but in the claim of being “people of the book,” a phrase taken from the Quran. Yes, Judaism, Christianity and Islam may be described as “people of the book,” in a general way; however, at a finer level of specificity it is a much better descriptor of Judaism and Islam than it is of Christianity.
A look at beliefs in Judaism, Christianity and Islam can set out how it is that Christians are not properly “people of the book” because the most distinctive belief for Christians surrounds the mystery of gospel. Gospel, an old English word for glad tidings or good news (John Wycliffe’s translation for evangelium) is key to Christianity’s distinctiveness. It does not refer to the four gospels in the New Testament; that is, not to books or to the book. Rather, gospel means something like “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”
One pattern of belief is found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: “Creation, Revelation, Redemption,” though meanings differ. Islam’s approach to “Redemption” by following the Five Pillars in preparation for “Judgment Day” is distinctive. In Judaism, “Creation” is singular and original (a belief that has a rich heritage of features widely accepted by Christians and Muslims). What is most distinctive about Christianity is its belief with regard to “Revelation.” It is here that Professor Hawkins got it wrong, and it is here where she might further clarify Christian distinctiveness because gospel belief is the revealed truth for Christians. In Judaism, revelation is Torah; in Islam, Quran. Yet, it is the nature of revelation that makes for difference. Specifically, whereas Torah and Quran are revelations “from God,” Gospel is, for Christians, the revelation “of God.”
All three religious traditions share one pattern of belief. From this view, all worship the God of Creation, Revelation, and Redemption. Indeed, an approach that distinguishes beliefs about revelation – in this case why Christians are not properly “people of the book” – at the same time makes it possible to relate something of the nature of the One worshipped through an account of the belief structure.
This brief sketch, I fear, runs rough shod over many religious and theological claims; it is far too general. Certainly, other meanings and symbols in the three categories of belief deserve attention. This page offers no solution; it merely tries to further the conversation.
I, for one, agree with the professor: Christianity and Islam worship the same God. But I disagree that Christians and Muslims are both “people of the book” because this claim does not adequately reflect the distinctive Christian belief regarding revelation.