Wheaton College Moves to Fire Prof Who Said Muslims, Christians 'Worship the Same God'

Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Wheaton College has begun the process of removing Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured associate professor of political science, over her comments that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.” The college insists, as per its mission statement, that the Christian God is different than the Muslim God, and that it offered Dr. Hawkins time to come to this realization before moving against her.

“While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, Wheaton College believes there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer,” LaTonya Taylor, director of media relations at Wheaton, told PJ Media in an email statement.

Wheaton Suspends Dr. Hawkins

On December 10, 2015, Dr. Hawkins posted a photo of herself wearing a hijab on Facebook. She spoke about standing “in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind.” She emphasized that “I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity.”

Image: Facebook

Image: Facebook

These vaguely humanist statements are not necessarily in tension with evangelical Christianity, and orthodox Christian beliefs do indeed stress the value of human solidarity. It is fundamental to the Christian faith that Jesus died for Jews and gentiles—his path of salvation is emphatically open to all humanity. But then Dr. Hawkins went one step too far.

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

Dr. Hawkins’ statement is false on its face—Muslims consider Jews and Christians to be “people of the book,” but they do not themselves embrace that title. “People of the book” only refers to those who abide by scriptures written before the Koran. Nevertheless, Wheaton did not emphasize this, but instead focused on the “same God” comment.

Wheaton’s LaTonya Taylor explained that, following this declaration, the college placed Dr. Hawkins on paid administrative leave on December 15, “in order to give more time to explore significant questions regarding the theological implications of her recent public statements, including those indicating the relationship of Christianity to Islam.”

Wheaton College “requested additional theological discussions and clarification,” but Dr. Hawkins “declined to participate in further dialogue.” As the college sees it, Dr. Hawkins made a problematic public statement, Wheaton gave her time to reconsider and asked her to discuss it with them, and she refused.

“At an impasse, per the College’s policies and procedures, Provost Stanton Jones delivered the Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings,” the statement concluded. This began the process of opening a tenured faculty member to being fired.

Next: Intolerance? Is Wheaton Bending to the “Hate” of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz?

Dr. Hawkins held a public rally at the beginning of January in response to Wheaton taking steps to terminate her. There, she tied the college’s actions to “bigots” and accused the administration of cow-towing to presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump:

Wheaton College cannot intimidate me into cowering in fear of the enemy of the month as defined by real estate moguls, senators from Texas, Christians from this country, bigots, and fundamentalists of all stripes.

Wheaton College will never induce me to kowtow to their doublespeak concerning the statement of faith so as to appease an imaginary constituency that clearly knows little about what academic freedom or Christian love mean or to placate platinum donors to their coffers.

Dr. Hawkins concluded by saying the college cannot place her in “a trumped-up statement-of-faith corner,” and that she “can do no less than live Jesus-politics.”

Religion Dispatches’ Richard Flory expanded upon Dr. Hawkins’ train of thought. “Hawkins’ story reveals that signaling human solidarity with people of other religions is the latest in the long line of perceived threats to evangelical America.” Flory argued that evangelicalism has no clear definition, and defines itself “by fighting against what it is not.”

Flory defined Dr. Hawkins as “an African American woman making a theological claim in a predominantly white and male religious system.” This identity, more than the religious objection itself, threatens “the theological and cultural status quo: the embodies ‘the other,’ both ethnically and now, religiously, despite her eloquent arguments to the contrary.”

In short, evangelicalism in America is bigoted, racist, hateful. It opposes “standing in solidarity” with Muslims, and the theological issue of whether or not Muslims worship “the same God” is really a red herring, a false reason the college gives to fire this wonderful spokeswoman of diversity.

The Theological Issues

But it is Dr. Hawkins who has used the real red herring. Trump and Cruz have absolutely nothing to do with this issue, and neither does her race. Wheaton College did not suspend her because she is a black woman who speaks her mind—they suspended her for standing by statements at odds with orthodox Christianity. As the statement to PJ Media reads:

As an institution of distinctly evangelical Christian identity, the core of our faith, as expressed in our Statement of Faith, is our belief that “the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, as a representative and substitutionary sacrifice, triumphing over all evil; and that all who believe in Him are justified by His shed blood and forgiven of all their sins.” We affirm that salvation is through Christ alone.

Wheaton College is defending an important faith tradition, which defines itself not by what it is against, but by what it is for. Evangelical Christianity comes from the Greek word “evangelion (εὐαγγέλιον)” which means “good news.” This good news is also known as the Gospel—it is the crux of the Christian faith.

Central to all of this is that Jesus is God, not some prophet, as Islam makes him out to be. If Jesus is not God in the flesh, then there is no redemption from sin, no hope for eternal life, and no ultimate joy leading Christians to love others and one another.

While Pope Francis may have said Christians and Muslims worship the same God, the Catholic Answers blog explained that “Pope Francis’ words have a pastoral rather than doctrinal purpose.” He first made comments along this line at his first ecumenical and interreligious event in 2013. As an astute politician, Francis emphasized the similarities in Catholicism and Islam, downplaying the differences. He also appealed to Orthodox Christians, Protestants, and Jews in the same way.

Catholic doctrine—and orthodox Christian doctrine in general—is very strong on the fact that Jesus is fully God, and that God is three persons—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Whenever anyone says Christians and Muslims or Christians and Jews worship “the same God,” they are not calling Jews and Muslims Trinitarian, or saying these other groups also worship Jesus as God. The Abrahamic faiths share a lot in common, but not this, and this is central to Christianity.

Is Saying We Don’t Worship The Same God Hateful?

But isn’t it hateful or bigoted to say Christians and Muslims don’t worship “the same God”? Not at all. Dr. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission, explained that this distinction doesn’t come from hostility toward the Muslim people. “To be an Evangelical, we have to hold to the Gospel, which means an understanding of the distinctiveness and uniqueness of Jesus Christ,” Moore said.

This does not mean Christians cannot stand in solidarity with Muslims, however. Jesus called us to love one another, and that emphatically includes those who are different from us—and even our enemies. Just because we are loving doesn’t mean we have to give up our conception of God, or our focus on the Gospel. Indeed, it is that Gospel that makes us love.