Theology & The Church

A way forward after Wheaton's "same God" debate

Rolf Bouma

To hijab or not to hijab. That may have been the way the controversy started, but it was a different issue that brought the conflict between Wheaton College and Larycia Hawkins to a most ambiguous conclusion last week. Hawkins, a tenured associate professor of political science, was placed on administrative leave in mid-December for a Facebook post in which she donned a headscarf, or a hijab, to show “embodied solidarity” with Muslims. The theological point of contention was her accompanying statement that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”

After Wheaton announced that it planned to terminate Hawkins’ appointment, weeks of negotiations, terse public statements and unrest among faculty, students and constituents followed. Then on Feb. 6 Wheaton issued a press release stating that the college and Hawkins had “come together and found a mutual place of resolution and reconciliation,” which included “a confidential agreement under which they will part ways.” A joint press conference last week failed to shed much light on a situation that mostly sounds like a reconciled divorce.

Yet spirited debate continues over Hawkins’ original statement on Facebook: "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."

Early responses took the shape of a predictable back and forth:

Different God! (those offended by Hawkins)  

Same God!! (those supportive of her)

Different God!!!   

Same God!!!!

(rinse and repeat ad nauseam)

It’s a binary, oppositional argument that doesn’t go anywhere, sort of like a game of tic-tac-toe where you always end up in a stalemate. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptism Seminary weighed in. Franklin Graham Facebooked his ‘No!!’” Miroslav Volf one-upped Graham with a tweet in support of Hawkins’ claim. All this is no surprise to anyone who has lingered over philosophical arguments about “same” and “different” — they’re doomed to an endless and shallow loopiness.

Justification for “embodied solidarity” does not require a “same God.”

I found myself reaching for another framework, one that eschews the “same God/different God” meme and replaces it with a proper reverence for the one divine and ultimately incomprehensible reality that stands behind the universe and with whom we long to be united. If there is truth to the via negative — the path of negation that speaks of God through what God is not (in-comprehensible, in-finite, in-effable) — it is that human attempts to demarcate the divine are doomed to come up short. We all fall short when speaking of the glory that is God.

This does not mean, of course, that attempts to describe the God in whom we trust and worship — to eff the ineffable, so to speak — are pointless or unavailing. It must be done with deep humility and an awareness of context. Rather than argue same God/different God, we might better ask what are the differences and similarities in our conceptions of the one, true God and what impact might that have upon the particular interactions we contemplate. Is it worship? Discipleship in faith? Acting in compassion? Seeking God’s face? Solidarity in suffering?

There aren’t multiple Gods, with Christians and Muslims each worshiping a different God of their choosing. But the degree of difference in conception may vary. My conception of God is far closer to that of my Episcopalian or evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ than it is with my Muslim colleague who serves as chaplain at the University of Michigan. My conception of God is closer to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob of a Jew than it is to the God of Abraham and Ishmael of a Muslim. And among Abrahamic monotheists, Christians distinguish themselves by their insistence that the one God is triune and that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of the divine.

But closeness is a complex question; it is a matter of kinship, not absolute identity. On some matters about God I am closer to my Catholic Jesuit or Orthodox Jewish or Sunni Muslim colleague than I am to some fundamentalist or pietistic Christian colleagues. How often have you sat through a sermon, or engaged in Christian worship or read an article by a Christian writer and found yourself thinking, “I’m not sure that we agree on what God is like?”

Fortunately, better voices than the same God/different God chatter did emerge, although perhaps not in time to change the public discussion. In mid-January, Christianity Today compiled profound reflections from missiologists and missionaries on the topic. I wish the Wheaton-Hawkins controversy had gone down that path. Justification for “embodied solidarity” does not require a “same God.” It requires a shared humanity, including a humble and reverent pursuit of honoring the God in whom we live and move and have our being. And, need it be said, there’s only One that fits that description.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, Other Religions