What are we to make of the decision by authorities at Wheaton College, Chicago, who placed a tenured university professor on “administrative leave” for saying Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Dr Larycia Hawkins quoted the words of Pope Francis and went on to call on women to wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslims. Wheaton is a highly-regarded liberal arts college and a leading evangelical institution.
So far she and the college authorities have been unable to resolve their differences with Hawkins who is making extensive use of social media to explain herself. “As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College ….. and at church. I invite all women into the narrative that is embodied, hijab-wearing solidarity with our Muslim sisters–for whatever reason. A large scale movement of Women in Solidarity with Hijabs is my Christmas ”, said on Face book.
Professor Larycia Hawkins
The Croatia-born theologian Professor Miroslav Volf, brought up in a country where divisions between Christians and Muslims turned violent has entered the fray.
Writing in the Washington Post, Prof Volf rightly rejects the notion that since Muslims deny the Trinity and incarnation, therefore, the Christian God and Muslim God are different. He emphasises that this position will logically lead to rejection of God in Judaism also.
However, I disagree in his profligate condemnation of Wheaton’s reaction, which he construes to be enmity towards Muslims. Volf ought to have justified his allegation ‘of hatred towards Muslims,’ without which he won’t escape being accused, like Wheaton, of engaging in “altruistic evil” (see Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name)
Many evangelicals do not believe Christians worship the same God with the Jews. Once upon a time, many white evangelicals held out that Africans and tribal people worshiped a different God. Neither had been adjudged enmity!
Perhaps such a reaction and the doctrinal rigidity are a result of fear of ‘the other’ and appearance to not compromise on theology and orthodoxy.
Professor Hawkins has forced a rethink and sparked off a major discussion in the heart of Wheaton that challenges a theological position and seeks to broaden what is accepted as orthodoxy here.
One question to ask is: Does another God exist?
The idea of the existence of one God debunks this fragmentation of God as perceived by each community. This is what renowned missiologist late professor Paul Hiebert in Transforming Worldviews, brought to our attention; the tribal view of deity namely, the idea that each community imagined that they had the monopoly of divinity with whom they not only had special relations, but favoured them against other communities. He argued that this worldview obscured the belief in the supreme God even though the tribe held this belief.
“The three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam draw from the same source”, asserts Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his latest book, Not in God’s Name. His observation is that, “Islam and Christianity borrowed much from Judaism- its belief in one God and its sacred scriptures in the case of Christianity, its stories and prophets in the case of Islam yet they did not borrow Judaism’s most significant feature: It’s distinction between the universality of God as creator and sovereign of the universe, and the particularity of the covenant, first with Abraham, then with Moses and the Israelites.”
God has a special covenant with all mankind. Again Sacks explains, “that is why Genesis is the story of two covenants; between God and Humanity on the one hand: the covenant with Noah, God and Jacob’s Children: the covenant with Abraham, on the other. God unconditionally affirms both, the former as his image and the latter as his Children.”
Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his thought provoking book God Is Not A Christian, clarified this very thought: “Surely it is good to know that God (in the Christian tradition) created us all (not just Christians) in his image, thus investing us all with infinite worth, and that it was with all humankind that God entered into a covenant relationship, depicted in the covenant with Noah when God promised he would not destroy his creation again with water. ”
Apostle Paul addressing Athenians, gave a profound insight into our createdness;
“that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,” Acts 17:27.
Paul’s word may help explain why we may never describe God in the same way without a shared context. What was true of the Athenians, describing God in their unique poetry, became true of African American theologians in description and perception of God.
Bishop Henry McNeil Turner asserted in 1829: “We have as much right biblically and otherwise to believe that God is a negro, as you buckra or white people have to believe that God is a fine looking, symmetrical and ornamented white man… Every race of people since time began who have attempted to describe their God by words, or by paintings, or by carvings, or by any other form or figure, have conveyed the idea that the God who made them and shaped their destinies was symbolized by themselves, and why should no the Negro believe that he resembles God as much as other people.”
Bishop Henry’s thought of God as a Negro, was further improved by Bishop Albert Cleage, Jnr of Detroit , cited in Forging of Races: Races and scriptures in protestant Atlantic world. [Colins Kidd 2006 ], to include all other races. If God created man in His own image, Cleagespeculated , then what must God look like? ‘God must partake’, he subversively reasoned , ‘of all the various racial hues found in the world; God must be a combination of this black, red, yellow and white. ….so if we think of God as a person then God must be a combination of black, yellow, red and with a little touch of white, we must think of God as a black God.
It explains therefore how context determines our perception and definition of God. Muslims and Christians are not exempt. It is possible that one’s perception may change.
Ahmed Ali Haile’s remarkable story Teatime in Mogadishu, is a fascinating example of a shift in perception that acknowledges and respects the validity of the past:
“As a Muslim I really wanted to know God. In Jesus I met God as my loving heavenly father. I yearned for the assurance that my sins were forgiven. In Jesus I knew my sins were forgiven. I longed for assurance of eternal salvation and now in Jesus I know that heaven was my destiny. I am grateful for the ways Islam prepared me to hear and believe in Christ.”
Refuting the idea of One God worshiped by all his creation will be denying the very faith we seek to defend and keep pure.
If God is one, as we believe, then he is the only God of all his people, whether they acknowledge him as such or not. God does not need us to protect him in the name of orthodoxy. It is apparent that, perhaps we need to have our notion of God deepened and expanded.
I will leave the last word with Archbishop Tutu: “it is often said, half in jest, that God created man in his own image and man has returned the compliment, saddling God with his own narrow prejudices and exclusivity, foibles and temperamental quirks. God remains God, whether God has worshippers or not.”
Canon Francis Omondi
All Saints Cathedral Diocese.