The Feast of Epiphany: Wheaton College and Larycia Hawkins

Sun 03 Jan

Shortly before Christmas a dispute broke out in Chicago.  Larycia Hawkins, a tenured Wheaton College political science professor since 2007, pledged to wear a hijab [a traditional headscarf] during Advent in support of her Muslim neighbours.  She had discussed this with local Muslim leaders before doing so.  Such support from a Christian, given anti-Muslim rhetoric from presidential hopefuls like Donald Trump, was much appreciated.

Larycia, in support of her action, said “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims,… as Pope Francis stated… we worship the same God.”  The powers that be at Wheaton College did not concur.  They suspended her pending a full review.  The College stated that “faculty and staff [should] engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represented the college’s evangelical Statement of Faith”. 

They believe in what they call “theological clarity”, and Larycia was seemingly falling short of this standard.

Statements of faith are much beloved by some Christians.  Usually their proponents believe in clarity, in dotting ‘i’s and crossing ‘t’s, in stating that this is true and that’s not.  The first time I came across such a statement and its difficulties was when, a lifetime ago, I was a member of the Tertiary Christian Fellowship and one of the invited speakers refused to agree to sign the Fellowship’s statement prior to speaking.  That speaker was the then Dean of Auckland, John Rhymer, who was certainly not a theological liberal [in Anglican terms anyway].

Some Presbyterians have much faith in the efficacy of statements of faith and theological clarity.  A speaker at our last Assembly believed that by stating clearly that gay or lesbian Christians couldn’t marry that the ‘problem’ would be resolved.  I found such blinkered naivety astounding.  The myth he seemed to operating within was that ‘clarity solves things’ – as if God was a list of numbers you could add up and come to one, and one only, answer.

As Pastor Ken Wilson, an American evangelical, helpfully says, “Without a clear understanding that Christians have always disagreed on lots of important theological questions, institutions like Wheaton will have more troubles like this.  Does the Genesis creation account, for example, allow for interpretations that make room for evolutionary science (as Billy Graham, a famous Wheaton alum, allowed)?”

The dispute around Larycia Hawkins makes me think again of the Feast of Epiphany when the Church celebrates the faith of a group of Zoroastrians who, within the framework of their faith, followed a star in the East.  Note what Matthew’s story and does and doesn’t say.  It doesn’t say there were three Zoroastrians or that they rode camels.  It doesn’t say they were kings.  It does say they were Magi, astrologers, from the East [probably Iraq/Iran, and probably of the Zoroastrian faith].  It doesn’t say they came to worship the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ.  It does say they came to pay homage and give gifts to a new born King of the Jews – they came to acknowledge a great emerging leader in another faith and culture.  It then says they returned home.  It doesn’t say they converted to Judaism or Christianity.  And Matthew doesn’t refer to them again.

Epiphany creates more problems than it solves for those who like theological clarity.  Theologically Matthew was trying, by inserting the Magi story, to declare Jesus as light to the whole world [Jewish and non-Jewish].  But he doesn’t say Jesus is the only light, or even the pre-eminent light [it’s the fourth gospel that coins the phrase the light of the world].  And then what does it mean to be a/the light?  Metaphorically you could conclude that the way of Jesus is like a torch you could shrine on texts, or on your life, to find the best way to walk/live.  Does it mean that there is only one torch to shine on all and everyone’s life?  Surely Jesus and the Church don’t have a monopoly on light or wisdom?  Surely God can’t be restricted within any [and every] human attempt at clarity [for then God ceases to be God]?

Larycia not only called on Pope Francis but on the renowned evangelical scholar Miroslav Volf.  Volf these days is a professor at Yale, and as his name suggests he is Croatian – and thus not a stranger to Christian/Muslim relations.  The media, who as you might imagine are all over Larycia and Wheaton, like complex subjects reduced to pithy statements, and they quote Volf on the subject of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God as saying:

“All Christians don’t worship the same God.  And all Muslims don’t worship the same God.  But I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray…, when they talk about God.  The referent is the same.  The description of God is partly different.”

Volf’s comments need some background.  Christianity and Islam are today the most numerous and fastest growing religions globally. Together they encompass more than half of humanity. Consequently both are here to stay. 

As a result of globalization, ours is an interconnected and interdependent world.  Religions are intermingled within single states and across their boundaries. Consequently Muslims and Christians will increasingly share common spaces. 

Since both religions are by their very nature "socially engaged" and since their followers mostly embrace democratic ideals, they will continue to push for their vision of the good life in the public square.  Consequently tensions between Muslims and Christians are unavoidable. 

Growing, intertwined, and assertive - communities of Muslims and Christians will live together.  But can they live in peace building together a common future?

This question Volf asserts is really behind the issue of Christians and Muslims having a common God.  The real question is, “Can we – given 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, terrorism, ISIL – live together without bloodshed?”  The question of worshipping the same God is therefore not just a theological one, but also and always a cultural and political one.

Volf goes on to say that the fact of the matter is fearful people bent on domination have created the contest for supremacy between Yahweh, the God of the Bible, and Allah, the God of the Quran. The two are one God, albeit differently understood.  Arab Christians have for centuries worshiped God under the name "Allah."  Most Christians through the centuries, saints and teachers of undisputed orthodoxy, have believed that Muslims worship the same God as they do.  They did so even in times of Muslim cultural ascendency and military conquests, when they represented a grave threat to Christianity in the whole of Europe.

After the fall of Constantinople (1453), the city named after the first Christian emperor and a seat of Christendom for more than 1,000 years, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, a towering intellect and an experienced church diplomat, affirmed unambiguously that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, albeit partly differently understood.  Significantly, in response to the fall of Constantinople and the Muslim threat, Nicholas of Cusa advocated "conversation" rather than "crusade," a strategy pursued doggedly though unsuccessfully by his friend, Pope Pius II.  For Nicholas believed that war could never solve the issue between Christendom and Islam.

We live in a different world than Nicholas and Pius II did, but our options are roughly the same.  We should resolutely follow Nicholas.  The terrorists must be stopped.  As to the 1.6 billion Muslims, with them we must build a common future, one based on equal dignity of each person, economic opportunity and justice for all and freedom to govern common affairs through democratic institutions.  Muslims and Christians have a set of shared fundamental values that can guide such a vision partly because they have a common God.

On February 18th 2011, during the "Day of Celebration" Sheik al-Qaradawi - one of the most influential Muslim clerics in the world, exiled from Egypt since 1961 - addressed the crowd in Tahrir Square in Cairo of over one million.  He began by noting that he is discarding the customary opening "Oh, Muslims" in favour of "Oh, Muslims and Copts."  He praised both for bringing about the revolution together.  And he added, "I invite you to bow down in prayer together."  Such prayer, addressed to the common God in distinct ways, lies at the foundation of hope for a new Egypt.  Can Muslims and Christians work together to build a democratic Egyptian society in which rights of all are respected, the rights of minority Coptic Christians no less than the rights of majority Muslims?  They can, if they have a common set of fundamental values.  And al-Qaradawi knew that faith is potentially the basis of such common values.

Whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is also the driving question for the relation between these two religions globally.  Does the one God of Islam stand in contrast to the three-persona God of Christianity?  Does the Muslim God issue fierce, unbending laws and demand submission, whereas the Christian God stands for love, equal dignity and the right of every individual to be different?  Answer these questions the one way, and you have a justification for cultural and military wars.  Answer them the other way, and you have a foundation for a shared future marked by peace rather than violence.

Larycia Hawkins is answering those questions in a very powerful way by taking on the garment of those who are different from her, those who in America are experiencing hostile prejudice.  Compassion, humility, and solidarity are evident.  Many support Larycia’s wisdom and courage.

Against her are the wise men and women of Wheaton who want argue for clarity, for adherence to one understanding of Christianity, and who see diversity and difference as threats rather than opportunities.  These wise ones would never follow a star unless they first agreed with the star and all the star’s theological ramifications.  They would not leave home until the consequences were fully worked out and voted upon.

Further reading on Volf: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/17/wheaton-...

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