Wheaton, Larycia Hawkins, and what it means to worship the same God

Wheaton College has recommended that tenured Prof. Larycia Hawkins be terminated for her statements in solidarity with Muslims, citing tension between her statements (that Muslims and Christians are “people of the book” and “worship the same God”) and Wheaton’s doctrinal convictions (see here).

Of course, I think there are very serious worries raised by the mere fact that Wheaton thinks termination might be an appropriate response at all to the expression of solidarity in the face of discrimination — but it doesn’t even appear that Prof. Hawkin’s statements are clearly in tension with Wheaton’s doctrinal convictions in the first place.  Following her suspension last month, Michael Rea (Notre Dame) wrote an op-ed, “On Worshiping the Same God” calling into question whether any tension between her statements and Wheaton’s statement of faith can be found without first making substantive (and controversial) theological and philosophical assumptions not found in the statement of faith itself:

One would hope that there are complexities to this situation known only to Wheaton insiders, because from the outside Wheaton’s position looks puzzling at best, and politically, rather than theologically, motivated at worst. Their statement of faith affirms, in its opening line, belief in one God; it then goes on to affirm a variety of familiar and distinctively Christian beliefs about the nature and actions of God, many of which are indeed inconsistent with traditional Islamic doctrines. Anyone suitably informed about Islam would be correct to conclude that someone who fully believes the Wheaton statement of faith ought to think that Muslims are deeply mistaken about what God is like. But surely one can be mistaken–even deeply mistaken–about what God is like and still worship God.

Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God; but they agree on this much: there is exactly one God. This common point of agreement is logically equivalent to thesis that all Gods are the same God. In other words, everyone who worships a God worships the same God, no matter how different their views about God might be.

On the assumption that there is exactly one God, then, saying that someone does not worship the same God as Christians do–as, for example, might be the case with someone who claims to worship a perfectly evil being–amounts to saying that they have not managed to worship any God at all. To say this of someone is to go well beyond saying that they are deeply mistaken about what God is like; it is to go well beyond saying that they are not worshipping in a way that is acceptable or pleasing to God. It is to say that the acts that they call ‘worship’ do not even manage to qualify as defective worship, that they are so wrong about what God is like that the word ‘God’ in their mouths is absolutely meaningless, or that they are inadvertently using the word ‘God’ to refer to some other thing that they mistakenly believe to be divine–e.g., a mere human being, an animal or plant, an inanimate object like a rock or a star, or an abstract object like a number, or love, or some such thing. There might well be interesting reasons for Christians to affirm such claims about Muslims, or for Muslims to affirm them about Christians; but it can hardly be said that any such view is a straightforward implication of Wheaton College’s statement of faith.

Those who think that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God commonly justify their opinion by appeal to the vast dissimilarity in Christian and Muslim beliefs about the nature of God. But one should be careful here, for this is a maneuver that threatens more division among religious believers than most Christians would want to accept. God as understood within some quarters of American evangelicalism looks very different from God as understood by the majority of Christian theologians in the Middle Ages. But we do not say that contemporary evangelicals worship a God different from the one medieval Catholics worshipped. God as understood by Jonathan Edwards looks very different from God as understood by Rob Bell; but who would go so far as to say that Edwards and Bell worship different Gods? It is hard to imagine that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob believed that their God was triune; but most Christians do not for this reason deny that we worship the same God that they did.

Rea’s full piece can be read here.

12 thoughts on “Wheaton, Larycia Hawkins, and what it means to worship the same God

  1. I can easily imagine the agonies of faculty (and probably many administrators) at Wheaton, pressed by the demands of conservative trustees, donors, and potential donors. This is realpolitik—not theology.

    Taking the question of whether Christians and Muslims ‘worship the same God’ literally—assuming (to avoid metaphorical issues concerning fictional characters) that there is a God–of course they do. We are all Kripkeites now. Birthers who believe that Obama was born in Kenya, is a Muslim, and is collaborating with a worldwide Islamicist-Communist-Extraterrestrial conspiracy, believe all those things OF Obama de re. Reference is easy—any ignoramus can do it.

    But I doubt that philosophical arguments or theological reflection are going to do anything. I’d bet though that at some point the Powers will recognize that firing Hawkins would be bad for the institution. Wheaton is academically serious—not some crappy little ‘Bible college’. Students from there get into first rate graduate programs and contribute to the profession. Wheaton has a lot to lose.

  2. What’s going on here is that Wheaton is assuming some sort of descriptive theory about how the name “God” works. If your view of God is sufficiently different from theirs, then you are following a different God. Theology as a discipline is particularly ignorant of analytic philosophy (but usually informed enough about continental), so these people would never have even heard of Kripke or even early Putnam. Without such a theory of proper names, their view makes sense, but they should have pursued with her some clarifications, because her statement is ambiguous. If she meant certain things by it, then she might be at odds with their statement of faith, and they may have actually come to that clarification with her. My sense is that they did not but that she was unwilling to have that conversation. There are several indications, from her and from them, that she was unwilling to clarify what she meant on a theological level rather than on the political solidarity level, which is pretty unfortunate, even if it’s understandable that she’s upset at what they’re doing. She might not be at odds with the statement of faith, and it might only take one or two clear statements for her to demonstrate that. On the other hand, she might know that she is and be unwilling to engage in the conversation for that reason.

  3. It might (?) be worth noting that the Catholic church, at least, is pretty clearly on Hawkins’ side on this issue. See here, for some relevant discussion/passages:


    Obviously, evangelicals such as those at Wheaton College don’t really care what the Catholic Church says, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but it does suggest that her view is not, at the very least, a crazy one among very serious Christians, making this development all the more revolting.

  4. Right, Matt — also, paragraph 841 of the catechism reads, “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

    If we take the Catholic Church at it’s word, then they worship the same God as Muslims — obviously, you’re right to point out that Wheaton doesn’t care what the Catholic Church says, but I do wonder how many of their professors have ever said that they worship the same God as Catholics and failed to face termination proceedings for it.

  5. Thanks, Philoderaia – though it’s obvious when pointed out, that sort of failure to recognize transitivity you mention is particularly egregious, and I hadn’t thought of it so clearly before. I wonder what the relevant people would say if it was put to them so clearly.

  6. I think Wheaton is wrong here on the metaphysics, but I don’t think their view requires them to say the same thing about Catholics and Muslims. Their main contention why they don’t worship the same God as Muslims is the Trinitarian issue. Catholics are Trinitarian. It does mean they would think Catholics are wrong in thinking they worship the same God as Muslims. It doesn’t mean they have to say they worship a different God from Catholics, though. They don’t think that, I’m sure.

  7. Interesting on the Trinitarian question. Would they say Arians worshipped the same God? Or Ebionites? Would their worries extend to groups that were ok on the Trinity as such but heterodox on Christology–like the Church of the East or Oriental Orthodox (e.g. Coptic, Ethiopian, etc.) Churches? If they want to play that game they gotta get theologically serious. Closer to home, what about Jews (somehow I think the ‘if-you-white-you-alright’ principle would trump theological scruples here). As for Catholics, isn’t there some disagreement concerning the Second Person’s habit of transubstantiating Himself on a regular basis? BTW, historically, in the early days of Islam, Christians regarded it as a Christian heresy rather than a distinct religion.

    Its a shame Hawkins is in pol. sci. Philosophical help needed here.

  8. And y’know, now that I think of it, this could be a serious proposal. I publish on the doctrine of the Trinity, and on the Eucharist. I’m active in the SCP and could probably sign the Wheaton orthodoxy pledge–though I reject the Filioque Clause. ‘Same God?’ is an interesting topic in philosophical theology–could have a conference on it.

  9. Jeremy, I’m not sure where you got the sense that Hawkins was unwilling to clarify, but this is coming after she had already submitted a theological response to the university (see here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-wheaton-college-professor-terminate-0107-20160106-story.html). Did you mean beyond the statement she already gave them? Regarding the point about Catholicism, right, that’s why I prefaced my comment with a note about taking the Catholic church at it’s word, but, I think hbaber brings up even more clear theological issues in her comment above.

  10. I wrote that before she released (or at least before I knew that she’d released) that document. They did say that she was unwilling to clarify their further questions, and she said she was unwilling to pursue that conversation further. From the public information available to me when I first looked into this, it seemed as if they were probing beyond what she had said on Facebook but that she was unwilling to disambiguate her claim. It turns out she did disambiguate it in a way that’s clear she agrees with their statement of faith, and they wanted her to show them beyond that in a way that strikes me as ridiculous, given that she already had clarified it.

  11. Has the philosophy department at Wheaton weighed in on any of this?

    Wheaton’s treatment of Hawkins is shameful. I don’t believe it is actually motivated by deep philosophical motives, but rather base bigotry. But maybe the philosophy department at Wheaton could help nonetheless.

  12. Jeremy, ah, I see — thanks, that clears things up. I wasn’t sure if you thought that document wasn’t clear enough or something.

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