Maybe, as my alma mater Wheaton College would contend, it really is about doctrinal precision. Maybe for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, there is a need to parry the ontological and epistemological arguments and counter-arguments, to determine the appropriate professional future of Dr. Larycia Hawkins, who dared to say on her Facebook page on Dec. 10 that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” But these issues look and feel differently in a place like Jos, Nigeria — where I was born to American missionary parents, six thousand miles from Wheaton’s campus chapel.
Since graduating from Wheaton (’01), I now regularly visit the country of my birth as part of my job as Programs Director at an NGO called The Fund for Peace. Since 2009, a terror group called Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-da’wa wal-jihad (JAS) — more commonly known as “Boko Haram” — has been waging an insurgency in northeastern Nigeria. Farther south, in and around the beautiful city of Jos, communal violence between Christian farmers and Muslim pastoralists has intermittently spiked since the early 2000s, killing thousands in the last fifteen years.
Normally, the violence takes the form of targeted attacks on places of worship, raids on communities, or suicide bombs. But when it spills out into the streets, it becomes harder for the perpetrators to identify their victims. In some cases, according to stories I’ve heard, this requires a theological pop quiz — cars stopped by Muslim gangs asking if the drivers can recite portions of the Koran; other cars stopped by Christian gangs demanding that the drivers say the Lord’s Prayer.
But nobody really thinks that the conflict is over what people believe or don’t believe about the Trinity, Christology, pneumatology, or substitutionary atonement. They know that these questions are shibboleths meant to categorize individuals as in-group or out-group, so as to determine who can be killed and who cannot.
I’m not at all saying that what Wheaton’s provost, Dr. Stanton Jones, did when he put Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave was similar in kind or degree with what happens in Jos. But when Nigerians hear about the Wheaton controversy on CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, or Al Jazeera, they’re not looking at it through the lens of ivory tower theological abstraction.
Scholars and theologians naturally assume that the argument is at its heart about whether Christians should concede that the Muslim view of the attributes of God and the means of redemption are equally valid with our own. Certainly, that is an interesting and important question. And naturally, from Wheaton’s perspective, the answer to that question is likely to be no. Probably most people, Muslim and Christian alike, would answer that question the same way. Otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen the religion that they have.
Fine. But that’s not the question that matters to people in the real world. The question that matters to people in the real world is, “Who is my neighbor?”
In 2013, I was facilitating a conflict assessment workshop in Jos. As usual, they opened the workshop with a prayer, in the name of Jesus — that we would have a good and meaningful dialogue to better understand the root drivers of conflict and find solutions, and that God would be honored by our thoughts and words.
We were sitting under a pavilion outside the hotel. Almost everyone around the table was Christian. After the prayer, I glanced at the two women wearing hijabs and asked, “Are we interfaith?,” in case they also wanted to say a prayer. The young woman in a blue hijab smiled gently and said, “No, that prayer will suffice. We all worship the same God.”
If at that moment, a doctor of theology had spoken up to demand that she explain herself, people may have been forced to start picking sides. Any trust that we had built up to that point could have been shattered. The workshop could have devolved into word games and semantic nitpicking, every comment loaded with intentional or unintentional misinterpretation and connotations. Secondary issues related to ethnicity, gender, or class may have gotten pulled into the vortex. Somebody might have been accused of bigotry. Somebody else maybe accused of papering over real differences.
I realize that the context is perhaps different — that at Wheaton, there is a statement of faith that faculty have to sign. And that if they cannot in good faith sign the statement, that they should find someplace else to work.
I also realize that Wheaton is an academic institution and that academics is largely about clarifying abstract distinctions, while a conflict assessment workshop in Jos is primarily about looking for healing.
Even so, it seems to me that the Wheaton administration could have made the decision to interpret the offending Facebook post generously. After all, it’s not at all clear from her post that Dr. Hawkins was taking a position on the question of whether Christians should consider Muslim theological views as equally valid. And given the toxic and xenophobic social and political environment in which we find ourselves this election season, they wouldn’t have had to open up that can of worms.
Even so, if after considering all the possible nuances implicit or explicit in the post, Provost Jones still had real concerns, he could have engaged her privately in a theological discussion to reassure himself as to whether she is in alignment with the official statement. Jones and Hawkins could have made a determination together as to whether Wheaton College was a good fit for her, and taken action accordingly.
Maybe the “We worship the same God” comment wasn’t an ontological statement about the essence of God but rather a response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
If so, it’s worth remembering that that question originally came up in the gospel of Luke, when an expert of the law asked the very technical theological question of what one must do to be saved. And it was the doctrinally “incorrect” Samaritan that Jesus said was the example we should be following.
For what it’s worth — and I hope this doesn’t disqualify me from Wheaton College’s community of faith — I think the Muslim woman in the blue hijab that day in Jos truly exhibited the spirit of Christ when, in a group of people traumatized by sectarian violence, she said that we all worship the same God. I think Dr. Hawkins did, as well.
Unfortunately, I think the Wheaton College administration did not.