Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same God? Do Any of Us?

Wheaton College associate professor Larycia Hawkins, center, is greeted with applause from supporters as she begins her remar
Wheaton College associate professor Larycia Hawkins, center, is greeted with applause from supporters as she begins her remarks during a news conference Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, in Chicago. Hawkins, a Christian teaching political science at the private evangelical school west of Chicago, who is wearing a headscarf to demonstrate solidarity with Muslims was put on leave Tuesday after making statements about the faiths' similarities that the college said conflicted with its "distinctively evangelical" identity. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Anyone who has doubted the intellectual bankruptcy of Evangelicalism needs only to look at Wheaton College. The "Harvard of Christian schools" has begun proceedings to fire Larycia Hawkins, so they claim, not because of a headscarf she wore in solidarity with Muslims, but because she had the audacity to repeat the words of the pope, that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God.

I believe Wheaton College when they say that she is being fired because she has violated its statement of faith. At least, I do not believe that they would be able to begin proceedings if she had not said that. Wearing a hijab would have made her unpopular in some circles and would have spurred some moneyed persons to go after her (which is exactly why we have the tenure system), but they would not be able to begin firing proceedings at this time.

But the real question is not whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. It's whether any of us do. Don't get me wrong. I am a committed trinitarian. I have had the privilege of speaking with many Muslims over the years. And I have nothing but the deepest respect for them and for the Islamic tradition. But (and I love you guys), as a Christian I think your doctrine of God is just wrong (just you like think my worship of Jesus is idolatry). I mean, I have read in the Qur'an the oft-repeated rhetorical questions of the prophet Muhammad, How can God have any partners? How can God have any equal? This strikes me as a kind of picture thinking. There is no difference between being, thought, and act in God. The Word God speaks is God in essence; The Trinity is what you get when God talks to Godself.

Then again, it is not like my trinitarian theology is all that convincing, is it? God in three persons -- one ousia in three hypostases? But why not four? Or just two? In fact some Christians, like Justin Martyr, were basically binitarians, an idea even St. Basil the Great flirted with for a while. We are all kind of struggling in the dark, are we not? The leaders of Wheaton College do not seem to think so, which is why their actions against their black-tenured-trinitarian professor are so profoundly sinful. Wheaton seems convinced of its own omniscience.

Christian tradition, all the way through, teaches that God is Mystery. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his beautiful book, The Life of Moses, talks about how the prophet ascended Sinai and disappeared into the cloud where God "hid." Moses found himself in darkness. His intellect was blinded. That is the way of things, the closer one gets to God, the less one is able to claim knowing about God. In that case, Wheaton is very far from God indeed!

This does not mean abandoning a minimum set of doctrines. An institution like Wheaton has the right -- indeed, the responsibility! -- to demand that those who teach its classes abide by a certain statement of faith. But doctrines are not about getting God "right." They are more about setting the standards for being a part of the community. One cannot be Muslim and disavow that Muhammad is the Prophet of God. One cannot be Muslim and believe that Jesus is divine. One cannot be Christian and believe that God is one without being three.

There is always a difference between the God we think we worship and the God we actually do. The God I think is not the God who is. That is the same for Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Wheaton administrators convinced of their own infallibility. At some level all of us are wrong. At some level all of us are heretics. We are all in violation of whatever statement of faith we sign off on. That is why in the best of the Christian tradition there is room for grace, room for a certain amount of intellectual freedom, with the understanding that, by and large, charity and intention matter more than accuracy and precision.

So what I find most distressing about Wheaton is not its generally obnoxious vapidity. What I find so distressing about Wheaton is its hubris. What sheer and utter arrogance it is to fire a professor for giving an opinion that has been echoed by numerous theologians, including its most famous alumnus, Billy Graham.

I tend not to say that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God because I think it can obscure important distinctions between faiths. It can be a way of saying, "You are just like me!" We must love others for who they are, not for how much of ourselves we see in them, but the denial of the same can be just as bad. I can understand and appreciate Wheaton's general reservations, but spiritual xenophobia is not the answer.

Consider the Jews. Do we really want to say that because they do not believe in the Trinity that they do not worship the same God as Christians? Do we really think Peter or James believed in the Trinity? Whatever they believed, it was not Nicene. Or what about Elisha or Moses? If we want to say that God's people do not worship the same God as us, then we are denying the people who made us. That is the kind of theology that, over our long and shameful history, has gotten Jews killed in the name of the Jesus we worship. Jews were not killed because of misunderstanding or ignorance. Jews were killed because we were sure we were right and they were wrong.

What about Muslims? Do Muslims worship the same God as Christians? Muslims would say, "Yes." They just think that we are thinking about God all wrong. They believe we are committing idolatry by worshipping Jesus (which Jews would say as well). The writings of the Christians who lived during the rise of Islam did not seem to think of Muslims as belonging to another religion. They thought of Islam as a kind of Christian heresy. So they were going to hell, but so was anyone else outside the church. Being saved was about being a member of the Body of Christ. It was about being a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It had nothing to do with what a person thought.

If the God we worship must be the God we think, then those who ascribe to "Process Theology" (which denies divine omnipotence), "Open Theism" (which is Process Theology Lite), or "Social Trinitarianism" (which is basically polytheism) would all be worshipping different gods than me. In fact, any Christian who explained how God is one-in-three a little differently than me would be worshipping a different God than me.

Put simply, the Trinity is a concept. It is intellectual icon. An icon is something that points to a substance greater than itself. An icon is a window with only a loose correspondence to reality. Our words only point to God; it is our hearts that worship.

Again, Wheaton should fire a professor who denies its statement of faith, but to fire a professor who says something that many of its students would say is not Christian. It is prideful. Maybe Wheaton College thinks God is itself It certainly seems to think it is all knowing; its administrators are fully convinced they have God right.

This is not about a statement of faith. Professor Hawkins was not saying that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologies are equivalent. She was not denying Christian truth. She was affirming Muslims, and that is what this is really all about.