My God Is Your God

Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Chicago. Hawkins, who's
Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Chicago. Hawkins, who's Christian, posted her views on Facebook and wore a headscarf to show solidarity with Muslims is disputing the university's account of interactions with administrators who've initiated steps to fire her. Suburban Chicago's Wheaton College initiated the termination-for-cause proceeding against Hawkins on Tuesday, saying she refused to participate in "clarifying conversations" about theological issues. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

During the winter of 2011, The New York Public Library held an extraordinary exhibition called "Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam." Upon entering the Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall where the show was held, visitors immediately found themselves in front of three display cases containing the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), dating from 1294 C.E. (Common Era), the Harkness Gospels (that came from a Brittany abbey before the Vikings sacked it in 917), and a Qur'an dating from about 1333 C.E. The ancient texts were presented like the newborn triplets of a great and proud parent to be admired and cooed over. That great parent was no less than Abraham. I was one of the hundreds of interested visitors who walked through the impressive show, drawn by the Library's claims of displaying never-before-seen-in-public texts and objects and of raising awareness of the commonalities rather than the differences between the three Abrahamic faiths. Despite the ten years that had passed since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, religion (or, more precisely, Islam) was still very much in the cultural spotlight, therefore "Three Faiths" was viewed by some as bearing a deeper significance than purely historical.

The various terrorist attacks, both international and domestic, that occurred in 2015 have again brought the world to an uncomfortable place. We have been brought to a place where every word or action either in support or rejection of Muslims and Islam has become subject to unimaginable interrogations, and to a place where the scholarship and beauty of an exhibition such as "Three Faiths" may not be enough to help lower the shrill tenor, anger, and fear that now occupy the proverbial "public square."

On December 10, 2015, Ms. Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton College, a private liberal arts college (and evangelical Christian) in Wheaton, Illinois, posted a photo of herself on her personal Facebook page wearing a hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women; the caption beneath the photo read, "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis said last week, we worship the same God." Throughout Advent, the four-week period that precedes Christmas Day, Professor Hawkins wore the headscarf.

According to a statement issued by Wheaton College, Professor Hawkins, who is tenured and has taught at Wheaton since 2007, was placed on administrative leave over what was described as "significant questions regarding the theological implications" of recent remarks she had made about the relationship between Christianity and Islam. The statement went to say, "As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College's evangelical 'Statement of Faith.'" All Wheaton faculty are required to sign the Statement of Faith.

Philip G. Ryken, the president of Wheaton College, emphasized that it was Professor Hawkins's words, not her wearing the headscarf, that was the reason for her being placed on leave, as Wheaton had "no stated position on the wearing of head scarves as a gesture of care and concern for those in Muslim or other religious communities that may face discrimination or persecution."

Professor Hawkins was placed on administrative leave on December 15, and she responded in writing to questions concerning her theological convictions two days later. After some deliberations between herself and the provost, which, according to the professor left her with the impression the "rules were changing, the goalposts keep moving," she declined to answer further questions. She and Wheaton are now at what has been termed an "impasse." It has since been reported that Wheaton College has begun a process that could lead to Professor Hawkins's termination, although no specific time frame has been given.

Flying in the face of a pagan world with myriad deities, Abraham, an itinerant herdsman, audaciously proclaimed belief in one unseen yet omnipotent God. Abraham's faith and obedience earned God's pledge to make his (Abraham's) descendants "as numerous as the stars of heaven, and as the sand on the seashore." (Genesis 22:17) Jews, Christians, and Muslims trace their lineage back to that first patriarch, who forged an extraordinary covenantal relationship with God, and some four billion people of the world's population are adherents of these three faiths, bound by similar beliefs, practices, and traditions.

For some at Wheaton College, however, Professor Hawkins's statement is as audacious as was Abraham's that there was only one God. And like the Public Library's splendid exhibition five years ago, the professor seeks to point to commonalities between the faiths.

So now the question is there: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

To the extent that Christians and Muslims come from the same Abrahamic tradition, yes they do. Even if there are differences in the narrative details, the Qur'an of Islam and the Christian Bible share many of the same stories and heroes.

However, when it is a question about what these faiths call God and how they worship God, there are significant differences with respect to rituals and patterns of devotion. For example, whereas Christians tend to call the creator "God," "Allah" is how Muslims refer to God. For Muslims, Jesus and Mary are "Isa" and "Maryam," respectively. But difference does not mean standing in hostile opposition. No faith is monolithic, as there are significant differences even within faiths, as a casual visit to a variety of Christian churches will attest.

Whether or not Professor Hawkins has violated Wheaton College's Statement of Faith will be decided by Wheaton College. But I am with those who believe that she was moved by her understanding of Christ's commandment to love and stand with the vulnerable and the stranger, whoever they may be at the moment. (And that is not the terrorists, whose God is not the God of Abraham.) That kind of love defies fear and suspicion, and is nothing less than audacious.