Would a Little Less Certainty Have Saved Wheaton Professor's Job?

No one has ever seen God.

Obvious? Of course. But stay with it a second. Turn it over in your mind. Ponder its implications. If Wheaton College administrators had done this, maybe Larycia Hawkins would still have a job.

Hawkins and the college parted ways earlier this week, nearly two months after she'd been placed on administrative leave for her suggestion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This disciplinary action might seem natural, even necessary, for an evangelical Christian college. After all, traditional evangelicalism sees Jesus as the only way to God; Hawkins's comment might dilute that fundamental view.

I'm sure that, in their actions, the administrators were striving to be faithful to their belief and the college that lives by it.

Still, no one has ever seen God.

That obvious statement leads to this one: we cannot possibly know everything about God. In the grand scheme of things, we may know very little. So can anyone say with certainty that Christians and Muslims don't worship the same God?

It would be one thing to pluck no one has ever seen God from another faith tradition to refute the Wheaton administrators. They would dismiss it as irrelevant to their worldview, and understandably so.

But this obvious statement keeps showing up in the very Bible to which they pledge fealty. The author of St. John's writings mentions it twice (John 1:18, 1 John 4:12). The First Letter to Timothy, attributed to St. Paul, proclaims a God who "dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see" (1 Timothy 6:16). The story of Moses has God saying, "No one shall see me and live" (Exodus 33:20).

Yes, the ways in which Christians and Muslims think of God are different. The two traditions have different views of what God has said (hence the two different sacred scriptures). They have different metaphors for God and God's action in the world. But in asserting with confidence that the Christian God and the Muslim God are actually different beings--let alone that one is "true" and the other "false"--the asserters run into that obvious statement above.

In the Christian framework, no one has ever seen God is not enough to build a whole religion on. It is, however, enough to give us pause.

In fact, I believe it requires a different approach to faith. It asks us to hold our beliefs lightly, ever mindful that we could be wrong. In doing so, we almost automatically approach any interfaith discussion with humility--a crystal-clear sense of who we are in relation to others and to God. In this case, humility tells us how little we know: we have a great story to share, from our tradition, and many great stories to hear, from other traditions. All of them may tell us something about God.

Such an approach leads not only to humility, but to compassion and a desire for peace--virtues in almost any religion.

Our world needs these virtues in abundance, awash as it is in interreligious fear and hatred. If Muslims and Christians worship the same God, they have common ground. Common ground is fertile soil for reaching out to one another across the divide. If I don't know everything about God, and you and I worship the same God, I want to know what you know. It could help me draw closer to God.

And it would be so very difficult for me to hate you, or seek vengeance, or scrawl epithets on your house of worship.

The Jesus of the gospels said that we will know the measure of people by their fruits: the outward behaviors and attitudes that spring from their inner selves. The fruit of taking no one has ever seen God seriously, the aforementioned compassion and peace, is in line with the virtues of the Bible. Why wouldn't we encourage our scholars to explore whether this might be the same God--whether Muslims and Christians are sisters and brothers rather than combatants and adversaries?