12/21/2015 02:14 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2016

On Worshipping the Same God

Last week, Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science at Wheaton College, was placed on paid administrative leave due to "significant concerns about the theological implications" of statements she "made about the relationship of Christianity to Islam." The primary statement in question seems to be her remark in a December 10 Facebook post to the effect that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God." According to a clarificatory statement issued by Wheaton College on December 16, the concern over Hawkins's remark is that it seems to be "inconsistent with Wheaton College's doctrinal convictions," as expressed in their Statement of Faith.

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. (Toward the end of his own discussion of the Hawkins controversy, theologian Scot McKnight does seem to deny that Christians worship the same God as Abraham did. If he is right, then either there are at least two Gods, one worshipped by Abraham and another worshipped by Christians, or else Abraham did not manage to worship any God at all. Neither claim can sensibly be affirmed by someone with traditional Christian beliefs.)

None of this is to deny that the the differences between Christianity and Islam are of great significance. They are significant enough to justify calling Christianity and Islam different religions, after all. But I doubt that the differences in Christian and Muslim beliefs specifically about the nature of God are much more significant than the overall theological differences that divide contemporary Christians from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even if they are, however, the point here is simply that difference alone--even very significant, religion-dividing difference--is not sufficient to guarantee that two parties fail to worship the same God. To justify that stronger conclusion, one would ultimately have to make appeal to a robust theory about semantics, or about the nature of worship. One has to wonder what sense it makes to suppose that theories like this are among the presuppositions of a Christian school's statement of faith, or that they could serve as an adequate basis for suspending a tenured professor at such an institution. It is precisely this that makes it so hard as an outsider to understand Wheaton's handling of the Hawkins situation.