The same God?

January 4, 2016
Larycia Hawkins in a selfie she posted on Facebook

Wheaton College’s suspension of associate professor Larycia Hawkins has sparked debate on several fronts (see "Professor suspended for saying Christians, Muslims 'worship the same God'"). The political scientist attracted attention for wearing a headscarf in solidarity with Muslims. Before this, Hawkins—the first black woman on Wheaton’s tenured faculty—had clashed with administrators over questions related to sexuality and black liberation theology.

Perhaps most contentious is the reason the college gave for suspending Hawkins: her claim that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” Wheaton suggested that this stance conflicts with the college’s statement of faith.

Does it? Wheaton’s statement of faith includes the core elements of historic orthodox Christianity along with items more particular to American evangelicalism. It doesn’t mention Islam. Is it fair to say that a full-throated affirmation of the Christian God implicitly excludes the God worshiped by Muslims?            

One might answer yes with no hostility toward Islam—indeed, out of respect for genuine difference. The Christian God, after all, is irreducibly Trinity. And this God is inseparable from Jesus Christ, who for Christians is not just the prophet revered in Islam but the incarnate Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. Such claims have long been essential to what Christians talk about when we talk about God—and such claims can be bewildering if not blasphemous to Muslims.

On the other hand, one need not be a universalist or even a liberal to affirm that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Pope Francis says this; so did his predecessor; so do official Roman Catholic documents. In earlier eras, Christian thinkers often assumed a shared monotheistic faith as a starting point for conversation with Muslims. The church tended to see Muslims as heretics—a harsh term, but one reserved for those who say the wrong things about the right God.

As for the Trinity, theologian Miroslav Volf has argued that Islam’s insistence on the unity of God doesn’t clash with the Trinity itself so much as with misguided conceptions of it. Jews, Christians, and Muslims share a monotheistic heritage, along with several key concepts—such as belief in the one God, the merciful Creator and judge of the world. We even share a common ancestor, one who made a covenant with God. We may believe very different things about Abraham’s God, but it’s still his God.

The question perhaps boils down to whether the word God can be separated from the particular tradition of faith by which God is known. Christian thinkers have made room for both approaches. Whether we end up saying that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods or the same one differently, interfaith work will require both clarity about one’s own faith and solidarity with people of other faiths.


Same God

In this debate, I think we can be helped by some simple math: If a = b and b = c, then a = c. If The God that Christians pray to is the same as the God of Jews (which both assert) and the God of Jews is the same that Muslims pray to (as both Jews and Muslims assert), then the God that Christians pray to is the same as the God Muslims pray to. It's just that Christians understand this one God as Triune.

Jesus and the Word

You say in your editorial that "Jesus Christ... is the incarnate Word who... was God in the beginning." I think that muddies the water in talking about Jesus. Jesus did not come from heaven as if he was hanging out with God and took a trip. What we believe is more complex. Jesus was a person in whom God was incarnate. Jesus did not exist before he was conceived. The mystery of the Incarnation is that God became embodied in a human being. We say about Jesus that he was both divine and human. But he became that. We don't know if he was born that way, or realized who he was at the river with John, or gradually, or what. I think it's important to realize that in Jesus, God was doing a new thing, in the world in a new way. That Jesus shows us God through the intimate relationship he has with God in the dynamics of his life. I suspect it is more difficult for a Muslim to approach the idea of a Jesus who "came down from heaven" than a Jesus who was really a person and in whom God was present in a way we can never fully understand. So, you folks can tell me if you think I'm heretical in this, but this is how I understand Jesus. Otherwise you get a kind of "incarnation-lite" if Jesus was "with God in the beginning." Maybe some more clarity of language on your part in editorializing would help.