This past week, Wheaton College, one of the most prominent evangelical Christian Colleges in the world, suspended tenured professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Dr. Hawkins had decided to wear a head scarf until Christmas in solidarity with Muslims in America. Dr. Hawkins is also female and black.
However, these aren’t the stated reasons she was suspended. Rather Wheaton declared that she had violated the school’s statement of faith because, as part of her explanation for donning the scarf, she declared that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
The firestorm of criticism directed at Wheaton has been swift and brutal. People have declared that Dr. Hawkins is being singled out for particular humiliation because she is a woman and black. While many have used words such as ‘shameful’ and ‘disgraceful’ to decry such a negative response to an action of compassion and solidarity in our turbulent times. Even the Chicago Sun Times, not usually a theological journal, has waded in with an editorial against the school’s action.
While I have no doubt that Wheaton’s actions have something to do with Dr. Hawkins race and gender, and that a white male professor might not have been publicly humiliated in this manner, I think that the current rash of criticisms are missing a more profound, more important point: namely that we as a species are at a crossroads as to how we understand the relationships of all religions.
No one should have been surprised by Wheaton’s actions. A bedrock theological doctrine of evangelical Christianity is that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Some evangelicals present a ‘kindler, gentler’ version of this doctrine, while some are much more militant about it, but it is there none the less. The particularism of Christianity is sacrosanct in this branch of the faith (and some of the commentators who have suggested that Wheaton’s statement of faith doesn’t make this clear and thus have no grounds for Dr. Hawkins suspension are splitting hairs because anyone who’s been anywhere near an evangelical institution knows full well the emphasis on particularity).
Among other things, it is this doctrine that has caused the now centuries old clash between some forms of Christianity and science, a clash now manifest in the unfortunate fact that a significant portion of America is anti-science. Particularity of faith clashes with the scientific demonstration of the universe as a singular whole (multiple universe theory not withstanding). If the universe is One, then any God in relation to the universe must also be One. The universe isn’t something to be parceled out in separate pieces of pie and neither is God. We cannot, if science is true, have some populations of humans worship the ‘true God’ and some populations worshiping either no God or a ‘different’ God. The problem that these scientifically discovered facts pose for traditional faith are significant as I’ve discussed in greater detail in my latest book. But one of the practical issues arising from this clash of science and faith is the question of how to understand, and relate to, other religions.
And at the center of this question for evangelicals looms a great fear of the “Same God” assertion. This concern is so great that even someone writing in support of Dr. Hawkins and the Same God idea makes the comment that, ” I’m not yet convinced of the Same God theory, but…” For if indeed Christians and Muslims, and any other religion for that matter, worship the same God, then what is the point of conversion for example, or hanging on to our particularity, or caring if politicians take oaths on Bibles or Korans? And certainly what is the point of killing each other over faith?
In the 1990s I commented in numerous settings that inter-religious relationship was going to be the key theological issue of the 21st Century. The world is getting too small and too interconnected for us not to be forced to confront these problems. Every day convinces me that I was right.
We can argue over whether suspending Dr. Hawkins was proper, or a good sociopolitical move, or racially based, and these are important issues, but I wish that we were more focused on the problem of particularity and the evangelical insistence that our God, or our version of God, is mandatory to related to the God of Creation.
Until we declared that the human species is One, that the Universe is One, and that God/Not God is One, we will find it hard to stop killing each other, and begin to live with one another with compassion, caring, and grace. All of which are actions that, and we miss the irony every day, all religions hold in the highest regard, because God indeed is One.