Hawkins

Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins faces termination at the college.

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

“That,” said Anne T. Thayer, professor of church history at Lancaster Theological Seminary, “is a big question.”

It is the central question in a debate involving Wheaton (Illinois) College political science professor Larycia Hawkins.

In a Facebook post last month, Hawkins donned a hijab — a Muslim headcovering — and stated: “I stand in solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated ... we worship the same God.”

The Wheaton administration’s reaction was swift and decisive. Although initial reports claimed the college was suspending Hawkins for wearing the hijab, officials said the real issue rested on her failure to clarify what distinguishes Christianity from Islam. That, they said, conflicts with the private evangelical college’s statement of faith that faculty members must affirm annually. And, despite opposition from more than 800 alumni who have threatened to withhold future donations, the school has begun termination proceedings against her.

'A common history'

Joseph Kim, professor of Bible and theology at Lancaster Bible College, noted that Judaism, Islam and Christianity “have a common history.”

“We recognize the relatedness,” he said, but “Christianity’s belief in God as the Trinity is different from Islam.”

In an email, the Rev. Paul Fisher, ecumenical and interreligious affairs officer for the Diocese of Harrisburg, stated, “Since the God worshiped by Christians, Jews and Muslims is the God who revealed himself to Abraham, it is true that all three religions worship the same God. The understanding of the nature and essence of that God and of the kind relationship that he has with his creatures is vastly different. The profession that this One God is a Trinity of persons and that God the Son became human and lived among us sets Christianity apart from the other two and from all other religions.”

Thayer agreed the three religions “have a great deal in common.” As to whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, Thayer said, the answer is both “Yes” and “No.”

“Yes, (all three religious traditions) believe God is without peer, that God loves us and wants us to love God and our neighbors,” she said.

But like Kim and Fisher, she pointed out that Christians believe in a trinitarian God who is incarnate in Christ. That is a drastically different perspective than that held by Muslims. In that regard, she said, they do not worship the same God.

Statement of faith

Kim said faculty members at Lancaster Bible College, like those at Wheaton, must abide by a statement of faith.

If a faculty member were to espouse views similar to Hawkins’, “we would investigate.

“We would ask ‘Do they affirm the statement of faith and ask them to clarify their statement.”

Kim said he could not speak for Lancaster Bible College’s administration, but added, “Wheaton is responding as we would expect.”

Lancaster Theological Seminary does not require faculty members to adhere to a doctrinal statement.

Should a member of the Lancaster Theological Seminary faculty echo Hawkins’ statement, Thayer said, it would lead to a great deal of discussion, but she could not conceive of it “leading to a disciplinary procedure.”

She said the seminary encourges people to express their beliefs.

Richard Newton, assistant professor of religion at Elizabethtown College, was not surprised by Wheaton’s response. Statements of faith, he explained, are not uncommon among evangelical Christian institutions, especially those founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Wheaton was founded in 1860.)

Elizabethtown has no statement of faith requirement. In a statement from the college, Susan Traverso, provost and senior vice president, wrote:

“Elizabethtown is an independent liberal arts college. We’d not ask faculty or staff to abide by any particular religious faith. Members of the faculty at Elizabethtown College enjoy academic freedom, which means they can freely expression their ideas and beliefs.”

Newton said the Wheaton episode highlights the differences in Christian liberal arts values and intellectual values. Integrating the two, he said, can be tricky.

The differences present students with educational choices.

“They do not equal bad,” he said. “They are key to understanding our own identities.”