Allah, God and Wheaton College: Some Observations from Beirut

By Jesse S. Wheeler

“Allah” has been in the news again.

For readers unfamiliar with this discussion, American evangelicalism’s flagship institution of higher education, Wheaton College, recently made moves to terminate Associate Professor of Political Science Larycia Hawkins in response to a statement made on Facebook concerning Christian and Muslim “worship of the same God.”Hawkins made the following statement in reference to her decision to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslim-American women – women who have in recent days been subject to an onslaught of rather intense, public bigotry:

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God. But as I tell my students, theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all. Thus, beginning tonight, my solidarity has become embodied solidarity. As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, [in Chicago], in the airport and on the airplane to my home state…, and at church.

In reference to its decision, Wheaton released an official statement saying that “Wheaton professors should ‘engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.’” Both Dr. Hawkin’s statement and Wheaton’s subsequent response generated a firestorm of online commentary, filled with recriminations of doctrinal heresy on one end and anti-Muslim bigotry violating the example of Christ on the other. Within the Wheaton community itself, the faculty and administration appear to be at odds concerning this issue.

Partly a result of the fact that I have published on this topic in the past (and, perhaps more selfishly, of the fact that I hope to continue working in the world of evangelical academia), I have been following the proceedings very closely. However, rather than jump into the variety of historical, theological, missiological and sociological arguments either for or against equating the God of the Quran with the God of the Christian scriptures – or deconstruct the validity of the question itself, as my colleagues have done – I simply wish to offer my observations as I have watched the discourse unfold.

First, Middle Easterners tend to approach this topic very differently from Westerners: 

American evangelicals like myself are very keen to jump head first into a controversial issue, stake a claim, and proceed to argue the heck out of it. To be honest, this was my initial reaction as well. We also have the tendency to make life or death claims – as if the very witness and/or truth of the gospel were at stake.

Yet for many with whom I’ve spoken in the Middle East, the topic is somewhat of a non-issue. I often come across the assumption that Muslims are Muslims. Christians are Christians. And never the twain shall meet, so why bother? In addition, I’ve come across those who never considered the question until quite recently. For example, Dr. Martin Accad (aka my boss) admits to having never once pondered the question until an acquaintance asked him about it during his studies in Oxford – this after completing a first degree in theology in Beirut and having lived through the religiously-charged Lebanese Civil War, a brutal conflict between “infidels” and “heretics”, yes, but not necessarily between “followers of different gods.”

However, I have also been coming across a variety of responses challenging the validity of the question itself. ABTS President Elie Haddad (aka my boss’s boss), in a recent Facebook conversation made the following comment:

I find the question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” highly problematic. My problem is not theological, or missiological, or soteriological. My problem is logical. I believe that this is a wrong question. What do we mean by it? In the pursuit of knowledge and truth it is paramount to ask the right questions in order to begin to grasp the right answers. I find that this question is confusing and vague, which leads to answers that are addressing different issues and leads to arguments that are taking place in a different space.

Furthermore, in a recent Christianity Today article exploring the views of Middle Eastern church leaders, Salim Munayer from Musalaha and Bethlehem Bible College is quoted as saying:

“Among Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, the discussion is not over whether we worship the same God, but rather Muslims challenging us that we worship one God at all.”

This statement leads me to the realization that power differentials play a huge role in how this question is explored. Among western evangelicals, the debate is waged in the abstract and used primarily as a litmus test for in-group loyalty and border policing. In the larger Western context, this can be seen as a debate over whether Muslims deserve a seat at the table of Judeo-Christian civilization (itself a recently developed narrative construct[1]). In the Middle East, however, the reverse has often been true. With Christians in the minority, Muslims have largely been the ones setting the theological and dialogical agenda, providing the epistemological and theological framework within which the Christian minority must operate. As such, Eastern Christians have been asking and answering an entirely different set of theological questions. In the Western evangelical discourse, it is Muslims who fail the trinity test. In the East, however, it has been Christians who must pass the unity test.

My second observation, however, is this:

At its core and despite accusations to the contrary, this a disagreement between bible-believing, creed affirming evangelical Christians employing self-consciously ‘evangelical’ methodologies in their theologizing and exegesis of both scripture and culture. The reality, whether we like to admit it or not, is that the evangelical tent is wide – despite the periodic ‘witch-hunt’ – and we often find things about which to disagree. This nevertheless remains a family squabble. In the above cited Christianity Today article, Elie Haddad is paraphrased as offering the following word of caution:

Well-meaning Christians answer “yes” or “no” for good reasons – [e]ither for common ground upon which to proclaim Christ, or to differentiate and highlight his centrality. Keeping unity between them is essential.

For her part, Dr. Hawkins appears to have been motivated by a sense of incarnational solidarity with an increasingly marginalized Muslim-American population. In other words, this is not a tired contest between theological liberalism and fundamentalism, between ‘all roads lead to Rome’ spirituality and orthodox trinitarianism. Nor can it be so easily dismissed as a case of anti-Muslim bigotry masquerading as doctrinal fidelity, (as much as my instincts point me in this direction). This is instead a question about fidelity to Christ – his person, nature, kingdom, message and mission.

Evangelistic proclamation, doctrinal orthodoxy, and social campaigning – each key concerns of the global evangelical community at various stages in its history – have been significant drivers of this discourse. As such, it must be acknowledged that for the most part both sides in this debate are operating with the best of intentions. Furthermore, the arguments I have read from both sides tend to rely on solidly conservative epistemological foundations, building their arguments on the basis of scriptural interpretation. I have found little in the popular discourse to indicate otherwise.

What I do see this as, however, is another visible instance of a growing fault-line between two (or more) distinct ‘evangelicalisms’ existing uncomfortably within the same evangelical space, oftentimes worshiping in the same churches, yet growing increasingly uneasy with the actions and presence of the other. Although each can be seen as being ‘distinctly evangelical’ in character, certain basic assumptions have resulted in different interpretations and applications of scripture leading each to confidently answer certain questions in very different ways. As such, maintaining unity in the body while at the same time holding fast to our deepest convictions is never an easy task. For someone like me so eager to reach out in love and solidarity across the religious divide in embrace of my Muslim neighbor, it is perhaps a good reminder that we must also simultaneously reach back across the theological divide in loving embrace of our Christian brothers and sisters – especially those with whom profoundly disagree.

To conclude, therefore (and somewhat ironically), with the words of one of this debate’s major players: “As we desire to embrace the other while we remain true to ourselves and to the crucified Messiah, in a sense we already are where we will be when the home of God is established among mortals.”[2] For true reconciliation to occur, I have learned, this embrace must be bi-directional.

______________

[1] Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004)

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)

11 thoughts on “Allah, God and Wheaton College: Some Observations from Beirut

  1. Jesse,
    You may or may not know that I was in on the foundation of ABTS where Elie Haddad is now president. I worked alongside Dr. Finlay Graham for many years. We still keep in touch with the seminary.

    • We thank God for you, Dr. King, for the solid foundation that you built and the legacy that you left behind at ABTS. It is our privilege to be able to continue down the same path.

      • We thank God for you and for what He is doing through all of you at ABTS. We pray for His power to work through you and bring Him glory!

      • We thank the Lord for what He is doing through all of you at ABTS and pray that He will continue to to use you all to bring glory to Himself.

  2. I am inclined to agree that the question, “Do Christians and Muslims
    worship the same God?” is improperly phrased, and unanswerable in human
    context. For justification I need nothing more than a simple fable,
    dare I call it a parable?, called “The three blind men and an elephant”.
    This ancient story, which may predate the presence of God, or Allah,
    in the human mind for those who allow evolution to exist, is well known
    and has been used for millennia to explain the unknowable to the clueless.
    A few minutes browsing through the results of an internet search with
    the search string “Blind Men and Elephant”, will be useful, instructive
    and amusing. Given the brief lifespan and limited mental capacity of
    humans, it would take eternity to definitively answer the question.

    That limitless source of knowledge on the internet known as Wikipedia
    even has a section on modern versions of the fable, including the one
    below which I think has useful wisdom to impart in the current context.
    Werner Heisenberg is, of course, the physicist who first expressed the
    “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal”, which can be paraphrased (correctly,
    I think), as “To Know something is to change it”.

    ———————————————————————-
    An elephant joke inverts the story in the following way:

    Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like.
    After arguing they decided to find one and determine
    what it was like by direct experience. The first blind
    elephant felt the man and declared, ‘Men are flat.’
    After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.

    Moral: “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in
    itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
    – Werner Heisenberg
    ———————————————————————-

    • Thanks Jim! I LOVE the Heisenberg quote. One of my favorite courses in seminary was my philosophy class. My prof had her PhD in the philosophy of science from Cal, and we spent a lot of time exploring assumptions about how we interpret data to derive knowledge – exactly the point Heisenberg is making. Whereas scientists interpret the ‘text’ of nature, theologians interpret religious texts. Very similar sets of questions can be asked.

      We miss you guys. Send my greetings to Pat.

  3. Based on 30 years of teaching in the Middle East I would like to point out that both Muslims and Christians agree on some aspects of our concept of God/Allah and disagree on others. We agree that there is only one God/Allah who is the Creator of the Universe and all of us, that He is transcendent over His creation, that He is morally perfect, that He has revealed Himself partially to Mankind and that we can be saved from Hell and live with Him in heaven if we obey His conditions for achieving that goal. We disagree on God/Allah’s essential nature. For Christians God is LOVE. For Muslims, Allah’s basic nature is POWER. For Christians He is imminent and knowable. For Muslims He is not. Christians believe God wants a personal relationship with us; Muslims reject that idea. These disagreements are not reconcilable.

    • Hi David,

      Many thanks for the reply. I agree 100% with your statement that “both Muslims and Christians agree on some aspects of our concept of God/Allah and disagree on others.” I think you are correct in your analysis. Our proclamation that the one God IS love, is imminent and knowable through Lord Jesus, and wants a relationship with his creation is CENTRAL to our witness and dialogue with Muslims. As I mentioned in my piece, this is a debate between evangelicals. As Elie Haddad states: “Well-meaning Christians answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for good reasons – [e]ither for common ground upon which to proclaim Christ, or to differentiate and highlight his centrality. Keeping unity between them is essential.” Pluralists have no need for evangelism, or genuine dialogue for that matter.

      Many blessings,
      Jesse

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