Discussing the Same God of Christians, Muslims & Professors
The following essay was originally published at Off the Page in January 2016.
For the Chewing
In 2011, on a chilly night in December, I sat in the upstairs bar of an under-the-train-tracks gourmet pizza joint in Richmond, Virginia. I will admit to nervously stuffing down what turned out to be an otherworldly slice of sausage, mushrooms, and black olives.
For a few years, our campus ministry at Virginia Commonwealth University had emphasized Christian-Muslim relations. I was poised/un-poised to give a short talk in a public forum. The question of the hour was sure to warm everyone up.
Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
Four years later, on another cold December night, a young professor of political science at Wheaton College pecked out a heartfelt Facebook post intended, it seems, for her Muslim neighbors and her Christian neighbors. She attached a photo of herself wearing the hijab.
Larycia Hawkins wrote:
I don't love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American. I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity. I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor...
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.
For her commentary, and the views behind it, Hawkins was initially placed on administrative leave. [In February, Hawkins announced her departure from Wheaton via a press conference where she was joined by the school president and a small contingent of faculty, alumni, and clergy.]
Someone has said—only half-kidding—that any attempt at a theologically satisfying answer to the same-God question must first define “Christian,” “Muslim,” “worship,” “same,” and “God.” After that, only the question mark remains—which is quite fitting, I suppose.
Notwithstanding the appropriate complexity and the high degree of difficulty, it seems impossible to doubt the question’s increasingly urgent relevance for human and global affairs. Christians and Muslims compose approximately 55 percent of the world’s population. And dependably, if not unfortunately, Christians and Muslims are influential contributors to the elevated rate of religious-based social hostility and conflict.
Here, I’ll bring in the professor Miroslav Volf, author of Allah: A Christian Response. As a sober, historical reminder, Volf writes, “Theological wars fuel real wars.” His point is evident even in the title of his book: Christians and Muslims must make theological talk, not theological war.
But the distinction between talk and war can be fraught. Muhammad Javad Faridzadeh, a professor and former Iranian ambassador to the Vatican, doesn’t allow us one ounce of naiveté: “Theological dialogue between religions is no sooner born than it dies. It becomes militant; it is the arm with which you defend your religion.”
Back in 2011, in a downtown pizza joint, I chewed my way through the same-God question.
There is sameness with respect to the Christian and Muslim referent: the one and only creator “God,” the eternal, sovereign Lord of the universe.
There is much similarity with respect to God’s essential character. For instance, both Christians and Muslims have theologies of divine mercy and forgiveness that are absolutely central to the architecture of the faith.
But…there is a sharp difference between Christian and Muslim understandings of, say, how God gives his mercy and offers his forgiveness.
For Christians, Jesus the Christ is of the same substance as God, and co-eternal with God.
He is the Word made Flesh, the most exhaustive revelation from God for humanity. Jesus alone has made God definitively known in a peculiar way, including through his death and resurrection.
Christians are more accurately people of the Person, not People of the Book.
Feeling the Tension
With the Wheaton affair it has become obvious (again): not every Christian is game for the chewing (much less the swallowing). In fact, there are numerous reasons to question whether American Christians—in particular, Protestant evangelicals—are capable of navigating the theological and cultural tensions inherent in Christian-Muslim relations.
Here, another professor comes to mind and joins the discussion. Thomas Kidd’s important book American Christians and Islam argues that “much of the recent American Christian hostility toward Islam derives from a long historical tradition,” notwithstanding the intensification since 9/11.
In other words, the response of many Christians in the United States in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting or in the context of ratcheted-up political debates about Muslim immigrants and refugees is caught up in a bigger story arc. “American Christians,” Kidd writes, “have often [categorized] and stereotyped Muslims out of pain, anger, and fear”—an un-holy trinity if there ever was one.
David Livermore, a professor in the field of cultural intelligence, writes, “The ability to hold tension [in an unprecedented era of increased globalization] is absolutely essential.” In his evaluation, sociological fundamentalism (of various types) is a “strict adherence to one’s view of the world as the only right way.” It includes “a refusal to live in tension.”
The tension at Wheaton, as many have observed, appears to mirror the tension within evangelical America. And it is far from merely theological. It is sociological, an ongoing skirmish in the never-ending Culture Wars.
So not without irony it occurs to me that “a refusal to live in tension” might apply to the barbaric militants of Islamic State as well as to the board members at certain evangelical institutions of higher learning.
Meanwhile, I’ve got this professor-friend—Joshua Ralston—who teaches in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh. At the end of the long, linguistic, theological, and practical day, Ralston recommends a “one God” dialogue with Muslims as opposed to the same-old “same God” dialogue.
He also says that the most truthful answer to the question of sameness must qualify its Yes and its No. And I could not agree more.
This frees Christians to do two things simultaneously: 1) to be faithful to the pious particulars of our confessional faith; 2) to be intellectually credible and constructively engaged with Islamic thought.
Solidarity + Particularity
Given the pain, anger, and fear, I believe there is much to admire and even emulate about the embodied Christian witness of Prof. Hawkins among her Muslim neighbors.
First, she emphasized solidarity with Muslims deriving from the Christian view of human dignity as sourced in the inviolable image of God.
Can you imagine more American Christians absorbing this profound solidarity? It would naturally (supernaturally) change how we think, feel, and act toward Muslims. I believe it could motivate a capacity within us to transcend difference—even entrenched religious differences—to develop friendships and partnerships with Muslims.
Second, as a concrete and public gesture, I saw Hawkins’s decision to wear the hijab (during Advent) as an act of unfiltered Christian love for Muslims, especially Muslim women.
Christian love is demanding. It always requires an incarnation—often in the presence of neighbors who are despised and discriminated against. Hawkins “risked blurring sociological and religious borders,” as Ralston observed, which should recall a Jewish carpenter-rabbi who did the same with that despised, discriminated-against Samaritan woman.
Third, as a staffer at Peace Catalyst International, I thought her peacemaking-and-reconciliation sensibilities were spot-on.
Watch as she attempts to build bridges between religious faiths that are hedged on all sides by formidable barriers. Watch as she attempts to find common ground between Christians and Muslims along an otherwise divisive landscape of animosity, hostility, and conflict.
For Prof. Volf, a vital agitation lingers from the Wheaton affair. He asks, “Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?”
In his scholarship he has drawn on the paradigm of a very famous Protestant professor: Martin Luther. Luther tended to speak of Muslims as having “mistaken knowledge of God” rather than saying Muslims worshiped an altogether different God. (There once was a Jewish carpenter-rabbi who told a Samaritan woman that she was worshiping what she did not know—completely.)
“When Hawkins justified her solidarity with Muslims by noting that as a Christian she worships the same God as Muslims, she committed the unpardonable sin,” Volf says, because she removed “the enemy from the category of ‘alien’ and ‘purely evil’ other.”
He is right. More is at stake than some profound theological argument. It is a matter saturated with the equally profound questions of Christian cultural and political identity. Are Christians willing and able to establish common bonds of social life with Muslims?
Having said this, I still believe Prof. Hawkins’s original Facebook post was un-careful.
Unequivocally, I was tracking with her Christian sense of social solidarity with Muslims. But I could not get my mind and heart fully around the notion of religious solidarity, or same-God-ness. And I am predisposed toward inter-religious commonalities!
The professor Lamin Sanneh joins our conversation—late. Perhaps it is better, he says, for both Christians and Muslims to frame the question in a more revealing way. Sanneh asks, “Is the God of the Bible the same as Allah of the Qur’an?”
Surely it is logically impossible and theologically unsatisfying to answer this question without qualifying our Yes and our No. If we don’t qualify both, we might succumb to “a neat evasion of difference in the name of commonality,” in the helpful phrase of Ralston.
But Sanneh has also said, “It can be argued that what Christians and Muslims have in common theologically is more important than what divides them.” So, dear Christian friend, it is just as important to say the following: Clarifying differences does not require us to dismiss or devalue commonalities.
I am more convinced than ever that Christians who desire to engage with Muslims from a posture of respect and understanding, while pursuing actual friendships, while working toward common-good cooperation, must comfortably embrace solidarity plus particularity.
Finally, the way in which Christians (of any theological or denominational stripe) practically address the same-God question among Muslims is incredibly significant. It is a question of style alongside substance.
Jesus-followers must genuinely believe that Christ-type motives and manners are as weighted as the message of the gospel itself. Historically, elevating message over medium, or conveniently divorcing Christ-type motives and manners from a passion for delivering the message, has contributed too much trauma in Christian-Muslim relations.
We have time for one interesting and instructive example.
A couple of years ago, I read an essay by a professor named Adam Francisco. In it he explores Martin Luther’s knowledge of and attitude toward Islam. As it turns out, the sixteenth-century icon of the Protestant Reformation was a verifiable mixed-bag.
On the one hand, Luther did not precisely believe that Muslims worshiped an altogether different “God.” This perspective would influence future professors, like Miroslav Volf.
On the other hand, according to Francisco, Prof. Luther evidenced little-to-no curiosity about the incredible breadth of Islamic civilization or culture. Moreover, he was only interested in the most contentious elements of Islamic theology. And, rather rudely, he persisted in calling Muslims “Saracens” or “Muhammadans” despite the fact that he would have been keenly aware that they referred to themselves as Muslims.
All of the gospel message in the world may not be able to overcome serious breaches in gospel motives and manners.
The professor Dallas Willard comes walking through the door. We hear him quietly say that Christian exchange with Muslims—through the solidarity; across the particularity—must, à la Christ, give off “the allure of gentleness.”
May it be so.