Saturday, January 2, 2016

Muslims, Christians, and the Same God: Round-Up with Advice to Volf and Clark (with Addendum)

Since the publication of my December 17, 2015 piece over at The Catholic Thing--"Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?"--many others have commented on the topic as well.  

Those generally in the "yes" column include.....

Those generally in the"no" column include.....

Those who think the question is too complicated to offer a quick and easy answer include....

The occasion for so much commentary on this topic over the past three weeks is the controversy surrounding Dr. Larycia Hawkinsa Wheaton College political science who claims that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Some argue that this may violate the school’s statement of faith, to which all faculty must subscribe.

Although I disagree with those at Wheaton College (and elsewhere) who make this claim, I think it is uncharitable to accuse them of harboring anti-Muslim bigotry, as both Volf and Clark charge. It seems to me that those who take the "no" side on the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God are defending a reasonable position, though it is one that I (along with Volf and Clark) think is mistaken. 

If Volf and Clark seek to persuade those with whom they disagree, they should take a page out of their own book and extend the same charity to their fellow Christians that they (rightfully) believe their fellow Christians should extend to their Muslim neighbors. 

Addendum: Both Clark and Volf respond in the combox. I am grateful for their replies and clarifications. They are scholars from whom I have learned much. 

Let me address each of their comments.

1. Kelly is correct that in his article he was responding to a particular argument offered by Al Mohler, one which concludes that Jews and Christians worship the same God but not Muslims and Christians. Like Kelly, I am not convinced that Mohler makes his case. However, I do think there is another way to account for the argument's failure without appealing to the possible sub-rational motivations of its author. The key is this passage from Mohler's piece:
But this line of argument [by Beckwith] evades the entire structure of promise and fulfillment that links the Old Testament and the New Testament. Abraham and Moses could not have defined the doctrine of the Trinity while they were on earth, but they believed that God would be faithful to all of his promises, and those promises were fulfilled only and fulfilled perfectly in Christ. And, going back to John 8:56-58, Jesus said: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad … Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am. "
Evangelical Christians understand that, theologically, there is a genetic link between Judaism and Christianity. That is why Christians must always be humbled by the fact that we have been grafted onto the promises first made to Israel. In terms of both history and theology, there is no genetic link between Christianity and Islam. The Qur’an claims that to confess Jesus Christ as the divine Son and the second person of the Trinity is to commit blasphemy against Allah.
As I say in a forthcoming piece in The Catholic Thing, there is only one being that is by nature God (ipsum else subsistent), and thus anyone who worships that God--even if he or she has incomplete knowledge of God--worships the one true and living God. Mohler, no fan of the idea that the theologian must employ general revelation in tandem with special revelation to discover God's true nature, rejects this understanding. Thus, he believes, from the perspective of his tradition, that without special revelation, any alleged knowledge of God is not just incomplete, but deeply mistaken. For this reason, Mohler's distinction between true revelation (The Old and New Testaments) and false revelation (The Qur'an) is doing all the work.  Consequently, a Jew who only has the Old, but true, Covenant, is in incomplete continuity with the Christian who has the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. Hence, they worship the "same God." Muslims, on the other hand, have broken from this tradition by embracing the Qur'an, which is not in continuity with the Old and New Testaments. Again, I (like Kelly) part ways with Mohler on the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. However, I do not think his argument is unreasonable or even borne of bigotry. We just have a fundamental disagreement on how theology ought to be done.

2. I agree with Volf that Professor Hawkins' suspension was unjust based on the rationale offered by Wheaton. But that's only because I (and Volf) believe the rationale is in fact unjustified. Wheaton, of course, believes that it's rationale is justified, supported, I suspect, on reasoning not unlike that offered by Mohler. As I noted above, I disagree with Mohler's conclusion. But given the constraints of his own theological tradition, his reasoning is not obviously unreasonable. Having said that, Wheaton is in a different place than the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where Mohler serves as president).  It is not, like SBTS, tied to one particular Christian tradition, though it does exclude Catholics from its faculty. Thus, Wheaton considers itself a place in which a wide variety of perspectives within Evangelical Protestantism can find a home, though within the parameters of a particular statement of faith.  The question that the Hawkins case has provoked, and which Wheaton must answer, is this: Under Wheaton's understanding of Evangelical Protestant pluralism can the institution include within its community principled disagreement on the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God? On my reading of the statement of faith, the question is clearly "yes." Others disagree.  Some are not sure. Wheaton is right now thinking about how to address this question. I agree with Volf that suspending Hawkins was unnecessary prior to the resolution of that question.  However, an imprudent administrative judgment concerning a matter of the institution's fundamental character hardly qualifies as an act of bigotry. 


Kelly James Clark said...

Frank, Thanks for keeping track of this. I think you should state why I think it's bigotry. Otherwise it sounds like my claims came out of a vacuum. Mohler argued that anyone who rejects the Trinity cannot worship the same God as Christians do. Except Jews. This completely undermines his entire argument, one, given the present climate, that smacks of bigotry. Jews, who reject the Trinity, are part of the tribe. Muslims, who reject the Trinity, are not. So it's not logic or theology that decides. What then?

Given that Islamophobia is sweeping America, assisted by Christians, the bigotry that underlies our fears needs to be faced squarely.


Unknown said...

I have never claimed that the contention as such that Muslims worship another god than Christians is bigoted. But to suspend a professor who embraces an orthodox statement of faith--who affirms the trinitarian nature of God and the incarnation of Christ--because she also believes that Muslims do not worship another god (which is to say an idol), and to do so without thorough and public examination of that stance is bigoted. Also, I have never claimed that any individual person at Wheaton is a bigot. There is a big difference in describing an action as bigoted and describing a person as a bigot.

Kelly James Clark said...

Frank, Since the heart is desperately corrupt and all that, I sometimes attribute bad motives to people. Maybe I over attribute. I do so to myself sometimes, too (a relic of having once been a Calvinist). But probably not overly so. Maybe this is a time when I should.

You may recall that I thought Barbara whatsherface was an anti-Christian bigot in her vicious response to your essay a few years ago. My evidence: her prose vastly exceeded her logic. So I sought a motive to explain her excesses. I did the same with Mohler and Wheaton (thought it's harder to tell with Wheaton since they've said so little). Huge logical mistake -- explained with a non-logical motive.

Sadly, I think we're all deeply tribal, which explains a lot of our fears of Muslims. I don't see an easy solution to our tribal impulses (which express as bigotry) but feel like we (Christians) need to acknowledge them.

the best to you, Frank.


ccthecc said...

I'd be interested in what the "no" camp considers to be the minimum requirement for worshipping the same God.

Francis Beckwith said...

Kelly, while writing this post I actually thought about the courage you exhibited in defending me against those accusations issued by BF. To this day, when the topic comes up, I do not hesitate to praise you and AP for your support and encouragement. For this reason, I had second thoughts about drawing attention to your article.

This is why I penned my criticisms in a way so as not to jar or provoke, but to simply suggest that it is best for the body of Christ that we exhaust every reasonable angle before we issue negative character judgments. To be sure, some folks are easy targets, for a variety of cultural and ecclesial reasons. But we ought not to give into the temptation (as I have learned from my own checkered experience).

Kelly James Clark said...

thanks Frank. Point taken. Easier from you, who I know and respect, than from retweeters who I don't. I know that you took the time to read and understand my argument (and that you concur with my basic point if not its precise execution). I get a lot of doodoo heaped on my posts and self (see the comments section of the HuffPost article). And a lot of rather vicious tweets. There is a LOT of undisguised bigotry in those.

I didn't take yours as either doodoo or vicious.

Unknown said...

No, Wheaton's decision is not a matter of just an imprudent judgment. It is a matter of suspending a tenured professor exclusively for an opinion she expressed about another faith, a person who insists she is completely endorsing Wheaton's statement of faith. The administration may or may not be right on whether Muslims worship another god than Christians; I think this is a wrong position with dangerous implications when it comes to Christian relations to the Jews, but that is not the main issue. Suspending a person from job she rightly holds merely for holding an opinion--an opinion, which the administration has merely stated that it stands in contradiction to Wheaton's statement of faith without offering any arguments that this in fact is the case--is intolerant and bigoted. If an action like this is not intolerance, and intolerance with consequences for reputation and, possibly, even livelihood of a human being, I don't know what is. To state this clearly is not uncharitable; it would be uncharitable not to do so, uncharitable no less toward Wheaton administration than it would be toward Professor Hawkins. Speaking of her, it is mind-boiling to me to see how many of those in the "no" or "neutral" camp show no concern for her, no empty for her situation.

Anonymous said...

Bigotry and intolerance are hard words, scolding words. One might think and argue that they are excessive in this case. However, when one learns that the Wheaton College administration failed to speak with Professor Hawkins before suspending her from teaching, failed to interact with her about her remarks and give her adequate time and occasion to respond, then one is prompted, I think rightfully, to say that Wheaton College acted with a spirit of bigotry and intolerance.

One can only imagine what other Wheaton faculty now think about themselves and their jobs. They must now watch every word said, inside the classroom and out in the larger world, lest they too are suspended for some statement considered beyond the boundaries of the school's faith statement, before they are given any opportunity to respond or explain.

Consistent with Christian principles and teachings, one would like to be charitable in this case at Wheaton College. Sadly, it is difficult to do so. Now, what could have been, should be, a valuable conversation among differing opinions is an argument, even a fight to protect Professor Hawkin's job and livelihood.

J. L. Watts said...

This is my contribution:

(UMCer, phd candidate, author).

- Joel.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

PAID administrative leave=suspension?!! You be the judge.

Unknown said...

Catholics also excluded from the faculty of Wheaton College? I suspect bigoted and intolerant are not the least apt words with which to describe the kind of mindset that governs the joint

Unknown said...

Here is a perspective from outside the U.S.

Unknown said...

Read Vinoth Ramachandra's piece. He's from outside the Western church, and he probably sheds more light onto this discussion than anyone thus far (no disrespect for the good people posting here).

Unknown said...

Steven, I do not think that excluding Catholics from teaching staff at Wheaton is the case of intolerance and bigotry (which, of course, does not mean that I think such an exclusion is a good idea). But an institution like Wheaton -- or like a corresponding Catholic or Orthodox institution, or for that matter a Jewish or Muslim one -- can legitimately understand itself as representing a particular kind of community and then seek to preserve its character through boundary maintenance. Differences are in principle good things (though, of course, there are bad kinds of differences) and they require boundary maintenance. The problem with Wheaton's suspension of Professor Hawkins is that notwithstanding the fact that Hawkins affirms Wheaton's statement of faith, the administration has acted against her on the basis of a unilaterally defined and not publicly discussed interpretation of what is and what is not compatible with that statement of faith. As John has mentioned in the comment above, no Wheaton professor is safe in this kind of environment. On a whim of the president or the board, a teacher's right to teach can be revoked. That's why this is a case of religious intolerance and bigotry: the administration has decided to interpret a statement a professor has made about another religion as incompatible with Wheaton's statement of faith and acted against her on this without opening its stance to communal and public discussion. I am sure, the administrators don't see themselves as intolerant, but protective of orthodoxy. But most intolerance is born of such good intentions (even the intolerance of communists which I encountered growing up in Yugoslavia was). Wheaton's having a statement of faith and enforcing its observance is not an expression of intolerance; the administrations violation of a right of a professor who accepts this communal standard by appealing on an arbitrary interpretation of that statement of faith is an expression of intolerance.

Unknown said...

The most obvious weakness of these discussions is the absence of Jesus Christ in them. One may argue that talking about Trinity includes Christ, of course. But it's more about Jesus Christ and His relationship to the Father, that really matters here. Moreover, John chapter 8 provides clear teaching of Jesus about the unbelieving Jews. Descendants of Abraham ? Yes. Children of God ? No.

Alan Grey said...

The question of whether the Muslims and Christians worship the same God can, I think, be helped by looking at the history of the faith, by way of illustrion.

The Only King of Australia

Option One

The King of Australia, Bluey the all powerful, has ruled wisely and benevolently for 40 years. Apart from some minor squabbles, Bluey’s people have survived and prospered in relative bliss, following their King’s instructions to love one another, welcome the stranger, and as far as possible, live peaceably with all.

One day, his royal advisor, Shiela, comes to him with news of one of his farthest and most remote states, Tasmania. Shiela tells him that the people there have had a great calamity, and barely remember their King, and have even forgotten his name.

Bluey, sends his most trusted and faithful advisor, Johnno, to tell them once again of their King. Johnno travels the harrowing journey through the dangerous country side, avoiding crocodiles, drop bears and many other deadly perils so common to Australia.

Arriving in Tasmania, Johnno meets the head of Tasmania, Mikey and informs Mikey that their state needs to remember and follow their all powerful King and his rules, and if they do, life will be better for them. Mikey asks what the name of their King is, and just as Johno is about to tell him, a venomous snake, so common in Australia, bites him. Johno utters one last word, ‘Struth’, and then dies.

Mikey, wanting to be faithful to the King, tells those mates closest to him about their King, King Struth, and explains that they have to follow King Struth. His mates then tell him of some other blokes who have been saying there is no King, and they ask Mikey what they should do about it. Mikey, not knowing any better tells his mates that they need to invade and kill those who do not believe in and follow King Struth. Mikey continues to try and decide about what Struth would want as more and more questions arise.

After many long campaigns and his numbers swelling, Mikey crosses to mainland Australia, and encounters many people who follow a false King named Bluey.

Alan Grey said...

Option Two

The King of Australia, Bluey the all powerful, has ruled wisely and benevolently for 40 years. Apart from some minor squabbles, Bluey’s people have survived and prospered in relative bliss, following their King’s instructions to love one another, welcome the stranger, and as far as possible, live peaceably with all.

One day, his royal advisor, Shiela, comes to him with news of one of his farthest and most remote states, Tasmania. Shiela tells him that the people there have had a great calamity, and barely remember their King, and have even forgotten his name.

Bluey, sends his most trusted and faithful advisor, Johnno, to tell them once again of their King. Johnno travels the harrowing journey through the dangerous country side, avoiding crocodiles, drop bears and many other deadly perils so common to Australia. Unfortunately, Johnno is captured on the way by bushrangers. Johnno tries to negotiate with the head bushranger, Struth, telling Struth of his important mission from the King.

Seeing his chance to harm the true king and the king’s people, Struth kills Johnno, and sends his closest mate, Jack, to Tasmania. Jack meets Mikey, the head of Tasmania, and tells Mikey that he is the royal advisor and that Mikey and his mates need to follow their true king, Struth the all powerful, otherwise they will be destroyed, adding that if they do follow their true king, great rewards will follow.

Jack tells Mikey of the great numbers of people who are rebelling against King Struth, misled by deceptions and lies. Enraged, Mikey calls his mates together and they start attacking those who don’t follow King Struth, finding many who don’t believe in the King at all. Jack stays by his side, telling him more and more of what Struth wants, and who Struth is.

After many long campaigns and his numbers swelling, Mikey crosses to mainland Australia, and encounters many people who follow a false King named Bluey.

In both cases, the Struthians believed in the ‘Only All Powerful King of Australia’.

However, in the first case, the Tasmanians follow the same king as the rest of Australia. And when they encounter the Bluites, they can determine (especially if Mikey is still alive), that the Struthians are just mistaken about a few things. They could continue to believe that their conceptions about the King are correct, but even so they would still be believing in the same person. They were mistaken about the attributes of the King they were following, not his being.

In the second case, the Tasmanians are following a completely different person. They were mislead into doing so, but it was a different person they followed, and to fix their beliefs, they need to find out about the real King and follow him. They were mistaken in their belief that they followed a being that was the one true God, not about the attributes of the being they followed.

Now, I am not saying here that we can have any real certainty about whether Muslims and Christians follow the same God, but looking into the history of Islam, it seems that they fall more into the second case than the first. That their chief mistake is about which being they follow, rather than the attributes of the true God.

Unknown said...

An administration of a confessional Christian college may not practice ad hoc interpretations of its SOF. SOFs function rightly only when there is a communal understanding of what a SOF implies and what it means to sign it. If a professor signs a given SOF and comes to hold a position (1) that can be plausibly interpreted to be in sync with the SOF and (2) that generally accepted communal understanding of it did not exclude when he or she was hired or given tenure, then it is morally wrong of the administration to withdraw the right to teach from such a person. Presidents and trustees cannot just decide from one day to the next what the correct interpretation of the institution's SOF is. Faculty members do not serve simply at the pleasure of the president who can fire them according to any given interpretation of the implications of the SOF the president and the trustees deem correct. Were this to happen, a religious academic institution would be run like an authoritarian state.

So in the recent case involving Wheaton, the question is this: Was there, at the time Hawkins was given tenure at Wheaton, a generally accepted interpretation of the SOF, easily accessible to Hawkins, which would oblige a person signing it to affirm that Muslims worship another god than Christians? If yes, the administration has the right to suspend Hawkins, for Hawkins then acted in clear violation of the accepted interpretation of the SOF; if not, and since the affirmation that Muslims do not worship an idol can be plausibly interpreted not to be out of sync with SOF, the administration has violated Hawkins' rights in suspending her.

Here is a hypothetical case. Wheaton's SOF states that God created Adam and Eve "directly." Let say that when a professor of biology was hired, this description of Adam’s and Eve’s creation was generally understood to allow the position that Adam and Eve were created by some, not clearly defined, special act of God within the context of an evolutionary process. Then there is a change of presidents. The new president, along with the majority of the trustees, firmly believes that Genesis 2 ought to be taken strictly literally: God appeared in the garden, and, mixing water and soil, made some mud, formed it into human shape, took a breath and blew into it, and the mud turned into a first human. Because this belief about human creation is important to him, the new president makes this new interpretation of the SOF mandatory, and our biology professor who espouses a theory of evolution combined with special divine assistance is suspended from teaching. If this were to happen, I propose that the president would be violating rights of the professor who was hired before the new interpretation was understood by the community to be in force.

Now, what would be the nature of the new president’s violation of rights of our biology professor? I think that his act could rightly be described an expression “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from” his, which is the basic dictionary definition of bigotry. Note will: the president's holding this theologically and scientifically uninformed view about human origins as such would not be bigotry; bigotry would also not be him making negative judgments about those who advocate theory of evolution, not even, strictly speaking, him suspending faculty members who embrace a theory of evolution. But it would be an act of bigotry to suspend professors who have in good faith signed the SOF with a commonly and reasonably held interpretation of it in mind, an interpretation, which the new president himself rejects. The president would now be seriously wronging these faculty members just for holding a different view from his, and suspending them would be an act of bigotry. In the light of the above argument, I think that I was right when I agreed with the editors of the Washington Post that the action of the Wheaton administration toward Professor Hawkins was an act of bigotry. (I myself have not originally used that term.)

Thomas, OCDS said...

There must be an unconditional Reality in order for anything to exist. It must be a Being that is simple: no intrrinsic or extrinsic limitations or boundaries. This being, since He is simple can create everything. BUT, there can only be one. If there is two or more, conditions for their existence MUST BE PRESENT in order to differentiate them from each other and must be supplied by yet another Being that is unconditioned inits existence: the uncaused Cause.
Under the principle of non-contradiction, this unconditioned being cannot at the same time, be both loving and merciful, and also violent and vengeful against those who do not convert to a certain way of life. The second claimed god is a fAKE AND DOES NOT EXIST.As they say in philosophy, the cat cannot be both alive and dead at the same time and place.

Thomas R. ,Rochester Hills, MI.

Anonymous said...

Professor Beckwith, now that Professor Hawkins is about to be terminated by the Wheaton C admin, any thoughts?