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Friday, January 29, 2016

Does Wehaton College Suffer From Context-Phobia?

Next month,Dr. Larycia Hawkins will be, in a sense, tried for heresy and her future at Wheaton will be determined. Why the trial? Dr.Hawkins apparently gave members of Wheaton's administration reasons for being concerned about her religious views when she both wore a Muslim headcovering in order to show solidarity with Muslims and posted on her Facebook page that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. At least some of Wheaton's administrators saw that as a possible denial of key components of Wheaton's confession of faith for the faculty.  And thus Wheaton has placed her on leave with the intention of firing her if it is determined that her views that violate its confession of faith. Wheaton's first concerns were expressed in a December 15 letter (click here). Dr Hawkins (click here for a short bio) responded with a theological statement (click here), which this blogpost will be reviewing, and the Wheaton administration requested a further dialog which Hawkins declined (click here for the Washington Post story that this blogpost has used as a reference for background information). 

Wheaton administrators expressed 3 concerns in their initial letter: Hawkins' statement that Christians and Muslims both worship the same God and are 'people of the book,' calling Muslims brothers and sisters, and her views on the Eucharist. This blogpost will only address Hawkins' statements that seek to answer the first two concerns.

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? On the second page of Dr. Hawkins' letter she gives the appearance of providing a Neoorthodox yes-and-no answer. But in reality, she didn't. She simply stated that in one context, we can legitimately say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but in another context, we can't. What are these 2 contexts? In the yes-we-can context, Hawkins states that both Muslims and Christians believe in one God and in the God who is the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The no-we-can't context concerns itself with the trinitarian view of God as well as salvation.

In terms of Hawkins calling Muslims our brothers and sisters, she responds in a similar way as with the first concern. In the yes-we-can context, Hawkins takes us back to Genesis where we can all biblically call Adam and Eve our original father and mother and where we are all made in the image of God. The no-we-can't context consists of our belonging to Christ. Believers in Christ belong to a unique family in which no one else is included.

The question here is whether Hawkins is wrong or right with the distinctions she has made? After all, the concerns of Wheaton administrators were not relieved by Hawkins' nuances. Should we have the same problems with Hawkins' statements that these administrators do? That depends.

If we take the first issue of whether we worship the same God, we should note that Hawkins' observations that both Muslims and Christians seek to listen to the one God who both exists and is the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are correct. So does it follow that we worship the same God? If we take Paul's preaching in Acts 17:23ff (click here for the Scripture passage) to heart, we will realize that Paul states that the 'unknown God' the Greeks worshipped, among the many other gods they revered, was the God he was preaching about. And if that is the case, how can we disagree with Hawkins' statement when there are more significant ties between the God whom Muslims and Christians claim to worship than there exists between the Greeks' 'unknown God' and the God whom Paul preached?

Likewise, the grounds for Hawkins calling Muslims our brothers and sisters are biblically correct: we share Adam and Eve as parents and all are made in the image of God. So how can we deny that, in the context of the Genesis story, Muslims are not our brothers and sisters?

Apparently some Wheaton administrators, as well as some of the religiously conservative Christians I have encountered on different blogs, find it quite easy to deny our familial relationship with Muslims. How do they do that? They deny what Muslims and Christians have in common by both implying that there can be only one context in which this question can be answered and referring to the violence preached in the Quran--as if the Bible never preached violence. When they address the issue of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, they imply again that only one context can be relevant when speak to the issue. Thus, with both issues, these Christians take what would seem to be a postmodern deconstructive approach, which is not actually the case since a context is implied, where we do not need to look beyond the text of what Hawkins wrote to judge her.

Thus, these Christians who condemn Hawkins' views about Islam and Muslims not only commit some thinking sins, the discarding of other contexts than their own, they forget that the Scriptures have given both a yes-and-no answer at times. Here, we only need to look at Romans 11:28-32 (click here) for an example. Should Christians view Jews as their enemies? According to Paul, because of their then persecution of believers, Paul answers with a resounding 'YES!'  But in terms of God's election and the patriarchs, Paul gives and equally resounding 'NO!' So when does Paul answer this question about the relationship between the Jews of his day and Christians with a 'yes' and when does he answer with a 'no'? It depends on the context of the question being asked.

I can't find anything to disagree with Hawkins on regarding her response to the first two concerns expressed by Wheaton administrators. She is using Biblically legitimate premises and her conclusions do follow those premises and are in no place of which I am aware contradicted by the Scriptures.

As for what her trial at Wheaton means, it isn't only about how big the evangelical theological tent will be, as the Washington Post article mentioned; it is about how we Christians will think through issues. Will we understand that sometimes the context of an issue determines what we say? Will we look to make distinctions and use nuance when addressing issues? Or will we opt for the context we imply as being the only possible one in any discussion about any given subject so that we can avoid complexity? 

Certainly there are times to be simple. But there are also times to recognize complexity and complications. And it seems that too many of us religiously conservative Christians, (a.k.a., my fine, fellow flaming fundamentalist friends and family) insist that our study of the whole world is simple and only simple Bible believers  can know the truth. This insistence on simplicity when addressing  issues causes an overuse of simplicity and is unnecessarily hurting not only fellow Christians, like Dr. Larycia Hawkins, but the reputation of the Gospel as well.





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