It was about animosity to Muslims, not theology. That’s what Miroslav Volf claimed in a Washington Post editorial condemning Wheaton College administrators, who are currently investigating a professor who said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Ironically, in making this accusation, Volf is guilty of the very sin of which he accuses Wheaton College: lack of charity.
In a public statement on Facebook earlier this month, Wheaton College Professor Larycia Hawkins claimed that Muslims worship the same God as Christians. Last week, the College placed Hawkins on “paid administrative leave” in order to investigate the “theological implications” of statements she had made “about the relationship of Christianity to Islam.”
No one denies that there are major differences between the way that Christians and Muslims understand God; Christians affirm the Trinity and the divinity of Christ while Muslims deny both. But there are some, like Volf, who think that Muslims and Christians worship the same God even though they disagree about his characteristics. And Volf says that because Hawkins has affirmed Wheaton’s statement of faith, she should get the benefit of the doubt—she is still a theologically orthodox evangelical Christian who believes in the Trinity, even though she thinks Muslims are worshipping the same God (presumably in error about His characteristics).
This leads Volf to make his boldest claim: “[Hawkins’] suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”
There’s a double standard at work here. Volf is faulting Wheaton for not taking Hawkins' statement in the most charitable light possible. But then Volf himself refuses to take Wheaton's action in the most charitable light possible. For that matter, he doesn’t even take Wheaton administrators at their word.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we always have to take someone at their word; I’m not saying that we have to ignore the fact that sometimes people are hypocrites and falsely state their own motives. Of course, there are occasions to doubt that someone’s explanations provide the real reasons for his or her conduct. But we need some good reason to think that this is the case. Volf doesn’t give us any reason. He simply jumps to the conclusion that Wheaton’s theological concern is a cover for bigotry.
This is deeply troubling when disputes among professing Christians are being aired publicly on a charged topic. It’s essential in these circumstances to try to assume the best motives on the part of the other party, unless there's actually a good reason to think otherwise.
It would be worthwhile for Christians to have conversations about what it means to claim that Muslims and Christians (and Jews, and Mormons) “worship the same God.” Whatever you think the right answer is, it doesn't do anyone any good to deny that there are good-faith arguments to be heard from both sides. Throwing around accusations of bigotry or of false motives makes it harder, not easier, to have a reasonable and productive conversation.
Lael Weinberger is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago's law school and history department. Follow him on Twitter @LaelWeinberger.
First Things is a unique publication. We speak boldly and clearly about religion in the public square. Will you help us to be heard by supporting our campaign to raise $500,000 by the end of the year?
Your gift will help underwrite the cost of publishing First Things, maintain firstthings.com, and fund our other work, including the Junior Fellows Program, symposia, evening lectures, and public events around the country. We cannot do these things without the continued generosity of our readers.
Will you help us by contributing today?
R. R. Reno