The following remarks were among several friendly responses to Professor Miroslav Volf’s presentation, “Do Christians & Muslims Worship the Same God?” delivered at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park, IL on Feb. 27, 2016.
Caught up in national headlines about our presumed Islamophobia, we at Wheaton College have been wondering if things could have gone differently in the past few months. We’ve been fantasizing about an alternate universe. What if we heard irenic remarks like we did tonight from Professor Volf five years ago? He could have shown us what it’s like to be an institution of Christian conviction that reached out in peace to our non-Christian neighbors. If that had happened, maybe we would have been prepared to reach out to Muslims before the unfortunate controversy with Professor Larycia Hawkins began, taking advantage, perhaps, of the generous open mosque events. What if our students had had the courage to issue a statement condemning anti-Muslim rhetoric amongst our fellow Christians? Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if in the last two months we were constantly engaging with the Muslims of our community, clearly expressing our differences theologically, but also standing with them against injustice? We have dreamed of a Wheaton College where professors meet with major Muslim scholars, even traveling to Iran where they would be warmly received while testifying to their Christian faith. We’ve imagined a Wheaton where the chief publications with which we’re associated featured cover stories of thoughtful Christian engagement with Islam. But of course, I’m being facetious. Because what I just described is not a fantasy institution—it is the real Wheaton College that so few people know about, as difficult for many to imagine as a round square or a four-sided triangle.
Indeed Professor Volf did come to Wheaton College 2011, gave a wonderful address similar to this one, and we listened. And so, this October before the controversy with my friend Larycia, we were already meeting with the Islamic Center of Wheaton because of their generous open houses. I frequently point out that my one-year-old son has been held by more Muslims than Christians, because he is passed around so often by the women of the mosque when I visit (though the kind grandmothers at my own church are determined to tip the scales). The Chicago Tribune and Washington Post correctly reported that Wheaton College students condemned Jerry Falwell Jr.’s comments about Muslims, urging us to “follow the voice of Jesus, calling us to love our neighbor and to pursue peace toward those hostile to us or our faith, and to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.”
When, four days after this declaration, my friend and former colleague Larycia took just such an action by donning a hijab, things went awry. Our administration made some missteps, for which they have expressed serious regret, that have had negative and regrettable consequences, not the least of which is the decision of Professor Hawkins and Wheaton to part ways. But it’s important to realize that this controversy has only intensified our engagements with Islam. Some of us met with the 15,000 Muslims at the Islamic Society of North American meeting in Chicago. As pressure against Muslims in our community continued, we stood together with them at another event at the Islamic Center of Wheaton. These meetings have now continued at the Islamic Center of Naperville where there is Wheaton College representation at an interfaith panel, and now here at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park, where Wheaton students and faculty are again in attendance. At the height of it all, as the media was telling us that we were a hotbed of Islamophobia, my colleague—who teaches courses on Islamic philosophy at Wheaton—boarded a plane to a philosophy conference in Tehran, Iran. There he was far more warmly received as a Wheaton College representative than he would be at any secular American philosophy conference, and he was given a chance, on television, to testify to his faith in Christ. And indeed, the current issue of the Wheaton-based publication, Books & Culture, features a cover story on the Muslim filmmaker Majid Majidi, an article that is the very picture of principled Christian engagement with the beauty of Islam. Editor John Wilson, furthermore, planned this issue long before the controversy took place. And one result of the final reconciliation between Professor Hawkins and the administration has been a plan to enhance our ongoing engagement with Islam through formal interfaith activity that will now be a regular feature of Wheaton campus life, which means Muslims coming to our campus to discuss both our many similarities and our crucial differences.
I will admit to losing hope that the media can hear any of this. My colleague Noah Toly and I related nearly all of these facts to a reporter who, to our absolute bafflement, could still not shake the assumption that we were “Islamophobic.” But it really doesn’t matter if we’re misunderstood. We will keep engaging our Muslim neighbors, because we’re not just meeting with them in order to be recognized for doing so. We're doing so because we believe in the God who does not just have love—but in the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—he is love. We believe one person of that Trinity, Jesus, took on human flesh, was crucified and rose from the dead. And in the mystery of his risen life he is with those who are maligned and marginalized and misunderstood—and so we see our Lord Jesus in the faces of our Muslim neighbors. To hate you, therefore, would be to hate him. Let me conclude by thanking the organizers of this panel for giving me an opportunity to describe what is really going on in Wheaton. Among other things, it shows there to be an indisputable commonality between Wheaton College and Islam. Is it that we worship the same God? I look forward to more occasions like this one where we can keep debating that question that resists facile answers, and can draw quite a crowd. What is indisputable, however, is that we both—evangelicals and Muslims—are willfully misunderstood by the same American media.Matthew J. Milliner is Assistant Professor of art history at Wheaton College.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.