Category Archives: Islam

Wheaton College: an Intra-faith Controversy

If you haven’t been following the news from Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Wheaton, Illinois, the story is this:
In December, Larycia Hawkins, a tenured associate professor of political science at Wheaton since 2007, decided to show solidarity with Muslims by wearing a hijab and stating that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”

The college almost immediately placed her on paid administrative leave. They said that this would give them time to explore questions regarding the theological implications of her recent public statements.  On January 5, they issued a Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings.

Since then, there’s been a firestorm of protest against Wheaton’s action. Numerous petitions calling for the reinstatement of Dr. Hawkins (including moveon.org and change.org) have been circulating. Christian clergy of various denominations and leaders from other religious traditions have rallied in support.

Which is all well and good.

However, what we have here is a classic example of our need for an intrafaith conversation.  For some Christians, the statement that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” poses no theological problems. For others, it’s an impossible statement to make. Members of each group consider themselves to be faithful Christians. Although I don’t know any of them, I seriously doubt that the administrators of Wheaton College are bigots. Dr. Hawkins herself has written on her Facebook page, “Friends, Embodied Solidarity is not demonizing others in defense of me” and asks for “prayers and actions that emanate love, grace, peace, and if necessary, forgiveness.”

We are confronted with the question raised by Marjorie Suchoki in Divinity and Diversity: “How do Christians deal with this phenomenon (religious pluralism)? Our Christian past has traditionally taught us that there is only one way to God, and that is through Christ. But we are uneasy. Our neighborliness teaches us that these others are good and decent people, good neighbors, or loved family members! Surely God is with them as well as with us. Our hearts reach out, but our intellectual understanding draws back. We have been given little theological foundation for affirming these others – and consequently we wonder if our feelings of acceptance are perhaps against the will of God, who has uniquely revealed to us just what is required for salvation.”1

There are a number of ways to answer the question. Within our congregations, we’ll find exclusivists, inclusivists, and pluralists of various stripes – all faithful Christians. How will we help them to listen to one another, respect one another, and come to some agreements of how we will love and work together? 

As Kristin Johnston Largen of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg has written: “. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.”2

We should be taking the theological position of Wheaton College seriously. We should be taking the theological positions of Dr. Hawkins and her supporters seriously. Petitions won’t solve the underlying problem. Only our intrafaith work will do that.

 

[1] Suchocki, Marjorie, Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, 9.

[2] Largen, Kristin Johnston, Finding God Among Our Neighbors, Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology, Fortress Press, 2013, 137.

 

 

 

 

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Christmas in the Qur’an

Some years ago, a seminary student told me that, according to some of her professors, the interfaith Christology question is going to be the “next big issue” confronting the church. Theologian  Kristin Johnston Largen, from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, has picked up the banner. In her book Finding God Among Our Neighbors, Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology, she writes:
“. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.”islams_jesus

It’s already happening in our Christian/ Muslim book study. As we began reading Islam’s Jesus by Zeki Saritoprak, we Christians soon realized that there’s a whole lot about Jesus in the Qur’an, particularly about his birth. Check out the story of the Annunciation:

“And mention in the Book, Maryam, when she withdrew from her family to a place facing east. She placed a screen from them; then We sent to her our angel (Jibrael, or Gabriel), and he appeared before her in the form of a man in full human form. She said: 
’I seek refuge with The Most Beneficent God from you, if you do fear Him.’ The angel said: 
’I am only a Messenger from your Lord, to announce to you the gift of a righteous son.’ She said: ‘How can I have a son, when no man has touched me, nor am I unchaste?’ The angel said: ‘So it will be, your Lord said: ‘That is easy for Me: And to appoint him as a sign to mankind and a mercy from Us ‘, and it is a matter already decreed.'”—Qur’an 19:16-21

As we listened to our Muslim friends tell of their devotion to both Mary and Jesus, we were challenged to rethink our own understandings of who and what Jesus was and is. Surprisingly to us, Jesus is called the Messiah (al-Maseeh) at least nine times in the Qur’an. But, we had to ask, what does ‘messiah’ mean? We already knew that there are differences between the  Jewish and Christian messianic job descriptions. And so it is with Islam. The Qur’an indeed identifies Jesus as the Messiah, a messenger who will bring justice, prosperity and peace. But it does not agree that the Messiah is the son of God.
Indeed, they are unbelievers who say, ‘God is the Messiah, the son of Mary.’ (5:72)
The Messiah, son of Mary, was no other than a messenger; messengers before him had indeed passed away. (5:75)

Now, for orthodox Christians, the answer is clear-cut. Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made.”

But many Christians are reexamining the Jesus 0f the Nicene Creed. Coming from both our expanding knowledge of the cosmos and of other Christologies from other places and people, we’re no longer satisfied with outdated “substance” language.

We’re also not satisfied with dualistic separations between human and divine, heaven and earth, and matter and spirit. As we think more about the interconnectedness of everyone and everything, the question of who and what Jesus was and is comes into play. 

Personally, I find great meaning in distinguishing between the Jesus of history and the cosmic Christ. I value both. And find that this Christology can be very interfaith-friendly. 

We’ve only begun to delve into these ways of talking about Jesus with our Muslim book study friends. I’m pretty sure that the Christians in the group are all on the ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum. How we will explain some of these non-orthodox ideas and how they will receive them remains to be seen. 

The importance of this study, in my opinion, is not only the interfaith dialogue we’re having between Muslims and Christians, but also the intrafaith one we’re having among ourselves as we work through our own answer to Jesus’ question: 

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