January 14th, 2016
By now you may have heard of what’s embroiled Wheaton College in controversy. It hasn’t been pretty, but it is a potentially fruitful moment on several levels.
A professor of political science, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, in response to what she felt had been an overabundance of public uncharitableness shown toward Muslims, made a counter-expression of respect.
On campus and in class, she donned the headdress common to many Muslim women–what’s called the hijab. Then in a Facebook post she explained her rationale, stating it was an act of solidarity with her Muslim friends whom she felt were being unfairly stereotyped by people both high-profile and rank-and-file.
So far that should sound to us all unproblematic.
But it was in that Facebook post that she further grounded her actions in not just humanitarian terms but theological categories, arguing that both Christians and Muslims are “people of the book. . . .who worship the same God.”
With those words the administration of the College became very uneasy with a tenured professor expressing what was to them an inadequately clear statement of distinction between Christian and Muslim belief. Wheaton asked Dr Hawkins to clarify her meaning, which she did in a statement. That statement was found to be, from their perspective, out of accord with the College’s statement of faith to which every professor must subscribe. In time the administration set into motion a process that would ask the board of regents to consider her dismissal from the school. That process is not yet concluded.
While much ink has already been spilled about the College’s response, I don’t want to address that issue so much as what precipitated it.
It just so happens that in our sermon passage this Sunday (Acts 24:10-27) there’s a resonance with what we see playing out at Wheaton. Since I think the heart of the text has to do with how our conscience is always a Kingdom matter, the sermon won’t have time to take up this topic. So let me flesh it out here, if only briefly.
Paul finds himself in the third of five defenses of the Gospel here in the closing chapters of Acts–this time before Felix, then governor of Judea. Paul is eventually bound for Rome–the promise reaffirmed in our passage last Sunday–but along the way he is brought before Felix in Caesarea.
A case is brought against him before Felix, articulated by a made-for-hire lawyer named Tertullus. That case involved charges of riotousness, leadership of an arguably seditious sect, and even religious profanation on account of Paul’s alleged disrespect shown the Temple, the Law, and Moses himself.
Paul answers the charges with the simple defense that none of them are true. He incited no riot, suggested no revolution, and spoke no untoward word toward any of the hallowed features of Jewish worship. In fact, as he says in verses 14-15,
this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything they laid down by the Law, and written in the prophets, having a hope in God, which these men accept, that there will be a resurrection from the dead of both the just and the unjust.
Paul is saying in so many words that the God whom he worships, the one whose clearest representation has now come in the person of Jesus Christ, is the same God his fellow Jews worship. They do not worship him in the fulness He deserves–that is, in the fullest understanding of His nature and grace which Jesus manifestly clarifies. But Paul does not posit that what Jews refuse to see in the person of Jesus renders their worship as that of an wholly alternative deity.
At the same time though, neither is he insinuating that, the similarities in belief notwithstanding, the distinctions between the two conceptions of God’s nature and grace are inconsequential. Why else would he seek to persuade them of the reality of Jesus and what that reveals about the nature of God?
Though pundits will endlessly parse Dr. Hawkins’ words, it would seem from my reading that her intentions parallel that of what we find here in Paul’s dual expression of solidarity with and distinction from his Jewish brethren (whose treatment of him admittedly was anything but brotherly). She certainly invited scrutiny in her precise meaning of that initial Facebook post, even if she had quoted Pope Francis’ “we worship the same God.” (But he, too, has a penchant for saying things that raise eyebrows and require clarification.) But in her clarifying statements about Muslims one can clearly hear the attempt to dignify those with whom she still has real and passionate disagreement–just as Paul did with Jews.
Now some have criticized attempts to find points of commonality between Muslim and Christian worship and character. What of all the terrorizing done in the name of Allah, they argue? What of the coercive efforts at conversion, or worse, the attempts to exterminate “infidels”–all done ostensibly in strict compliance with Islamic orthodoxy? With the prevalence of such heinous activity, is the effort to identify what’s common really an exercise in turning a blind eye in the hope of a superficial harmony?
The debate over the “real” Islam is one that seems unlikely to end, and one I prefer not to sift through here. But might we find something instructive in the fact that the Jews who had struck Paul in the mouth in our sermon passage last Sunday; the Jews who in the next chapter took a vow not to eat until Paul was dead, just like the number of previous occasions in Acts when Jews sought Paul’s harm if not his death–it’s these same Jews for whom Paul had great anguish that they would see Jesus as He knew Him.
my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1b-3)
Those who sought to terrorize him are the same people Paul longed to love with the message of the Gospel. He was able to distinguish between the threatening elements of his Jewish brethren and the core elements of their orthodoxy to which he subscribed–to which Jesus Himself subscribed.
The world will always be filled with acrimony. When it hails from those who speak in the name of the Prince of Peace it not only betrays their profession, it also reveals just how distorted is their view of both themselves and of those who do not subscribe to their belief. Lesslie Newbigin, to whom we have appealed more than once, helps us righty conceive of ourselves and those with whom we might bear witness:
I meet that [non-believer] simply as a witness, as one who is been laid of by Another and placed in a position where I can only point to Jesus as the one who can make sense of the whole human situation which my partner and I share as fellow human beings. (HT: Will Willimon)
I believe Dr. Hawkins’ words reflect that sophisticated capacity to hold two notions in tension: profound respect coupled with honest disagreement. Is that not what Peter enjoins when he says we’re to make a defense of the hope, should someone ask, with “gentleness and respect”?
If there’s any lesson for us in this intervening moment in the life of Paul it may be that as Christians bearing witness, we might first find points of contact with those to whom we bear witness. We must find commonalities between what they hold dearest and what we hold dearest, as as way of affirming something true in them, as well as providing a context for explaining what is unique to Jesus.
It’s in a thorny moment like the one Wheaton now faces when evangelicals tend to get as lumped together into one homogenous constituency as they are accused of doing with others. It’s events like this when Evangelicalism is taken as a single thing like the nicely compressed 14-letter word might suggest. But (HT: Alan Jacobs) as with most things, a more careful look reveals a more complex structure. The following is yesterday’s chapel message at Wheaton, given by its chaplain, Tim Blackmon. It does not address the Hawkins matter, but it does address (and challenge) the perception that some apply to people and institutions like Wheaton in times like these.