Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois sometimes called the “Harvard of evangelicalism,” is preparing to fire a professor for claiming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
On Tuesday, Wheaton released a statement announcing that the school’s provost has recommended terminating Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a Christian professor who caused controversy last year for donning a headscarf in solidarity with Muslims facing unprecedented violence across the United States and publishing a Facebook post that declared “as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
The college’s statement explained that the recommendation came about after Hawkins and her supervisors reached an “impasse” when the school asked her to respond to an extensive questionnaire “regarding her theological convictions.” Hawkins complied with the request, but balked when officials asked for “further theological discussion and clarification,” refusing to participate further.
“Wheaton College can confirm reports that on January 4, 2016, per College policies and procedures, Provost Stanton Jones delivered to President Philip Ryken and to Dr. Larycia Hawkins a Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings regarding Dr. Hawkins,” the statement reads, explaining that the recommendation sets in motion a final review process before the school can formally fire Hawkins.
Students have rushed to defend Hawkins, staging protests, signing online petitions, and voicing opposition to the school’s decision to discipline her. But the conservative evangelical college, which also possibly forced out a lesbian chaplain last July for endorsing marriage equality, has reviewed her theology before: According to the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, Wheaton has also reprimanded her for a paper on black liberation theology (she was accused of endorsing Marxism), forced her to explain a Facebook photo of her at a party in Chicago the same day as the city’s Pride Parade (the school opposes same-sex relationships), and told her to reaffirm the college’s statement of faith when she suggested nuancing the school’s language regarding sexuality.
In another statement published in December 22, Wheaton explained its theological rationale for challenging Hawkins on Islam.
“While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer,” the statement reads.
Wheaton’s reasoning, however, has come under fire by a number of other Christian theologians and writers across the country, and a cadre of faith leaders assembled for a press conference to defend her in December. Many note that the belief that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is a fairly mainstream within Christianity, showing up in the faith statements of Catholics, Mainline Christians, and even evangelicals. Others have noted that the statement itself doesn’t necessarily challenge traditional notions of a Christian God.
“To say that we worship the same God is not the same as insisting that we have an agreed and shared understanding of God,” Amy Plantinga Pauw, a professor of Christian theology at Louisville Seminary, told NPR.
Still others have argued that the school’s logic appears inconsistent, or at least inconsistently enforced. Jews, for example, also do not believe in the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity, mainly because they reject that Jesus Christ is God — i.e., the “path to salvation.” Yet Wheaton’s statements have made no reference to Jewish understandings of God, and the school did not immediately respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on the subject.
Miroslav Volf, the Yale Divinity School theologian Hawkins cited to justify her belief in a shared God, declared in a December 17 Washington Post Op-Ed that this and other parts of Wheaton’s reasoning “don’t square.” Instead, Volf — who was invited to speak at Wheaton about Islam last June — argued the school’s harsh rebuke of the professor is less about good theology and more about the rising tide of anti-Islam fervor currently sweeping the United States.
“There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave,” Volf, who is the author of Allah: A Christian Response, wrote. “Her 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.”
“Christians, though historically not friendly to either Judaism or the Jews, have rightly resisted that line of thinking when it comes to the God of Israel,” he added.