Would Jesus really do that?: Experts weigh in on Wheaton College controversy

By Jasmine M. Ellis

Whose God is it anyway?

As a Christian, Dr. Larycia Hawkins thought she was doing what Jesus would do when she posted a photo of herself in December wearing a hijab head covering on Facebook in solidarity with Muslims worldwide.

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of The Book,” she said in the status. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

Little did Hawkins know she was setting off a theological firestorm and set the stage for her potential firing by suggesting the religions worship the same God. Officials at the west suburban university suspended her and moved to revoke her tenure to fire her.

“It taught me that this is what Jesus is about.”
-Ahmed Rehab, CAIR Chicago

While acknowledging religious freedom as a core American principle, college officials said, “Equally important is the freedom of religious organizations to embody their deeply held convictions. … our compassion must be infused with theological clarity.”

While college officials investigate whether Hawkins’ evolving beliefs conflict with their statement of faith, a condition of employment, a larger discussion persists.

“Theologically, Dr. Hawkins is correct,” when stating that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, according to Denise Spellberg, a history and Middle Eastern studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “However, from the Christian theological position, there can be no revelation after the New Testament.

“The Quran details that the God who spoke to the prophets who preceded Muhammad, including Jesus, is the same,” said Spellberg, author of “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.”

Spellberg expanded on connections between the Quran, the Bible and the Torah.

“The Quran explicitly names 24 prophets who preceded Muhammad, detailing how God (Allah) directed each,” Spellberg said. “ Because, in Islamic tradition, Jews and Christians received revelation from the same God as Muhammad, they have a special, elevated status as “People of the Book.” The Bible and Torah are explicitly named as sources of prior revelation in the Quran.”

Liqa Affaneh, a hijab-wearing Muslim, said she wasn’t surprised about the college’s response in this, a time of “rising Islamophobia in the West.”

“When I heard about it, I was actually not surprised,” said Affaneh, who attended a press conference Jan. 6 at First United Methodist Church downtown to discuss the controversy. Several friends, faculty members, Wheaton alumni and local activists also attended the meeting.

“I just felt like it was another case of discrimination or act of bigotry in today’s society,” Affaneh said. “I wouldn’t say it’s harder being a Muslim woman than being a Muslim man. I am saying that wearing a hijab is more visible.”

Hawkins’ actions actually embody Christian principles, said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago.

“I have never seen an expression that represents what Jesus stands for as I have with Dr. Hawkins,” said Rehab, a Muslim. “And that to me did not cause me to wonder whether she was diluting the message of Christianity but rather it taught me that this is what Jesus is about.”

History shows a path to understanding the larger issues raised by Hawkins. And although Hawkins’ future with Wheaton College is “up in the air,” she’s leaning on her faith.

“I believe that Jesus is justice and I will continue to walk in justice for all people,” she said. “I will bless and not curse. That’s what my faith tells me to do.”

Rabbi Rachel Mikva at the Chicago Theological Seminary, said she doubts Wheaton College officials would allow faculty to embrace the notion of “same God.”

“It took Christianity four centuries to work out the various notions of the Trinity, through debate and disagreement,” Mikva said. “Although orthodox doctrine was established, there were always multiple perspectives — some tolerated and some declared heretical. This allowed orthodox doctrine to align with the basic theological perspective of New Testament, that God the Father of Jesus Christ their Lord is the One God of Israel.”

The concept that Christians and Muslims worship “same God” was formally affirmed at Vatican II, and by many “fine” Christian theologians, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, said Mikva, director of the seminary’s Center for Jewish, Christian and Islamic Studies.

“Some Protestant groups emphasize different aspects of the Trinity,” Mikva said, “and struggle more intently with seeing commonality.”

Photo at top: Hawkins talks about her journey as a Christian and how Wheaton College has responded to her choice to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community. (Jasmine M. Ellis / MEDILL)