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Only Idolators Can Compare Gods: On Wheaton College and Dr. Hawkins

with 5 comments

Do Muslims Worship the Same God?

If you can answer “yes” or “no” to this question, you’ve got yourself a problem. And that’s exactly where Wheaton College has found itself thanks to the words of one of its professors, Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins. In her attempt to love her Muslim neighbors, she affirmed (citing Pope Francis) that Christians worship the same God as Muslims. Obviously the stakes are high here, particularly for an evangelical institution that holds mission work to be central to its calling. So now a beautiful act of solidarity and compassion has been turned into a big problem (funny how often that happens).

In a certain sense, this problem can be easily resolved. In another sense, it can’t. The easy solution is a theological one (Miroslav Volf takes a fiery stab at the difficult problem here). Since it’s still rather early in the morning for me, I will content myself to address the easy one. The trouble is that this whole discussion has gotten of on the wrong foot. To be as blunt as possible (too blunt, in fact!):

Only idolators can compare gods.

The Christian tradition has always held that God is strictly incomprehensible, a consequence of which is that God is “ineffable,” that is, beyond superlative and therefore beyond our ability to speak of as we speak of created realities. This point bears directly on the problem we are examining. The moment that God can be analyzed as a concept and compared to other concepts of God, one has stepped away from the classical Christian tradition. One has, as it were, brought God out of heaven and made God a thing within creation: an idol. Depending on the heart of one’s piety, this may or may not be a problem (see this stunning story by the Muslim mystic, Rumi (thank you Adam!), for what I mean). Even so, idols are dangerous! Once we seemingly have God—the ultimate truth and power—within our conceptual grasp, those we deem as serving another god must be outside the truth of reality. If one happens to be of a compassionate disposition, one will attempt to convert them to one’s own concept of God, if not… well, we’ve seen where that has been going lately.

xory

 

However, the alternative is not a necessary one. And this is true even in the face of the somewhat misinformed objection that Muslims are monotheists while Christians are trinitarian. Have we just run into some god concepts here? The non-catechized, non-theologian will be forgiven for thinking that we have. But in reality, we have just stumbled into strange linguistic world of theology.

When doing theology, that is, when attempting to think and speak about God, one is engaging in an impossible act. We use words that have their origins within creation to speak of that which is the “source” of creation (scare quotes here to warn the reader not to mistake the word “source” for our creaturely experience of things that have a source, like children and rivers. See the difficulty here?).

To make my point by way of an authority a good bit more vast than my own, consider this remarkable passage from St. Augustine (For those unacquainted, Augustine is perhaps the greatest patriarch of the Christian church in history). After going into some detail attempting to explain the nature of the Trinity, he says the following:

Have we spoken or announced anything worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say. Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable? If what I said were ineffable, it would not be said. And for this reason God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable. This contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved verbally. For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken of Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words. (On Christian Teaching)

Likewise, Pope Francis never said that Muslims worship the “same” God (as if God can be compared!). At a celebratory gathering in Rome of fraternal delegates of churches, ecclesial communities and international ecumenical bodies, Pope Francis welcomed the attendants by saying, “I then greet and cordially thank you all, dear friends belonging to other religious traditions; first of all the Muslims, who worship the one God, living and merciful…” For Pope Francis, steeped in the Christian tradition as he his, “The one God” does not designate a god concept, in the same way that the Trinity does not cash out a god concept. These are words and formulas that have as their referent the all-embracing reality, beyond, within, and through our frail creaturely experience. We call that reality God, even while warning that in doing so we, with Augustine, release any conceptual claim and speak, instead, with joy and praise.

Finally, it is worth recognizing that these linguistic maneuvers are patterned after the the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The divinity of Christ consisted in, not in entering the world as a god to confront all other gods, but rather, manifesting the divine in the act of giving himself away, without limit.

This is what I see Dr. Hawkins attempting to do in identifying with those who are being marginalized and threatened by the dominant culture. And that’s the sense in which this whole problem cannot be easily resolved. The deeper root is not linguistic, but ethical and tightly wrapped within the prevailing power structures. Perhaps Wheaton would retract their suspension if a more nuanced understanding of these words, indeed, these ethics(!), could be appreciated? We can and ought pray for it. May Christ be with them as he is clearly with Dr. Hawkins.

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5 Responses

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  1. Too many of us want our God to be a “thing” much less a concept. They want to be led around by the scruff of the neck, so they will never have to be accountable for themselves. “Jesus made me do it”. The number of us who think they know what/who God is is staggering. The one thing I know about Jews, Christians, and Muslims is that they worship somewhere along the continuum of a covenant struck by Abram with God, as he knew him. One could posit that this whole, entire pathway is based on one’s person’s misconception, or the ravings of an old lunatic, desperate for an heir. That this covenant has spawned perhaps the three most significant of the world’s religions is, in itself, somewhat miraculous. or specious depending on your viewpoint. Thank you Alex for illuminating that God is to be praised with joy and not be used as an excuse to divide us. Once we begin to use the idea of God to explain anything God is diminished. We could all do well to remember that he/she is unknowable.

    Will Servant

    December 17, 2015 at 10:17 am

  2. Thanks for this, Alex. Well said. It is so difficult to speak of God for a living, knowing that nearly every word either drips of idolatry or offers the listener ample opportunity to convert it to such.

    stevethomason

    December 18, 2015 at 9:10 am

    • No doubt. Speaking in self-negating categories easily comes off nihilistic. Then again, I’ve often marveled how simply this is all tied together by working to speak in love. That’s really what we are after here. The whole, non-absolutizing thing is really just what love does in communion with another.

      Alex

      December 18, 2015 at 11:44 am

      • Thanks, Alex! I’d not heard of Dr. Hawkins’ plight, though I can’t type that without thinking right off that it’s really Wheaton’s plight, as that Christian institution has gone very public in repudiating an act of love.

        What struck me about your exposition in this post is that it is an act of exposing, that our words addressed to and about God carry not a jot or tittle of significance–they are quite naked. And it was a gift to be reminded that, therefore, theology is only possible as an act of grace.

        As you say just above, “I’ve often marveled how simply this is all tied together by working to speak in love.” Perfect.

        I do have a question, as it seems to me that the fundamental question is whether we allow ourselves to be motivated by power or love. Are acts of love possible without power? If so, in what way? If not, how so? It’s really a question about what the Church should be, which concerns us both.

        So we have another take on that topic to consider once that dissertation is in the bag. (Go, Alex!!!)

        In the mean time I will pray for Dr. Hawkins and Wheaton. If you know of a way to support Dr. Hawkins, it would be nice to know.

        Tracy Witham

        December 20, 2015 at 8:17 am


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