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Halle-Allah-lujia! Wheaton Reaps a Whirlwind

The word “God” in the English version of the Christian Bible is rendered in the Arabic version as “Allah”. But Allah and Allah are two different entities, according to evangelical Wheaton College, which recently suspended one of its professors, its first-ever tenured black woman, for publicly declaring that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

It’s a self-inflicted public relations problem for Wheaton. But it’s a disaster for evangelical theology.

Wheaton argues that since Muslims believe that Jesus was only a prophet, and not a member of the Holy Trinity and thus one and the same as God, they don’t worship the same God as Christians. Thus, to say that the Christian and the Muslim God are the same is to violate the statement of faith that all Wheaton faculty must sign to get and keep their jobs.

Seems neat and tidy, except that most evangelicals affirm that Jews do worship the same God as Christians – even though Jews, too, deny Jesus’ divinity. (See evangelical theologian Miroslav Volf’s argument to this effect.) Why does Wheaton single out Muslims, among the three Abrahamic “people of the book” (ahl al kitab, in Arabic) as followers of a false God? Muslims are explicit about praying to the same God as the Jews. To be consistent, Wheaton would have to declare that Jews didn’t and don’t worship the same God as Christians. But Jesus was a Jew who addressed the God of the Jews in his Lord’s Prayer. (The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t explicit in the Bible: the church developed it later.) Wheaton’s statement annihilates evangelical doctrine.

Larycia Hawkins, associate professor of political science at Wheaton, probably was not ejected for religious reasons. It would appear she was shown the door because she contradicted the right-wing ideology of Wheaton’s donors, conservatives who seem to care more about politics than religion.

In suspending her, the flagship educational institution of evangelical America – Billy Graham’s alma mater – outed itself as Christian-ish. Jesus apparently plays second fiddle in Wheaton’s educational orchestra, forced to follow the tune of wealthy Islamophobic conservative culture warriors. Wheaton’s chief cornerstone is now shown to be Republican rhetoric, not Jesus the Christ.

For starters, it’s insulting and counterproductive to require people to sign a theological declaration as a condition of employment. For every Larycia Hawkins, who may well agree fully with each phrase of Wheaton’s required statement of belief, I’ll wager there’s another professor at an American evangelical college who really doesn’t. This dissonance causes personal demoralization and institutional dishonesty. (See my piece on this widespread prevarication here.) The Hawkins case demonstrates that no statement of faith can be detailed enough to prevent someone with unacceptable views from getting through a conservative Christian institution’s dogmatic TSA checkpoint. Not even the breathtakingly exhaustive one at Grace Community Church in LA would suffice. There always will be doctrinal trivia and political allegiances that you are expected to hold, but aren’t spelled out.

Such is evangelicalism: it’s a house of cards. If you pull out one doctrinal jot or tittle, the whole thing collapses, because each detailed belief is considered essential to the whole. It’s an all or nothing proposition. If Jesus only figuratively walked on water, that suggests that maybe he didn’t literally rise from the dead, which suggests that God might not be supernatural, and – there goes the whole edifice. So when a premiere evangelical institution pulls out one of its own cards, it’s got nobody but itself to blame when the whole thing comes flopping down. If the Allah of the Koran is not the Allah of the Bible, because Muslims don’t believe Jesus is Allah, then just who is Allah in the Arabic Christian Bible? If you have to believe Jesus is God in order to believe in God at all, then the Jews didn’t and don’t believe in God, in which case the Old Testament makes no sense for evangelical theology. ;Nor does the New Testament. Jesus was a Jew who kept faith in the non-triune God of the Jews and told his followers to do the same, just as the Muslims always have done. If Jesus didn’t believe in the true Christian God, then….. Wheaton has stumbled into a theological conundrum resonant with the movie “Dogma”, in which a doctrinal boo-boo threatened the existence of the cosmos.

But the world isn’t going to end because of Wheaton’s theological implosion. Rather, it offers a new beginning. It offers the opportunity to reinterpret Christianity in light of scientific knowledge in a multi-cultural, multi-faith global context. We can confess humbly that the God we all worship, Jews and Muslims and Christians and others alike, is beyond the full comprehension of any of us. No religion has mastery of divinity. Now that Wheaton has knocked down its own tottery house of dogmatic cards, there’s a chance for evangelicals in recovery to join progressives in practicing Christianity that is built out of sturdier stuff like compassion and common sense. Ours is a Trinity-optional Christianity that aims to follow the practices and teachings of Jesus, not the dogma about him. don’t demand that people sign doctrinal statements, because ours is a religion of faith and action, not of fixed beliefs. We practice a faith that isn’t hung up on pelvic issues, takes its scriptures seriously because it doesn’t have to take them literally, and has no place for Islamo- or any other kind of phobia.
So let us celebrate the potential positive outcome of this otherwise regrettable incident.  Wheaton sowed the wind, and now it reaps a whirlwind it never intended to unleash – one that’s blowing a defunct version of the faith away, to make way for the new. Halle-Allah-lujia!
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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