A lot of virtual ink has been spilled this month regarding the issue of the Larycia Hawkins case at Wheaton College. To me the fundamental dynamics of the case are somewhat self-evident. I’m under no illusions that Professor Hawkins needs my help in the matter, but I do find it rather interesting all the same. I thought it would be worth writing a little about in that I see some little details of the case that other sources haven’t paid particular attention to yet.
The most surprising thing to me about the whole case is that Professor Hawkins made it as far as she did. By all reports we are talking about a brilliant young black woman (a decade my junior) from the deep south of the United States (Oklahoma) with strong social justice convictions and passions, who has followed those passions to achieve the position of tenured professor in the field of political science at one of the strongest academic bastions of evangelical activism in America. I can only speculate that this college originally saw in her a means of presenting a political and intellectual challenge to Obama-supporting black churches of the Martin Luther King Jr. tradition. Her official research interest in “Black Political Churches Outside the Black Church Milieu” hints in that direction. That would sit nicely with the orthodox white Religious Right mind set. But according to reports from the Chicago Tribune these defenders of the post-Reagan evangelical political status quo have already repeatedly questioned whether this young lady’s independent ideas might be more trouble than they’re worth to them. Her orthodoxy has previously been questioned for her stands in defense of the rights of women, blacks and sexual minorities, and now she goes and stands up for Muslims! “What were we thinking when we hired such a person?” they must be saying to themselves. “Isn’t there any way we can get her to leave quietly?”
The issue of contention here is whether Professor Hawkins violated the college’s doctrinal position required for all staff members in saying that she agrees with the popes on the matter of Muslims, “as people of the Book,” worshipping the same God as Christians. Experts far more accomplished and noteworthy than myself have already addressed this issue at some length; in particular Yale’s Professor Miroslav Volf. Suffice it to say as a summary of his argument that there is a strong tradition in Christian theology of at least respecting Islam’s sincerity in attempting to follow the god of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus; and if you’re going to say that Christianity’s God, the Father of Jesus, is a different god that Islam’s Allah, for consistency sake you also really need to acknowledge that Christianity’s understanding of God is so fundamentally different from the genocide-demanding JWHW of the ancient Jews as to be a different character entirely.
The token response to this from the evangelical side has come from a former Muslim by the name of Nabeel Qureshi, who claims that he still as warm relations with Muslim family members, and that as a convert he still used to believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, but not he has “outgrown” that position. It’s hard to understand what Qureshi actually means when he claims that “[t]he similarities between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are fairly superficial, and at times simply semantic.” The Islamic understanding of God is every bit as derived from the Christian one as the Christian understanding of God is derived from the Ancient Jewish one. Islam also has elements derived from Muhammed’s direct contact with Jews, and it remains far closer to the Jewish understanding of monotheism than Christianity’s is to either, but whereas the Jews considered Jesus to be a blasphemous messianic pretender, Muslims revere him as a great prophet. How then can this be a matter of mere superficial and semantic similarity?
Qureshi’s superficial response to Volf’s position, which he claims “should be obvious to those who have studied the three Abrahamic faiths,” is that “the Trinity is an elaboration on Jewish theology,” whereas “Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity,” etc. What I actually see as obvious for anyone who has studied all three faiths, however, is first of all that modern Judaism (which is less a parent faith to Christianity than a feuding sister) rejects Trinitarian doctrine every bit as strenuously as Islam does. Beyond that I would say that there’s a fairly strong scholarly consensus among those who study the Bible for a living that reading Trinitarian intent into the writings of the Old Testament prophets takes a fair among of intellectual dishonesty. The best we can say for the origins of Christian dogma in that regard is that the best minds of the second through sixth centuries worked extensively on finding ways to harmonize the mysteries of Jesus’ persona with his deep respect for the Jewish scriptures and the Trinity is what they came out with. To call Qureshi’s position a weak argument is perhaps the understatement of the month.
Besides trying to intellectually justify Religious Right politics, another thing that would naturally put the powers that be at Wheaton at odds with someone like Professor Hawkins is their regard for C.S. Lewis as something akin to a twentieth century apostle. In this case it relates in particular to various interpretations of the theological intentions and revelations contained in the Chronicles of Narnia.
It has been decades since I have read these classics, but some of the details regarding them have remained in my mind over the decades since my highly evangelical childhood. I remember in particular that, especially in the 70s, when I would have read these classics, with the “rapture” expectations that were sweeping through evangelicalism at the time, The Last Battle was considered to be the most theologically and culturally important of the seven volume series. This final book of the series aptly captured the end-of-the-world zeitgeist among evangelical Protestant Christians of the early rock-and-roll era in children’s fable form. This inevitably involved a battle between good and evil, with the primary force of evil in the story being the self-appointed religious rule of Shift, a deceitful Narnian (talking) ape, who devised a system for co-opting the religious reverence for Aslan (the Jesus-lion character) and blending it with the worship of Tash, the primary god of the Calormenes, Narnia’s neighbors and sometime enemies to the southeast. Thus the ape was able to get the other Narnians to work harder, for less pay, as part of the “will of Aslan” to prove their worthiness –– enabling the ape in turn to satisfy a number of his personal selfish desires at their expense.
To pull off this deception Shift convinces a rather simple-minded donkey named Puzzle to dress up in a lion skin and pretend to be the real Aslan. This was said to work only because it had been many generations since they had seen the real Aslan, and they were desperate for something transcendent to believe in. It stretches the believability of the narrative to claim that even the most simple-minded of mythical creatures could believe that a donkey in a lion’s skin really was a supernaturally powerful lion, but that is rather Lewis’s comic point of the matter: It also rather boggles the mind that so many who claim to agents of the teachings and power of Jesus could be taken seriously, unless their followers have no concept of what the real Jesus was/is like, and they are painfully desperate to believe in something. But then Shift stretches their gullibility even further by claiming that Aslan is in fact the same person as the chief god in the Calormene pantheon, Tash. Thus he innovates a new name for this deity blending the two names together as Tashlan.
One common interpretation of Lewis’s intention in this story is to say that the Calormene people in Narnia’s magical world are supposed to represent the Muslims in our world. There are a number of problems with such an interpretation: First, that the Calormenes are polytheists, not strict monotheists like the Muslims. Second, the Calormenes believe in a myth of their leaders being the descendants of their gods, much like the Japanese Shinto followers prior to World War 2, but certainly not like the Muslims. Beyond that the Calormenes had a very specific physical form which they believed their god would take, again quite the opposite of Islamic teaching. But in spite of all of this it is entirely possible that, for mythical narrative purposes, Lewis took liberties of blending together different “other” cultures studied by “orientalist” academics of his generation in creating these enemies for the Narnians to fight against at the end of their world –– including a number of signature features of Islam as understood from a British colonial perspective.
Regardless of the problems associated with using The Last Battle as a justification for Islamophobia however, that is exactly what many around Wheaton and in its supporting evangelical spheres seem to be doing just now. They believe that the God of the Muslims must in reality be either a product of worshipers’ imaginations or, more probably, a demonic supernatural power that deceived their prophet into setting up a new false religion 1400 years ago. In the end of The Last Battle, the character of Tash, the demonic god of the Calormenes, actually comes to life and consumes his would-be representatives, before being banished by those representing the true authority of Aslan. In the same way these evangelicals are convinced that Allah is really a supernatural character of some sort from “the dark side” that is really out to destroy his followers, eventually to be banished by the Triune God of the Christians.
To hold this sort of position requires a rather loose understanding of the theological dogmas of all three Abrahamic faiths, together with a tendency to take mythologized versions of early twentieth century British orientalism far too seriously. In some ways this just serves to demonstrate how much more powerful narratives are than theoretical lectures as means of instruction: the official teachings are forgotten, but the dramatic interpretations of them remain in people’s minds.
What Jews, Christians and Muslims officially agree about is postulating that the sort of God whose CV gives rise to “the problem of evil” really does exist: The God who is worthy of worship and praise must necessarily be personal, all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere-present, and completely benevolent. Thus all three faiths struggle with the issue of how evil can still exist in our world if such a God exists. They have a long history of quite freely borrowing arguments from each other in this regard over the centuries. To say that, in spite of this, and in spite of the extent to which Islam appears to be derived from reinterpretations of early Medieval Christian teachings, the God of Islam must be a different character from the God of Christianity, has two possible implications: either there are a number of different omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and omni-benevolent deities out there in competition with each other; or there is no such metaphysical object for our respective faiths “out there” and every religiously worshipped deity is really just a human creation. The former alternative is a logical impossibility; the nature of those divine characteristics precludes that they could be spread around between various competing gods. The latter position sort of defeats the whole purpose of having a dogmatic belief in any deity to begin with. Thus it is logically rather absurd to claim that the Christian God is real and the Muslims worship something entirely different. Either there is a real God with these attributes “out there” and both religions are, to the best of their understanding and abilities trying to comprehend something about this God, making efforts to please him and at the same time call out for his mercy; or there really isn’t any such god “out there” and Christianity and Islam are offering very different types of imaginary friends to their followers. It sort of has to be one or the other.
But then at this point someone usually takes out the old fable of the four blind men groping the elephant. (“It’s like a tree.” “It’s like a wall.” “It’s like a sail.” “It’s like a rope.” …all as interpretations of parts of the same animal.) In spite of the pictures that some of my Kenyan Facebook friends have put up associating me with elephants, however, that cliché example is fairly distant from my everyday life. What I’m more familiar with is the various sorts of interpretations of what sort of person I am from people who know me through very different connections. Some know me as the nasty teacher who gave their children lower grades than they were expecting. Some know me as the fine teacher who inspired particular students to pursue the academic careers in which they have since made their own mark. Some know me as the guy who makes pretty good pizza for house guests. Some know me as they owner of a particularly nice dog. Some know me as an inspirational speaker or writer. Some know me as the ex-boyfriend or husband of some woman who has come and gone in my life… Some of these people know me better or more thoroughly than others. Some of their interpretations are actually mutually exclusive: I logically cannot be all the things that various acquaintances say that I am! Even so, I would not accuse those with more unfriendly interpretations of my personality of (necessarily) having me mixed up with some other David.
When it comes to God it somewhat goes without saying that no religion, and no individual believer, knows him perfectly. On the assumption that he really is “out there,” we can say that some inevitably know him better than others. We can say that some religions are more helpful than others in enabling people to relate to their fellow human beings according a principle of manifesting the love of God, but none have yet to get that “entirely right”. We can say that some have missed the mark pretty thoroughly in practice, but in theory they mean well. Given where we are each at in those terms it’s far safer not to accuse others of worshipping the wrong god or of worshipping God wrong.
Our focus needs to rather be on each “getting it right” for ourselves in terms of rejecting the temptation to “do religion” as a means of justifying our hatred towards those who are too “other”. That was the essence of Jesus’ message that Christians in particular should be paying attention to. That is what Larycia Hawkins has got herself in trouble for standing up for yet again. That is why I respect her far more than her current opponents.