I am sure that many of you have heard of the recent incident involving Christianity and Islam at Wheaton College, my alma mater, an evangelical liberal arts college outside of Chicago. Several readers have asked me about it. Here is a typical query:
Wheaton College was in the news this past week. Apparently one of the professors was suspended because she claimed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Also, she wore a hijab to show solidarity with Muslims. You can read more about it at http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/12/16/3732884/wheaton-suspends-professor-same-god/
I have believed the same, that the Christian God and the Muslim God are one and the same. Could you comment on this?
Let me start by saying that I deeply enjoyed and highly valued the education I received at Wheaton. At the time – and still today, I’m sure – it was considered the premier liberal arts college in the evangelical Christian tradition. Its evangelical credentials were and are completely bona fide. Students there were all to agree to the evangelical doctrinal position of the college, which included statements not only about God as creator (who, among other things, created Adam and Eve directly, not through evolution), Christ as his unique son, salvation that came only through his death and resurrection, the complete inspiration of Scripture, and so on. Most students there were committed to Christian evangelism and missions. Among its famous graduates was Billy Graham.
It’s true, for me going there was a step toward liberalism. My earlier training at Moody Bible Institute had been a lot more rigorous when it came to fundamentalist theology. But after Moody I wanted a liberal arts education in an evangelical setting, and Wheaton was the obvious choice.
Its academic record was also impeccable. At the time I was there it could claim that of all colleges and universities in the country (including the Ivy League schools on down), it was something like third in the percentage of its students that afterward went on to do PhDs.
During my two years there I didn’t take any courses in Bible or theology, or the like. I had already had three solid years of that. I majored in English literature, and also took courses in philosophy, history, psychology, and so on – a broad-based liberal arts education. For me all this was eye-opening, as it began the process of my looking long and hard at my faith in light of all that I was learning, seeing that the world is a very big place with lots of wide-ranging perspectives (philosophies, cultures, religions, and so on) in it. I very much remained an evangelical during my years there, as was expected; but anyone who has an open mind who reads widely in the great classics of our civilization and who learns about other peoples throughout history who are both sincere and different will have to sit up and take notice.
But I need to stress: even though the liberal arts were taught, the underlying assumption was that the evangelical form of Christianity was true and right and that, at least by implication and more often by flat-out assertion, it was ultimately the only religion that was true and right. Many of us, in fact, refused even to *call* Christianity a religion. For us, “religion” was a human effort to get right with God. That’s what Judaism, and Islam, and Hinduism, and so on did. Christianity was completely different. It was a divine initiative to make people right with God. Big difference in our mind. All the other religions were religions; ours was a relationship.
And so a lot of readers have asked me if I’m surprised by Wheaton’s decision to suspend (temporarily apparently?) a faculty member (an associate professor of political science) who claims that Muslims worship the same God as the Christians. My short answer is that no, I’m not surprised at all.
Whatever the faculty (who may be more liberally minded on the whole than the students and administration) might think, and even whatever individual members of the administration might think, the reality is that schools like Wheaton are answerable to boards of trustees and boards of governors and, ultimately, alumni – that is, people who provide the school with funding. And the reality is that most committed evangelical Christians continue to think that their understandings of God, Christ, salvation, faith, Scripture, the world, and non-Christians are right, and that anyone who does not share these understandings is wrong. The whole reason to evangelize others is to get them to see that they are wrong and need to come to be right. You have to convert them. Christians cannot make common cause with Muslims.
I don’t know precisely what the Wheaton administrators were thinking when they suspended this professor. But when I was living in that context, we would have agreed that she was flat out wrong to think that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In our view, at the time, Islam was a demonically-inspired religion that needed to be wiped out – not through violence (not at ALL through violence) – but through love and evangelism. Out of love for fellow humans doomed to hell, we had to work to convert them to the truth. For us, Muslims did not worship the true God. If they did, they would realize that Christ is the only way to salvation. It’s not that Muslims had gotten a few things wrong. They were wrong to the core.
Now it is true that at Wheaton was where I was first seriously introduced to the notion of universalism. That is the idea that ultimately God is sovereign over all things and will restore all things, including all people, to himself, at least those who are sincere in their commitments even if their theology is wrong. In this view, devout Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, or whatever who devoted themselves to whatever version of truth they held – even if they were flat out wrong – would be saved by the grace of God. Christ’s death was *that* powerful. At the time, I didn’t buy this view, and considered it heretical. But I knew of people who held it, even some who considered themselves evangelical.
Possibly this suspended professor holds some such view. Possibly she holds an even more sophisticated theological view. But I’m not surprised that her view did not fly with the administration of Wheaton College. There is simply too long and strong a history of evangelical exceptionalism to make the view acceptable. That is to say, for too long and for too much of that history those who stood in the evangelical tradition have insisted that other religious views were wrong and theirs were right, and one needed to convert to the truth in order to be saved. Anyone on the faculty of the college who suggests something to the contrary does not fit easily into that tradition and has to be publicly chastened, lest they lead others astray.
Most people connected with Wheaton do not see it as “fundamentalist.” But when it comes to issues of love, and generosity, and respect, and tolerance, it is sometimes hard to see the difference.