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Vail Daily column: Do Muslims, Jews and Christians worship the same God?

Jack Van Ens

Muslims direct prayers to whom? Is Allah different from the biblical God Jews implore at the Wailing Wall? When a Christian prays to God, is he the same deity to whom Muslims and Jews direct their supplications?

A theological donnybrook rages at evangelical Wheaton College, outside Chicago over these concerns. In the run-up to Christmas, called Advent season, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, the school’s first tenured black female professor, wore a hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. She posted the picture on Facebook with a note saying the God of Christians and Muslims is the same.

This Christian professor befriended American Muslims who bore the brunt of hate crimes after the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me — a Christian — are people of ‘the book’ (either the Bible or the Qur’an),” Hawkins posted on Facebook.

Quoting Pope Francis about “worshiping the same God,” Professor Hawkins probably was referring to the pontiff’s comment last November that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.” Since the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholic theology regards Muslims and Christians as worshiping one God, although these religions don’t agree on Christ’s divinity or whether God is triune.

Professor Hawkins’ belief that Muslims and Christians share faith in the same God unleashed a firestorm of protest from Wheaton’s evangelical base. After placing her on administrative leave, Wheaton officials kicked into high gear machinery to dismiss Hawkins from the faculty.

Believing practitioners of the three religions pray to the same God conflicts, say Wheaton officials, with the school’s statement of faith. Faculty member Hawkins signed the statement, which obligates her to believe in the Triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Islam deems this confession blasphemous.

Tensions tearing apart Wheaton College are not unlike what erupted during the 1980 presidential campaign. Then George H.W. Bush vied with Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination. By temperament and political vision, Bush pursued common goals with Democrats. He pushed for consensus.

In contrast, Reagan endeared himself to the evangelical base because he emphasized contrasts that divided voters. “Reagan viewed politics differently (from Bush) — as a clash of convictions, not a consensus to be discerned,” writes Bush biographer Jon Meacham. “Since his (Reagan’s) days on the road as a spokesmen for General Electric in the (1950s), making the case for free enterprise and against collectivism (Communism) either at home or abroad, Reagan was a candidate of ideas — abiding principles grounded in experience that Reagan drew upon in order to judge the wisdom or the folly of proposed courses of action” (“Destiny and Power: the American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush”). Reagan’s loyalists questioned whether Bush was a real conservative.

Similar tensions grip Wheaton College about whether competing religions worship the same God. Many of Wheaton’s funders see major differences between Islam and Christianity in their takes on God. Professor Hawkins looks at these views of God as similar but not identical.

Religions often dismiss rivals as heretical. Devotees get unnerved when asked to seriously consider opposing viewpoints. It’s easier to curtly dismiss opposing doctrine as uninformed, an affront to the true God and plainly wrong.

Biographer Meacham illustrates how this defensive mentality destroys respect for other religions. George H.W. Bush’s maternal grandfather, Roman Catholic Bert Walker, proposed to Presbyterian bride Lucretia “Loulie” Wear. She expected a Presbyterian wedding.

“Consulting a priest,” recounts Meacham, “Walker was warned of eternal consequences should he proceed on his current course. ‘If you marry her in a Presbyterian church,’ a Roman Catholic priest is said to have told Walker, ‘You’ll go straight to hell.’”

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Walker replied. “I’ll go straight to hell if I don’t marry her.”

Evangelicals at Wheaton College who want to fire Professor Hawkins because she believes Muslims and Christians pray to the same God don’t treat a praying Jew in the same way. Judaism, like Islam, rejects claims to Christ’s identity as God. Both religions reject the Christian Triune God, too. Yet, who in the evangelical community argues that Abraham’s God is of a different order from God who is revealed in the New Testament? Christians and Jews believe the Old and New Testaments reveal the same God revealed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

Why not adopt a similar view in respect to Muslims who pray to the same God as do Jews and Christians? Yale Divinity School’s evangelical theologian Miroslav Volf poses a key question, “Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?”

Biblical Isaiah cautions both sides in the Wheaton controversy to humbly admit God’s ways sometimes prove baffling. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” cautions a biblical prophet, “neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

Do Muslims, Jews and Christians worship the same God?

Only God knows for sure.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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