Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Illinois, had placed associate professor of political science Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave after she made a controversial theological statement on Facebook that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The school has now begun the process to fire her due to an “impasse,” it said in a statement released on Tuesday.
Hawkins said on Wednesday that she is “flummoxed and flabbergasted” by the college’s decision.
Hawkins, a tenured political science professor, posted on Facebook that she would wear a hijab during the Advent season in support of Muslims.
“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” Hawkins wrote on Facebook. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
It’s unclear what specific statement Hawkins was referring to from Pope Francis, though the pontiff said in November that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.” The Catholic Church has taught since the Second Vatican Council that Muslims and Christians worship one God, though they view Jesus differently.
The theological debate has centered on how evangelicals teach about a Trinitarian God, meaning that they believe in a three-person God — God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit — existing as one being. Muslims do not believe in the Trinity.
“While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer,” the college said in a Dec. 22 statement.
Speaking at a press conference in the sanctuary of Chicago’s First United Methodist Church on Wednesday, Hawkins reiterated that she has not wavered from the college’s statement of faith.
“Wheaton College cannot scare me into walking away from the truth (that) all humans — Muslims, the vulnerable, the oppressed of any ilk – are all my sisters and brothers, and I am called by Jesus to walk with them,” she said.
During Hawkins’s administrative review process, which was paused over the holidays, Wheaton administration requested a theological statement, which Hawkins submitted. She was put on leave through the spring semester pending review.
“Following Dr. Hawkins’ written response on December 17 to questions regarding her theological convictions, the College requested further theological discussion and clarification,” the college said in the statement. “However, as posted previously, Dr. Hawkins declined to participate in further dialogue about the theological implications of her public statements and her December 17 response.”
To Hawkins, it felt like “the rules changing, the goalposts keep moving,” and she declined to answer more questions. Next month, she will have a hearing before the faculty personnel committee of nine tenured and elected faculty members before a recommendation goes to the president and the board of trustees, and the board will make a final decision.
Hawkins has been asked to affirm the college’s statement of faith four times since she started teaching at Wheaton nearly nine years ago, according to the Chicago Tribune. She was called in over a paper on black liberation theology that the provost thought endorsed Marxism, the paper reported. She was reportedly asked to defend a Facebook photo showing her at a party inside a downtown Chicago home the same day as Chicago’s Pride Parade. And she was asked to affirm the college’s statement after suggesting that diversifying the college curriculum should include diplomatic vocabulary for conversations around sexuality, according to the Tribune.
Last month, college officials said in a statement that Hawkins’s administrative leave came from her theological statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, not her desire to wear a hijab, her race or her gender. The statement has sparked a larger discussion over theological questions and the identity of the evangelical college where faculty are required to sign a statement of faith. Attempts to reach Hawkins and college administrators on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
In 2006, a professor of medieval philosophy at Wheaton who converted to Catholicism did not receive a renewed contract on the grounds that he failed to “embody the institution’s evangelical Protestant convictions.”
Wheaton considers conversion to Catholicism reason for dismissal, though Protestantism and Catholicism are more closely linked than Protestantism is to Islam. The difference has theologians like Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, believing that Hawkins’s statement on Facebook post was theologically wrong.
In 2002, George wrote in Christianity Today magazine that the doctrine of the Trinity (God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit) may be Protestantism’s “most neglected doctrine” because of how hard it is to explain. The idea of the trinity contains a paradox: Three divine persons exist as one God.
But was a statement seemingly in conflict with that neglected doctrine enough footing for Wheaton to put Hawkins on administrative leave?
Roy Oksnevad, the director of the Muslim Ministry Program and Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, says that the difference between the two religions is a significant one.
Oksnevad, an evangelical, told the Post that Christians and Muslims worship the same God “in a very generic sense,” in that they believe that God is eternally existent and all powerful.
“But when it comes down to specific revelation,” Oksnevad said, “there is a huge difference in that (the Christian) God shows himself as a Trinity. Islam says, ‘Sorry, he is not personable nor is he knowable.’”
Oksnevad dealt with the issue of reconciling the faiths of Muslims and Christians in 2008, when he signed a letter by more than 300 Christian leaders around the world in response to another letter by Muslim scholars and clerics urging Christians and Muslims to consider their similarities.
The letter, published by the Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, was titled “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to A Common Word Between Us and You,” referring to the title of the original letter by Muslim scholars. It focused on the similarities between the greatest two commandments of Islam and Christianity: to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Oksnevad approached the president and provost to ask if he should remove his signature and they said he did not need to.
In 2008, Wheaton’s former president Duane Litfin and chaplain emeritus Stephen Kellough, and provost Stanton Jones, all signed the letter as well, but later withdrew their signatures.
Litfin told Christianity Today later that he had been too hasty in his decision to sign the letter, and that upon revision, the letter was “not carefully crafted enough” to avoid making theological suggestions that hinted at the possibility of Muslims and Christians worshiping the same God.
He said that the letter may have encouraged the notion that “we are all worshiping the same God, climbing the same mountain, just taking different paths … To speak unqualifiedly of ‘our common love for God,’ as if the Quran’s Allah and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ are one and the same, and as if what it means to ‘love God’ in these two faiths means the same thing, is to say more than I am willing to grant. I do not criticize others who do not share these qualms. But as for me, I needed to back away.”
This article has been updated to include more information. Religion News Service contributed to this report.