Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Standing with @LaryciaHawkins | Learning #EmbodiedSolidarity

Part of the work of a Christian theologian is to consider how their faith relates to the other faiths of the world. Not all religious traditions worship the same god. How they differ from each other matters. This is why I often bristle when people say, “We’re all on
different paths to the same god.” The spirit of this statement is well-intended. The goal is respect and understanding. But the differences matter, and I believe there are better ways of saying this that illustrate the particular genius of Christian faith.

I do not say that out of a kind of Christian exclusivism or superiority. Rather, I say we worship different gods out of a sense of respect for the particular ways each religious tradition formulates their concept of their god. And of course some traditions worship no god at all, so to believe that all of us, anonymously or secretly or unbeknownst to us, actually worship the same god, does not respect the truth in the other tradition. I’ve heard at least one non-Christian say, when presented with the idea of anonymous Christianity, that really all are Christians through the salvific work of Christ: “Get out my eschatology!” 

To respect the religions of others, we are called to know our own tradition well, and then, as best as possible, bring our faith into conversation with other faiths, and see what we can learn. In the process, we learn as much or more about our own faith as we do about our neighor’s faith. I believe this is how we all grow spiritually. Several years ago, a professor of missiology suggested that interfaith dialogue is like exploring a mountain range. All of us in our religious exploration are in a mountain range ascending various mountains. There isn’t just one mountain. There are many. And all those doing the work of ascending their mountain, and doing it well, gain greater clarity about the gods and faiths of neighbors ascending other mountains. The higher you are, the more clearly you can see the entire mountain range, the beauty and variety of mountains surrounding you. If we’re all just ascending the same mountain, on a path to the same god, then the peek is equally occluded from each of us, and if we are on different sides of the mountain, none of us can even see each other.

In recent national conversations about the welcome of Muslims to the United States, I have been pondering a recent book by Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response. Volf, as a Christian theologian, considers Islam in particular, and tries as best as possible to articulate a Christian perspective on it. Notice this is a very different project from trying to explain Islam to Christians. What Volf attempts is an articulate Christian response to Islam. This is authenticity. It has integrity. None of us can really fully know the religious tradition of others, but we can deepen our own understanding of our own tradition as it relates to other faiths.

Reading Volf, and praying over the matter for many years, I have come to the conclusion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I did not always believe this. I still think that many of the ways the Muslim expression of faith supersedes preceding Abrahamic faiths is problematic, and I would want to challenge many theological positions within Islam. I do not identify wth everything Muslims confess about God, but I believe that it is the same God we worship. 

Notice, this does not mean that I believe all religions worship the same God. I am speaking in this column particularly of Christians and Muslims. Nor am I abandoning my Christian, trinitarian understanding of God. I still confess the creeds. I am a Lutheran Christian. But I think the God we worship is the same God even if we have, in some ways, very different understandings of that God.

One comparison I find particularly helpful that can shift the terrain is between Muhammad and Jesus. Often Christians assume that is the most appropriate comparison between our two faiths. But actually, Muhammad is neither the savior in Islamic theology, nor the Son of God. So to compare these two men lacks subtlety. A better comparison is probably between Muhammad and Mary. Mary gives birth to the word of God, Jesus. Muhammad births forth the words of God, the written text now known as the Qur’an. There are even interesting parallels between Mary as a virgin and Muhammad as illiterate before he writes the text. Comparisons, though not exact, sometimes help each of us understand the faith of the other more deeply, and share faith with each other.

There is a lot about God in Christ I would want to share with a Muslim. In fact, there's a lot I'd like to share about God in Christ with anyone who wants to listen! In mutual conversation, I would share how I know God in Christ, and listen respectfully to how a Muslim knows God through their religious texts and practice. At the very least, I would hope to draw them to know our shared God more deeply. I’ve had increasing opportunities to have such conversations here in Fayetteville, and have been enriched by them.

In the present moment, however, when Muslim neighbors are under attack, I go a step further, and express actual solidarity. I've even said expressly, "I am Muslim." Not because I am in practice, but because I am in our shared worship of the same God, and in our shared humanity. I might equally say, in another moment, "I am atheist,” if it were my atheist neighbor under attack. And also because frankly, sometimes the God an atheist doesn’t believe in I don’t believe in either. Christians are committed again and again to overcoming idolatry in order to worship the true God. We have a lot to learn from atheists.

Nor do I think identification can always work. Identification as solidarity sometimes verges on cultural appropriation, a strange kind of colonialism. We can over define ourselves through our view of the other, as Edward Said points out so vividly in his book, Orientalism. So all I really want to say is that this kind of identification and deep learning, comparative theology that risks deep empathy with others, across religious boundaries, has had, at least for me and always, the impact of deepening my faith, and discovering the truth of Christianity. 

Which is of course quite different than saying that Christianity is the one true faith, because I've always believed that Christianity is true when it doesn't attempt to lay claim to truth exclusively.

While writing this column for the newspaper (to be published Saturday), news of Larycia Hawkins suspension from Wheaton College made the news. I was reminded of 1 Corinthians 11:6. I felt an immediate sense of connection with her Advent devotion, #womeninsolidaritywithhijab, and started to wonder, what's the white male form of solidarity? I stand with her and support her here in this blog. What else?

Larycia published a public statement on her Advent practice, and I share it here:

This morning, I partook of the Eucharist, the culmination of the Christian liturgy where Christians through the centuries have united around a common table to practice hospitality by the eating of bread and the drinking of wine, to seek forgiveness from those we've hurt or offended, and to grant forgiveness to ourselves and to others. It is a table of reconciliation--both spiritual reconciliation and relational reconciliation.
Since I recently embarked on ‪#‎embodiedsolidarity‬ with women who wear the hijab (‪#‎wish‬), I've received pushback almost exclusively from other Christians. The pushback has primarily centered on the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In the spirit of the unity of what Christians term the body of Christ, I would like to respond--but will not reply to comments on an internecine dispute that arose rather recently in the history of the church. 
Please find a cogent analysis of the basis for my claim in this link--as well as a convincing argument for why asserting our religious solidarity with Muslims and Jews will go a long way toward quelling religious violence and enervating religionist fear of the religious other. Whether or not you find this position, one held for centuries by countless Christians (church fathers, saints, and regular Christian folk like me), to be valid, I trust that we can peacefully disagree on theological points and affirm others like the Triune God (albeit there are differences here as well--Athanasian Creed, anyone?), the virgin birth (or Immaculate Conception depending on your persuasion), and the Resurrection. Let there be unity in our diversity of views about all of the above.
My wearing of the hijab as an act of advent devotion has certainly caused some to question the sincerity of my devotion. To those who question the authenticity of my faith, I love you. 
The apostle Paul declares, " far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18). That includes those of you who now count me apostate for daring to call fellow humans who happen to be Muslim my brothers and sisters. I love you with the power of the love that saved me and keeps me and bids me do justice in my body. 
Being at peace with everyone means embracing you virtually and asking for forgiveness of those I have offended. It doesn't matter that I did not intend to do so. What matters is the imperative that I move first to make peace with others. As far as it depends on you, will you accept my holy handshake? 
Respect, love, and peace to all of you.
Your sister in the hijab, 


  1. Thanks for you post on this. I'm not sure you have to go so far to distance yourself from inclusivist euphemisms. If you take the position that we confess our faith in God from our own vantage point, and you allow others to describe what they're doing in somewhat similar terms, then the differences don't necessarily have to be maintained so rigidly on the level of God/gods (after all, who's to say?), but simply in the confessions themselves. Although I too wince at the mountain metaphor, the image of the mountain climbers on different peaks seems bowdlerized to the point of making the climbers pathetic in their relativity. I think we have to be bold in confessing our shared heritage and views of God with our Abrahamic cousins, and I think it can safely be extended to many other eastern and indigenous traditions.

  2. Clint... Truly one of the more profound pastoral writings on this most timely concern for mission. Since we worship the same God then we are in mission with one another. Period. "The Church is mission." Lindsay Pherigo