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Wheaton College associate professor Larycia Hawkins Phd., center, is greeted with applause from supporters as she begins her remarks during a news conference Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, in Chicago. Hawkins, a Christian teaching political science at the private evangelical school west of Chicago, was put on leave Tuesday. In recent days, she began wearing a hijab, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women, to counter what she called the "vitriolic" rhetoric against Muslims in recent weeks. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

If you’re an evangelical with an internet connection, you’ve probably heard about the Wheaton College professor suspended recently for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

First, let me acknowledge the following.

  • The response by the Wheaton leadership—I would bet my bottom dollar—does not represent the views of all leadership and certainly not all faculty. I don’t want to assume that everyone there is necessarily happy about Wheaton’s response, even if there are likely many who support it vigorously. And when we say “Wheaton” did this and that, what we really mean is “Wheaton’s president” speaking on behalf of the college (which is his job description).
  • There is always more to a story than what outsiders see. Always. I don’t know what that story is, and whatever it is it’s none of my business, but there is a larger context here that we are missing and that might nuance our reactions one way or another.
  • I don’t want to assume that the affected faculty member, Larycia Hawkins, would not or has not put her public comments into a larger narrative of offering differences between Islam and Christianity. In other words, I don’t want to assume that these words represent her complete thoughts on the subject, and thus she should not be judged solely by them.

OK, so much for the standard (but important) caveats. Let me get to my point.

A friend of mine made a comment on my Facebook page that—unlike the cat videos I normally post—made me stop and think for a moment. I wanted to share that with you (with his permission) because I feel it would be helpful in thinking through not simply what is happening at Wheaton, but how Christians can live in a post-Christian western world.

What do we make of Acts 17:22-31, where Paul alludes to his God and the god the Athenians worshiped as the same God, “not far from each one of us,” though unknown to them, and then offers clarifying comments over differences?

If this is all we knew of Paul—if  he had posted this on Facebook with no other context—I wonder how we might react.

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible has this note to Acts 17:22-31: “The speech has a notable lack of elements of the gospel message or reference to Jesus.” The only distinctly Christian thing Paul refers to here is the resurrection (tacked on) at the end of his speech. Where is the atonement, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.?

The Jewish Annotated New Testament: “Paul’s description of God as sole, self-sufficient creator not confined to any sanctuary was shared by Jews and others philosophically informed.” Not only does Paul continue his failure to offer a robust defense of core Christian doctrines at such a golden public opportunity, but he caves in to culture and his desire to be “relevant” by pitting himself against the “clear” OT  teaching on the centrality of the Temple.

You see my point.

Of course, I am not suggesting that Paul’s words support a can’t-we-all-get-along-because-all-religions-are-the-same-anyway vibe. (Paul does get to the resurrection as the core distinctive by which the Athenians would know this unknown god.) But I don’t think Hawkins is saying this either—at least that is not what I see.

And neither am I suggesting Paul’s speech to the Athenians is a prooftext that simply justifies Hawkins’s comments—though I’ve seen evangelical theology defended on flimsier grounds.

I am suggesting that perhaps Hawkins’s comments could be read in a more generous light, as a comment pertinent to a particular moment, as was Paul’s.

Hawkins’s comments might be seen as something like what Paul did in Athens: a follower of Jesus speaking publicly into a broader world that does not take for granted evangelical sensibilities.

True, Hawkins works for an evangelical college, and some might argue that is where her first loyalties lie. I get that.

But that then raises the question of where an evangelical institution’s first loyalties lie.

Is it to maintain an evangelical identity first and foremost, or does it have a more pressing responsibility to speak the gospel sympathetically and creatively (as Paul is doing) into the world around us? (I realize that is a complex issue and one size might not fit every situation.)

Like Paul, Hawkins’s comments and our responses—whether institutional or personal—have a context. In our current climate, where tensions with and hatred of Muslims by Christians abound in the public eye, might not Hawkins’s public comments be justified—even wise and necessary—on Christian grounds?

Even if Hawkins’s comments are not all that can be said, are they not at least something that needs to be said?

[Please be patient as your comment is in moderation. Comments are normally posted within 6 hours but may take as long as 24—longer if you’re annoying. Not at all if you’re just looking for a fight.]

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.