Christianity & Culture: Wheaton-Hawkins #3

Dr. Hawkins got the attention of Wheaton and beyond when she posted on her Facebook page that “we all worship the same God.”  Ironically, she was referencing a similar statement made earlier by Pope Francis, and she was only repeating what other Christians (even apparently some at Wheaton) have previously said.  But for whatever reasons (perhaps those I have referred to in my two previous posts), her remarks and accompanying actions have become a tipping point that the school feels can no longer be ignored or claimed to be incobsequential.

In this post, I want to consider the statement, “We all worship the same God,” not only as it is being debated at Wheaton, but more generally as it is expressed in the context of Christian higher education. In my first post I noted that there are valid theological issues in the Wheaton-Hawkins situation.  This is one.  Hopefully, it will not get lost in the termination procedures recently announced by the school’s administrators.

The statement, “We all worship the same God” turns on two points: ontology and theology.  Ontologically, we consider the being of God, and any religion that is monotheistic affirms “God is one.”  So, if there is only one God, then obviously we all worship the same God.  It would make no sense to say anything else.  Ontology enables us to affirm the singularity of God’s being within the context of monotheistic religion.

But theologically, there is immediate differentiation. While there are many significant similarities among the major world’s religions, there are also observable differences.  One difference is in the varying theological interpretations of the nature of God.  Such differences are not only present between religions, they can also be seen within a particular religion itself.  God is not viewed the same by all the sub-groups.  Protestant Christianity alone is sufficient to illustrate this.

The fact that (theologically) we do not all view the nature of God the same raises the question as to whether the differences will become barriers or bridges–whether they will generate division or dialog?  In the Wheaton-Hawkins case, the ontological “sameness” seems to be trumped by the theological “differences,” and the differences are apparently perceived as sufficient to warrant Dr. Hawkins’ termination.

But what if we allowed the ontological oneness of God’s being to control the situation–not only at Wheaton, but anywhere else?  If we could affirm the oneness of God, we might find the ground for affirming the oneness of the human family (all made by the one God) and then, we might find the will to champion goodness, kindness, forebearance, compassion, and forgiveness in our relationships with one another.

If we did this, we might also find (through the kinds of conversations that I wrote about in the previous post) that our theological differences concerning the nature of God might actually combine to provide us with a fuller and richer concept of God than is typically held by a single religion, or group within a particular religion.  To say it another way, we might experience paradox–the unanticipated revelation of a larger vision of God’s nature, which would surely enable us all to worship the one God better.

It is a tall order, filled with challenges and complexities.  To aim for this requires more effort, patience, and time than simply applying a statement of faith to a situation and considering the case made.  To create a dynamic relationship between ontology and theology might produce something that a tension between the two cannot.  But when the way of litigation is definitive, it is an outcome we are not likely to see.

Do we all worship the same God?  Ontologically–yes.  Theologically–no.  But the theological “no” can (if we will let it) be an invitation to explore and engage in ways that enrich our worship of God and heal the factionalism between us which ultimately denies our professed allegiance to the one God who has made us all.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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