Narnia Revisited: The Wheaton Question

by Zixin Jiang

Wheaton College’s decision to fire a professor for claiming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God made me think again about an article titled Praying to Aslan, by Bill Wood, which addresses this question and was published in The Poor Print last November.

What does it mean for two persons to worship the same God? It means, according to Dr Wood, that ‘their acts of worship refer to the same God’. What does ‘refer’ mean here? It primarily means that they ‘intend to worship the same God’ (emphases mine).

Now of course it would be ludicrous to say generally that so long as a person intends to do X, he or she in fact does X. But Dr Wood’s claim is that the nature of the particular action of worship is such that so long as a person intends to worship God, he or she in fact worships God, because of the close connection between worship, reference, and intention. From this, in addition to the premise that Christians and Muslims intend to worship the same God, Dr Wood concludes that they do in fact worship the same God.

If Wheaton wanted to respond to Dr Wood’s argument, it might do so in three ways. First, by questioning the connection between worship and reference; secondly, by questioning the connection between reference and intention; thirdly, by questioning whether it is correct to claim that Muslims and Christians intend to worship the same God.

First, Dr Wood’s move to collapse worship into reference lacks justification, especially since this is crucial to his argument. He acknowledges that worship cannot completely be reduced to reference (and so makes a distinction between ‘proper’ and ‘minimal’ worship), but he does not entertain the possibility that the differences between the two might be a deciding factor for his argument (is ‘minimal’ worship even worship?). Not just Dr Wood’s argument, but the whole debate over whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God has been focused on what the words ‘same God’ mean and overlooked the question of what ‘worship’ means, even though the latter is just as important.

Secondly – expanding on the first point – Dr Wood’s claim that ‘the question of whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God resolves into the question of whether their acts of worship refer to the same God’ is crucially ambiguous, because ‘refer to the same God’ could mean either (i) ‘when Muslims say “I worship A” and Christians say “I worship B”, A and B refer to the same God’, or (ii) ‘Muslims worship A and Christians worship B, and A and B refer to the same God’. Now if ‘refer’ is used in the latter, objective sense, then the quoted claim becomes nearly self-evident, but then ‘reference’ does not depend on the subjective intentions of Muslims and Christians – undermining the next part of his argument (so I think Dr Wood means interpretation (i)).

On the third question, I think the phrase ‘intend to worship the same God’ is not as simple or intuitive as Dr Wood suggests. For example, if a Christian were asked ‘do you intend to worship the same God as Muslims do?’ it is quite possible that he or she would answer ‘no’. Or if a monotheist in a non-Western tradition were asked ‘do you, like Christians and Muslims, intend to worship the one true God?’ he or she would presumably answer ‘yes’. What makes these expressions of intention any less valid or important than Muslims and Christians’ common expression of intention to worship the God of Israel? I see no reason why.

So it seems to me that Wheaton has legitimate reason to deny Dr Wood’s theological conclusions.

The practical controversy at Wheaton College, however, goes beyond the theological question. It is as much about politics as it is about theology.

The political problem is in this case that Wheaton exercised arbitrary interference. While interference and the exercise of power can sometimes be justified, arbitrary interference is generally wrong.

On what grounds did Wheaton College single out the offending claim? On the ground that the claim is supposed to conflict with the college’s statement of faith. I do not, unlike others I know, think this is a bad reason per se, or that the statement should not exist in the first place, for I find Wheaton’s claim that the statement is necessary to protect the ‘freedom of religious organizations to embody their deeply held convictions’ to be at least somewhat convincing.

And yet I think Wheaton has actually undermined its own statement by treating it as an excuse to exercise arbitrary power. There is nothing in the statement that directly contradicts Larycia Hawkins’ – the professor at the centre of the controversy’s – claim. And instead of providing a clear analysis of why there is a contradiction, Wheaton has asked Dr Hawkins to show that there is no contradiction.

This is entirely twisted. If it is Wheaton that is making the accusation, it is Wheaton who should justify it. And yet Wheaton only repeats the claim that ‘We affirm that salvation is through Christ alone’, which (and here I am in complete agreement with Dr Wood) by no means obviously implies that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God. On the other hand, Dr Hawkins has repeatedly iterated her commitment to the college’s statement of faith and has given an articulate account of why her claims do not conflict with it.

This makes me worry that the singling out of Dr Hawkins is an arbitrary exercise of interference, based not on clear institutional standards but on personal preference or political correctness.

One important lesson I learned while studying political theory is that even those with widely diverging general beliefs (or ‘comprehensive doctrines’ as John Rawls calls them) might still find ways to agree upon political issues by agreeing on certain political rules and standards. I believe the theological question is more complex than Dr Wood makes it appear. But this is also why, on a practical level, I disagree with Wheaton’s decision – it too shows a refusal to acknowledge the complexity of the issue.

In ignoring the complexity of the matter, Wheaton has, consciously or unconsciously, arbitrarily extended the scope of the college’s statement of faith. This has in turn destroyed the statement’s value as a strict standard and has allowed it to be replaced by the fuzzy standards of political expediency. And so, I fear, Wheaton has betrayed the very principles it claims to hold dear.


The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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