In December, Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school near Chicago, posted on Facebook a photograph of herself wearing a hijab, with the caption: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
The ensuing uproar was widely covered by the news media, and Dr. Hawkins eventually left her position at Wheaton, with a deal that both sides agreed not to disclose.
To judge by the angry response, it would seem that Dr. Hawkins had uttered some radical heresy. Her critics made it sound as if no conscientious Christian could compare her god to Allah, or to the Jewish god whose real name is not to be uttered, but who is referred to as Adonai or Elohim.
But the truth is more complicated. The idea that all monotheists, particularly Jews, Christians and Muslims, worship or pray to the same god has some support among religious people of all three traditions. The question has been debated for millenniums, and the issue has never been settled. Far from crossing some well-known theological line, Dr. Hawkins was venturing onto disputed territory where nobody knows the exact boundaries.
Most of the time, variations on “We all pray to the same god” are uttered as feel-good pieties by politicians urging us all to get along. For example, in 2003, President George W. Bush, referring to Muslims and Christians, said that “we worship the same god.”
Clergy members, too, are fond of such constructions, which serve a role in interfaith dialogue. Last year, Pope Francis offered a version, saying that “Jesus Christ, Jehovah, Allah” are “all names employed to describe an entity that is distinctly the same across the world.”
It is not that there is no dissent. Conservative Catholics raise their voices whenever Francis uses that kind of language. And Richard D. Land, then a top official of the Southern Baptist Convention, upbraided Mr. Bush at the time. “We should always remember,” Mr. Land said, “that he is commander in chief, not theologian in chief.”
On first read, the Wheaton College “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose” seems to say that only a Christian understanding of Jesus, as God’s divine son, is acceptable.
“We believe,” the statement begins, “in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons: the everlasting Father, his only begotten son, Jesus Christ our lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.”
Insofar as Muslims do not believe that God is a trinity, with a Holy Spirit and Jesus the divine son, it is easy to see how one could argue that the Muslim god is not the Christian god. But not so fast, many theologians say.
Miroslav Volf, an evangelical who teaches at Yale Divinity School and is the author of “Allah: A Christian Response,” said that Jews also do not believe in the Trinity but that Christians generally accept that Jews worship the same god.
“Muslims believe God is indivisibly singular, and Christians believe God is a Holy Trinity,” Professor Volf said. “And Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate; Muslims deny that. But Jews have always and even more strenuously contested both claims, and yet Christians have always as a rule believed Christians worship the same god as the Jews and Jews worship the same god as Christians.”
Amos Yong, an evangelical who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary, near Los Angeles, said that a statement like the one from Dr. Hawkins must be judged in the broader context. Considering the hijab Dr. Hawkins wore in the photograph, it seemed she was taking more of a symbolic stance than making a theological statement.
“She was making an effort to stay in solidarity with Muslims,” Professor Yong said.
Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain and now a professor at New York University, suggested that the question is deeply philosophical, and linguistic.
“It’s just a definitional issue,” Rabbi Sacks said. “Do you say Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same god but worship him in different ways, or do you say that the fact that they worship him in different ways show they worship a different god?”
What’s more, Rabbi Sacks said, the question does not stop with God, but can also be asked of the Jewish characters mentioned in the New Testament and the Quran.
“You could ask if they claim ancestry from the same Abraham,” Rabbi Sacks said.
“Is the Abraham that Jews recognize the one Christians recognize, and the one that Muslims recognize?” he added. “He is conceived in very different ways.”
Yahya M. Michot, who teaches Islam at Hartford Seminary, in Connecticut, said that from a Muslim point of view there was no question that there is one god, whom even non-Western traditions point toward.
“As a Muslim,” Professor Michot said, “I believe that all the prophets, from Adam to Muhammad,” including Jesus, “but also the Buddha and myriads of others we don’t know about,” called on us “to worship the same one God, merciful and compassionate.”
“The people speaking of different gods are sectarian extremists wanting to stir up division among humans and are unfaithful to their own prophets,” Professor Michot added.
When well-meaning members of one of the three religions say that all three worship the same god, that statement can carry several different implications.
For example, it might mean that monotheism is crucial, while the stories’ details are less important. Or that human knowledge is frail, so none of us should feel too certain of the finer points of our own scriptures. Or that God speaks to people through different narratives, all of which are commensurate in ways we cannot grasp.
But Jon D. Levenson of Harvard Divinity School says that this attempt at an inclusive monotheism does not necessarily fit what the religions actually believe.
“There’s the question of, ‘What has God done in the Scriptures?’ ” Professor Levenson said. “Then you discover these gods are different. The Quran says Jesus did not die on the cross. Well that’s a big blow to Christianity! The Quran says God is only one,” not a trinity. “That’s a direct hit!”
If you look at how these communities see themselves, Professor Levenson said, “you do see significant differences that can’t just be harmonized in a comfortable liberal humanism, where you say ‘either’ and I say ‘eye-ther.’ ”
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