Please, Drop the ‘Bigotry’ Charge and Avoid Defeating Yourself

Recently I’ve observed an interesting social phenomenon. It is fashionable these days to consider bigotry and exclusion to be a great sin in an American society of tolerance and pluralism. To automatically shut out entire people groups simply because they are different than us, whether by failing to assimilate, accept, and socialize with these groups, or by punishing those who do, is a great offense and roundly condemned by many. The focus currently is on LGBT individuals and Muslims, both of whom are considered minority groups who are routinely marginalized (whether or not they are truly marginalized is another topic for another day; i.e., what objective criteria to we have for determining marginalization and what evidence is there for this in America today?).

I do not deny that such things do and have happened. Historically in America, minority populations, such as immigrants, blacks, and religious sects, have been viewed with suspicion, which has often resulted in unjust and sinful treatment toward these persons. I don’t doubt that this continues to this day in various forms. In fact, it would be quite odd not to find such a thing in a pluralistic society like America; historically, this has been the norm throughout the world, and the expectation that peoples of different culture, races, ethnicities, and religions would all get along peacefully is abnormal. This is more akin to the message and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ than anything an enlightenment might teach or effect among us.

My problem is not with these observations per say. My grief is with the woefully insufficient evidence used to justify charges of intolerance, exclusion, and hateful animus and the ease with which people pull the ‘bigotry’ trigger. The most recent example is the brouhaha going on right now at Wheaton College, which just put a political science professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, on administrative leave because of comments she made about how she believes Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As Wheaton enunciated in their public statement, their decision was not motivated by her wearing the hijab in order to show solidarity with Muslims, but because her statement about the common God of Christians and Muslims conflicts with the school’s statement of faith. Now, whether or not her beliefs do in fact contradict the statement of faith, and whether Wheaton’s actions to place her on leave are prudent, these are not my primary concern at the moment (although, I think both are defensible).

My problem is with the reaction of those who support Dr. Hawkins and oppose Wheaton’s actions. An especially vocal player has been Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale University. Volf came out with a book a couple years ago called Allah: A Christian Responsein which he argues that yes, indeed, Christians and Muslims do worship the same God. He also did an interview with Christianity today and wrote a Huffington Post article on the issue, and he was the authority Dr. Hawkins appealed to in making her theological claims. His response to Dr. Hawkins’ plight was a Washington Post article where he denounced Wheaton’s behavior as being motivated by nothing but anti-Muslim bigotry and hate. Volf says,

There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.

Volf gives no evidence or justification for these claims; instead, he simply asserts them. (I’m not saying there can’t or never will be any evidence of this sort, just that so far there isn’t any). This is problem number one, and it reflects Volf’s own failure to listen and dialogue with Wheaton leadership. I’m sure Volf is aware that most Christians don’t agree with his arguments and theological conclusions in his work on Christianity and Islam. He claims that “there isn’t any theological justification,” but surely he must realize that Wheaton administrators (and many other Christian theologians) disagree with him here. Conversely, they do believe there is theological justification for action because they reject Volf’s conclusion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In addition, they believe that religious freedom includes the freedom to create educational institutions and associations built around common beliefs, and that those who want to work for said institutions should agree to these beliefs and practices before joining; and this implicitly means that once employees no longer hold such beliefs, they are no longer qualified to work at that institution (this is the same for all businesses as well). This also means that within such associations, doxastic pluralism and freedom of praxis is necessarily limited; sure, we can discuss and debate various beliefs and disagreements in order to become aware and knowledgeable about such things, but in our own lives we must be willing to abide by the social contract that exists within such associations. If an individual personally decides they can no longer affirm or practice what their association requires of them, then the respectable thing to do would be to resign and find another institution that is a better fit. Volf overlooks these real theological disagreements and their practical consequences, and instead attributes a psychological state of bigotry and enmity toward Wheaton and those who support the college. This is rash and unwarranted.

Yet the problem with Volf’s approach (and similar approaches throughout the country) is much greater than this. First, his approach leads to self-defeat. Volf is concerned about not excluding others, and about understanding and embracing others in order to achieve peace and reconciliation (all good things, I agree). However, by jumping to the conclusion that Wheaton is motivated by nothing but enmity, he creates the kind of misunderstanding, exclusion, and finger-pointing that he so despises. Thus, he becomes part of the very problem he is attempting to solve. Second, by claiming that Wheaton is functioning from enmity, he is charging them with sin, for relating to someone in a hostile way is unChristlike and sinful. Not only that, but Volf implicitly accuses Wheaton of surreptitiously using theology and Christian orthodoxy as a cover for their enmity toward Muslims, a form of deceit. Yet by failing to provide evidence for these claims, he is essentially involved in false witness, not because he is lying but because he cannot provide proof for what he claims. This is just as wrong as the wrongs he accuses Wheaton of.

Third, in all this, Volf fails to extend grace to Wheaton, the same grace he calls all other Christians everywhere to extend toward Muslims. He does not practice what he preaches, which leaves me less than enthusiastic to follow him in his other theological teachings and practical exhortations. Fourth, Wheaton has been strongly condemned for acting to suspend Dr. Hawkins instead of entering into theological dialogue with her about this issue (which isn’t entirely accurate, since Wheaton’s statement says they are currently talking with her). Yet instead of encouraging Wheaton to enter into a religious and theological discussion with him about this issue, Volf just writes them off immediately by calling them haters, striking them from the conversation! Why? Because you don’t talk to bigots and people of enmity since they are hateful, intolerant, and unreasonable. These are people to be corrected and condemned, not dialogued with. Why doesn’t Volf take this opportunity to extend an invitation of theological conversation with Wheaton instead of just shouting “bigot!” at them? He wants a productive interchange, no? Does he not want to convince people of what he believes? Yet his approach won’t help him in attaining these goals.

Bigotry and hatred are much harder to prove than one thinks. It’s easier to image that someone hates another or is acting intolerantly toward them, and much harder to actually show this is the case. In this situation Volf has confused doxastically determined voluntary associations with intolerance toward people who hold opinions or beliefs other than oneself (the definition of bigotry). True bigotry would look like shunning someone altogether, persecuting and driving out them out, or depriving them of their natural rights. Yet Wheaton has done nothing like this. This is not bigotry; it is theological disagreement that has practical consequences because of the type of association Wheaton is. It’s one thing to say you disagree with someone (which Volf obviously does), a position for which one does not have to provide evidence; it’s another thing altogether to accuse someone of bigotry or hatred, something that warrants justification. Volf hasn’t done so.

I suspect that Volf has taken such a striking position on this issue because he has worked himself into a tight spot: by essentially claiming that the path to peaceful Christian-Muslim relations relies upon accepting the theological tenet that both worship the same God, Volf has set himself up for being incapable of dialoguing with those who reject such a belief. Why? Because Volf is dogmatically committed to reconciliation and inclusion above all else; and since he believes common belief is the only way to reconciliation and inclusion, those who reject his view are interpreted as rejecting reconciliation and embracing exclusion. As one reviewer put it:

Volf seeks to reach peace at all costs, even if it means compromising (or hiding) the truth…In the end, however, Volf’s idea of elevating relationships over truth eventually leads to losing both.

This too, is self-defeating, for if peace and reconciliation are true virtues, yet one is willing to sacrifice truth for these things, then how can one be counted on as a sure guide to the truth about peace and reconciliation? Volf’s attitude and approach to Wheaton tests his commitment to peace and reconciliation — not between Christians and Muslims, but between Christian brothers and sisters who disagree.

So in summary I find the charges of bigotry, intolerance, and hate to be self-defeating. They are self-defeating because in most instances, there is neither sufficient understanding for what these things are (e.g., see my discussion about bigotry and tolerance here), nor is their sufficient evidence provided to believe such accusations. People who unjustly make charges like this create the very kind of environment of exclusion, mistrust, and hostility that they are trying to overcome, and so through their actions they cluelessly become the problem they are trying to solve.

Addendum

Since writing this post, two other articles have come out supporting the position I’ve taken here. The first is by Lael Weinberger at First Things, “Disagreement, Charity, and Islam.” Weinberger essentially makes exactly the same point I do: “Ironically, in making this accusation, Volf is guilty of the very sin of which he accuses Wheaton College: lack of charity.” The second is a more substantial article by former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi, “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?” Qureshi not only clearly shows that the answer to this question is “no,” but he also tackles whether denying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God implies that Christians and Jews also do not worship the same God (answer: no). At the end, he also points to Volf as the biggest problem in all this: “What is dangerous is the path of Volf, accusing people of bigotry to shut down valid conversations. One can both love Muslims and insist that the God they worship is not the same as the Christian God.” Right. Those of us who believe that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God do not therefore abandon loving our neighbors and living in peace with them; if anything, it motivates us all the more to share the gospel with them. Consider reading these two articles.

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