Friday, January 15, 2016

On Refusing to Play the "Who's Persecuted Worse?" Game: Muslim and Christian Edition

I am one of a number of progressive Christian writers who has devoted considerable attention in recent months to Western persecution of Muslims. I've certainly written more on this issue than I have about Muslim persecution of Christians.

Every once in a while, I find myself taken to task for this--often in connection with horror stories about brutal treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. A friend will point out that these minority Christians are in far greater danger of being harmed for their faith than any Muslim in the West.

The message, put simply, is this: "They persecute us when they're in power worse than we persecute them when we're in power."

I don't want to play that game. I don't want to focus on which group persecutes the other more egregiously. Persecution, wherever it occurs, is awful. Wherever it occurs, it needs to stop (and probably won't).

But I can already hear the response: If persecution is the problem, then isn't it relevant to consider where the persecution is worst, and then direct my efforts mainly there? Maybe Christians minorities suffer more in Muslim majority countries than Muslim minorities suffer in the West. If so, shouldn't I care about that? Should I then focus my energies on denouncing Muslims for targeting Christians instead of the other way around?

Let me explain why I don't.

It isn't because the persecution of Christians in some parts of the world isn't a problem. It isn't because my heart doesn't bleed when I hear about a Christian boy in Pakistan who was beaten and then set on fire after admitting he was a Christian to the two men accosting him.

The reason is because this attack on a Christian boy in a Muslim-majority country springs from the same deep ideological well as this brutal attack on a Muslim woman in Toronto, or this attack on a Muslim woman in southern France, or this shooting of a Muslim taxi driver in Pittsburgh, or any number of other recent incidents in which Muslims in the West have been targeted for verbal abuse, vandalism, and violence.

The reason is because all of these attacks are about dehumanizing and assaulting the "other," the one who is different, who isn't one of "us." I look at my world and I see an all-too-human impulse to create in-groups and out-groups, and then target members of the out-group not for anything they have done, but simply for belonging to the wrong group. When the out-group is a minority and the in-group a majority, this ideological targeting can often rise to the level of systematic persecution and oppression.

But if the problem is this sort of us/them ideology and the violence and injustice it inspires, the question for me is how I can best use my voice to address that problem. And here it matters that I am a Christian living in a Christian-majority country where Muslims are far more likely to be the targets of Islamophobic persecution and attacks than the other way around.

My audience is primarily Western, primarily Christian. I could, of course, talk to that mostly-Western audience mostly about other people's propensity to fall into us/them thinking, other groups' conscious and unconscious biases. I could focus my attention on how even moderate Muslims, when they fail to stand against extremist ideology in their own ranks, become part of the problem.

But what effect would that have? It won't cause those other people to pause, to introspect, to think about the ways in which they are promulgating divisiveness. etc.--because they aren't my audience. Will it cause Christians in the West to pause, to introspect, to think about the ways in which they are promulgating divisiveness?

Or will that kind of emphasis only serve to promulgate divisiveness? If I, as a Christian, start focusing on all the times when Muslims have acted badly against Christians, all the ways in which Muslim extremists have assaulted Christians, will that break down the us/them ideologies that I think are the real problem, the deep human propensity that does so much harm?

There is no great mystery here, but it needs saying: When members of one group start denouncing the horrors and crimes committed by another group, that does not tend to reduce in-group/out-group ideology. The way to reduce such ideology is for members of a group to be on guard against the rumblings of such ideological hatred within their own ranks, and to speak out against it when and where they see it happening. I feel called to do exactly that.

I'm an American Christian. As a Christian, I believe in taking the plank out of my own eye before taking the speck out of my neighbor's eyes. I believe that if I want to work against the human tendency to divide the world into us and them, I need to start with myself and my community.

We live in a world where there are different religions, different nations, different cultural traditions. Humanity is divided into groups, and that's not going to change. What might change is the tendency of these groups to vilify each other. What might arise is a world where people who are different can co-exist in greater harmony, a world where we dehumanize each other less. How should I work for that?

I can, of course, try to talk to other groups about their tendency to wrongly vilify and dehumanize my group. There are times when all of us may be called to do just that--especially when we or those close to us have been the targets of ideological hate, and our impassioned words can give a human face to what has been dehumanized.

But in general I have far more influence within my own communities, the ones I understand, the ones whose languages I speak. If in-group/out-group ideology is a problem, then the first step is to turn to my group and say, "Let's not do this ourselves. Let's not get sucked in. Instead of chastising moderate Muslims when they fail to sufficiently repudiate the extremism among them, let's model what that's like. Let's be what we want to see in the world. Then we will be far better positioned to work for change."

"Who is more egregiously persecuted?" is a blame-game. I want to play the change-game. And change, meaningful change, begins with ourselves and moves out from there.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Proposed Wording for a New Doctrinal Requirement for Employment at Wheaton College

We now have available to us Larycia Hawkins' response to the Wheaton Administration's request for "clarification" about her remarks concerning Christians and Muslims worshiping the same God. It has been posted on Scribd.

In this statement, Hawkins clearly articulates her agreement with Wheaton's statement of faith, and she eloquently explains her broader philosophical/theological perspective, in terms of which that statement of faith is fully harmonious with her brief social media remarks about Christians and Muslims. In other words, it is now clear that Hawkins continues to endorse Wheaton's statement of faith, and that given her broader philosophical and theological perspective, her doing so is entirely consistent with her claim that Christians and Muslims are people of the book who worship the same God.

Of course, one needn't accept her broader philosophical and theological perspective. Although it seems quite plausible to me, Wheaton officials may ascribe to a different perspective, one which does not permit the reconciliation between the faith statement and Hawkins' remarks that Hawkins' own perspective permits. But if Wheaton is trying to fire her because they find her broader philosophical/theological perspective unacceptable despite its harmony with Wheaton's faith statement, then in fairness they ought to clearly announce that they have adopted a new doctrinal requirement for employment at Wheaton.

I thought I'd help them out with some proposed wording for the new doctrinal requirement. I suggest the following:

Wheaton College has traditionally maintained, as a doctrinal requirement for employment at Wheaton, that all employees accept Wheaton's historic statement of faith. We have now determined that this is insufficient as a doctrinal requirement. Additionally, we now require that Wheaton employees accept the current leadership's idiosyncratic philosophical and theological perspective and the interpretation of Wheaton's statement of faith (including purported implications) that follows from that perspective. Current employees, including tenured faculty, should be aware that even if they presently embrace the leadership's broader perspective in addition to the statement of faith, their employment may be jeopardized should the leadership's perspective evolve and change. However, there is little danger of such change, since perspectives typically evolve in the light of thoughtful conversations among persons with differing perspectives, and this is something we no longer permit.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Wheaton College, Larycia Hawkins, and the Question of Whether Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God

The other day, Wheaton College initiated termination proceedings against Larycia Hawkins, the tenured Wheaton political science professor who has been wearing a hijab in solidarity with her Muslim neighbors. She was suspended late last year for social media statements in which she explained her actions. Among other things, she said that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God," and it was for this claim that her employment was jeopardized. According to Wheaton officials, the concern was that this claim is incompatible with the statement of faith that all Wheaton faculty must agree to.

Apparently, the provost was convinced that, indeed, there is a conflict between Wheaton's statement of faith and the view that Christians and Muslims worship the same God--convinced enough to recommend termination. That recommendation must be reviewed by a number of parties before it results in an actual termination, so there may yet be time to salvage the situation.

I say "salvage" the situation because--unless there is something that both Wheaton and Hawkins are keeping secret--it seems puzzling at best, and marginally crazy at worst, to say that there is a conflict between Wheaton's statement of faith and Hawkins' claim.

Certainly, there is no direct contradiction. Troll through Wheaton's statement of faith all day, and you will not find the claim that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. It's just not there. Wheaton officials will surely concede as much. What they'll likely say is that there is an implicit contradiction. In other words, what they're saying is that if you accept Wheaton's statement of faith in all its parts, an unstated implication of that acceptance is that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods.

But this is almost as indefensible as claiming there is a direct contradiction. Now, there is something that follows immediately from the understanding of God spelled out in Wheaton's statement of faith, and which has implications for the relationship between Christianity and Islam. What follows is this: Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God, including some that are about God's essential nature.

Among other things, Christians believe that God is essentially triune, whereas Muslims reject this.

But to get from this (rather obvious) fact to the conclusion that Christians and Muslims worship a different God, you need to add some premises about the nature of linguistic reference. That is, you need to delve into the philosophy of language. To put it simply, if you adopt a fairly standard view about the nature of linguistic reference--one that was laid out quite beautifully by Edward Feser in a post at the end of December--you get the conclusion that despite the very important differences in belief about God, Christians and Muslims are referring to the same individual being when they speak of God. To get the contradiction that Wheaton administrators claim is there, it seems you'd need to deny this fairly standard view about the nature of linguistic reference.

I don't want to rehearse here all the details of Feser's essay, but let me offer the following simple argument just to clarify the thinking involved: There is one supreme being, creator and sustainer of all reality. This is God. Muslims devote their lives to the worship of this being--and they have a bunch of beliefs about what this being is like. Christians devote their lives to the worship of this being--and have some very different beliefs about what this being is like. But insofar as both direct their worship to that being who is the supreme source of everything else, they direct their worship towards the same entity, even if they disagree in important ways about the nature of that entity. In short, when they speak of God and worship God, they are orienting their talk and their praise towards the same entity, even if they have different beliefs about what that entity is like.

This line of argument is fairly easy to understand, I think, and it is premised on certain views about the nature of language and reference. Put simply, the referent of "God" becomes fixed by certain key elements that establish a shared referent in the face of disagreement about what the object under discussion is like. Central to this view about the nature of language is a distinction between the "sense" of a term (the conceptual ideas we attach to it) and its "referent" (what actual entity or entities the term points to). To say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, it is sufficient that they have the same referent for "God"--that is, they are pointing in the same direction, even if they have divergent ideas about what the being they're pointing at is like.

And lest anyone think that disagreements about what is essential undercut a shared reference, consider the following example. Suppose I have two students who are doing an independent study with me. The first is a fairly typical college student (let's call her Mary), but the second (Martha) suffers from a delusional disorder that leads her to believe that I am an alien from another world--a Vulcan, let's say. She has a number of other strange beliefs that go along with this--for example, that I underwent ear surgery to remove my pointy ears and that I pluck my eyebrows every morning to obscure their upward sweep.

Now, being human is certainly essential to who I am. But when Mary and Martha are talking about me, are they referring to the same individual? Of course. When Martha says, "He's an alien" and Mary says, "No he's not," they're disagreeing with each other--and the only way they can disagree with each other is if they are talking about the same individual. Furthermore, when they sit in my office for the independent study, aren't they studying under the same professor? Aren't they talking to the same professor when they ask him questions? Aren't they submitting assignments to the same professor? If Martha turned in a final paper, would I be justified in giving her a zero because she hadn't turned it in to me, since "she thought she was submitting it to an alien, and I'm not an alien"?

You get the idea. Given a fairly standard philosophy of language, it is possible to have very different beliefs about an individual--even differences about what is essential--and still be referring to the same individual. You'd need a pretty unconventional philosophy of language to avoid this outcome.

In short, to derive a contradiction between what Hawkins said and the statement of faith she is required to endorse, you need to deny the fairly standard philosophy of language claims explained by Feser in favor of some alternative (and less standard) philosophy of language. There is no reason to suppose that Hawkins endorses this non-standard philosophy of language. In fact, her remarks explaining her views all but imply that she endorses the standard view described by Feser. (Consider the following statement: "In no way did I make a moral equivalency between Jesus and Muhammad or Islam and Christianity. That would be offensive to my Muslim friends and to my Christian friends to pretend that the religions are the same, that they're not different, either in practice or theology.")

Now, were a non-standard philosophy of language part of Wheaton's statement of faith, such that all Wheaton faculty are required to endorse this non-standard philosophy of language as part of their employment agreement, then there would be a problem for Hawkins. But I invite you to read through Wheaton's statement of faith carefully. Is a distinctive philosophy of language that rejects standard ideas about reference clearly laid out as an article of faith that Wheaton faculty must endorse? No? Then Hawkins needn't endorse any such thing in order to be in line with the statement of faith. So, she is free to adopt the standard view--which it seems she does. And when you combine the standard view with Wheaton's statement of faith, guess what? Hawkins' claim about Muslims and Christians worshiping the same God is wholly consistent with standing by that statement of faith.

In other words, Wheaton officials are flat out wrong if they assert that there is a conflict between what Hawkins said and what Wheaton's statement of faith requires Hawkins to endorse. Let me say that again: they are flat-out wrong. This is not some matter of opinion where there is no clear answer. It is a matter of logic. And they are wrong about the logic.

 To avoid an error of logic, they might say the following: "There is a conflict between Wheaton's statement of faith and the conjunction of Hawkins' claim with an unconventional philosophy of language that we have no reason to suppose Hawkins endorses." But saying this does not get them very far. It certainly does not warrant termination proceedings.

Let me summarize as plainly as I can. Whether there is a conflict between a complex statement of faith and a few social media remarks is a question of logical consistency. In the case at hand, there is no direct conflict. To get such a conflict, you need to combine the statement of faith and Hawkins' remarks with certain additional claims about linguistic reference--philosophical claims about the nature of language that Wheaton (wisely) does not require its faculty to endorse, and which there is no good reason to think Hawkins endorses.

Hence, as a matter of logic, there is no good reason to suppose that Hawkins' remarks commit her to standing against Wheaton's statement of faith. Said another way, there is absolutely no good reason to think, based on Hawkins' social media comments about Muslims and Christians, that Hawkins was in any way questioning or rethinking her allegiance to Wheaton's statement of faith. But surely termination proceedings of the sort Wheaton's provost has initiated call for good reasons.

Admittedly, it takes some clear thinking to see this point. And not everyone thinks clearly all the time. I saw a cartoon recently in which the author tried to argue that it was obvious that Christians and Muslims don't worship the same God. But the whole thrust of the argument was that Christians believe different things about God than Muslims do--including several things that are essential (especially the Doctrine of the Trinity). It is worth noting that no one takes these considerations as sufficient to show that Christians and contemporary Jews worship different Gods--but that point aside, it should be clear from what I have said above that the cartoon's author, like Wheaton's leadership, are conflating two distinct claims:

Claim 1: Muslims and Christians believe very different things about the God they worship (as well as some very similar things, too, of course).

Claim 2: Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.

An argument that establishes Claim 1 does not establish Claim 2. And to get from Claim 1 to Claim 2, you need to introduce additional premises--premises that Hawkins doesn't seem to endorse and isn't required to endorse by her allegiance to Wheaton's statement of faith.

Put simply, Wheaton's leaders (and our cartoonist) are confused. They take there to be a conflict because they are either conflating Claim 1 with Claim 2 or because they think the inference from Claim 1 to Claim 2 is straightforward and uncontroversial, which it is not.

Hence, if Hawkins' public statements about Christianity and Islam really are the basis for the termination proceedings that have begun, the proceedings have been initiated for very bad reasons indeed. But something as serious as initiating termination proceedings for a tenured professor must be rooted in good reasons. Because of this, I hope for more than just that the proceedings end up with a "not guilty" verdict and Hawkins getting to keep her job. What I hope for--at least if Wheaton's reasons for moving ahead with termination proceedings are what they appear to be--is that Wheaton suspends the proceedings as soon as possible and extends to Hawkins a sincere apology.

My reasons for thinking this are implicit in what I've already said, I think. But let me spell it out. As noted above, what Hawkins said would be in conflict with Wheaton's statement of faith only when combined with a controversial set of views about the nature of linguistic reference that Hawkins almost certainly does not hold. It violates the principle of charity to attribute to someone views they almost certainly don't hold in order to fabricate a problem that wouldn't exist absent such an attribution. And it violates basic decency to try to fire someone from their job based on such fabricated problems.

To permit that sort of thing is to open the door to witch hunts. As soon as we allow bad reasons to justify suspensions and termination hearings, we are setting a precedent by which anyone can be subjected to termination hearings based on tenuous grounds. When you open the door to witch hunts, the witch hunters rub their hands together with glee. Accusations begin to fly, and the community becomes infected by paranoia. The spirit of charity and love that is supposed to be the hallmark of a Christian community is lost as members of that community become increasingly motivated by the fear of being kicked out for trivial reasons and trumped-up charges. They begin pointing fingers at others in the hope of deflecting attention from themselves.

It is for the sake of preserving Wheaton's community from the specter of witch hunts that I believe the administration should quickly rescind their actions, admit they made a mistake, and ask Hawkins for forgiveness.

I suspect she'll give it. After all, every sign indicates that she is a Christian, and that's what Christians do.