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Interfaith Round-Table: A Conversation On Theology


We wanted to take a closer look at the theological issues raised by this story, so we've called three people who have thought deeply about these questions. Jonathan Brown is a professor at Georgetown University, where, among his responsibilities, he is director of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Professor Brown, thanks for coming.

JOHN BROWN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Russell Moore. He's best known as president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. But he's also an ordained minister and theologian. Pastor Moore, it's good to speak with you again.

RUSSELL MOORE: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: And Karen Danielson is the outreach at the Chicago chapter of the Muslim American Society, where she's won many awards for her work in the community, including interfaith understanding. Karen Danielson, thank you so much for joining us as well.

KAREN DANIELSON: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: And professor Brown, I'm going to start with you. The professor at the heart of this story, as we've just heard, professor Hawkins, quotes Pope Francis saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Is that a foundational belief among Muslims and Christians, to your knowledge?

BROWN: Well, obviously, the Christian side is up for dispute, at least from the evangelical perspective. In Islam, there is a clear understanding that Muslims, Christians, Jews all worship the same God - you know, the Creator and sustainer of the universe. I think it's partially because Islam comes after these religions and because Islam - at least in its founding scriptures - very consciously puts itself in that tradition - the Abrahamic tradition.

MARTIN: Now, Russell Moore, we note that the Southern Baptist Convention is this country's largest Protestant denomination. I take it that you have a different view of this. So how do you teach and preach this?

MOORE: As an evangelical Christian, I believe that one worships God only through Jesus Christ. I remember one time I was having a conversation with a Muslim scholar. She and I were on a panel together. And someone in the audience stood up and said, why can't you just stop all of this debating and just say you worship God your way and I worship God my way? And the Muslim scholar turned to me and said, who is God to you? And I said, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. And she said, well, I can't go there because I believe that Allah is one. This person in the audience was really trying to impose a vague spirituality on the two of us. And I think it's much more fruitful for us to have honest conversations about where we differ, as well as where we agree.

MARTIN: Karen Danielson, what about you? Because this is kind part of the work of your life is these kinds of conversations. What's your understanding of this?

DANIELSON: You know, of course, we have the story of creation in the Quran. We also see the stories about the prophets. And I think that these stories are clear indicating that all these things have been done by the same God in our beliefs. And I think the issue is the mode of worship - that is, yes, we do things differently and we see some of the attributes and characteristics of God in different ways, for sure. But I don't think we have two gods going on here who did all of these things. We're still looking at the same God. We're just seeing God and worshiping God in different ways.

MARTIN: Professor Brown, you wanted to add something?

BROWN: Well, I mean, I think the minister said something very interesting. There's almost this sense that this is sort of a creeping political correctness or sort of social liberalism you see with the gay marriage ruling in the summer - that there's this - I think it's a fear on the part of a lot of conservative religious people in America, Christian and Muslim, that they are going to be forced to erase their identifying markers because they might be seen as discriminatory. And so I think that, you know, when he said there's sort of - the reverend mentioned this fluffy theology or something or spirituality. And I think that's a fear of a lot of religious people, which is that their really profound religious beliefs are going - they're going to be forced to kind of make those private, deny them and to - we are all just going to have this sort of have this "Kumbaya," we all believe in the same religion thing, which people who feel really committed to an religion just don't really want to have pushed on them.

MARTIN: Well, that's an interesting point because actually that was going to be my next question to you anyway, which is that, you know, what is at stake here that Wheaton College felt it needed to take such a strong stance on this? And the institution, I do want to emphasize, was careful to say that they were not suspending the professor because she wore the scarf as a statement of solidarity but that it was a question of theological confusion. Karen Danielson, how do you feel about the professor's choice to wear the hijab during the Advent season - you know, for those who are not aware, the Advent season is the season in which Christians await the birth of Jesus Christ. What is your take on her decision to do that? I understand that that's - some - controversial among some Muslim women.

DANIELSON: I think it is a welcome gesture of solidarity. I sometimes don't understand it, but I think that there is some tradition of women covering their head, even in the Bible. And so if there is that sense of unity of faith and unity of practice of our faiths, then I think that's remarkable and it's a great gesture on her part.

MARTIN: Professor Brown, we're down to our last couple of minutes here. How should we go forward in this conversation?

BROWN: I think it's important to separate the theological dispute from the political background. I think that you see two important issues from the evangelical Christian perspective. One is this fear of having religious - their religious identity threatened. The second one is that - I hate to say this, but it's been - Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment has been extremely strong in the evangelical community for the past 15 years. And one of the main things you see that people like Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr. other people - they'll constantly bring up is that we don't worship the same God. Muslims and Christians don't worship the same God - that that's a huge problem. Muslims don't really talk about this; they don't ever talk about this. This is a trope in evangelical discourse. And I'm sorry, but it comes out of real hostility for Muslims and for Islam. And I think that's something that the evangelical community has to deal with.

MARTIN: Professor Moore, I'm going to give you the last word on this.

MOORE: Well, it doesn't come from hostility toward the Muslim people. To hold - to be an evangelical, we have to hold to the Gospel, which means an understanding of the distinctiveness and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. If a Muslim institution had a professor who stood up and said, I want to stand in solidarity with ancient Christian communities being persecuted, that would be a welcome thing. But if that Muslim professor said, we all worship Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, the Muslim institution would have every right to say you're not speaking as a Muslim anymore. That's what's going on at Wheaton College.

MARTIN: That was Russell Moore. He's president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Liberty Commission. His latest book is "Onward: Engaging The Culture Without Losing The Gospel." Jonathan Brown is also with us. He's a professor at Georgetown University. His latest book is "Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges And Choices Of Interpreting The Prophet's Legacy." And Karen Danielson was also with us. She's the outreach director of the Muslim American Society's Chicago chapter. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

BROWN: Thank you.

MOORE: Thank you.

DANIELSON: Thank you. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.