Nate Haken is a graduate of the Wheaton College which has become notorious for its recent decision to suspend with pay a professor who dared claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Haken works in West Africa detecting early warning signs of conflict and developing strategies to manage conflict when it emerges. He recently co-authored a book with Patricia Taft, Violence in Nigeria: Patterns and Trends.

Yesterday in an article titled “What ‘Worshiping the Same God’ Means in Global Context” Haken weighed in on the suspension by his alma mater of Larycia Hawkins. Haken contends the problem is that Wheaton is worrying about the wrong question. Instead of fretting over whose concept of God is better, Haken argues,

The question that matters to people in the real world is, “Who is my neighbor?”

Haken then goes on to recount a moving story from his work in conflict resolution in the city of Jos in central Nigeria:

In 2013, I was facilitating a conflict assessment workshop in Jos. As usual, they opened the workshop with a prayer, in the name of Jesus — that we would have a good and meaningful dialogue to better understand the root drivers of conflict and find solutions, and that God would be honored by our thoughts and words.

We were sitting under a pavilion outside the hotel. Almost everyone around the table was Christian. After the prayer, I glanced at the two women wearing hijabs and asked, “Are we interfaith?,” in case they also wanted to say a prayer. The young woman in a blue hijab smiled gently and said, “No, that prayer will suffice. We all worship the same God.”

There it is again… that troubling affirmation “We all worship the same God.” What should Mr. Haken have done? Should he have corrected the Muslim woman? She he have sought clarity in her theology demanding to know just what it was she meant by the “God” she claimed to worship?

Haken points out,

If at that moment, a doctor of theology had spoken up to demand that she explain herself, people may have been forced to start picking sides. Any trust that we had built up to that point could have been shattered. The workshop could have devolved into word games and semantic nitpicking, every comment loaded with intentional or unintentional misinterpretation and connotations. Secondary issues related to ethnicity, gender, or class may have gotten pulled into the vortex. Somebody might have been accused of bigotry. Somebody else maybe accused of papering over real differences.

Inevitably, a beautiful human moment would have been lost. Instead of connection, there would have been contention. Instead of communion, there would have been controversy.

But fortunately in this situation, things were not being run by the theologians. So Nate Haken goes on to explain that, rather than jumping into a theological tussle, he was able to find the Spirit of Christ present in this situation.

For what it’s worth — and I hope this doesn’t disqualify me from Wheaton College’s community of faith — I think the Muslim woman in the blue hijab that day in Jos truly exhibited the spirit of Christ when, in a group of people traumatized by sectarian violence, she said that we all worship the same God. I think Dr. Hawkins did, as well.

Unfortunately, I think the Wheaton College administration did not.

To enter into the mystery of the Christmas season we are about to celebrate is surely, before anything else, to acknowledge the mystery of God’s work in the world. The King of Peace was not born in a palace; the angels did not declare the glory of God in the halls of the mighty and powerful. Jesus came to those who may have lacked theological clarity but had hearts open to the wonder of the God who is found in unexpected places and who challenges us to see that we are all neighbours regardless of our theology.

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