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Veils, symbols and suspension

Headlines in Chicago’ leading newspaper described how Wheaton, a leading Christian College, suspended the first and only Afro-American, tenured professor. She decided to wear the traditional headscarf throughout Advent. 

On Facebook she wrote, ‘I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God’. The college stated, while recognizing the importance of the gesture and intent, ‘..There are fundamental differences between the two faiths’. She will have to offer a theological explanation that fits with the College’s evangelical statement of faith. It is not wearing the hijab but her theological statements that seem inconsistent with Wheaton’s doctrinal convictions, which all faculty are required to uphold. What the Pope actually said in greeting Muslims was, they ‘Worship the one God, living and merciful’. So her suspension and doctrinal issue comes down to the difference between ‘one’ and ‘same’, what it means to be ‘people of the book’ and the significance of symbolic gestures.

Clearly, there are fundamental differences between the Bible and the Koran. The different books have different teachings. Jesus and Mohammed do not teach the same things. How do we know the nature of God? Clearly the Old Testament teaches God can be known through creation and nature, in the events of history, especially of His People Israel, and through the teaching of the Prophets. The one God has very different descriptions in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Christians claim Jesus is God’s visual aid. If we see Jesus, we see God. We sing Wesley’s carol,

‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,

Hail the incarnate Deity

Pleased as man with us to dwell,

Jesus, our Immanuel.’

Neither Islam nor Judaism claims that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We have no pictures or statues of God. Jesus in human flesh, in particular time and space embodies all we need to know about the nature of God. He makes concrete and tangible, what ideas and concepts cannot hope to capture. Our human understanding is limited. In Jesus Christ, God comes to us on terms we can grasp and apprehend. In Jesus, humanity is brought into the very heart of God. Jesus lives the life humanity was created to fulfil. In His death and resurrection, God gives us the power to be fully human.

Symbols and symbolic gestures can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. At Holy Communion there is an invitation to greet each other with the Peace. In seminary, many of the male members of the community would greet many of the female members with the more than holy or less than holy kiss of peace. In Thailand, putting your feet up with soles point at your host was insulting and not a sign of relaxation. Symbols need interpretation. Like pictures, you cannot picture in a picture how a picture pictures what is pictured, you need a caption. Words can illuminate. It is no surprise that John’s Gospel begins with affirming Jesus is the Word. The Word of God made flesh.

Wheaton College and Dr. Hawkins will have to resolve the professor’s symbolic veil-wearing and her theological rationale, in public view. Loving actions even without words speak volumes. The problem is speaking beyond action.

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