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Parting the Veil of Ignorance

Sometimes it seems that this is John Rawls’ world, we’re just living in it: conducting our political and social debates as though we were behind a veil of ignorance, as though we can only trust the judgments made in perfect abstraction from any actual lived contexts. The debate about the future of Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College is a classic example, where a complex, embodied, richly personal situation gets translated into the terms of disembodied theological debate.

It’s not that such debates are fruitless or useless: they matter. But they aren’t all that matters. And they can distract us from more complex considerations.

Consider the experience of my friend Matt Milliner, an art historian at Wheaton:

In my field work in Turkey, Egypt and Cyprus I had some negative and some very positive contacts with Muslims, and spent lots of mornings waking to the prayer call of the minaret. But interestingly, the best relationships with Muslims I have had have been in this town. Believe it or not, they (and by “they” I mean real local people like Abraham and Zahra) are well aware that despite this media firestorm, Wheaton College is here for the long haul, and so are they. Accordingly, my son is not even one year old, and he has been held by more Muslims than Christians. The reason for this is that at the Islamic Center of Wheaton, the gracious, hijab-donning women joyfully pass him around while I talk theology with my new friends. From the beginning we have been clear about our differences. I actually believe, for example, you could have passed Allah (the pre-Islamic Arabic term for God which is still used by Arabic-speaking Christians) around in the same way as my son. And sentimental as it may sound, because God freely gave his son, I can freely give mine.

Wheaton College does not exist in a free-standing abstract theological space. It is a college in a town of about 50,000 people, at the north end of which stands the Islamic Center of Wheaton, which just a few years ago moved into a former church building there. Perhaps that accident of real estate — Muslims occupying a church! — has contributed to the cold welcome, or less than a welcome, that those Muslims have experienced from some locals. But my friends at Wheaton College, most of whom also live in the town of Wheaton, or in other nearby communities that also have a visible Muslim presence, know that the people who worship at the Islamic Center of Wheaton are their neighbors, and Christians are supposed to love their neighbors, so … so they show up. They visit. They talk. They bring their children.

Someone doesn’t like that — doesn’t like the very idea that Muslims can be peacefully incorporated into the fabric of a community like Wheaton. So they have created a fake website for the Islamic Center of Wheaton that presents its people as advocates for jihad — and implicates local Christians as well, as another friend and former colleague of mine, Noah Toly, has recently discovered. Christians from the Wheaton community who have befriended their Muslim neighbors are being smeared, along with those neighbors, as advocates of murder and terror.

That’s the context in which, at Wheaton College and in the town of Wheaton, people are discussing and debating what it might mean to say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

I’m not saying anything here about whether Larycia Hawkins should or should not be fired. You are free to make your own judgments. My own inclination fits that of Mark Galli, who wrote at Christianity Today that there might be a better way to handle this conflict than dismissal.

But whatever your opinion, it’s important to avoid the temptation to abstract this debate from its human situation — as though we could live behind a veil of ignorance and consider the matter in a purely theoretical sense. It’s on the ground, at the corner of President Street and Geneva Road in Wheaton, Illinois, where those life-challenging and life-transforming questions are being asked: Who are my neighbors? And how might I love them?

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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