In the medieval West, Muslims were widely thought to be idolators, pagans who worshiped demons. Crusade propaganda like the Song of Roland emphasized that Christendom was in a struggle to capture territory from their demons in the name of the true God.
And so a story was told of Archbishop Thiemo of Salzburg, who went with Duke Welf of Bavaria to liberate Jerusalem in the First Crusade in 1098. Approaching the holy city, they are surrounded and defeated and taken into slavery. In due course Thiemo smashes a golden idol worshiped by the Muslim king, who accuses him of sacrilege. In return, the bishop tells the king that his idols are not gods but demons and that he should cease worshiping them — whereupon he is subjected to torture and a gruesome death.
Among those who read the story was Bishop Otto of Freising, a learned 12th-century prelate who knew at once it was nonsense. Not that Thiemo mightn’t have been martyred for his faith, but that the account of Muslim religious practice was unbelievable. “Because,” Otto explains in his book of world history,
it is a fact that Saracens are all worshipers of the one God [quia constat universitatem Sarracenorum unius Dei cultricem esse], and that they accept the Books of the Law and also circumcision, and do not even reject Christ and the apostles and the apostolic men; that they are far from salvation because of one thing alone — they deny that Jesus Christ, who brings salvation to the human race, is God or the Son of God, and hold in reverence and worship Muhammad as a great prophet of the supreme God.
By accepting Otto’s formulation, Wheaton College can gracefully permit political science professor Larycia Hawkins to keep her job while preserving its evangelical bona fides in suburban Chicago. Which is to say, her statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God can be found neither to violate its statement of faith nor at odds with its conviction that Muslims’ inability to accept Jesus as their lord and savior keeps them from salvation.
The challenge is that too many of the college’s co-religionists are intent on playing the Crusader game. Such as former Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin, who a dozen years ago had this to say about a Somali warlord he’d captured: “He went on CNN and he laughed at us, and he said, ‘They’ll never get me because Allah will protect me. Allah will protect me.’ Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”
Let us pray that Wheaton’s learned leaders are able to see the issue as clearly as Bishop Otto did 900 years ago.