The question at the centre of the Wheaton College row: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Hawkins has been associate professor of Wheaton College in suburban Chicago for seven years.Facebook / Larycia Alaine Hawkins

So it looks as though the endgame's begun for Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College.

The professor sparked a theological firestorm with her decision to wear a hijab during Advent to show her solidarity with oppressed Muslims. Worse than this, though, in the eyes of many, was her accompanying Facebook statement: "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."

Conservative evangelicals rounded on her, accusing her of promoting a synchretistic "Chrislam", and Wheaton suspended her.

Now it's issued a statement saying it has begun a process likely to end in her being fired. In technical terms, it's issued a Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings.

Hawkins has been vigorously assailed by conservatives, but Wheaton has come in for trenchant criticism too. If Hawkins is a dangerously woolly liberal, Wheaton's trustees are pitchfork-waving heresy-hunters. Neither of these caricatures is true, though there is arguably considerably more justice on one side than on the other.

So how should we think about these issues?

1. Is the Islam issue the only one between Hawkins and Wheaton?

The theological sound and fury has been generated by her statement that "we worship the same God".

However, in her original post she says: "I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind – a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014."

The Sterkfontein caves are the remains of the earliest human-like creatures ever discovered were found, dating back more than 3 million years. The caves have been called the Cradle of Humankind.

This is a huge problem for Wheaton. Its conservative evangelical base includes many – perhaps a majority – who believe in young-earth creationism and a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3. In a lengthy article on its website the college says that while it's open to the idea that God created all other species by evolution over aeons of time, human beings are a special case and were directly created. In its statement of faith – to which Hawkins is obliged to subscribe – it says: "We believe that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness."

Without commenting on the intellectual coherence of a position that allows for the evolution of, say, a giraffe but draws the line at a human, Hawkins' approving reference to Sterkfontein leaves her in a very vulnerable position.

It's also worth saying that she has been asked no less than four times to affirm her adherence to the college's beliefs, over various issues. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, the fit between her and Wheaton may not, in fact, be particularly good.

2. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

It's desperately important to be clear about what this statement means, and many commentators have not been. In spite of Hawkins' denials, it has been taken to imply that there is no essential difference between Christianity and Islam and that we believe the same things about God. Her hijab-wearing, particularly in the anti-Muslim climate epitomised by Donald Trump and Franklin Graham, muddied the theological waters and allowed her to be presented as a "Chrislamist" who was trying to ride two horses at once.

The strength of the reaction against her indicates the poverty of evangelical Christian thinking on this issue and the extent of the hostility toward Islam generated by the right-wing media.

In fact, understanding the assertion "we worship the same God" requires us to pay careful attention to the context of the statement and the intention of the speaker. Far too many commentators have not done so, including, apparently, Wheaton College. Leaving aside whatever other issues there may be between it and Hawkins, it included in its FAQs about the case the question: "Is it true that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" It answered with a statement of the difference between the two faiths and an affirmation that "salvation is through Christ alone". The implication is clear enough: because of these differences – which no one denies – we do not worship the same God.

At one level, it's absolutely clear that we don't. Muslims don't believe in the Trinity. They don't believe that salvation is through Christ. Their God is different from ours.

But is it still possible to say that he is still, in some sense, the same God? Here we come back to the context, and the speaker.

Hawkins was clear that her words and action were in solidarity with Muslims who have faced an extraordinary public backlash in the US as a reaction to the San Bernardino shootings. Her reference to Pope Francis appears to be in connection with his visit to the Central African Republic the week before her post. The CAR has been riven with violence between Christians and Muslims and Francis visited a mosque as part of efforts toward reconciliation. He did not explicitly say on that visit that "we worship one God", but he did refer to Christians and Muslims as brothers. However, he has previously been very clear indeed: after his inauguration he received a delegation from various denominations and faiths and referred to "Muslims, who worship the one living and merciful God, and call upon Him in prayer".

So, in the context of a world in which Christians and Muslims desperately need to a find common ground of respect and understanding, how can we say such a thing?

First, we can acknowledge our shared history. Christians, Muslims and Jews are Abrahamic faiths in that they spring from common roots. There are huge differences between Christianity and Islam, particularly in our understanding of the Trinity. But these are no greater than the differences between Christianity and Judaism – and saying that Christians and Jews worship a different God would be theologically ludicrous.

Second, we can acknowledge our shared theology. Like Christians, Muslims believe that God is one, that he is eternal, omniscient and all-powerful. They believe that history is linear rather than circular, like Hindus. We are close enough to them to be able to talk the same theological language, even if we say very different things in it. It makes sense, in the context of dialogue and solidarity, to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God; in the case of other religions that language is less appropriate.

Third, we can consider the alternatives. If we don't believe that we worship the same God, what exactly are we saying? That when Muslims pray, there is simply no one there to hear? Or perhaps that Allah (incidentally the word used for God by Christians in Arabic-speaking countries) is really some sort of demonic figure, a sort of alternative to the real thing? This is theological nonsense: God is one, and there is only one God. Yes, we believe that he has revealed himself to a particular people and uniquely in Christ; but we cannot argue that he has left the rest of the world with no knowledge of himself.

Fourth, we can be honest about our motivations. In a hard-hitting Washington Post article, theologian Miroslav Volf says that Hawkins' suspension "not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims." I don't think that's necessarily true of Wheaton's decision, and I don't think it's true of everyone who agrees with what it's done. But I do believe there's an undercurrent of hostility and suspicion toward Muslims among Christians which we need to be aware of and repent of. Many of the comments I've read about this case have been more concerned to attack Muslims than demonstrate grace.

One of the best articles on the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is by Timothy George, an evangelical scholar of impeccable orthodoxy and high prestige – and a trustee of Wheaton College. He wrote it in 2002. George concludes that the answer to the question "Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?" is both Yes and No.

"Yes, in the sense that the Father of Jesus is the only God there is...Christians and Muslims can together affirm many important truths about this great God – his oneness, eternity, power, majesty. As the Qur'an puts it, he is "the Living, the Everlasting, the All-High, the All-Glorious" (2:256)."

But also, "No, for Muslim theology rejects the divinity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit – both essential components of the Christian understanding of God..."

Hawkins, in solidarity with Muslims, chose to emphasise the "Yes". It appears that Wheaton – and the mass of commentators from evangelical perspective – have chosen "No."

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that in doing so they have spoken from a position of fear and distrust rather than confident hope. When the currents of nationalism and xenophobia are strengthening, it's easy to be swept along with them. Now, surely, is the time for Christians to resist; and acknowledging that we have some common ground is not much to ask.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.