January 19, 2016

Is Wheaton College getting a fair shake? (COMMENTARY)

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Students chant "Reinstate Doc Hawk," as the bell rings for the first chapel of spring semester at Wheaton College. Religion News Service photo by Emily Miller

Students chant "Reinstate Doc Hawk," as the bell rings for the first chapel of spring semester at Wheaton College. Religion News Service photo by Emily Miller

(RNS) The uproar over Wheaton College’s recent decision to begin termination proceedings for a tenured professor was oh-so-predictable.

When Larycia Hawkins sought to show solidarity with her Muslim neighbors by donning a hijab and declaring that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God,” the college sought clarification and then placed her on administrative leave while it investigated whether her theology was out of step with the school’s statement of faith.

Since that time, Wheaton has borne the brunt of the criticism online.

The way the story gets told, the professor is the “martyr” for daring to push against a doctrinal boundary. The college is the rigid and impersonal institution, holding its professors to the letter of the law and unwilling to entertain new ideas.


RELATED STORY: Wheaton’s move to fire Larycia Hawkins turning farce into a fiasco. Here are six questions that need to be asked. 


It’s not surprising to see the story play out this way, really. From the time we cast off the chains of King George, Americans have made heroes of the individuals who challenge institutional authority. We applaud anyone who is courageous enough to be true to his or her convictions, no matter what those in power may say. Within this anti-authoritarian culture, doctrinal statements seem quaint and harmful, and those who push the boundaries are heroic.

But what if we flip the common framing of this story?

What happens when we recognize that it takes a lot of courage today for an institution to challenge a culture that has no patience for enforcing doctrinal guidelines?

What if it’s Wheaton College that dares to push against a culture that resists religious standards of accountability?

What if it’s not the embattled professor, but the college that is being true to its convictions, even to the point of being mocked by outsiders or accused of sacrificing “academic freedom”?

Make no mistake. Wheaton College is the “rebel” when it comes to enforcing its doctrinal standard, especially considering our society’s distaste for dogma.

In this particular case, the idea that the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) share common ground at the level of worship may be widespread today, but that idea is not a mark of evangelicalism. Wheaton is pushing against this common perspective in our culture by seeking to remain true to its core evangelical beliefs and practices.


RELATED STORY: What the Larycia Hawkins case means for evangelical colleges


Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Larycia Hawkins speaks on Jan. 6, 2016, at First United Methodist Church in Chicago. Religion News Service photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Now, you may side with Professor Hawkins for showing solidarity with people on the margins of society. You may even agree with her claim that her solidarity is religious and that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

That’s fair. There are many issues at play. Many theologians will admit that the philosophical and theological implications of Hawkins’ original statement are complicated. It is not clear whether Hawkins’ view falls outside the school’s statement of faith or whether she has merely challenged a particular interpretation of that statement.

But for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that an evangelical college had a clear-cut case against a faculty member who opposed the school’s doctrinal statement on this matter. In such a case, you’d have to admire the courage of a college that would do whatever it takes to safeguard the foundational Christ-centered belief that God is not God apart from Jesus.

Imagine a school of evangelicals who believe Jesus is so important that you can’t truly define God’s identity apart from him — to the point the administration would be willing to be misunderstood and maligned for acting consistently with that conviction.

Now, let’s go back to Hawkins’ statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Adherents to Judaism, Christianity and Islam do affirm there is only one God. These faiths do trace their lineage back to Abraham. And yes, these faiths do have an understanding of progressive revelation; that is, God was revealed as time went on.

But notice where the three major religions of the world diverge — with Jesus.

Christians believe the Jewish story is fulfilled in Jesus and that the Hebrew Scriptures prepare the path for the arrival of Jesus. Echoing the words of the Apostle Peter, Christians confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In contrast, Jews reject Jesus’ messianic claims and do not believe Jesus was divine.

Likewise, Muslims part ways with Christians when they deny that Jesus is “the Son of God.” Just a few weeks ago, I had a lengthy conversation with a Muslim about the identity of God. My Muslim conversation partner devoted significant time trying to convince me that I was guilty of idolatry for my exalted view of Jesus. Were I to have asked him if we worship the same God, he would have found the notion offensive. “Allah does not have a son!”

The common portrait of Jesus today is that of an inclusive figure who always brings people together. But the Gospels present a Jesus who talks of dividing child against parents, husband against wife, brother against sister.

Spend some time in conversation with Christian converts from Islam and you’ll see the truth of Jesus’ words — Christians who have been disowned by their families, or shunned by their closest relatives. In some cases, you can’t talk to the converts, because they’ve been killed.

The claims of the three Abrahamic religions are mutually exclusive when it comes to Jesus. They can’t all be right. That’s why the controversy all comes back to Jesus.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of the Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Evangelicals have an acute sense of that theological incompatibility. And so it’s not surprising to see so much controversy over Hawkins’ statement and her subsequent remarks. Evangelical Christians build their institutions upon the fundamental truth that God is one in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Hawkins says she agrees that the Trinity is non-negotiable. And so now the debate has moved on to other implications of her views and how Wheaton has handled the process.

Whatever happens next, it’s clear that Hawkins has shown courage in sticking to her beliefs, even if it results in her firing. But Wheaton College has also shown courage in seeking to more clearly articulate its foundational principles, even if it results in cultural shame and mockery.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After”)

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  • George Nixon Shuler

    Eh, I don’t think so: Wheaton’s position is equivalent to that of the Lilliputians and the Blefescuans in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (Remember, Swift was an Anglican Priest himself). Swift’s stand-in, the castaway medical doctor Lemuel Gulliver, tried to prevent war between his patrons, the miniature Lilliputians, and their rival island of small humanoids, Blefescu. The King was ready for war because in Blefescu they opened eggs at the large end, whereas in Lilliput they opened them on the small end. Gulliver suggested a compromise, “Why not open an egg in the middle?” he asked the King, who tried it and got egg all over him, so, the war was on. Swift used such silliness as a metaphor for European religious wars in his period. Hawkins, in contrast, has the thankless job like Gulliver.

  • “…In such a case, you’d have to admire the courage of a college that would do whatever it takes to safeguard the foundational Christ-centered belief that God is not God apart from Jesus.”

    Doubling down on unsupportable, empty claims is NOTHING to be proud of!
    It is no better than defending Leprechauns.

    Wheaton is a national embarrassment because it has decided – thanks to hidden sources it will not reveal – which God is the true God and which teachers have properly earned their pay (bribed) for saying so!

    Wheaton, like all theological schools, is not an education – it is a con job.

  • Trevin, call me cynical, but when things blow up like this I think doctrine is actually only playing a small part. It’s primarily about donors, I’m sure, and trying not to offend them. I don’t blame Wheaton for this — institutions have to protect themselves. But I’ve seen enough of these situations to know that the public high-minded conversation about doctrine usually cover very different back room panic about offending important patrons.

  • Larry

    Does Wheaton’s board also have freedom of speech and religion? If so, can’t they decide matters of faith for themselves? The professor gets to choose as well knowing the consequence of her choice. I don’t think a Muslim school woukd be expected to accept the words of Jesus in John 14:6.

  • Wheaton Grad

    I appreciate your perspective, Max. It does take courage to hold onto Christian beliefs in the midst of a culture that ridicules or at least simply doesn’t understand them. My fellow faculty wouldn’t even know how to respond if I told them I had waited until marriage to have sex because of my personal belief in Christ.

    Christian professors are regularly sidelined in the Academy. Religious belief is a liability in a secular culture that emphasizes existentialism, self-determinism, and relativity of values–except for the values of pluralism and tolerance. Ironically, these are increasingly enforced with Orwellian fervor.

    I’m sure Wheaton College has some mixed motives in their handling of the case. I’ve read Doc Hawkins words and reports however, and though I’m willing to support her, it appears she is making this a ploy to put pressure on the university to conform to her own personal position.

  • Christy

    I graduated from Wheaton. I totally support Wheaton’s right to hold faculty to agreed upon standards even in the face of media criticism. But we should take note when so many members of Wheaton’s own faculty are going on record criticizing the admin’s process in handling this case. When the only other tenured Wheaton professor who has ever been put on administrative leave before is someone who was arrested in an FBI sting and sentenced to prison for child pornography, it puts into perspective why people are calling this an over-reaction and questioning admin’s judgment and motives.

  • Naksuthin

    Trying to compare Wheaton to Professor Hawkins is like comparing North Korea to Martin Luther King.

    I find it unbelievable that in the 21st century, in the United States of America where our Constitution guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, a religious college like Wheaton is allowed to punish a professor for expressing her personal religious views…especially on her own time, at home, after work on her own private facebook page

    Could any other institution: Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, Illinois State U, expel a student or professor for stating “Muslims and Christians worship the same God”??

    Could Apple computers, General Motors, Intel, McDonalds, Tyson Foods, Kraft or Wells Fargo get away with requiring employees and managers to sign a “statement of faith”?

    Of course not. It would be a violation of our Civil rights laws and our Constitution. It would violate every basic concept of freedom we have learned since childhood.

  • Naksuthin

    Could any other institution: Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, Illinois State U, expel a student or professor for stating “Muslims and Christians worship the same God”??

    Could Apple computers, General Motors, Intel, McDonalds, Tyson Foods, Kraft or Wells Fargo get away with requiring employees and managers to sign a “statement of faith”?

  • Naksuthin

    YOU SAY My fellow faculty wouldn’t even know how to respond if I told them I had waited until marriage to have sex because of my personal belief in Christ.

    That’s wonderful. You got to make a choice and no one punished you for it.
    Now put the shoe on the other foot.
    Let’s say you were a Christian at Wheaton, Bob Jones, or Liberty Christian….and you realized you were a homosexual.
    Do you think you would have been given the right to make that choice without being punished??

    Would the college have given you

  • Naksuthin

    Wheaton College administrators get the prize for “Dumbest Decision of the Year”

    This entire issue got blown way out of proportion when the college decided to publicly penalize her for making …what the College now says were “innocuous”
    statements…instead of privately discussing the entire episode with her privately as they have done in the past with others who have made “eyebrow” raising comments

    Now the College faces
    1. a divided campus and faculty,
    2. Eight hundred Wheaton College Alumni say they might not give money to the school unless the effort to terminate Professor Larycia Hawkins is stopped.
    3. the public scorn of theologians and academics,
    4. the condemnation of First Amendment supporters
    5. the tarnishing of the reputation of an institution that was once called the “Harvard of Christian Colleges”
    6. worldwide unwanted exposure for punishing someone for expressing her religious views on her own time, at home and on her own Facebook page

  • Naksuthin

    On any given day half the Wheaton Campus is involved in “impure” sexual thoughts and actions that, if made public, would result in the dismissal of half the campus.

    * March 20, 2007: At a men’s summit in Oregon before 2,000 men, Shelley Lubben of Shelley Lubben ministries challenged those who were struggling with porn addiction to stand. 30% rose to their feet. She
    immediately challenged them a second time, with the result that some 70% were standing.

    * March, 2007: At a small Christian conference in Austria, 75% of the 25 men in attendance admitted to being involved with porn; 50% withinthe past 6 months.

    * April 6, 2007: 70% of Christians admitted to struggling
    with porn in their daily lives. From a non-scientific poll taken by XXXChurch, as reported by CNN.

    * August 7,2006: 50% of all Christian men and 20% of all Christian women are addicted to pornography. 60% of the women who answered the survey admitted to having significant struggles with lust;

  • Dr. Larycia Hawkins wasn’t expressing or advocating a doctrine. She was trying to find common ground with Muslims. She didn’t expect it to become a moment for Wheaton College to show off their rigid authoritarian personality disorder .

    She wasn’t being pedantic or technical about Muslim views of the Trinity. She was just reaching out to the Muslim community with a sense of leadership and ecumenical fellowship that obviously is lacking at Wheaton College.

    Yahweh is as fake as Allah (to us realists). And the Trinity is just another fiction invented to bring pagans on board the Christian bandwagon, because as everyone in Pagan Rome knew, true gods had to have a triple aspect.

    The point isn’t that she was creating a new dogma or doctrine; she wasn’t. She did something worse; she said her god was equal to Islam’s instead of being superior and distinct.

    This is why the exclusionary, Country Club-in-the-sky style of elitist Christ-insanity rubs sane people the wrong way.

  • EqualTime

    And Genesis 17:20.

  • Shawnie5

    “…she said her god was equal to Islam’s instead of being superior and distinct.” Precisely. And therein you have the disavowal of the core doctrines to which Wheaton is committed. “He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” John 5:23.

  • Rover Serton

    Being an atheist, I don’t have any specifics on who is on what websites, but you write: “Not that they aren’t welcome to do so as long as they leave the vulgarity and abusiveness at the door, of course, but they can’t simultaneously claim to “not care” about religion as most of them do.”

    I care very much about religion because it is continually trying to be forced on me by religionists, in the US primarily Christian. From medical care i.e. catholic hospitals not allowing sterilizations, to Anti abortionists trying in every way to restrict a woman’s constitutional right, to pre race nascar prayers, to “in god we trust” on police cars. We non believers are hammered daily with religious tripe. It is in my best interest to reduce the number that practice religion. It is, of course, in your best interest to keep your religion going.

    I am typically an atheist, but, am sometimes pushed to Anti theist due to proposed legislation.

    Be well,

  • Chad

    Absolutely correct.

  • Mr Friday

    Working in the corporate world, I am subject to a social media policy — I need to be careful about any comments or posts I make that could be taken to represent or reflect on my employer. This is the core issue with Dr. Hawkins. She made a vastly simplified statement on an issue that is complex and can easily be misunderstood. According to Time magazine, Wheaton administration “…hoped that once the issues regarding the theological content of her post were brought to her attention, Dr. Hawkins would offer a retraction or a satisfactory clarification.” Instead of doing this and having the private dialogue that Wheaton offered, she chose to wage a media campaign. While the intent of her original statement was likely innocuous, her subsequent media actions have split alumni, students and faculty along with subjecting the college to charges of bigotry and intolerance. Any company that was damaged in such a way by employee media statements would similarly move to terminate the employee.

  • Garson Abuita

    A private educational institution such as Wheaton, Harvard, Yale or Stanford (Cornell is more complicated) absolutely can have a statement of faith. As to private non-religious corporations, they cannot in general discriminate on the basis of their employees’ religious beliefs.

  • @Rover:

    “I care very much about religion because it is continually trying to be forced on me by religionists…”

    BINGO!
    And I feel the same way.
    When politicians and other people in power stop insisting everyone respect their religious notions I will gladly stop questioning their claims.

    Wheaton is doing the public a disservice by calling itself a college.
    It is a house of superstition.

  • @Mr. Friday…

    “She made a vastly simplified statement on an issue that is complex and can easily be misunderstood.”

    Nonsense. This argument is painfully simple.

    If Yahweh is Allah – as Hawkins purports – then there is no reason for Christians and Muslims to see each other as infidels.

    However –
    if Yahweh is not Allah many billions of Muslims (or Christians) are living their lives without the true God.

    This sort of religious disagreement is the most incendiary invention of humanity. Such things are usually settled with war – and the victor gets to say which God is the true god.

    That is the fundamental flaw in Wheaton College (and other religious ‘schools’)
    It perpetuates primitive superstitions and discourages true education.
    There is clearly no evidence for any of the claims Wheaton (or Hawkins) is making.

  • Dr John

    Every single persons personal preference is not the issue here. Here you have a private, conservative Christian university. They were established by a certain belief statement that all faculty must agree with. This is not unique to them. Many places do the same. If a faculty strays from it, they can be terminated. Regardless if ppl of other faiths or no faith agree, the faculty must stay true to their convictions just like the prof should be true to her convictions. If that means they part company, then fine. If the prof didn’t really stray from the schools confession of faith, then she should clarify and reaffirm the confession of faith. Whether everyone agrees or believes or not. If her beliefs have changed then she should leave voluntarily. It’s not her role to change the school.

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  • What does it say about a religion that it must enforce a faith statement on its students and faculty in its colleges?

    If Christianity (or any particular denomination of Christianity) is true, a faith statement becomes a burden. It’s an admission that you must create an environment with training wheels rather than have it defend itself in the marketplace of ideas.

  • A Christian

    Yes, cynical. It’s clear that there are many loud alum who have declared their intention to withhold future donations if Hawkins is NOT reinstated. Wheaton has a history of being steadfast in it’s commitment to it’s founding faith and doctrine. And yet it continues to thrive. Isn’t it possible Wheaton leadership believes God will continue to bless their courage to stand for what they are convinced is True? And furthermore, what if they’re right? I applaud the college for not bending to cultural pressure.

  • A Christian

    Well said.

  • A Christian

    You’re correct. Only one religion can be true. You show great disdain for any person or institution who believes in religion. You scorn them because they have no proof but you neither offer nor possess proof either. If I’m wrong and God doesn’t exist, I have still lived a good life and lose nothing when I die. If you’re wrong, you miss out on the free gift Jesus gave when he paid the price for your sins and when you die you’ll spend an eternity wishing you hadn’t. Just think about it.

  • A Christian

    Totally agree.

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  • paul

    Private institutions can do, say, believe, hire, fire anything or anybody they want. That does not shield or absolve them from external criticism when what they stand for is an intellectual abomination. Wheaton deserves all the criticism & ridicule it gets for being an insular enclave of outmoded mysticism.

  • Shawnie5

    “An environment with training wheels” is an apt description for most college campuses today, and it is liberal ideology which is responsible for the lion’s share of it. How about pushing for a little more “marketplace of ideas” at liberal and secular universities before telling the religious ones how to operate?

    Lead by example.

  • Yee

    It might be worth researching Pascal’s Wager. It is incredibly flawed logic. You claim that if the atheist is wrong, it must mean the Christian understanding of an afterlife must be true. What about all the other religions? If a Muslim says you’re going to hell, how do you know they are wrong? There’s no reason to believe anything unless you have the proof for it. By your logic, you basically just have to get lucky when choosing from the thousand of religions that have ever existed, otherwise you burn forever. Until you have proof, there is just as much chance there is a God who only lets atheists into heaven as there is of the afterlife you believe in.

  • @A Christian,

    “You show great disdain for any person or institution who believes in religion. You scorn them because they have no proof but you neither offer nor possess proof..”
    Yes. I scorn unsupportable claims. You have absolutely no reason to believe in any gods!
    Atheism has never been wrong. I do NOT claim to know if a god exists. Perhaps one does! But I am certainly correct when I say there is no reason to believe in any of them.
    Atheism only means lack of belief – it isn’t a claim (as religion is), it is only an opinion.

    “If I’m wrong and God doesn’t exist..”
    What if you are the one who is wrong?
    Then you have wasted your life and refused to explore the possibilities. Furthermore, suppose the real God is Allah or Ganesha? Then you and I shall spend eternity in a FAR worse Hell than anything Christianity dreamed up! Utter nonsense.

    Think about it!

  • cken

    I always find it interesting when people thing viewing general porn is a sin. If you feel guilty about it then don’t view it. If it causes you to act out maybe you need help. For the vast majority of people it does no harm so why do some think it is sinful. Personally I think it is boring.

  • cken

    The authors logic centers on Jesus and the professor didn’t say we follow the same Jesus. She said we worship the same God, which is difficult to refute.

    “…….to challenge a culture that has no patience for enforcing doctrinal guidelines.” Doctrinal guidelines sometimes need to have both their origin and validity challenged. Much doctrine is mans interpretation of Scripture. Certainly mans doctrine like Scripture is subject to reproof.

    Whether you approve of the professors methods I would applaud her for seeking unity, peace, and tolerance, in these troubled times. Are unity, peace and tolerance not Christian values? Is Wheaton being divisive or anti-Muslim?
    We don’t have to agree with our neighbors to act like Christians and love them and treat them with respect.
    Many Christian churches have the same problem we only want those to attend who are just like us and have no tolerance for those who aren’t. In my opinion that is not very Christ-like.

  • Shawnie5

    Apart from the manner in which porn objectifies and demeans women, the consumption of porn puts money in the pockets of some of society’s lowest of the low — those who exploit the most vulnerable and damaged women and frequently children and teens as well.

  • john (not mccain)

    ISIS stands by its convictions as well. When one’s convictions are based on bigotry and stupidity, as it the case with both ISIS and Wheaton College, there is nothing to respect.

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  • @Shawnie:

    “Lowest of the low”

    Men and women will have sex and they shall enjoy it immensely. Too bad if you object.
    Laws exist in civilized societies to protect minors from being exploited. These laws are enforced quite well in most democracies.

    But we shall not take lessons in proper sexual behavior from a God who commands rape and incest:

    “I will take your wives and give them to your neighbor. He shall rape them in broad daylight….I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’ ” – GOD (2 Samuel 12:11)

    God is too depraved even for pornography.

  • Shawnie5

    Re-read my comment. Obviously you did not understand it.

  • Shawnie:

    Obviously you did not understand my reply.

  • Larry

    Yet companies of all sizes demand employees sign a statement on non-disclosure do they not? What is the difference?

  • Rev1211

    It is amazing to me that in the 21st century in the United States that our citizens have no concept of the difference between public and private institutions. Furthermore, they have not thought through the implications or were ever educated to the fact that the First Amendment does not apply to private institutions such as Wheaton. Private institutions can make up any rules the want regarding hiring and firing. They only run into restrictions if their is applicable state law or federal law if they take federal money and therefore have specific regulations apply to them. Unfortunately, our public schools today do not teach how the Bill of Rights actually applies and the positive aspects of this. The assume all institutions once the reach a certain size must obviously be treated and manage like public i.e Federally controlled institutions. Fortunately, I had a business law professor (and ACLU Leader) finally teach this to me in grad school.

  • We need to make distinction. Every educational institution has an ideological climate, and those who stray outside its bounds quickly learn that they have done so. Some institutions lie; others like Wheaton attempt to be honest Larry Summers was driven out of the Harvard presidency — into the waiting arms of the Obama Administration for his views on mathematical intelligence. Mark Regnerus was attacked for his argument that children flourish best with both mothers and fathers. Many supposedly Catholic institutions harass seriously Catholic professors. And so on.

    But schools need to be both honest and intelligent. The Wheaton doctrinal statement says nothing about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God: the matter is disputed among Evangelical Protestants; Roman Catholics like Pope Francis and myself believe that they do. For a Christian woman to wear a headscarf — and Wheaton swears that this is not the real issue — strikes me as tasteless but a firing…

  • A footnote to my earlier comment, which ran out of space.

    Acadmic freedom is now under attack all over America. And the victims are much more likely to be people with socially conservative views than dissident Evangelicals.

  • Tom B

    Well said. God forbid that any institution would hold unwaveringly to its founding convictions and hold its members to their expressed commitments. I support Wheaton.

  • David Taylor

    ” , . it’s an admission that you must create an environment with training wheels rather than have it defend itself in the marketplace of ideas.”
    Not really. One of the rationales for statements of faith is simply to identify and define the “ideas” proponents wish to defend. The “training wheels” allusion is just a childish, foolish disparagement.