(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.
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.
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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.
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”)