Whither Wheaton? An evangelical college ponders its future

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Wheaton College student Esther Kao (far right) and other supporters of Larycia Hawkins demonstrate Wednesday on the college's campus in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS photo courtesy of Esther Kao.

Wheaton College student Esther Kao (far right) and other supporters of Larycia Hawkins demonstrate Wednesday on the college’s campus in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS photo courtesy of Esther Kao.

WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) Esther Kao was so disappointed by the way Wheaton College dealt with the controversy over Professor Larycia Hawkins, that she started filling out the Common Application to transfer to another school.

But then she remembered why she came here in the first place.

“It was attractive to me that this school is committed to the difficult balance between a liberal arts education and faith — a balance which wavered during the ‘controversial’ theological statement Dr. Hawkins made on Facebook,” the Wheaton sophomore said.

Kao, who is majoring in English and philosophy, has been active in demonstrations supporting Hawkins.

On Wednesday (Feb. 10), Hawkins, a political science professor and Wheaton President Philip Ryken appeared together to announce they’d reached a confidential agreement and would be parting ways.


RELATED STORY: Larycia Hawkins, Wheaton College part ways


But students and faculty — as well as scholars from outside the school — have mixed feelings about the future of the evangelical Christian college in suburban Wheaton.

Wheaton has been called the “evangelical Harvard,” and it has a good reputation because of the high quality of its graduates, according to Martin Marty, professor emeritus of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Noted alumni include evangelical luminaries such as Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth Bell Graham; Jim and Elisabeth Elliot; John Piper; A.W. Tozer and Rob Bell.

Professor Larycia Hawkins at a press conference Feb. 10, 2016, in which she announced her departure from Wheaton College. Wheaton College president Philip Ryken stands at right. RNS photo courtesy Emily McFarlan Miller

Professor Larycia Hawkins at a press conference Feb. 10, 2016, in which she announced her departure from Wheaton College. Wheaton College president Philip Ryken stands at right. RNS photo courtesy Emily McFarlan Miller

It’s the kind of school that tries to keep the liberal arts alive, that houses collections of papers by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, Marty said.

That means it occupies a perilous position in the world of religious-based institutions of higher learning — more invested in keeping religion at the fore than many Catholic or Lutheran or Methodist universities, but not so fundamentalist as a Liberty or Bob Jones universities.

“Every move they make is a little bit precarious,” said Marty.


RELATED STORY: Is Wheaton College getting a fair shake? (COMMENTARY)


Hawkins, who joined the college in 2007 and was tenured in 2014, was placed on leave and termination proceedings against her started in December after she posted a photo of herself wearing hijab on her personal Facebook page. It wasn’t the hijab that gave Wheaton pause, the college has said, but the caption she posted with the photo: “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.”

She later made additional posts on Facebook and Twitter reaffirming Muslims and Christians worship the same God, which the college has said seemed “inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.”

Mixed feelings

Kirkland An — editor-in-chief of the school’s student newspaper, the Wheaton Record – said the college is split in different ways over Wheaton’s actions regarding Hawkins: there are those who unconditionally support Hawkins and those who support her but don’t agree with her theology. There are those who unconditionally support the administration and those who support the administration but don’t agree with the procedure it followed in this case.

Students “tend to polarize toward either extreme,” he said, especially because many don’t understand the complicated issues of tenure involved.


RELATED STORY: Conservative and progressive US evangelicals head for divorce


Like Kao, Kelsey McMahon — a graduate student in Wheaton’s marriage and family therapy program – said she chose the school because she wanted a space where she could question her beliefs within the boundaries of Christianity. She said the Hawkins affair hasn’t changed that.

“I don’t think it has made me feel like I can’t question,” she said, studying at a coffee shop near campus earlier this week. “If anything, this is bringing up more things to talk about. I don’t think there’s a sense we’re cinching or closing in.”

“It’s created good conversations around the world about, ‘Who is God?’ ‘Who is Allah?’ ‘What do we actually believe?’”

Conflict within American evangelicalism

Early in the school’s history, Wheaton had a reputation as a progressive institution, according to Grant Wacker, professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke Divinity School. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad and admitted women in the 19th century, he said. And its first president, Jonathan Blanchard, was an abolitionist and “crusader for social reform,” according to the school website.

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

Evangelism changed, Wacker said, and in the 20th century, both the faith and the school became more conservative. There’s an increasing sense from both that they are “under siege,” according to Michael Hamilton, a professor of history at Seattle Pacific University.

But even as the school has taken more conservative positions, it has remained connected to current trends in the liberal arts, frequently positioning itself in opposition. It hasn’t shied from making public statements on controversial issues, such as evolution, biblical inerrancy, even Obamacare.

The conflict between Hawkins and the administration is itself emblematic of where American evangelicalism is today, said Wacker.

“It’s not that either one of them represents evangelical tradition. It’s the fact there is so much turmoil and conflict and mixed positions. That’s exactly where evangelicals are,” Wacker said.

Moving forward

Some students and faculty say the episode was also about racism and sexism. The college’s own diversity committee called the school’s proceedings “discriminatory on the basis of race and gender, and, to a lesser extent, marital status,” according to a report in TIME. Hawkins is the first black, female tenured professor at Wheaton.

Hamilton said while white northern evangelicalism — the tradition with which he identifies Wheaton — has made efforts to diversify, it still is hampered by a number of unconscious assumptions; namely, that a Christian will act in a certain way, regardless of race or culture or background. It also got its start in conflict with academia, he said, and, in some ways, Wheaton still sees its faculty as the main threat to the religious character of its institution, carefully selecting an monitoring professors based on their theology.

“You get the perfect storm in Larycia Hawkins,” he said.

On Wednesday, Ryken said he knew not everyone on every side of the conflict would be satisfied with its resolution. But he tried to be optimistic.

“We want to learn everything we can from this situation. We hope to become a better, stronger community with a shared understanding of academic freedom in the context of our Christian convictions,” Ryken said.

Kao, the student, said she also hopes the school emerges stronger, and that the student activism will continue.

“There are so many areas for improvement,” she said, “so many different issues, now exposed, that we can tackle.”

(Emily McFarlan Miller is a contributor to RNS)

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  • Dan

    You got it wrong. It was not a case of Wheaton clamming down on the show of solidarity [by Hawkins] to the Muslims. It was a case of bad theology plus rash and radical behavior on the part of this professor. She had to go, period.

  • John W

    The agreement reached by the two parties ought to mean that this story is over. But the Left won’t let it lie because it didn’t want an agreement, instead it wanted evangelical capitulation.

  • David Apol

    As a Wheaton Alum, I am heartsick at how badly this has been handled. I have read Professor Hawkins statements, I have read the statement of faith she was required to sign, and I have read the College’s statement of why they found it objectionable. I understand that evangelicals disagree on whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God, but the statement of faith does not take a position on that question. So Professor Hawkins was not punished for disagreeing the statement of faith but for disagreeing with a position that some at Wheaton think is implied by that statement. Wheaton is not affiliated with any particular denomination. It allows for differences of opinion within the evangelical Christian tradition. That is one of its greatest assets. That asset is now in peril. Shame!

  • G Key

    Different religion… Different God… Different Abraham?

    Same old sibling rivalry.

  • G Key

    What a bummer that some self-righteous self-exalted people think that old sibling rivalry trumps how people should treat each other. I hope Prof. Hawkins’s next employer treats her far better than her last.

  • D

    The Christian church both Roman Catholic and Orthodox settled this question in 381 ce. How is it that this debate is still around?

  • Debbo

    I hope that Wheaton students, faculty, staff, administration and donors do take advantage of this opportunity for learning and growth. However, I hear nothing about pressure from donors in this article. I’m sure that played a big role, as mentioned in other articles on this controversy. That issue needs to be a part of the conversations too.

  • Luis

    It’s hard to see how the Church solved the issue of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God in 381 (I assume you mean the Second Ecumenical Council and I wonder what the proceedings there had to do with Islam) given that Islam wouldn’t emerge on the horizon for another two and a half centuries.

  • So if the media keeps bringing this case up over and over again, that just gives Christians another opportunity to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me.” Bible believing, and Bible reading Christians know this verse. Jesus did NOT leave the least bit of confusion on the matter. The only way to God is through His Son Jesus Christ who died on the cross to atone for our sins. All other religions are man made, having rejected God’s New Covenant and God’s only provision for forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life. Receive Christ as Savior and Lord. Turn away from sin and false teachings and follow Him. God Bless

  • As a Wheaton alum and a college teacher, I’m appalled by the treatment Larycia Hawkins has received, which calls to mind the administration’s constant preoccupation with what “the constituency” thinks. That this professor — clearly a committed Christian — also has a well-developed social conscience and has been a mentor and role model to many students, seems to matter little to the powers that be. Instead, they have chosen to engage in a theological witch hunt over statements they apparently have not really bothered to unpack. Being “people of the book” links Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a significant way, despite our real theological differences. And the living God — the God who is actually there — is neither dependent upon our various names, tenets, and theological constructs for existence nor altered by them. No doubt Dr. Hawkins will soon find a new, more congenial academic home. But what a pity and a shame that she had to seek and find it under these…

  • Naksuthin

    Any religion whose theology is so fragile it needs to to have unquestioned allegiance…probably wouldn’t survive on it’s own in the real world, anyway.

    That’s probably why Christian church attendance is slowly but surely declining as fewer people identify themselves as Christian today.

    In every region of the country, in every Christian denomination, membership is either stagnant or declining. Meanwhile, the number of religiously unaffiliated people – atheists, agnostics, those who are indifferent to religion, or those who follow no conventional faith – is growing. In some surprising places, these “nones” (as in “none of the above”) now rank among the largest slices of the demographic pie.
    Even in the deep South, the Republican base of white evangelical Christians is shrinking – and in some traditional conservative redoubts like Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky, it’s declined as a percentage of the population by double digits.

  • Naksuthin

    You delude yourself if you think this is a political battle of left vs right.
    What happened at Wheaton is just a symptom of a what’s going on under the surface.
    As Christianity faces a ever growing and more highly educated world it needs to come up with something more than requiring students and teachers to sign a pledge not to question Christian theology.

    Perhaps that is why the Christians in my neighborhood stick so close to each other. From vacation Bible School…all the way through college they have been sheltered and taught not to question “the Truth”

    They now they are unprepared to answer a world where people believe in other religions…or no religion at all

  • Naksuthin

    If you asked me, this sad incident just illustrates how insular and protected “behind the times” Christians tend to be.

    I don’t know of any other PRIVATE institution: Yale, Harvard, University of Chicago, MIT,Cornell, Stanford, that would fire a professor for stating “Muslims and Christians worship the same God”??

    I don’t know of any any PUBLIC university: Illinois State U, UCLA, Berkeley, that would expel a student or professor for expressing her own religious opinions on her own time, after school hours, at home…on her private Facebook page.

    What Wheaton did reminded me more of something that might come out of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan . Not the USA

  • Naksuthin

    Probably because some people refuse to let some ancient theologians who lived 1700 years ago decide what they “should” believe in the 21st century.

    Galileo won’t be the last person to challenge Church doctrine….you can be sure.

  • Timothy C Evearitt

    It should be duly noted that A. W. Tozer did not attend Wheaton College. A self-educated man, Tozer received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Wheaton.

  • Hannah Katz

    Lucky for the leftists, there are plenty of leftist universities for them to attend. Very few conservative ones. Leave Wheaton alone.

  • John

    Jesus asked will He find faith on earth when He returns. Things are going just as He predicted. So I am not surprise that there are fewer Christians. Marvel not that the world you. Jesus said My kingdom is not of this world.

  • TL

    I wouldn’t say that John is completely delusional. He does have a point where capitulation is concerned. This is clearly endemic within the current post-modern culture. To embrace Christianity today is anathema to the cultural paradigm (social justice, feminism, moral relativism, deconstruction, etc.).

    You validly assert that Christians today are challenged more than ever to credibly defend their beliefs. Bumper sticker theology, such as “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” no longer holds the weight it did back in the 90s. Today’s Church is shockingly biblically illiterate, it prefers to be a social gathering place rather than a communal place of learning & the rise of feminized “male leadership” has also contributed to its decline.

    I would argue its decline is more than the insular, “unprepared” Christianity you suggest. Today we see an emasculated, biblically illiterate & compromised church that has exchanged spiritual & intellectual competence for cultural…

  • John Hutchinson

    May liberty of conscience be extended within a church, its parachurch entities, and educational institutions to the greatest extent possible. However, there still exists explicitly expressed boundaries in Scriptures which a person cannot go beyond. A person, who has read the Qur’an and worked out its many differences and the theological, psychological, and sociopolitical consequences of those differences, verified by its history, must concur that it is a different god and different gospel (Gal 1). One might as well have Bernie Sanders teach a course at the Mises Institute.

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