Wheaton College — shame on you

by Neil Rickert

Wheaton College is around a 30 minute drive from where I live.  I have long respected it as a religious college which did a pretty good job of living up to the expectation of academia.  Many years ago, as a graduate student in mathematics, one of my classmates had graduated from Wheaton, and that’s probably where I first learned something about this school.

Unfortunately, recent events at Wheaton have been disquieting.  I have lost my former respect for that school.

It is almost a month since I first heard of the problems, with a blog post by Fred Clark:

In the last couple of days, there have been many reaction to the move by Wheaton, toward firing Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor.  Here are some of the posts that I have seen:

What’s this all about?

The “problem” started when Larycia Hawkins said that she would start wearing a hijab, in support of her muslim  neighbors.  This was a reaction to the negative statements that we have been hearing about muslims from politicians (particularly in the Republican primary race) and from some evangelical Christian leaders.

To me, what Dr. Hawkins did seemed like a wonderful example the Christian teaching to “love thy neighbor”.  For Hawkins, this was not just a theoretical principle, but was something to be put into practice.

To me, the reaction of the Wheaton College administration seems very anti-Christian.  I am left wondering whether there is anything Christian about American conservative Christianity.

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3 Responses to “Wheaton College — shame on you”

  1. Christianity has had a long history of theologically motivated arguments and bloodshed, and if the crusades taught us anything, it is the fact that a majority of Christians and Muslims have not agreed on their conceptions of God nor have they believed that they both worship the same God. So while I grant that monetary self-interest and bigotry has likely been the primary motivator for the actions of WC’s administration, I also believe that WC would have done the same or similar even if their donors were not at risk for pulling out funding. That is to say, I think that Hawkins’ statements equivocating the two theologies would have played a role in getting her suspended/fired simply because of it’s contradicting WC’s doctrinal statement of faith, motto, etc.

    http://www.wheaton.edu/About-Wheaton/Statement-of-Faith-and-Educational-Purpose

    They’re an evangelical Christian institution for Christ’s sake (pun), so I wouldn’t expect them to take any theologically controversial statement coming from their staff lightly. Especially since they are among the least rational and least tolerant of the many denominations that exist in this country today. And so any actions that might fulfill the “Love thy neighbor” adage will be trumped by coinciding controversial theological claims.

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  2. It is surprising to me that anyone is surprised by this. Wheaton and colleges like it have a long and consistent history of setting a fairly delimited, sectarian notion of Protestant piety and theological orthodoxy against political, scientific, and other theological positions. jews and Catholics are not hired; it goes without saying, neither are non Judaeo-Christian religious believers. Mormons probably represent changing gray area; some CCCU schools will not admit them and substantially different Christian or non-Christian groups that might proselytize. Liberal Protestants are worried over and watched like hawks if there is any whiff of “Marxism,” “liberation theology,” or “progressive” scientific and moral views on human origins and sexuality. This is all standard at most conservative Protestant (and some Catholic) colleges.

    Faculty behavior, teaching, scholarship, and other publicly expressed views must fit within the current official parameters of the institutional orthodoxy, which is assumed to be the only or primary defense against “secularization.” So it is first and foremost about identity, which is what distinguishes the schools to students, parents, and donors.

    At the same time, the schools’ theological parameters define the accepted range of tolerance for different positions and perspectives which can and must change as they are clarified through conflict and negotiation. The only change people seem to care about is framed within a narrative of secularization and resistance to it, which tends to be equated with a liberal/conservative spectrum. This framework is generally assumed and largely a product of the larger culture; it is not measured very much in relation to the actual past, the actual tradition. Jonathan Merritt and others can write about Jonathan Blanchard and Wheaton’s socially progressive, abolitionist past all they want; it is not relevant to the current culture wars except as something to ignore and minimize, as I believe Adam Laats has pointed out.

    Still, change happens, and as it happens, the appearance of must always be denied. That is a standard and ancient practice for communities of tradition that abhor and attempt to ameliorate schism and rupture. Less flexible than the rabbinical and midrashic model, Protestants operate within the perhaps excessively logical-doctrinal legacy of Catholic scholasticism and Aristotelian thought, especially its metaphysical foundationalism. Giving this up would be to lose “the soul of the university.”

    It is unfortunate that by frequently setting faith and reason against each other, they are always poised for a maximum of conflict, schism, and rupture. It becomes impossible to see someone like professor Hawkins as acting out of a sincere and feeling faith first and letting the intellectual-theological chips fall where they may, to be sorted out however the community chooses. In a different time, this might happen with a greater measure of grace and less hasty, less reactive reaction. But today the enormous sense of loss, jeopardy, and fear/anger emanating from white social and religious conservatives, particularly among the older generations, cannot be overestimated.

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