March 9, 2016
If I walk up to my office window at Crossway Books and look across the railroad tracks to the west, I can see the campus of Wheaton College, including the distinctive white spire above the center named after its most famous alumnus, Billy Graham. Founded by evangelical abolitionists in 1860 “for Christ and his kingdom,” the school has garnered a reputation over the years as the Evangelical Harvard, seeking to show that a liberal arts college can combine rigorous academic training and faithful piety.
As many readers will know, Wheaton was embroiled in controversy from December 2015 to February 2016, centered around statements by political science professor Larycia Hawkins. Announcing on Facebook her plan to wear the hijab during Advent, she explained: “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.”
A firestorm of controversy ensued, fanned into flame by forces both inside and outside of the school. Though it was in the same town in which I work, I mainly followed the developments at a distance (that is to say, online), even offering my own modest proposal on the same-God debate.
We have not heard, however, from many faculty members inside Wheaton regarding their perspective on what happened or what we can learn from this difficult season for Wheaton. I am grateful, therefore, to share the following essay by Daniel J. Treier, Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College. Suggesting that this may be a ”‘teachable moment,’ not just for Wheaton specifically but more generally for Christians in higher education,” Dr. Treier calls the Christian community to consider how “four key features of biblical wisdom might help us to understand how Dr. Hawkins, Dr. Jones, parents, and professors could act in reasonably good faith yet reach a tragic outcome.”
More could be said here, but not less. For anyone who watched or commented on this tragedy—both from within and from outside—this is a wise essay worth carefully considering.
The Wheaton Tragedy
Daniel J. Treier
March 9, 2016
Wheaton College (IL), where I have taught theology for fifteen years, recently endured a two-month media firestorm. Generally reliable details of the narrative are available via that bastion of truth, the Internet. In miniature: A tenured political science professor, Larycia Hawkins, was placed on administrative leave after asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This assertion appeared in a Facebook post explaining her decision to wear a hijab during Advent, expressing “embodied solidarity” with Muslim women prominently facing discrimination. As controversy ensued, Wheaton’s provost Stanton Jones believed that Dr. Hawkins did not provide adequate theological clarification of how her statements were consistent with the college’s evangelical statement of faith.
Subsequent conversations reached a stalemate while media coverage escalated. Dr. Jones initiated formal termination procedures that would commence with a review by the Faculty Personnel Committee. Already an overwhelming majority of the faculty opposed Dr. Hawkins’s termination, especially after she posted online a statement of theological clarification. Wheaton’s Faculty Council unanimously formalized a recommendation for Dr. Hawkins’s reinstatement, grounded in critique of administrative procedures. Supporters of Dr. Hawkins intensified various private and public campaigns. Additional faculty members, who previously shared some of the administration’s theological concerns or were undecided, came to support Dr. Hawkins’s immediate reinstatement, believing that her clarifying statement precluded any violation of a particular tenet of the statement of faith.
Advocacy on both sides reached a fever pitch of Facebook and Twitter salvos from professors, alumni, and pundits. Media stories proliferated internationally, partly because three Wheaton alumnae report on religion for national outlets. One of them publicized multiple confidential materials leaked by faculty members. Few cultural elites or Wheaton professors sympathized publicly with the administration’s concerns. Younger and more progressive alumni joined the administration’s critics in vocal support for Dr. Hawkins.
The Faculty Diversity Committee issued a private report that raised significant concerns about administrative procedures as well as racial and gender inequity affecting the case. Shortly thereafter Dr. Jones sent a detailed written apology to Dr. Hawkins. He revoked the termination proceedings and left the decision about reinstating Dr. Hawkins in the hands of Wheaton’s president, Philip Ryken. The Diversity Committee’s report leaked while Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Ryken were addressing the possibility of her reinstatement. Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Ryken reached a confidential agreement to end her employment at the college, at which point Dr. Jones’s apology was made public. A joint worship service and a joint press conference ensued.
Of course the controversy is not really over, regardless of whether media interest waxes or wanes. Months, even years, of rebuilding lie ahead. The college is left sifting through the rubble of its latest firestorm while grieving the loss of a treasured professor, and Dr. Hawkins was left to find a new place of service. (By the way, Dr. Hawkins is a valued colleague and family friend, but in this essay I use her academic title rather than operating on a first-name basis. She deserves every indication of the respect that chummy students sometimes deny to female professors in my conservative circles.) Rebuilding requires time for lament and space for grief, even expressions of anger. Early commentary requires restraint, recognizing the risk of damaging relationships we hope to heal.
Both Tragedy and Wisdom: A Neglected Perspective
Yet I offer this essay to commend a neglected perspective, worth considering before views harden so thoroughly that our rebuilding efforts cannot incorporate any alternatives. Thus far public commentary from my Wheaton colleagues has been overwhelmingly one-sided, for understandable reasons. If, however, those who grieve over Dr. Hawkins’s departure but sympathize with our administration’s theological concerns remain entirely silent, then rebuilding efforts will produce lopsided results.
Indeed, perhaps we face a “teachable moment,” not just for Wheaton specifically but more generally for Christians in higher education. Wheaton is far from the only school navigating the challenges of a social media age, the dramas of faculty advocacy, the limits of academic freedom, or perceived tensions between genuine diversity and confessional identity. Moreover, Wheaton’s treatment as an icon—by the media, the broader academy, and various stakeholders from both left and right—could mean that the recent controversy has larger consequences for the accreditation, finances, and politics of Christian higher education.
Most pundits have taken clear sides dominated by political, theological, or academic agendas—not to mention suspicion and sheer speculation. To state my alternative succinctly: What if the dominant categories for assessing this controversy should be the pair of “tragedy” and “wisdom”? What if we tried to imagine how each major stakeholder in the controversy could act in reasonably good faith yet contribute to a tragic outcome? And what if we tried to learn our lessons for the future from both the fragmentary wisdom and the limitations displayed by each?
I have been pondering how biblical wisdom addresses our communal life because of James 1:19-20: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (NIV). These verses confronted my own slowness to listen (to certain people anyway), my speed in speaking (without adequate information), and my fiery self-righteousness. As a Christian liberal arts professor, I find it painful to be so unwise.
What if we listen—really listen, seeking the peaceable and teachable wisdom of James 3:17-18—to the perspectives of all the relevant stakeholders? Despite our differences, and the other relevant questions this essay brackets out, these stakeholders claim a shared commitment to Scripture’s authority. Thus four key features of biblical wisdom might help us to understand how Dr. Hawkins, Dr. Jones, parents, and professors could act in reasonably good faith yet reach a tragic outcome.
1. Listening and Speaking
Wisdom’s emphasis on the character of our listening and speaking especially helps us to examine Dr. Hawkins’s perspective. How many critics listened carefully to understand sympathetically what she sought to do? James, the New Testament’s Wisdom literature, prohibits self-righteous slander (4:11-12). Catechesis from the Ninth Commandment enjoins thinking and speaking as well of others as possible, even refraining from expressing justifiable criticism if we can. Dr. Hawkins’s critics frequently failed to honor God’s law in this way.
James 2 and 5 also apply, for they demonstrate that enduring wisdom and prophetic action are not automatically opposed. Hoping to demonstrate solidarity with a verbally, politically, and sometimes physically abused group, Dr. Hawkins championed marginalized persons that James prophetically defends. Unfortunately that solidarity resulted in verbal abuse of Dr. Hawkins, as some critics violated James 3 with particularly vile responses. If some of the concern was primarily political, then James 4:1-10 further applies: Were such critics really concerned for evangelical truth, or instead committing spiritual adultery with a cultural agenda?
Of course Dr. Hawkins was making a public statement in the first place, and she responded to the critics’ and administration’s publicity with more of her own. As the controversy ensued, some of her rhetoric about “Wheaton College,” while commendably avoiding personal attack by name, risked going beyond prophetic confrontation into casting many of the institution’s stakeholders in the worst possible light. Yet neither side backed down, each blaming the other for turning up the temperature. And it is important for those who cannot imagine responding as Dr. Hawkins did to attempt—however inadequately—to put ourselves in her shoes: a single, black female living in downtown Chicago, teaching at a white male-dominated suburban evangelical institution, confronting a post-Ferguson world. Before dismissing the rhetoric of “prophetic” response—about which I will express concerns below—we first should listen to the cries of the side James takes. Among reactions to Dr. Hawkins the partisan anger of worldly wisdom frequently trumped the listening ears, teachable heart, and peaceable spirit of Christian wisdom.
2. Prudence and Courage
Biblical wisdom prioritizes not only listening and speaking but also prudence and courage, helping us to examine the perspective of Wheaton’s administration. How many critics listened carefully to their concerns and imagined alternatives to their course of action? The challenges they faced highlight the necessity and limitations of prudence as well as its complex relation to courage.