Wheaton College: an Intra-faith Controversy

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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

If you haven’t been following the news from Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Wheaton, Illinois, the story is this: larycia-hawkins
In December, Larycia Hawkins, a tenured associate professor of political science at Wheaton since 2007, decided to show solidarity with Muslims by wearing a hijab and stating that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”

The college almost immediately placed her on paid administrative leave. They said that this would give them time to explore questions regarding the theological implications of her recent public statements.  On January 5, they issued a Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings.

attachment-1Since then, there’s been a firestorm of protest against Wheaton’s action. Numerous petitions calling for the reinstatement of Dr. Hawkins (including moveon.org and change.org) have been circulating. Christian clergy of various denominations and leaders from other religious traditions have rallied in support.

Which is all well and good.

However, what we have here is a classic example of our need for an intrafaith conversation.  For some Christians, the statement that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” poses no theological problems. For others, it’s an impossible statement to make. Members of each group consider themselves to be faithful Christians. Although I don’t know any of them, I seriously doubt that the administrators of Wheaton College are bigots. Dr. Hawkins herself has written on her Facebook page, “Friends, Embodied Solidarity is not demonizing others in defense of me” and asks for “prayers and actions that emanate love, grace, peace, and if necessary, forgiveness.”

We are confronted with the question raised by Marjorie Suchoki in Divinity and Diversity: “How do Christians deal with this phenomenon (religious pluralism)? Our Christian past has traditionally taught us that there is only one way to God, and that is through Christ. But we are uneasy. Our neighborliness teaches us that these others are good and decent people, good neighbors, or loved family members! Surely God is with them as well as with us. Our hearts reach out, but our intellectual understanding draws back. We have been given little theological foundation for affirming these others – and consequently we wonder if our feelings of acceptance are perhaps against the will of God, who has uniquely revealed to us just what is required for salvation.”1

There are a number of ways to answer the question. Within our congregations, we’ll find exclusivists, inclusivists, and pluralists of various stripes – all faithful Christians. How will we help them to listen to one another, respect one another, and come to some agreements of how we will love and work together? 

As Kristin Johnston Largen of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg has written: “. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.”2

We should be taking the theological position of Wheaton College seriously. We should be taking the theological positions of Dr. Hawkins and her supporters seriously. Petitions won’t solve the underlying problem. Only our intrafaith work will do that.

 

[1] Suchocki, Marjorie, Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, p.9.

[2] Largen, Kristin Johnston, Finding God Among Our Neighbors, Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology, Fortress Press, 2013, 137.

 

 

 

 

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