What Wheaton College Has Forgotten

Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college in Illinois, has found itself at the center of a controversy of its own making, but one that it probably wishes it could have avoided. Professor Larycia Hawkins has been placed on leave and is facing termination for stating on a blog that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She was expanding on words from Pope Francis when he spoke about Jews, Christians and Muslims as being "people of the book." Hawkins even wore a hijab during Advent, as a way of standing in solidarity with Muslims who have been vilified in the press worldwide following terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino. Wheaton says that she went too far, and that her statements are at odds with the statement of faith that the college upholds, and to which all faculty and staff must ascribe.

It's a fair thing for Wheaton to fall back on the statement of faith, since Professor Hawkins agreed to its tenets when she was first employed there. Certainly questions of academic freedom arise when an institution places limits on theological discourse and punishes faculty for exceeding pre-determined bounds. I disagree with academic institutions that place limits on religious belief and practice, even when they let prospective faculty, staff and students know up front that such will be the case.

I have worked on college and university campuses for thirty years, and I have seen the confusion, guilt and anger that exists in the lives of those who have felt that they were constrained by their inherited faith traditions from exploring questions that were deemed off-limits by said faith traditions. I can write about that at another time. The question I have for Wheaton College here is this: Have you forgotten your beginnings, and Jonathan Blanchard and his fervor for abolition of slavery and other social justice issues at a time when they were considered outside the realm of proper Christian belief and understanding?

Wheaton could have used this moment in time to align itself with an open understanding of what it means to be evangelical: to be called to a new way. Blanchard, who was one of the earliest presidents of Wheaton College, did not limit his understanding of Christian faith to the preservation of the status quo. An advertisement for Wheaton that appeared in 1859, and is mentioned in Donald W. Dayton's excellent book, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, stated that it would preserve "the testimony of God's word against slave-holding, secret societies and their spurious worships, against intemperance, human inventions in church government, war, and whatever else shall clearly appear to contravene the kingdom and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ... (pp.11-12).

It would be taking it too far to say that Blanchard and Wheaton would have welcomed Professor Hawkins with open arms, especially since there were no female faculty members at Wheaton in that day. But I think it is fair to say that to welcome Professor Hawkins and her bridge-building actions in the name of her own Christian understanding is in keeping with the spirit of Wheaton's social justice-focused earliest days. Evangelical still means to call us to a new way, even if, in America at least, that word is most often understood as meaning preservation of the status quo at any cost.