Wheaton Should Commend Larycia Hawkins, Not Punish Her

Early media coverage of the controversy surrounding Wheaton College's Larycia Hawkins suggested that the tenured professor of political science had been suspended simply for wearing a hijab to express solidarity with persecuted Muslims. Wheaton quickly and emphatically clarified that, no, the suspension was "in no way related to her race, gender or commitment to wear a hijab during Advent". In the wake of recent events, however, it is hard not to call this "clarification" into question.

According to statements issued by Wheaton, Hawkins was placed on administrative leave in order to provide time for the College to "explore significant questions regarding the theological implications of her recent public statements". The most salient of the "public statements" in question seems to be her remark--on Facebook--to the effect that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Hawkins allegedly declined to participate adequately in the "exploration" that Wheaton desired (though she did supply in December a detailed reply to Wheaton's request for clarification of the remarks that were deemed troubling). But even if this is true, perhaps she could be forgiven for thinking that no serious exploration would be forthcoming.

Let us focus on the claim that has garnered the most attention in recent weeks--that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, that one and the same being is referred to by the word 'God' (or its equivalents in other languages) as used by both Muslims and Christians.

This claim has been commonplace since the Middle Ages. The Catholic church has explicitly affirmed it. It is an absolutely standard assumption in many of the books and articles that would likely be used in a college course (even at evangelical schools like Wheaton) dealing with issues in philosophical theology. It is hard to see how anyone educated in the history of Christian thought might seriously suggest--as Wheaton officials did their letter of concern to Professor Hawkins--that the bare affirmation of this claim might rise to the level of blasphemy.

Yes, there is still controversy over whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In the wake of Professor Hawkins's suspension, a variety of scholars have weighed in on both sides. Supporters include Miroslav Volf, John Stackhouse, and myself; opponents include Scot McKnight and Albert Mohler. The issues, it turns out, are interestingly complex, depending in part on sophisticated theories about reference, the nature of worship, and on the very meaning of the multiply ambiguous phrase "worship the same God".

But here is the thing: The fact that there is such controversy does not help Wheaton's public image in this skirmish; it hurts. Why would a Christian college move to terminate a tenured political science professor over a remark on Facebook that is and long has been a widely held opinion within (orthodox, traditional) Christianity, and whose conflict with Wheaton's statement of faith is at best highly debatable by philosophers and theologians with expertise in the salient issues? Hawkins is surely right to be, as she put it, "flummoxed and flabbergasted" by Wheaton's initiation of termination proceedings.

Hawkins's Facebook post was not fundamentally about theology; it was about her commendable desire to offer some tangible--not merely verbal--expression of solidarity for a religious group facing persecution. Even if we grant (as I would not) that Wheaton is right to object to her stated theological grounds for solidarity, and even if we grant (as I would not) that saying as much in a Facebook post threatens to tarnish Wheaton's evangelical credentials, still Wheaton should be proud of Hawkins rather than censuring her. They should commend her efforts to stand out as a Christian leader on an important issue facing our culture rather than moving to terminate her.

In his classic, The Idea of a Christian College, former Wheaton professor Arthur F. Holmes wrote, "liberal education and the [academic] freedom it requires can provide the basis for an informed and responsible criticism of society. If colleges are to provide leadership, then embryonic leaders must try their wings even if their first attempts fail." Likewise when the leader in question is tenured rather than embryonic, and when the attempt to forge a new path is not her first but her tenth or one hundredth. In moving to terminate Hawkins for her perceived failure to lead in the ways that Wheaton would prefer, Wheaton itself is failing to embody the idea of a Christian college as articulated and defended by one of its most important and beloved faculty members.