The week before Christmas, Wheaton College’s decision to place political science professor Larycia Hawkins’ on administrative leave caused a minor media uproar with bloggers, radio commentators and newspaper journalists all weighing in on why Wheaton placed her on paid leave, and whether that decision was justified.
As of December 22, Wheaton had issued a statement saying that talks had stalled. Previously, the administration had offered Dr. Hawkins a return to teaching in Fall 2016 if she would forfeit her tenure, which she earned two years ago.
The move seems to be a compromise on the part of the administration. Hawkins’ theological response, submitted as part of the negotiations process, seemed to allay Provost Stanton Jones’ concerns. Already slated to step down as provost at the end of the Spring 2016 term, Jones requested she continue to speak with the Board of Trustees regarding theological issues. The demotion to non-tenured status seems to be a move on the part of college to continue these talks while still enabling the Political Science professor to teach. Hawkins’ has rejected this offer, saying that she will fight for her tenure.
As most know by now, Hawkins kicked off the sequence of events by wearing the hijab in solidarity with Muslims, who have suffered extreme scrutiny after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. She checked with the Chicago branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations to ensure that this wearing of the hijab would not come across as offensive or otherwise inappropriate, and the individuals at CAIR-Chicago assured her it would be welcomed. She proceeded to don the hijab and, via her Facebook page, urged other women to do so as well.
Although several news commentators initially picked up on this act as the primary reason for the evangelical college’s actions, Wheaton’s ‘Statement Regarding Dr. Larycia Hawkins’ (Dec. 16, 2015) specifies that it was not this choice, but rather the tenured professor’s ‘recently expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, appear to be in conflict with the College’s Statement of Faith.’
The concerns surrounding these views, made most notably on her Facebook page, center on Hawkins’ assertion that ‘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’ (Dec. 10, 2015). In an earlier statement, Wheaton emphasized certain commonalities with Islam, but also stressed differences: ‘While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer’ (Dec. 11).
For the college administration, Hawkins’ statement lacked enough ‘theological clarity’ (Dec. 16), and could possibly conflict with the above assessment of Islam and Christianity’s differences.
This series of events provoked a wide variety of responses. Some fully supported Hawkins’ actions and words, Morgan Guyton among others offered theological support for the phrase ‘same God’. In the Washington Post (Dec. 17), Yale Professor Miroslav Volf accused Wheaton’s administration of bigotry, stating that their prejudice against Islam has led to a misinterpretation of Dr. Hawkins’ statement. In a different vein, Muslim journalist Asra Nomani has argued that while solidarity is good, the donning of the hijab by non-Muslims reinforces a particular interpretation of Islam with which not all Muslim women agree.
Several evangelical commentators found Wheaton’s actions justifiable, and a swath of individuals offered theological and philosophical analyses establishing that Muslims and Christians do not, indeed, worship the ‘same God’. This last statement has occurred both alongside support for Hawkins’ wearing of the hijab (see Megan P. Grant’s post) and also alongside a rejection of Hawkins’ self-termed ‘embodied solidarity’.
The plethora and breadth of responses in the blogosphere hints at the complexity of issues woven within these events. On the one side, Wheaton’s relationship with Dr. Hawkins have suffered strain for some time now, and this is not the first time the administration has asked her for clarification about certain theological statements she has made. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Wheaton’s assessment of her statements, the fact remains that this most recent exchange comes at the end of a longer pattern of conflict between the two parties.
However it continues to play out, Dr. Hawkins’ primary aim in this matter was to stand alongside those who are under scrutiny, or otherwise oppressed. To accomplish this task, she took on a readily identifiable mode of dress and affirmed a fundamental religious commonality: ‘we worship the same God’. Whether those words were a poor theological choice or not is the subject for another post.
The fact act is: she employed words that many people have used, either positively in the hopes of hospitable interfaith dialogue, or derisively with the aim of discounting the validity of all monotheistic religious traditions. For those who use it positively, this phrase is a sign of hospitality amid differences, and the effectiveness of Hawkins’ statement depends upon the recognition of the phrase’s broad usage.
Given that Provost Jones’ theological fears seem to subside once Hawkins’ submitted a clarificatory theological statement, her usage of the phrase seems to have served only a superficially theological purpose. Its primary aim was to reinforce her commitment to the oppressed other, an aim made even more transparent through her attribution of the phrase to Pope Francis.
It has not gone to plan.
At this point, Hawkins’ patience is wearing thin. After having been asked repeatedly to reaffirm her commitment to Wheaton’s Statement of Faith throughout her time at Wheaton, and now having to go through another series of theologically focused discussions, Larycia Hawkins has said she’s done discussing theological minutia. For Hawkins’, given her intention of ‘embodied solidarity’, the focus on whether her statement conforms to Wheaton’s statement of faith misses the point. She meant to enact compassion: coming alongside the other. In part, the stir her words caused helped to broaden the range of those who heard her—giving her fame as well as notoriety—but this stir has now become enmired in discussions that are ancillary to her intent.
At the same time, after signing the Statement of Faith, when Hawkins acts publically, she is no longer acting solely on behalf of her own convictions. She represents Wheaton College and, if found to be in conflict with that institution, that discord reflects upon her and upon the college itself. The sour notes of this conflict have left many shaking their head, regardless on what side they fall. I’ve heard many saying: Don’t Christians say ‘love your neighbor’? Well, how can they love their neighbor if they don’t love each other?
Such is the fallout of intra-church conflict.
To be fair, Wheaton’s non-affiliation with any particular denomination amid its strong commitment to the evangelical path lends itself to the employment of a Statement of Faith, and the administration has a right to enforce its tenets among those who sign it. Whether Wheaton is enforcing the content of this Statement too strictly is a question that alumni/ae and faculty are far better positioned to judge than I am. Given its status as the flagship evangelical college, however, the saga of Larycia Hawkins should serve as a cautionary tale.
The eyes of the American public rest upon Wheaton College. For many, its actions represent the actions of evangelical Christianity, and this whole series of events has not shown the college to its best advantage. That is only partially due to the administration’s decisions. Though perhaps unwittingly, the stage was set up to be adversarial from the beginning, with profound emotions and deeply held convictions on both sides.
With the utmost respect, the question now before Wheaton’s administration and Dr. Hawkins is this: how can they reconcile with each other (and they do need to reconcile) without losing face? To accomplish this objective, they each need to meet the other with a measure of humility, and a willingness to resolve their differences. In short, they need to embody hospitality toward one another, so that their differences in perspective and action can, through exchange, strengthen, rather than tear down. And time before lasting damage occurs is short.
And time is fleeting.
Petra Elaine Turner is a doctoral candidate in Philosophical Theology in the Program of Theology Ethics and Culture at the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies Department. She is currently completing her dissertation, which employs contemporary French phenomenology to raise up the experiential aspects of Augustine’s understanding of faith.