Wheaton College and Islam

Karen Johnson
In recent days, Wheaton College has received a firestorm of media attention over the college administration's decision to suspend with pay (not fire) associate professor of political science Larycia Hawkins for a Facebook comment she made saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  The administration is concerned that Dr. Hawkins's statement indicates a conflict with the College's statement of faith and says it placed Dr. Hawkins on paid leave to have time to explore the theological implications of Dr. Hawkins's beliefs.

I'm troubled by much of the public conversation about the issue.

If you quickly skimmed the headlines about this situation, you might come to the conclusion that the College is anti-Muslim, and suspended Dr. Hawkins because she was wearing a hijab during Advent as a demonstration of solidarity with Muslims who are persecuted in this country and around the world.  The ones trending on Facebook this morning read something like this: "Wheaton Professor Suspended After Wearing Headscarf and Declaring Solidarity with Muslims," "Christian College Professor Suspends Hijab-Wearing Professor over Islam Remarks," and the (thankfully) more accurate "Wheaton College Professor Put on Leave for Saying Christians, Muslims have Same God." Granted, if you read most of these articles, you'll see a more complete story, but the headlines suggest that the issue is not a theological question but that Wheaton is bigoted.  (There are some, like this recent opinion piece that are more balanced.)

Even one significant opinion piece that takes theological implications seriously comes to the same conclusion. Theologian Miraslov Volf, whose work Dr. Hawkins cited in her justification for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, does argue in the Washington Post that the college suspended Dr. Hawkins for a theological reason, but says that her suspension "is not about theology and orthodoxy" but "reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christianity and orthodoxy."  My concerns with Volf's argument may stem in part from a difference in disciplinary method, because Volf is making an argument (in this admittedly short piece) based on theological implications, not based on actual historical evidence about the perspectives of the college's administrators.  There is, furthermore, rich academic and popular debate (also go here, here, here, and here) over the question of whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

A quick look into how Wheaton has handled the recent conversation in America about Muslims suggests the opposite of bigotry.  Last week, after Liberty University's chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr.'s call for students to arm themselves against terrorist threats from Muslims on campus, Wheaton students published an open letter rejecting the statement and calling evangelical Christians "to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters who share our human dignity" and called for a "higher standard" of leadership, "particularly among Christians in leadership."  Faculty members recently visited the Islamic Center of Wheaton and sent notes to express support for our neighbors in the face of the negative media messages.

I want the coverage of this issue to be fair and to account for theological nuance.  Issues of orthodoxy are especially important for an institution like Wheaton that makes particular theological claims, and not only for the institution's integrity.  Having schools whose faculty members adhere to distinctive theological positions enriches the broader conversation in the academy and the public sphere, if we are able to actually have the conversation and not thrown sound bites.

I am even more troubled by the spirit behind the comments of many who claim to support Wheaton in its decision to place Dr. Hawkins on leave.  Some are calling for her immediate dismissal, others wonder why Wheaton hired her in the first place, and, even more troubling, some condemn her as a person.  Rather than condemn or dismiss Dr. Hawkins without knowing all the facts, her opponents could take this opportunity to learn from her experiences, her teaching, and her body of work more generally (and especially on race).  Dr. Hawkins offers students and colleagues important insights.  Listening and taking people's perspectives seriously, even if you end up disagreeing with them, is how we learn and grow.

Wheaton College is frequently a lightening rod for controversy, and has been so from its very founding as an immediate - not gradual - abolitionist institution (not a common position among white Americans, even white Christians at the time) whose main building was a stop on the underground railroad.  A senior colleague once told me that people from multiple perspectives will likely continue their pattern of condemning Wheaton as either hopelessly conservative (and therefore a dangerous force), or as hopelessly liberal (and therefore a tool of the devil).  However, the debate has the potential to be good for us all if handled with care and respect.


Karen, thanks for shedding light on this tricky situation. A lot of smart people are seeing this with a particular point of view, but your insights, as well as examples from recent history, help make sense of what's going on. Thanks.
Karen Johnson said…
Thanks for your comment, Kevin.
I also appreciate your nuanced and well-balanced commentary (especially about the role of students, and the reason Wheaton takes this comment so seriously). I have been following and have questions that nobody has addressed yet. For example, is anyone discussing the extent to which Facebook statements ought to be subjected to this scrutiny? Or, is anything one says in any context subjectible to scrutiny on the basis of the community covenant?
Karen Johnson said…
I think your questions are good ones Janine and I don't know the answers. The community covenant deals with theology which shouldn't change for a person depending on the venue but how people say things may differ in different contexts. You point to significant issues that really get to the heart of social media and how it shapes our reality today. Someone recently was commenting how social media feels as ephemeral as a verbal conversation but in some ways may be more permanent than traditional print.
Unknown said…
As a Wheaton alum (MA '82) and former History instructor who retains a fond regard for Wheaton, warts and all, I've written a couple of posts on this controversy that might interest you and your readers: http://www.johnstackhouse.com/2015/12/16/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god/
Karen Johnson said…
Thanks for the link John. It's helpful in the debate over the theological issues.
Tom Van Dyke said…

The question for religious colleges is are they first religious institutions, or are they "intellectual" ones? A look at most Catholic colleges, say Notre Dame and Georgetown, indicates they have chosen the latter course, but many Catholic critics ask, why bother if you're indistinguishable from the secular ones?

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Perhaps more interestingly, do Mormons?

Were this a question about Mormonism, would certain quarters of the intellectual world have much of an interest in this matter? Perhaps this is all about Donald Trump? ;-)

Regardless, Wheaton has clearly decided it's foremost a religious institution, and so, what Wheaton does in this matter is no outsider's business. Further, in Wheaton's view, theological truth is not subjective: Teaching this theological error is no more acceptable than teaching creationism is to a secular institution.

"[W]e dare not be complacent about confused and erroneous thinking about God, in ourselves or in others. If anybody’s thoughts about God are sufficiently confused and erroneous, then he will fail to be thinking about the true and living God at all; and just because God alone can draw the line, none of us is in a position to say that a given error is not serious enough to be harmful."--Catholic philosopher Peter Geach


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