Speaking Out on the Current Controversies at Wheaton College

In recent weeks, many have asked why more Wheaton College
faculty have not spoken publicly about the recent controversy surrounding the
college’s actions against our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins. To some outside
of higher education, the relative quiet of our faculty has seemed to suggest
either fear or agreement. There are indeed some who fear reprisal – not only
those who don’t defend Dr. Hawkins for fear of administrative and board action,
but those who don’t defend the institution for fear of alienating many
colleagues. There certainly are some who disagree with Dr. Hawkins. There may
be some who agree with the administration’s decision to place her on
administrative leave and ultimately to initiate termination proceedings. (It is
important to note that disagreeing with Dr. Hawkins does not imply agreeing
with the administration’s actions.) But I don’t believe these reasons account
for the low volume of the faculty response.

Speaking for myself: I have not spoken publicly about the
affair until the past two days. I have fielded a barrage of questions from
friends, acquaintances, and professional associates (family mercifully spared
me from this conversation during holiday visits). I have written letters of
concern to the college administration and to our faculty representatives. But I
have kept most of my commentary “in-house” and none of it has been public.

My reasons for keeping this conversation in-house until now
are neither fear nor agreement. Though John Fea has written that it’s possible
“no one at Wheaton College is safe,”
I don’t fear whims or witch-hunts. There
may be many reasons for that. Some may say that I’m constitutionally defective
in my sense of fear. Some will say that because I’m a white male, I have
nothing to worry about. And perhaps I rightly trust our
administration and board, even when I think the college has done something
wrong. In any case, no – it’s not fear.

Neither do I agree with the recent decisions of the
administration. I have no doubts about the care with which our administration
has approached this decision. I understand the weighty fiduciary
responsibilities that characterize the work of our senior administrators and
board – indeed, of all in such positions in higher education – and I am
grateful for the seriousness with which they take those responsibilities. I have
experienced first-hand their responsiveness to some of the broader issues
associated with this matter, as well as their concern for other faculty who at
first found themselves in circumstances similar to those of Dr. Hawkins. But I
disagree.

Until now, I have kept my statements private because faculty
have access to mechanisms of objection, protest, and change that are not
available to external constituents or students, and are only of limited
availability to staff. I have been inclined to focus on those levers of change,
especially as those mechanisms will be the most important ones as long-term
conversations about governance, process, and institutional identity continue
well after personnel matters are resolved. Moreover, I have been waiting for
more information, and for more of it to be public, before commenting. These
kinds of posts work better when everyone has access to some of the same
information. Until now, access to information has been highly differential.
Many, perhaps most, commentators, no matter the side they’ve taken, have been
sorely uninformed. (While some pieces on this issue have been good, most have ranged from uninformed to vicious, with occasional undeserved and truly vile
comments aimed at Dr. Hawkins or the college administration.) At this point,
Dr. Hawkins has supplied to the public a
copy of her response to the administration’s theological concerns
.  (Someone has also leaked a copy of the
Wheaton College memo to Dr. Hawkins, notifying her of the concerns she was
asked to address.) So when people ask me what I think about her response, I can now respond without divulging any private information. Indeed, you’ll find no information in this post that isn’t already public and widely discussed somewhere else. You’ll just find my take on that information. Just as importantly, if people want a common starting point, Dr. Hawkins’ publicly available statement can serve
better than most other sources. And given that the supposed inadequacy of that
response is the ostensible rationale for her not being reinstated from
administrative leave, the public release of the response is a pivotal moment.

Having read in its entirety the theological response offered
by Dr. Hawkins (not to mention some of the other materials associated with the
case), I find myself unable to give an account of its shortcomings vis-à-vis
the Wheaton College Statement of Faith. Dr. Hawkins’ response indicates a
number of innocuously controversial positions of the sort that any faculty
member might espouse without running afoul of the Statement of Faith. By
“innocuously controversial,” I refer to the fact that our work
together is already marked by a benign – perhaps even beautiful – diversity of
and disagreement about theological positions within the bounds of the Statement
of Faith. It seems to me Dr. Hawkins’ positions fit this description quite
nicely.

Dr. Hawkins holds a specific view of the Eucharist that may
not be shared by all members of our community, but is certainly shared by many
whose conformity with the Statement of Faith rightly remains unquestioned.
Moreover, she has not neglected the “vertical” or sacramental
dimensions of the Eucharist in her response (and it was not clear that she
culpably neglected that in her Facebook posts or media interviews, either).

Dr. Hawkins has also given a more than adequate account of
her description of Muslims as brothers and sisters, avoiding any soteriological
implications and grounding that firmly in our common humanity and her African
American heritage. While I do not share Dr. Hawkins’ African American heritage,
I affirm it and find this appropriation of it completely innocent of the
charges brought against her. I find common uses of “brothers and sisters” –
whether grounded in our common humanity, common experiences, or common
locations – to refer to others who do not share identical religious heritage
unproblematic and do not believe there are theological grounds to deny the
validity of those uses. Moreover, I am not convinced that there are no biblical
grounds to which one might appeal on this point. New Testament scholars debate
the referents of multiple passages that use that language, and while the
reference to Eve as the “mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20) may refer to her descendant’s participation in and fulfillment of the covenant, that is not
an incontrovertible position. Indeed, the idea that Eve is so called by virtue
of being the first female ancestor of all humans appears to be a widely held
interpretation. If one holds to that interpretation, then the application of
sibling language to other human beings, regardless of religious tradition, is
warranted. For a number of reasons, then, I personally would and do affirm the
use of “brothers and sisters” language to refer to people outside of the
church, without soteriological implications, and I do not see how any portion
of the Statement of Faith can be interpreted to exclude that position.

The objections to Dr. Hawkins’ statements about Muslims and
Christians worshipping the same god have taken center stage in this debate.
Having read Dr. Hawkins clarifications on this point, I likewise find myself
unable to identify their inadequacies. To be clear, I would not make the same
argument that Dr. Hawkins makes, but I do believe that her position is within
the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy. Indeed, while my answer to the question
might be described as “a complicated ‘no’” – much closer to and more
sympathetic with a “complicated ‘yes’” or a “yes and no” than it is to a simple
“no” – I am not persuaded by suggestions that this is a simple question. I
seriously doubt that appeals to the Trinity, to Christology, or to the self-sacrificial
love of the Christian God, as important as these are, can do all of the work necessary
to answer it in a sophisticated way (though it’s worth noting that Muslims find
the first two irreconcilable with Islam). Many of the conversations that
attempt to answer this question are exercises in futility because the terms,
including such basic matters as what it means to be the same or different, are
inadequately defined. As philosopher Lydia McGrew writes, “it’s going to come
down to how important one thinks the various similarities and differences are”
(that’s in
the comments section of this post
). (For other posts with which I am
somewhat sympathetic, if not entirely in agreement, see McGrew’s
brief note here
and the three links under “Those who think the question is
too complicated to offer a quick and easy answer” here.
Notably, even Edward Feser, who gives what can be described as a “complicated
yes” answer in
a post disagreeing with McGrew
, seems nevertheless to reinforce the claim that we are
too vague about what we mean by “important” or “crucial” differences.) Given
that most interlocutors in this debate have not indicated what sameness and
difference mean or how important various similarities and differences are, and
when they do they are often arguing with someone who doesn’t agree with them on
those basic terms, then in most of these conversations, the answer is
indeterminate. More importantly, though, there is no common understanding of
what sameness and difference mean, or how important one thinks various
similarities and differences are within
Wheaton College
. Therefore, a range of answers to this question – including
complicated “yes and no” answers – would seem compatible with the Statement of
Faith, and I believe that Dr. Hawkins’ position on the matter is no affront to
the identity of the college or to its governing documents.

A number of other issues – including governance, process,
and institutional identity – have also arisen in the course of this affair. I
will leave most of those aside. While there are more or less widely shared
norms and expectations for governance and process, there are no publicly
accessible documents that can serve as the starting point for conversation in
the way that Dr. Hawkins’ publically availably theological response can.
Moreover, issues of governance, process, and institutional identity will no
doubt be discussed long after personnel issues are settled, and they are
necessarily entangled with a number of other aspects of institutional life.
Those will be long-term discussions, and faculty have access to prescribed
mechanisms for addressing those issues.

But I will briefly address two of those issues:

  1. The standard to which Dr. Hawkins is being held
    is that of “theological clarity” in embodying the identity of the college and
    Statement of Faith. It is immensely important to recognize this. Faculty may
    hold various controversial positions within the bounds of the Statement of
    Faith. The more complex those positions, the more they demand a sort of clear
    articulation – otherwise, they invite misunderstanding. The standard of
    theological clarity is not, in and of itself, problematic. But the
    operationalization of that standard is fraught. (Adam Laats’ commentary on
    this is good, if slightly overstated.
    ) Is the same level of nuance,
    subtlety, complexity, and elaboration required of everyone? Or, given the
    insistence that theological clarity is particularly important when we
    participate in various movements and initiatives, is the same level of nuance,
    subtlety, complexity, and elaboration required regardless of the political,
    social, and cultural affinities of those movements? Has the college itself
    transparently offered faculty and other constituents the same level of nuance,
    subtlety, complexity, and elaboration that now seems required of us?
  2. Several news articles have referred to earlier
    encounters Dr. Hawkins has had with the administration. That these encounters
    happened is publicly accessible information. The precise nature of those
    encounters is not. But one encounter is described as a confrontation over the
    appropriation of black liberation theology and/or Marxist theory in a paper
    written by Dr. Hawkins. I was not there, but I have been asked directly about
    Marxist theory and black liberation theology on several occasions since that news
    broke. All I can say on that point is that neither liberation theology nor
    Marxist thought is monolithic, neither is in and of itself an affront to the
    Wheaton College Statement of Faith or prima
    facie
    evidence of a transgression of the statement. In fact, I have drawn
    on Marxist thought in multiple papers and cited leading black liberation
    theologian James Cone in a Wheaton College chapel talk last year.
    I have not
    been challenged on transgressing the Statement of Faith. That is a
    good thing, and it is my typical experience of the Statement of Faith. Read that again: That sort of freedom is simply my normal experience of the Statement of Faith, a Statement that Dr. Hawkins has warmly and repeatedly affirmed. In other words, I would be at a
    loss to explain how appropriation of either black liberation theology or
    Marxist thought would set one at odds with the Statement of Faith.

So with regard to the current situation, to the extent that the
inadequacy of Dr. Hawkins response is the rationale for not reinstating her from
her administrative leave, I am convinced the decision not to reinstate her was
entirely misfit to the circumstances. To the extent that the initiation of
termination proceedings emerged from that impasse, then I disagree with that
step, as well. As far as I am concerned – and barring the release of
information to which we currently do not have access – Dr. Hawkins should be in
the classroom when the semester starts on Monday. When my class begins on
Tuesday, I will be wearing my regalia in an act of embodied solidarity with her
and with any colleagues troubled by the current sense of instability and
ambiguity.

I will close with this: Someone asked me yesterday how the events of the past month affect my own relationship with
Wheaton College. “I’m an alumnus,” I said, “and I’ve taught here for ten years.
I have more than enough reason to love the college even when it lets me down.
And loving it sometimes means helping to get things back on track when they go
off the rails.” I hope for a resolution that reinstates Dr. Hawkins and
initiates a transparent conversation about identity, governance, and process.

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