Wheaton, Islam, and the Christ-Centered University

Someone who likes to blog about Christian higher education probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve only visited the “evangelical Harvard” once. Last fall I was invited to accompany our president and some of his cabinet to a meeting of the Christian College Consortium at Wheaton College, where I got to share ten minutes’ worth of reflections on how Bethel’s Pietist heritage informs what it means for a university to stay “Christ-centered.

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College
Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College – Creative Commons (Liscobeck)

All of that came rushing back to mind this week, as I watched from afar as Wheaton suspended Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor who, explaining her decision to wear a hijab this Advent in solidarity with Muslims, said that she shared Pope Francis’ view that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

In light of that debate, let me restate my three basic observations from the fall 2014 address at Wheaton (shuffling the order a bit):

1. To be Christ-centered is to be centered on a person

While not everything about Wheaton’s decision seems clear (including how likely it is that Hawkins, a tenured professor, will lose her job), it does seem that the problem for the administration was not the wearing of the hijab but Hawkins’ statement that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.” I’m not sure that I have much to add here, but since there is an important theological claim embedded in the phrase “Christ-centered university,” I’ll go ahead and start with my non-theologian’s theological response to the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God:

I follow Jesus, whom I believe to be the Son of God: indeed, God-with-us, the Word made flesh. With generations and generations before, I believe that he is my Lord and my Savior, that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered and died at the hands of sinners for the sake of sinners like me, descended to the dead, and both rose again and will come again in judgment.

Based on what little I know of Islam, it seems impossible that one of its adherents could affirm all of those intertwining claims. If so, then my understanding of God clearly differs in several important ways from that of a Muslim.

The Wade Center
Lewis’ papers are held at Wheaton’s Wade Center – Creative Commons (AvianMaid)

But as Roger Olson reminded us this morning, “It’s not as simple a question as it appears and therefore no simple, straightforward answer should be given.” There are many other ways that my understanding of God is quite similar to that of Muslims. And some version of the “Same God” argument is hardly limited to the fringes of Christianity. Indeed, not only Pope Francis — and Pope John Paul II — but, as Roger notes, both C. S. Lewis and Billy Graham (to name two people to whose legacies Wheaton has often hitched its wagon) “said more or less what Dr. Hawkins said.”

So without knowing all the circumstances (as Roger puts it, “I have been in and around evangelical Christian institutions of higher education long enough to know there’s often ‘more to the story’ than ever gets out–especially in cases of difficult personnel decisions”), it’s hard to understand how Hawkins’ comments warrant a suspension, let alone the possibility of losing her job.

But I’m going to stop my theologizing there and invite those who desire to plumb such depths to read Roger’s response, or Scot McKnight’s (a reaction to Miroslav Volf’s book on Allah).

What I’ll say instead is that this whole debate underscores why Pietists are so leery of getting bogged down in theological controversy about right belief rather than seeking to focus on right action. Even if it were possible to resolve such a complex question, any resulting theological clarity risks becoming yet another kind of “dead orthodoxy” if it needlessly damages our ability to be the diverse but united Body of Christ — with all that implies for what it means to bear witness to a Christ who called us to love our neighbors.

So back to my Wheaton talk, whose next passage may have something useful to say in this respect:

…we evangelicals ought to beware our tendency to view truth as an abstraction to be defined rather than as a person to whom we relate. Our primary task as a Christ-centered university is not to stand watch on the intellectual frontier demarcating orthodoxy from heresy. It is rather the task of conversion, turning people towards the person in whom we live and move and have our being, however near or far they stand from him.

At one level, this is why the claim that Christians and Muslim worship the same God is problematic for me: the identity of the divine person to whom I relate is significant.

But precisely because I believe in a Jesus who was so much more than a prophet, I admire Hawkins’ desire to make her faith in Christ active in love. (And to return the same love for the harsh criticism that she’s received from fellow followers of Jesus.) At a time when evangelicals are the most Islamophobic group in this country, when the president of the country’s largest Christ-centered university recklessly dragged Islam into an already imprudent call for students to arm themselves, I can’t think of a more evangelical, Gospel-proclaiming form of love than for a follower of Jesus Christ to identify herself with her Muslim sisters and brothers.

2. Staying Christ-centered is not static

I understand that this is not what many Christian college constituents want to hear. And not just because of anxiety about Islam. Most alumni, donors, and trustees have not been actively a part of a college campus since their own studies, so there’s an inevitable temptation to have a vision of higher ed that’s fixed by memory, rather than moving in response to the present and future. But I suspect that this general inclination is exacerbated in communities like Wheaton’s because of the general fearfulness permeating evangelicalism these days. Too many of us are too twitchy these days, hyper-vigilant for evidence of declension or accommodation.

But my own religious tradition might provide a helpful corrective here:

For a Pietist university to stay Christ-centered, it must continue to find new ways to make new persons who serve a new church, taking up the mission of a God who is making all things new.

So staying is not static, or stationary. At our worst, Pietists’ centering on Christ has entailed retreat and withdrawal, turning in on ourselves and away from the world. At our best, though, Pietists have stayed centered on a Christ of movement, a Christ who invites us to “follow me” — into the missions field, into the realm of ideas, into places of poverty and suffering, and into seasons of change and disruption.

I don’t have any reason to think that Pietism has anything to do with the Episcopalian Hawkins’ decision to wear a hijab this Advent. But I do think she shares with Pietists an instinct to follow a “Christ of movement… into places of poverty and suffering, and into seasons of change and disruption.” And I appreciate her desire to seek “new ways” to take up the mission of God in the world. Christian college leaders ought to be encouraging such instincts for empathy and experimentation, not punishing them.

3. Live in borderlands, not as a citadel

And that leads me back to the closing passage of my talk at Wheaton, which I quoted this fall in response to another debate threatening to divide the Church:

…we may be exiting a culture war in which Christian conservatives, if not the losers, are certainly not the victors. It would be easy to respond by holding on to whatever territory we control, patrolling the boundaries separating us from our cultured despisers and saying farewell to the traitors within. Meanwhile, those across the border — including other Christians — will do the same. The result is likely to be something akin to what happened to Germany after 1648: ever clearer, and ever more lifeless, orthodoxies.

That, for the Pietist, is the threat to our Christian identity. We have nothing to fear from technological, economic, cultural, political, or legal change — nothing to fear, that is, but our demise as institutions that may potentially outlive their missional utility. But we do need to beware the risk that when we set ourselves over and against others, we may possess the form of piety, even as we lose the power thereof.

Title page from a 1676 edition of Spener, Pia Desideria
As I noted earlier today, the book I’m currently working on is meant to be a kind of 21st century update of Pia Desideria

The hope, then, is much the same as it was when Spener wrote Pia Desideria in 1675: to emphasize convertive experience over intellectual assent; to ask “Where is it written?” and not mean a creed or confession; to cultivate an irenic spirit and avoid needless controversy. To be, as the Brethren historian Dale Brown once said of Pietists, the servants of our culture, not its mimics or its rulers — or those watching it burn from a safe distance.

The thing is, Wheaton also has it within its DNA to do this. This amazing learning community founded by an abolitionist on the eve of the Civil War is still populated by thousands of students, alumni, and employees who do what they do out of a Christ-like spirit of service.

As one such Wheaton alumnus, sociologist John Schmalzbauer, reminded us last night, Wheaton’s president, provost, and chaplain tried to cultivate an irenic spirit of interfaith dialogue eight years ago, when they joined other evangelical leaders in responding to A Common Word Between Us and You, an open letter from Muslim clerics. Without denying theological differences, they affirmed the importance of building bridges between followers of those two Abrahamic religions:

The future of the world depends on our ability as Christians and Muslims to live together in peace. If we fail to make every effort to make peace and come together in harmony you correctly remind us that “our eternal souls” are at stake as well.

But as John also pointed out, those same leaders backed down from their support of that initiative when faced with criticism from conservative evangelicals. And one of them, provost Stanton Jones, has been at the center of the Hawkins’ controversy.

I don’t envy Jones, Wheaton president Philip Ryken, or any other Christian college leader the decisions they have to make in so uncertain a time. I ‘m sure that they love God and are trying their best to love their neighbors — including neighbors who don’t share our belief in the triune nature of God. (Next month Tomorrow Wheaton will host a summit on the Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis.) And I don’t doubt that they are committed to the Christian liberal arts — and know that that commitment requires administrators to protect a significant degree of freedom for faculty who must ask hard questions, inhabit tensions without reconciling them, and occasionally take unpopular stances.

But the current case evokes memories of ten years ago, when then-president Duane Litfin removed a faculty member who had crossed a different kind of (intra)religious boundary. For a Pietist, it can seem like Wheaton’s leaders too easily see their role in terms of serving as “defenders of the faith” — at least, a narrowly evangelical version of the faith that excludes other Christians, to say nothing of our non-Christian neighbors.

I’ll admit: I had that image of our host (a “garrison” or “citadel”) in mind when I came to the end of my 2014 talk, which seems like a logical conclusion for this post as well:

Our hope lies in recognizing that, like the Alsatian Spener, we inhabit a borderland — between faith and reason, church and academy, public and private, commerce and service. Borderlands are often where the combat is fiercest, but they teach their denizens to speak multiple languages, and to move between groups, earning the trust of both. At its best, a Christ-centered university like Bethel is not a garrison of defenders of the faith, preparing for battle in the safety of their citadel; it’s a community of people serving faithfully, fearlessly in contested territory, building bridges, healing wounds, and inviting their enemies to turn towards the Prince of Peace.

9 thoughts on “Wheaton, Islam, and the Christ-Centered University

  1. I just have to reply to this and it may not go over well. First, I am a Catholic. I believe that Pope Francis is correct when he says Catholics and Muslims worship the same God. My opinion is that most Christians believe this as well. However, based on the actions of some people, I think that a group of people are now saying that they do not worship the same God as Muslims do. They are not saying they worship God differently, but that they do not worship the same God.

    That is a pretty big leap and if it is the case, then that group needs to call themselves something other than Christian. I think that is a pretty big theological leap to say that there is a different God rather than to say people worship God differently. At that point and especially in conjunction with what is going on today, a group of people that say they worship a different God than the one I do is literally redefining God to fit Him into their political ideology rather than the other way around.

    To me, that will herald a significant shift in religion in this country. That group will not longer be Christian or even Protestant, but something new. They also will be leaving the mainstream of Christianity in America in order to create a radical religious ideology. Frankly, that would be a major schism. I for one would consider those people not to be Christians.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jimmy. One post I wish I’d seen before I wrote my own came from my former colleague Kyle Roberts, who could both “understand the reaction to such a comment by evangelical Christians, who unhesitatingly affirm that God is made known to us most perfectly through the person of Jesus Christ” and also conclude that “it’s one thing to argue that someone’s view of or understanding of God is deficient, or incomplete, or whatever, and quite another to categorically insist that they do not worship the same God.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unsystematictheology/2015/12/the-same-god-on-socrates-professor-hawkins-and-the-wheaton-controversy

    2. You’re right.

      If one Abrahamic faith, in its own sense of orthodox self-understanding, is described by as not having the same god as the others for its object, then this faith is being described as essentially atheistic. It also makes it difficult to explain why any Abrahamic faith would be accepted by another as sharing in a common theism. Progressing down this path any sectarian expression of Christianity can paint itself into a corner where it alone is legitimate, and the others are all invalid. This sort of sectarian polemical conflict following the Reformation caused the emergence of atheism as a viable category of non/belief according to some historians, while also reducing faith to rationally defensible belief detached from experience — and persons.

      Today popular non-/post-confessional Protestant apologetic resources explicitly reject Catholic teachings on this subject, which are most clearly expressed in the dogmatic materials to come out of Vatican II. On the “traditionalist right” there are significant overlaps between Catholics and Protestants who share a theopolitical vision in which that council, if not earlier events, brought the Roman Catholic church into apostasy. That makes this subject politically inflammatory and consequential not just between Christians and Muslims but also potentially Jews, and between ultra-conservative Christians and their oldest ecclesial authorities.

      Evangelical watchdogmatists shouldn’t casually make statements about fundamental theology that can drive dangerous wedges between people who see themselves engaged in a clash of religious civilizations. Lacking an awareness of the tradition and history involved — a key trait of popular Evangelical culture — is what leads to this behavior.

  2. Thank you for sharing. As a Bethel Alum, I’ve been watching this situation carefully. I’m concerned about the witness of the Christian church in the current climate–and the messages that current students are receiving about how we show love to our neighbors. Your words resonated with me and helped me articulate my own response.

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