The Tenure of Scriptures: Interpreting Wheaton College (Illinois)

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same god? When political scientist Larycia Hawkins answered affirmatively, Wheaton College (Illinois) reconsidered her tenure.

Wheaton Statement

For certain the answer matters a great deal to people.

But why does the question?

Predictably, the public discourse has focused on scriptural justifications of the “what do the texts say?” variety. To those looking for definitive statements on this and other issues, I advise looking elsewhere. Texts have neither the first, nor the last word on matters. People do.

This is abundantly clear in the scriptures concerned.

  • The New Testament describes Christians nominally worshipping the god of the Jews while critiquing the persons (Matthew 23), places (Luke 13:34), and things (John 2:13-24) involved in doing so. The Jesus of the gospels has a love-hate relationship with claims to Jewish identity (Matthew 5:17-20).
  • The Qur’an has numerous passages suggesting that early Muslims saw themselves as the righteous devotees of the god worshiped by Christ. The Qur’an also contains passages that rebuke the deification of Christ (5:17) and the embrace of triune divinity (4:1). These are deal breakers for a lot (but not all) Christians.

The rhetorical pivoting should make you wonder what “the Abrahamic religions” talk is all really about.

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For a good place to start, check out Aaron W. Hughes, Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

For my part, it has less to do with what the books say and more about how we read each other and the situations in which we find ourselves. The texts simply provide a paper trail for how groups have worked this out. To borrow a phrase of Vincent L. Wimbush, when we think about “scriptures” as “textures, gestures, and power,” we become better attuned to the issues at stake.

I think there are a few of the particulars of note in the case of Wheaton.

  • And to Wheaton’s credit, her hire should be commended. There are still far too many red lines and glass ceilings. This is not an institution that is fixed to the status quo.

Good faith can be found on both sides, but who has the privilege of enforcing that weight in this situation?

Tenure presumes that faculty may profess freely from an office of gainful academic employment—with actions related to the former not jeopardizing the latter. The key exception is when an institution understands itself as economically or missionally insolvent, in which case tenure becomes a moot point.

From the perspective of Provost Stanton Jones and other administrators, Dr. Hawkins could bring Wheaton to just such a position.

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Like numerous other Evangelical institutions, Wheaton requires faculty to sign a statement of faith. Signatures don’t just represent creedal affirmation of the “Christian liberal arts.” They sanction the college’s ability to interpret what that entails to the satisfaction of its patrons—trustees, donors, and customer base.

That’s where the penny drops.

Were the statement of faith really about theology, then Hawkins’ Protestantism would appease Wheaton’s officials. Imbroglio aside, she “still believe[s] in the project of the Christian liberal arts.” Yet one wonders whether Wheaton is more concerned with the optics and cost of Hawkins’ academic freedom.

Faculty and alumni have come to her defense, but it can’t look good for a professor to deputize Pope Francis in an argument about the nature of God. What kind of evangelical institutional would take its cues from the Vatican?

Wearing a hijab as a prophetic Christian witness against Islamophobia is all well and good, but you probably lose points at Wheaton for saying you were endorsed by the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The college could spin it, but is it worth the effort?

Historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith would remind us that the issue isn’t about gods, but the politics of interpretive authority. When it comes to “canon,” he writes, we should look to the “process, particularly the study of comparative systematics and exegesis” that lay behind “the task of application as well as the judgment of the relative adequacy of particular applications to a community’s life situation.”

That would account for the similarities in Wheaton’s woes and a recent intra-religious squabble at Northwest Nazarene University. Theology professor Thomas Jay Oord was dismissed by administrators for lackluster class enrollment, but many have commented that his particular negotiation of science and Christianity were the true point of contention.

Conversations have to start somewhere. I’m wondering how long we have to until “hijabi-for-a-day” activities become all the rage at Wheaton. The school seemingly went out on a limb to hire Dr. Hawkins in the first place. It’s really only a matter of time.

And not for nothing, but Provost Stanton Jones—the same one issuing the reprimand of Dr. Hawkins—signed a 2007 document affirming  the need for Christians and Muslims to “engage in interfaith dialogue as those who seek each other’s good, for the one God unceasingly seeks our good.”

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People change. Institutions change. Scriptures should remind us to ask on what and (more importantly) whose terms.

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

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