Crossing the Line: Why Wheaton College Can’t Abide Religious Solidarity

Doctor Sheila Hughes, Saint Mary’s College Dean of the School of Liberal Arts, has written a reflection on the act of Christian-Muslim solidarity by Larycia Hawkins of Wheaton College, for which Professor Hawkins was placed on administrative leave. The personal journey of faith in the one God of mercy shared by Doctor Hughes seems fitting as we prepare to welcome the same God again, as the Prince of Peace, into our hearts this Christmas.

Crossing the Line: Why Wheaton College Can’t Abide Religious Solidarity

By Doctor Sheila Hughes

When I read the news that Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor at Wheaton College (IL), had been placed on leave for an expression of “religious solidarity” with Muslims, I was saddened, but not surprised. While Wheaton is an institution of considerably academic prestige, it remains committed to a conservative evangelical identity and tradition that renders inter-religious solidarity ultimately heretical.

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” she posted Dec. 10 on Facebook. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” (See https://www.facebook.com/larycia/posts/10153326773658481 for the full post). Hawkins’ public statement, and her related decision to don the hijab as an act of solidarity during the Advent season, put her at odds with the core commitments of her institution.

hijab by cressalve

I know this, because I come from that world: the world of Protestant evangelicalism. I was raised in a relatively conservative evangelical household, I attended a one-year Baptist college after high school, and I was chapter president of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at my large public alma mater, where we prayed fervently for spiritual revival on campus and aimed lovingly to convert fellow students and professors. Even after a political awakening to issues of race, class, and gender, in my early twenties, and my eventual identification as an anti-racist feminist, I still once imagined that a professorship at a place like Wheaton could be my “dream job.” Today, it looks like a really bad dream.

I brushed close to that dream once, though. Upon earning my PhD in women’s studies, with a dissertation on feminist theology and women’s literature, I somehow managed to be granted an interview for a position at another of the most academically prestigious evangelical institutions. That interview at the MLA convention was very much a test of my theology (three white men interviewed me in a hotel room: one read aloud from a list of formal questions; another wrote down everything I said in reply; the third appeared to be carefully studying my facial expressions), and it seems I did not pass. In stark contrast to this was my interview, that same day, with the University of Dayton, the Catholic and Marianist university where I ended up happily spending the next seventeen years. After a gregarious 30-minute conversation with a group representing gender, age, religious, and cultural diversity, it was suggested that perhaps we should make sure we’d addressed some of the prescribed questions, at least one of which had to do with the institution’s religious mission, but none of which required a statement of faith or doctrine. I might like these Catholics, I thought. And it turns out, I do!

For evangelicals, there remains a single right path to God laid out in scripture, and it requires that followers (1) believe that Jesus Christ, God’s only son, died for their sins, (2) accept Christ as their personal saviour, and (3) confess that faith and spread that same gospel message to others, in order that they, too, might be saved from endless separation from God. So while evangelicals, depending upon where they fall on the wide conservative-progressive continuum (that stretches at least from Jerry Falwell to Jim Wallis), might differ significantly in how they interact with those who do not share their faith, they all generally understand there to be a line between the saved or “born again” and others. And if there is to be solidarity with those on the other side of that line, it should be social or political, not religious. The Baptist bible college I attended in Canada was pretty moderate theologically, but it was there I first formally learned about other religious traditions so that I could effectively judge their greatest errors and heresies and effectively seek to convert their members. There was no wholly uncorrupted beauty, wonder, or truth to be found in other traditions, I was taught.

It wasn’t until I landed in a tenure-track job at Dayton that I began exploring Catholicism with real interest. Learning about the Catholic approach to the “inculturation of Christ” through Achiel Peelman’s book, Christ is a Native American, as part of my interdisciplinary research on American Indian literature, for example, gave me great hope. Catholic theological and other sources, and conversation with Catholic friends and colleagues over almost two decades, have now profoundly shaped my post-evangelical Episcopal faith and my scholarship, teaching, and administrative leadership. That conversation over time (my entrée into Catholic intellectual and social traditions) is what helped me find and make a home for myself in Catholic higher education. And so I find myself now at Saint Mary’s College, learning about the Christian Brothers and the Lasallian tradition, welcoming and identifying with diverse brothers and sisters. And I find myself also with an opportunity to help explain what is happening at Wheaton, back in the Midwest, way back in the evangelical world.

I expect many of my Saint Mary’s colleagues find the Wheaton response to Professor Hawkins actions baffling, and for that bafflement I am grateful. It means that religious solidarity has deep roots here, as it should. The Catholic Church has long recognized that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, as was clearly articulated in the Second Vatican Council:

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day. (Lumen Gentium 16, November 21, 1964).

This is why Saint Mary’s can authentically and enthusiastically host both the Cummins Institute and the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism. And radical acts of solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed are a long and crucial part of Catholic tradition as well, as the legacies of leaders such as Dorothy Day, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Helen Prejean remind us.

I am happy to be in a place where we live out the gospel not primarily by orthodoxy (“right speech”) but by orthopraxis: “doing the right thing,” through acts of mercy, justice, and solidarity.


Image by cressalve.deviantart.com

 

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