Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Reply to a Concerned Alumna

Today I received a heartfelt letter from an alumna of Wheaton College concerned about the situation the college finds itself in regarding Dr. Larycia Hawkins and her statements about Christians and Muslims. This alumna clearly wants the best for our students and college, and is deeply concerned that the gospel is being compromised by Dr. Hawkins words and those who defends her.

I took time to respond as thoughtfully as I could to what I presume is a view shared by many. I would like to share our exchange, but after consulting this alumna, she preferred that I did not share her letter. I respect her wishes, so you'll only see my reply and a summary of her letter.  I hope this will address concerns shared by others, but convey my sincere belief that we are all on the same team. May our unity be a witness to the world.


The author of the letter is a double alumna from Wheaton, having earned her undergrad and graduate degrees (in psychology) from the school in the 1990s.  She notes that it was a place where she learned to "freely think with God's Word at the center."

In observing the issues around Dr. Hawkins' statements and the administration response, she wants to encourage me to use whatever influence I have to "put God's word and HIS definition of himself" before any other consideration.

She then goes on to refer to "several missionaries who serve in Muslim countries (who also reject the "insider movement")[...] because they love their lord, Jesus Christ, and second because they love Muslims more than they love themselves."

It is clear that the letter's author believes that Dr. Hawkins' initial statements of solidarity with Muslims creates confusion about theology for Christians and Muslims, and overall find these statements harmful, rather than helpful.

She concludes saying (in boldface type),  "I truly want God to be glorified over any one person, college or group." 

Overall, she writes with humility and passion, and I have great respect that she is engaging these issues. I wanted to write thoughtfully, and hope my response might be helpful for others. Here is what I said:

Dear ______________,

Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts and feelings with me. I appreciate your love of the Lord, His Word, Wheaton and concern for all that’s going on here.

I want to assure you that in all that I do, I do strive to put God’s word at the center.  I want all my students to have the experience you describe, of thinking freely, with God’s word at the center. 

I understand that by supporting Dr. Hawkins it might seem that I am placing my concern for her, or perhaps for Muslim-Christian relations, ahead of scripture. I certainly understand how it can appear that way.  But I support Dr. Hawkins because I see scripture as fully supportive of both what she has done and what she has said.  Let me try to briefly explain:

As an anthropologist, I look at this partly through missiology. That is, whenever I think about how and what I am going to communicate of my faith, I think about the context and meaning of what I say in terms of those hearing it. How will it represent the Truth of Christ to those I’m speaking to, specifically those who need to hear the Word?  How will it reflect on the Kingdom in this time and place?  This is the apostle Paul’s concern in I Cor. 9:19-23 where he talks about becoming “all things to all people.” Of course this is not about neglecting the gospel. Quite the opposite!  It’s about making the gospel visible and available to those who seek it; helping to make the gospel understandable.

In this situation, I believe Dr. Hawkins’ actions and words speak to a non-Christian world powerfully, as a witness of Christ’s love to the nations. I want my support for her - as well as my support for the mission of the college - to speak to a non-Christian who is observing this. I know that for some Christians this can look like a compromise of biblical truth, but I have searched the scriptures for help and believe everything that Dr. Hawkins has said and done, and my support for her, have strong biblical warrant and ground.

You mention your missionary friends and their concerns.  Of course you recognize that there are many missionaries who do not reject the insider movement, and that there are several positions on a continuum of ministry in Muslim countries (the C-1 through C-6).  Though I have not been a missionary to Muslims myself, I have read some around the issue and see those across the spectrum looking to scripture to understand their work. Scripture provides guidance for them all, and I do not think there is a single biblical answer to what is, in my mind, a complex contextual question.  Those I know who accept the insider movement do so because they love the Lord and love Muslims more than themselves, just as those who reject the insider movement.  I am convinced that when sincere believers - truth seekers who come as the Bereans did to the scriptures daily - disagree on the guidance the Bible gives in a particular area, it is because of the different questions and context they are bringing to their thinking. Thus, Christians who have committed their lives to sharing the gospel with Muslims come to different views of how best to do that, not because some are looking to scripture and others are not, but because they work in distinct contexts, come from different backgrounds, and sincerely hear the Holy Spirit speaking to their questions and concerns. 

We always live our lives for Christ in the context of real life where we are called to think about how Jesus would have us respond. This is what Paul is doing throughout his letters, instructing Greek, Jewish, and Roman believers coming from a wide variety of prior religions and cultural contexts in how they can think about glorifying God in their context. This is why he gives different instructions at different points. Paul is not inconsistent!  The Scriptures have NO contradictions.  Paul is consistent in instructing the believers to live the Truth of Christ in light of how it can best provide no unnecessary obstacle to those who God would draw to Himself. 

 Dr. Hawkins was speaking into a context where vulnerable people (Muslims are only 2% of the U.S. population) were frightened and feeling isolated in places like the town of Wheaton. She wore the hijab to express Christian love of her neighbor, rooted in the ministry and words of Christ.  I understand her initial posts were confusing to many, but her follow-up statement was clear and appealed to scripture, theology and charity. (Have you read the statement she provided to Dr. Jones?  It is here at  Many people - nonChristians as well as Christians - have told me that they learned about the love of Christ from her.  A number of alumni who did not have as positive an experience at Wheaton as you had have written to say that Dr. Hawkins and the support she received has helped them to return to scripture and the Church.  God’s word does not return void and I see in this an opportunity to witness for Him.

This is what I teach my students, in general and specifically in this context.  I don’t expect that I would persuade you to support Dr. Hawkins’ actions in this, but I hope that we can share our common commitment to the Word of God and His lordship in our lives. I sincerely agree with so much of what you’ve written and wish nothing more than to see God lifted up in this.  God and His word is so much more than me, Dr. Hawkins, Wheaton, or the United States.  It is timeless and perfect, revealed in a baby 2000 years ago born in an insignificant place to insignificant people to save the world in every place and time. Now we must stand with God to show this revelation of love to our neighbors. Thank you for doing that where you are and please continue to pray for us as strive to do that here.

Your brother in Christ,

Monday, January 11, 2016

Why I Wear My Regalia

The academic life is odd. It requires a deep investment of time studying a relatively narrow topic. It involves broad familiarity with a wide and ever-expanding field of knowledge.  It puts one’s mind on display daily, open to the evaluation of others.  It can do a number on your ego.  Of course, it is also a life of great reward, from working with students in formative ways, growing with colleagues, and speaking to the wider public that, despite a current of anti-intellectualism of U.S. culture, still holds the professoriate in high regard.
One of the features of the academic life that is often not well understood outside our community is the custom of tenure.  It may seem to be a reward for sticking it out for certain amount of time, or a kind of union rule run amok, protecting incompetence into retirement. The reason for tenure at the university level, however, is not to pacify the academic life, but to enhance it. Tenure helps to ensure intellectual freedom and protect faculty in the pursuit of truth.  Pursuing truth means going where the data lead, creating what is crying out for creation, or applying an interpretation that seems correct, even if it runs against conventional wisdom or political interests.  Tenure is meant to protect the work of scholars from political pressure and cultural currents, so that the truth can be pursued and spoken. The institution grants it because it believes these faculty will pursue truth in their research and teaching, and enhance the life of the community.
At the same time, tenure has the potential to be abused, so it is neither easy to get, nor inviolable. At Wheaton College, as at most institutions, it takes seven years of service to earn the right to apply for tenure.  The application is accompanied by evidence of strength in teaching, scholarship, student mentoring, and institutional service.  At Wheaton as at most institutions, it is a justifiably high bar.  Once tenure is earned, faculty must still demonstrate competence in these four areas, but, as Tobin Grant has recently written, once the faculty member has made the case through the tenure application and tenure has been granted, the institution bestows a new measure of trust.
At an institution such as Wheaton, the trust granted with tenure has deeper and more consequential significance than just professional competence. David Lansdale argued in a Stanford dissertation written in1990 that faculty are often the “liberalizing” influence pushing a Christian college away from its sectarian mission to a broadly secular, pluralist one.[1] For that reason, every faculty member at Wheaton, since at least the 1920’s, has been under some theological scrutiny in order to be awarded tenure. As part of our process to earn tenure, we all write an academic “Faith and Learning Paper” in which we think Christianly within our discipline, whether we work in areas of theology or not. This is not as easy for the average physicist, music theorist, or ecologist as it is for a Christian theologian or Bible scholar, but we all engage this process with integrity, understanding the centrality of this work to Wheaton’s mission. Thus, tenure is meant to represent the work of the faculty member to earn the trust of the institution, and the granting of it as the sign that this trust has, in fact, been earned.
Given the events of the past month, I am concerned about the relationship of tenure to our ability to teach and do scholarship, and what it may mean in the future.  As Dr. Noah Toly recently covered in a careful and thoughtful piece, in what we have seen, it appears that the questions around Dr. Hawkins’ theology were answered in her December 17 statement to the administration. It seems that her explanations were clear and acceptable. It appears that the underlying issue that what she has written in response to legitimate administrative questions is not being trusted.  The request for additional conversation, then, makes me nervous.
Now it is clear that in the situation with Dr. Hawkins trust has been damaged on both sides. This is why reconciliation is necessary. Yet the power still largely rests with the institution, insofar as Dr. Hawkins’ job and the meaning of tenure is concerned.  Let me be clear that I am not accusing Wheaton of an abuse of power in this case. I believe that the administrators and trustees have acted in what they feel are the interests of the college, an institution they have been charged to protect. I know and respect the administrators involved and believe them to be men of great character and integrity.  I do not know many of the trustees personally, but have interacted with almost all of them (some I do count as friends) and believe them all people of good will.  More importantly, they are the ones with the significant responsibility to protect and advance the mission and identity of Wheaton. This is no small thing. But Larycia Hawkins is the vulnerable person, and, as she has said, this decision affects us all.  It affects all faculty and our relationships with our students, our colleagues, and the institution. Changing academic jobs is not a simple matter, as one's academic profile often becomes adapted to the place where you choose to invest. My sister, Larycia, has demonstrated that there are risks to take stands, but we stand with those in common cause to defend what we believe is important and right.
Wearing my regalia in solidarity with Larycia Hawkins is not to stand against Wheaton, or to shame or belittle those who act on its behalf. Instead, I seek to stand with the mission and meaning of Wheaton as an institution for Christ and His Kingdom, where we can trust one another in this mission. I wear it because I believe in the integrity of tenure and its importance to the academic life.  I wear it because I believe that Larycia Hawkins has acted with integrity to uphold the ideals of academic freedom, and I stand with her in seeking a restoration of the relationship between her and Wheaton College. I wear it because I believe in the mission of Wheaton as an institution of higher education rooted in a Christian mission guided by God and His word. I wear it to stand with the ideals of this school and my fellow faculty who strive to uphold them.
This is a time of great pain for Wheaton as so many watch a conflict unfold that is legal, theological, interpersonal, cultural, and spiritual in various measures. Faculty, students, alumni, parents, and trustees have invested deeply into the mission of Wheaton.  In practicing this form of embodied solidarity, I hope to say to a watching world that I am engaged in this process. I care about Larycia and the outcome of this. I care about how Wheaton is perceived within and beyond our community. I care about the integrity of our processes, the integrity of policies such as tenure, and the trust it represents. As a tenured faculty member, I want to be trusted that my yes will mean yes, and my no means no.  I want to be viewed as a partner in this work.
In the end, there are not “sides” to this.  The Trustees are given the responsibility to shepherd the mission of Wheaton College, and we are all given the responsibility and opportunity to uphold it. I believe we are all on the same side. And very soon I expect to stand, in my regalia, with us all.

[1] H/t to Wheaton librarian and historian David Malone for posting portions of this dissertation on line and summarizing its basic argument. Although there is not, as far as I can tell, an accessible online version, its existence can be verified through the hyperlink.