Wheaton College has undergone a bit of controversy in the past few days, so of course, the world (or really bored Americans) is in an uproar. As in most cases like this, facts are in short supply and opinions are everywhere. If you have not read anything about this, here are some useful links from the Chicago Tribune that present the story fairly evenly and well. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-wheaton-college-professor-larycia-hawkins-20151216-story.html
There is also a pretty good balanced op-ed: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-wheaton-college-islam-christian-larycia-hawkins-edit-1218-20151217-story.html
Wheaton College has issued statements here: http://www.wheaton.edu/Media-Center/Media-Relations/Statements/Wheaton-College-Statement-Regarding-Dr-Hawkins
Before we go any further, it is important to make a few safe assumptions. If we are willing to make these assumptions, then there is a great deal to learn here, if we won’t make them, then this becomes yet another in a long line of needless arguments, instead of an opportunity to learn.
Assumption 1: Larycia Hawkins is a devoted Christian who loves Jesus.
Assumption 2: Wheaton College is a Christian college that has sincere beliefs and as an institution is devoted in Christianity and loves Jesus.
Assumption 3: Those of us who care about this are devoted Christians who love Jesus.
Assumption 4: Neither Larycia Hawkins nor Wheaton College is known for, or is in this case is, telling lies.
There we go, the stage is set. If those assumptions turn out to not be true, then I will be content that I was wrong thinking the best of people and not the worst. Now, Larycia Hawkins is suspended with pay because of some statements that she had made. She says that she did not violate the statement of belief of Wheaton, and Wheaton seems to think that there is some cause for concern about that. In a rather rare display of maturity, the college put her on administrative leave, with pay, to find out what is going on, and Larycia Hawkins has responded to what the college has asked and done what she can within her power to reconcile with the college. It honestly seems hat both parties in this actually want the same outcome, but there is a bit of a disconnect that needs to be taken care of first. The college is protecting it’s integrity and beliefs while at the same time not taking overly punitive measures against the professor while a determination is made. That seems reasonable to me. So, why is everyone up in arms?
The reality of this situation is that it does not matter what you, or I, or the Pope and Vatican II, or Miroslav Wolf, or the NYT editorials think happened at Wheaton. It really doesn’t. What matters is Wheaton and Larycia Hawkins think. Wheaton has, as a requirement for it’s employees, namely a statement of beliefs that need to be adhered to. The question here is if there were statements made that run contradictory to those beliefs. There is a dialog that is ongoing about just that. There are some who are attempting to turn this into something that it is not. That is actually quite sad as this is exactly the type of model that we need to show how to operate when there are questions of belief. If we operate under the assumptions listed above, all of the sudden this is a learning experience and model for behavior and not some witch hunt as some have suggested. All of the sudden it is about nothing more than if someone who has been trusted with the beliefs is accurately representing them. Others have suggested this is a result of Muslim based bigotry. That is not only pure speculation without any evidence, it is also damaging to what is actually happening. It makes a good headline I suppose, but is not an honest assessment of what is occurring.
So what can we learn? Aside from how the two parties are handling this and the dignity and respect that they are showing to each other, we can learn a lot as the UMC. If you read the pieces above from the Chicago Tribune, you know many of the basic beliefs of Wheaton College. Can you say the same about the UMC? Whether or not we agree with Wheaton, we know where they stand and what they stand for. Can anyone say the same about the UMC? At the moment the best that some of us can do is say that we should stand for this or that, that we should believe this or that, and little more. Wheaton actually cares enough about it’s theological stance, that it will not allow for it to be compromised. They are defending it, with dignity and class, and not allowing it to potentially be corrupted. How I wish the UMC would do this. Wheaton has a standard that it holds it’s instructors to. It is pretty simple all in all, we believe this and we expect you to represent that in all you do. We have that in the UMC, but it means nothing because we do not hold anyone to it. What we can learn from Wheaton has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with how we handle it.
I am not defending Wheaton or Larycia Hawkins for that matter. I am trying to learn from the model that has been set by them and how they have approached it. I am hoping and praying that somehow this small incident inspires people to see that there is a way to deal with differences in belief, but that there is also authority and accountability to it. I am hoping that we can understand that it is not a bad thing to have theological distinctive beliefs, to hold those in positions of authority to them and when there is a question about it, to even take the necessary steps to ensure that those beliefs are defended. None of that has to be mean spirited, hurtful or nasty, but it does need to be consistent and it does need to be enforced. Everyone is talking about Wheaton College, people are reading about their beliefs and commenting on them. We can’t say that about the UMC, but maybe if we learn something from this we could.