Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins at a January 6 press conference. Credit: AP/M. Spencer Green

The front page of Tuesday’s Tribune carried a story by religion reporter Manya Brachear Pashman examining the troubles at Wheaton College, where a tenured professor is in grave danger of losing her job. Known as the “Harvard of Christian colleges,” writes Pashman, Wheaton is always on the lookout for “quality faculty who can integrate their Christian faith with the topics they teach.”

I blinked when I read that. Living one’s faith at work sounds doable enough, and wasn’t that exactly what poli-sci professor Larycia Hawkins had been attempting? But I guess it’s one thing to live one’s faith and another to integrate it. “Living one’s faith” suggests engaging the world with a spirituality that is admired enormously by others (like myself) who don’t live it, don’t have it, and are awed by those who do. It’s very hard to argue with faith when it underlies a life of integrity, valor, and service.

Integrating one’s faith, on the other hand, apparently means memorizing a rule book and never forgetting that the rules are bigger than the game. This is why Hawkins is in so much trouble with the Wheaton administration: her bosses aren’t paid to defend spirituality but rather their school’s “distinctive Protestant evangelical identity.” Wheaton has a “theological position,” and if it doesn’t enforce that position within its own ranks, what’s the point of Wheaton?

I read the college’s “statement of faith,” which every administrator and faculty member must annually reaffirm. They must believe in a three-person God, in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, in the existence of Satan, and in salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They must believe “that the one, holy, universal Church is the body of Christ and is composed of the communities of Christ’s people.”

Then I read the letter to Hawkins from provost Stanton Jones explaining how she had strayed. Hawkins had expressed solidarity with Muslims on Facebook, writing, for example, that “We worship the same God” and “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book.” 

But, said Jones to Hawkins, “it is widely and commonly understood” that Muslims deny the Trinitarian nature of God and deny the divinity of Christ. “With this understanding, please articulate how you understand that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” Jones made it clear that he considered the point absolutely fundamental. “If blasphemy is understood as making statements showing profound disrespect or disregard for the true nature of God as understood in a particular religious faith,” Jones told Hawkins, “can you explain how your comments are to be understood as not falling into that characterization for either Muslims or Christians or both?” Not only Christians should take offense at Hawkins’s words—so should Muslims!

After accusing Hawkins of blaspheming the gods of two of the world’s great faiths, Jones might have called it a day. But he pressed on. He’d just spotted her on Facebook referring to “fellow humans who happen to be Muslim” as “my brothers and sisters,” and he found it necessary to remind her of what “WE BELIEVE” (his stress), which is that it is only through the power of Christ’s “bodily resurrection” (which Muslims don’t recognize) that “we become children of God—brothers and sisters in Christ.”
After explaining to Hawkins how she’d also misrepresented the Eucharist, Jones closed with a pedantic flourish. Her reference to “the virgin birth (or Immaculate Conception depending on your persuasion)” betrayed a “troubling confusion in basic theological categories. The Immaculate Conception “is a Catholic doctrine applying to the conception of Mary.”

I wonder how smug Jones felt as he cleared up this doctrinal point for Hawkins. Years ago, I smugly set my new Catholic sister-in-law straight on the same point and then felt ashamed of myself for my posturing. Then again, I’m sure Jones wasn’t posturing. Without doctrine, what would religion be but formless fervor? If you’re an educator who wants to shape his students up spiritually, without doctrine there wouldn’t be much to teach. “We thank God that Wheaton College had the courage to do what it must to protect the very doctrines that reconcile sinners to God,” the senior pastor of the Moody Church blogged last month. “Anything less would be a betrayal of its history, its doctrine, and its many graduates who are spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world.”

And yet, is it religion that tears the world apart? Or is it religious doctrine—as enforced at any cost by young warriors killing in the name of doctrine they make up as they go along and by entrenched leaders such as Stanton Jones who owe their eminence to their mastery of it?