Monday, January 11, 2016

Wheaton College Revokes Tenure of Prof for Accurately Quoting the Pope

Larycia Hawkins: Christian scholar fired for being insufficiently anti-Islamic.
The administration of Wheaton College in Illinois has announced that Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured Associate Professor of Political Science is about to be out of a job. Real colleges and universities treat tenure seriously. To fire a faculty member with tenure requires—or at least ought to require—some sort of serious transgression: not going to class, plagiarizing an article, sexually harassing students, that sort of thing. Dr. Hawkins’s transgression: accurately stating that Pope Francis had claimed that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”

Colleges and universities with religious affiliations are an intriguing, not to say self-contradictory, phenomenon. If, as Curmie believes, the purpose of post-secondary education is to challenge assumptions and encourage critical and independent thinking, then adherence to a religious code would seem to run contrary to that end. This doesn’t mean, of course, that such institutions can’t thrive, and many religiously-affiliated schools—even evangelical ones—rightly maintain reputations for academic excellence.

But insistence that faculty march in lockstep to narrow and ultimately divisive theologies inevitably raises concerns in any legitimate scholarly community. And Wheaton risks sacrificing its time-honored standing in the academy to chase after the phantoms of Islamic otherness.

Dr. Hawkins, a Christian, first made headlines when she donned a Hijab throughout the recent Advent season:
... in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind…. I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.
Curmie can’t confirm that Pope Francis made that statement “last week,” but it is a a recurrent theme in his discourse. But the Doctrine Police at Wheaton couldn’t have that: it suggests that someone of less pretentious religiosity (Dr. Hawkins) or even someone who worships the same God differently (Muslims) might be worthy of respect. “Question all things except our interpretation of religious teachings,” in other words.

The bottom line is that the “people of the book” description is time-honored, and no one seems to have suggested that Christians ought to convert to Islam, merely that treating their Muslim friends and colleagues (and Muslim strangers) as… you know… people is the appropriate—dare I say Christian—thing to do. Indeed, as Miroslav Volf of the Yale Divinity School argued even before Hawkins was dismissed, “There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”

That initial episode—not the hijab per se, according to the school, although Curmie suspects a quibble about that part—earned Dr. Hawkins a paid administrative leave. What got her fired was apparently her unwillingness to cooperate fully in the ensuing witch-hunt. Curmie uses that term quite intentionally, as the Wheaton administration is interested primarily in acquiescence, sincere or otherwise, and in the stomping out of anything so heretical as free thought. They make lots of fancy statements like this one:
In the interest of rigorous academic inquiry consistent with a Christian liberal arts education, Wheaton College exposes students to a variety of views to encourage them to think through difficult issues, embrace a mature adult faith with integrity, and learn how to articulate their own commitments.
Fact is, however, just want their faculty to shut up about anything that would actually lead to reasoned, disciplined, interrogation of social, political, and religious doctrines.

This is an act of intellectual cowardice, as is any suppression of free speech other than the usual regulations against treason, libel, and the like. A rigorous search for the truth will reveal the manifold falsehoods and slanders of petty minds. Seeking nuance in, for example, an approach to homosexuality is not a capitulation to secular forces: it is the essence of any legitimate religion and any legitimate educational enterprise. If the school’s narrow (not to say narrow-minded) interpretation of God’s law is appropriate, it will be revealed as such. But just as the ancient Athenians understood that the satirical barbs of an Aristophanes actually strengthened the polis, just as the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence insists on a vigorous defense of even the most obviously guilty defendant, so is probing, prodding, and questioning an inherent good in a theological system. Wheaton faculty understand that; their students understand that; their administration does not.

None of this is to suggest that Wheaton doesn’t have the legal (as opposed to ethical or pedagogical) right to do whatever the hell they want. Faculty sign declarations of faith as a pre-requisite to hiring, and however creepy such a practice might be, it’s still legal. But Wheaton has cost itself dearly in this contretemps: it risks falling out of the company of the most reputable schools of its kind—Calvin, Seattle Pacific, and the like—and into the mix with Asbury, Liberty, Bob Jones and their brethren: places where philosophy, science, history, and literature are subordinated to religio-political indoctrination. It would be a shame for that to happen, especially to the students who chose a religious school they thought viewed “rigorous academic inquiry consistent with a Christian liberal arts education” as a real goal instead of a marketing ploy. The administration, however, has brought whatever ignominy might occur upon itself.

NOTE: After posting this piece, Curmie came across a very good, detailed, view of the case. You can read Tobin Grant’s excellent analysis here.

 

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