Dr. Larycia Hawkins on the 'Inquisition' at Wheaton and Why She Wants to Stay

A Q&A with Wheaton Professor Whose 'Same God' Comments Drew National Attention
By Sandi Villarreal 1-26-2016
Larycia Hawkins / Facebook
Image via Larycia Hawkins / Facebook

Dr. Larycia Hawkins — the Wheaton College political science professor who recently was placed on administrative leave because of her Facebook comments showing solidarity with the Muslim community and saying Christians and Muslims worship the ‘same God’ — has been the center of much speculation over the future of both Christian liberal arts and the evangelical faith writ large. The administration maintains that her comments seemed to be inconsistent with the college’s Statement of Faith, and earlier this month provost Stan Jones delivered a recommendation to the president to initiate termination. A hearing before the Faculty Personnel Committee on Feb. 11 will result in a recommendation to the president and board of trustees on how to move forward. 

On Jan. 23, Hawkins spoke with Sojourners about the process and its implications for Christian higher education. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Amid all of what’s happening, how are you doing?

It’s day to day … I have a lot of support around me and a lot of support out there from people I know and people I don’t know and that feels very encouraging. At the end of the day I feel very thankful.

Q: There have been so many different groups who have risen up to speak on your behalf. What’s been the most surprising in all of that?

One of the things that has been very unexpected has been the ability to see my cloud of witnesses, to actually get to experience that in my lifetime, and I feel immensely blessed to have such a great cloud of witnesses.

… In an interesting way I understand my cloud of witnesses to be fellow believers, but I also have had an outpouring of support from the Muslim community specifically, so I don’t discount that as part of God’s protection of me and of my heart. … I know that’s God’s abundance and overflowing grace to me to have humans I don’t know embrace me as their sister.

Q: Do you feel like that kind of support and that kind of walking alongside, is that where you’ve been able to see Christ in this situation?

Yes. I think that in terms of my desire to walk alongside others and to exhibit the embodied solidarity that I think Jesus actually portrays in his life and teaching — that’s been returned to me in ways that I never expected. For me, embodied solidarity is imperative on each of us wherever we are situated in our individual and collective contexts and communities. …

I see embodied solidarity as walking alongside, but also learning from, humbling oneself to learn from the oppressed of whatever ilk and to realize that in this situation, not to dramatize it, but I feel vulnerable in this situation. I know that Wheaton feels vulnerable too in this situation. There’s a lot of fear of the longevity of the institution. I feel vulnerable in this situation, and to have people walk alongside me — not in the sense of taking sides — means that I’m in this position that I realize I’m the one in need. I’ve been teaching people to walk alongside those in need and then I’m the one in need. … It’s humbling to experience that as I teach what I teach come back to me a hundredfold.

Q: A lot of what has been written has been about situating Wheaton as an example of a larger schism within the evangelical world. If it is that, is this the ultimate dividing line, and if so, who is on one side and who is on the other?

The important delineation between evangelicals, the people, and evangelicalism, the political movement, I can’t overstate. I think the difficulty at Wheaton College is what I believe is a sincere commitment on the part of the administration to distinguish itself from the political movement. What Wheaton College and the administration are wont to say is that Wheaton College is not a political institution. We don’t display politics; we don’t take side on political issues. For instance, when Wheaton College sues the federal government on health care reform, that’s not political — that’s moral. That’s the line that Wheaton College toes. So when saying, for instance, that Larycia Hawkins’ statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is controversial or somehow out of bounds with Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith, that does feel to me like the college is drawing a line in the sand — but that’s in the evangelical sand, not in the political sand. That’s Wheaton College’s line.

I think that in reality, it’s very difficult to maintain that difference. To the outside observer, a lot of what Wheaton College does in terms of suing the federal government, or canceling a student’s health insurance plans because of a fear that students will have access to abortifacients and/or use them — even though students sign a statement of faith that is relative to abortion and upholds life — I think that, to a reasonable observer, smacks of politics. … As somebody who studies political movements, especially religio-political movements and socio-political movements like evangelicalism, it’s certainly apparent to me why people would view Wheaton’s actions as political.

Q: At Wheaton and at other Christian colleges, it seems there is a fear of becoming too much like a secular society so we’ll dig in our heels in a fundamentalist bent. Is that a fair characterization of what’s happening?

The difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists is their position vis-a-vis society. Evangelicals have always maintained that Christians should be in the world and not of it. … The casual observer could make a case that when institutions display these tendencies or inclinations towards retreat and withdrawal, it’s appropriate to ask the question: Is this a move towards fundamentalism? …

The question that is right here is: Is Wheaton College going to make this delineation and start saying, well the Statement of Faith has to mean [that] when we talk about the Trinity or when we talk about the question of the ‘same God,’ you have to mean a certain theological strand? And I say there are as many theologies at Wheaton College as there are people — in fact, there are more. …

In terms of whether Wheaton is moving toward fundamentalism, I don’t know. That’s a question for administrators to answer, but I think this is an important moment for the institution. I think people are rightly watching what’s going on because what they do next perhaps signifies the future or direction of at least Wheaton College if not the rest of the evangelical world and evangelicalism more broadly.

Q: If they do continue in their endeavor, what does that mean not only for the students and faculty still there, but for the broader evangelical world?

Since Wheaton is a Christian institution, and our students come from various denominational backgrounds — which is what defines Wheaton, this commitment to being interdenominational — I think that what it says to students is that perhaps something has changed at the school they chose to attend. I think for some that could feel like a sense of comfort and solace, honestly. I think some people want an institution like Wheaton to give them the answers. I think that on very hard issues and questions, we all often want certainty. But that’s not the purpose of the Christian liberal arts — it’s to think through and live in the tension of very difficult questions, including theological questions.

So the effect that it will have not just on the students, but on the tenor of the institution and the arc of the Christian liberal arts in the future, I think that’s a really important question. And even on academia generally — these questions of free speech and trigger warnings and book burning, I think we thought as a society were dead, they’re alive and well. So what Wheaton does or does not do in this context … I think that what we have to acknowledge is that this will affect the culture on campus, the culture surrounding academic freedom and whose voice counts and how we can speak and what we can speak about. The point to me of the liberal arts is that it’s a freedom of thought, a freedom of ideas. What this could signify is that ideas or certain kinds of ideas are dangerous, and that’s lamentable — all around, whether the Christian liberal arts or the liberal arts or other institutions of higher education.

Q: You’ve mentioned that you’ll continue to pursue reconciliation with the college and the administration. What does that look like at this point?

It means that I’m open to meeting with them. The last time I met with the provost was Dec. 19. The only time I’ve met with the president was last Saturday, Jan. 16. And to me reconciliation looks like one thing that I’ve already done: to honor Wheaton College. …

The reality is I will be reconciled to Wheaton whatever happens because that’s what Christians do, that’s who we are. People are supposed to know we’re Christians by our love. So my goal, what reconciliation means, is to love Wheaton through this and to be committed to the process.

Q: There has been a lot of media coverage over the past month or so. What do you feel like, if any, are the misconceptions about you or the process?

One misconception that I have seen is this idea that I must have said Muslims and Christians are the same or I must have said Islam and Christianity are the same. Otherwise, the provost wouldn’t have presented me with these charges. And the reality is that’s not true. The provost’s charges are quite baseless. He took clauses from my two Facebook posts and extrapolated things, and I think that’s what people really need to understand. …

I will say the college has painted me as saying I wouldn’t talk to them. I said there would be no more theological conversation because my theological statement was a bona fide statement of an affirmation of Christian faith and orthodoxy. I said on the basis of my statement I will not explain any more. That’s protecting my dignity and my right to say, look, if that’s not enough for you, I don’t know what would be enough. What’s to question? …

There’s also this misnomer that I’m creating all of this media for attention. No, this is because I’m fighting for my tenure, and my position, and also for my colleagues who are now in danger. If I’m in danger of the inquisition, then so are they. Everyone’s in danger of the inquisition at Wheaton. Anything they say could be used against them.

Q: What is your hope going into the Feb. 11 hearing, not only for yourself but for the school?

My hope for the Feb. 11 hearing is that it will be fair, that the college will hear my witnesses and actually be committed to a rigorous review and due process that I haven’t been afforded thus far. …

Prayerfully my colleagues will not be fearful. The problem is plenty of people on campus — faculty, colleagues — are fearful. And I lament that I have to put them in the position of deciding whether to go on the record. But they have knowledge and information that’s very helpful.

Q: Is there anything you feel hasn’t been said that you want to add?

It’s been a privilege and an honor, the years that I’ve had at Wheaton College. I don’t know how this process is going to end obviously, but what I can say is that I would do it again. I would work at Wheaton again, I would choose it again even knowing what I know right now. Because what I know is while there have been difficult things, Wheaton has also been God’s grace to me in many ways. … I would wear the hijab again too. There’s nothing I would change — except this part. … I know that God is faithful and God will continue to be faithful to Wheaton and God will continue to be faithful to me.

Sandi Villarreal is Web Editor and Chief Digital Officer for Sojourners. You can find her on Twitter @Sandi.

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