Wheaton and the Future of Christian Education

By Tripp Hudgins 1-14-2016
Edman Chapel at Wheaton College
Edman Chapel at Wheaton College, by Joseph Palatinus / Flickr.com

It isn’t easy being in Christian education these days. The case of Dr. Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton College is showing us why.

You’ve read it in multiple places and from various sources: Things aren’t what they once were. From Barna to Butler Bass, we have been told time and time again that the American religious landscape has changed — the times have changed, the people have changed, Christian concerns have changed.

But are our institutions, specifically our institutions of higher learning, ready to change?

For the last few weeks we have been given a great example of how difficult this change is through the story of Professor Hawkins and Wheaton College.

I started paying close attention to Wheaton College in December, when some students released a statement condemning Jerry Falwell Jr.’s statement on carrying concealed weapons at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. I wondered what other conservative evangelical colleges might say in response. The students from Wheaton responded, but the institution itself remained silent. A political move.

Wheaton today is a conservative, even fundamentalist, institution. Its commitments both theologically and politically reflect those commitments, even as members of the student body and tenured professors protest.

Washington Post, TIME, and Sojourners have all recently published articles that remind us of the history of the institution. Progressive and socially active at the start, by the turn of the twentieth century the school would shift focus to become part of the vanguard of the fundamentalist movement of the day.

Wheaton College’s “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose” reflects the sensibilities of the fundamentalist movement of the early twentieth century. No more. No less.

Originally written in 1924 by Wheaton ’s second president, Charles Blanchard, the following statements guide the leadership, faculty, and students of Wheaton as an academic community of faith.

It shows. Non-creedal, but no less doctrinal, the Statement proclaims biblical inerrancy, Adam and Eve as the “original parents” of the human race, and Jesus eschatological return as cornerstones to their educational approach, “The statement also defines the biblical perspective that informs a Wheaton education. These doctrines of the church cast light on the study of nature and man, as well as on man's culture.”

But it is woefully inadequate to the task of addressing the complexities of the social, political, and religious pluralism of the United States in the twenty-first century. It is founded upon the ideology of a movement that found itself on the wrong side of the Scopes monkey trial.

The Statement of Faith is a certain kind of Christian orthodoxy-contra-other orthodoxies. It only makes sense from within Christendom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The era from which this document emerges experienced pluralism differently. Pluralism was essentially intra-Christian — no one was wondering how one would treat one's Muslim neighbors. We wondered how modernists and fundamentalists would get along.

But those days are long gone, and today Wheaton is out of step and must find a new articulation of its educational vision.

What does it mean to be a Christian institution of higher learning in the twenty-first century?

At the center is the question of Christian education. Is Wheaton a walled fortress for the pure and devout hiding from an increasingly pluralistic society? Or is it part of that plurality, teaching students how to best love their neighbors even when their neighbors are not like them?

If Wheaton is within the tradition of Christian liberal arts, how can it move forward?

Or is it doomed by the deep pockets and political pressures of current politics to remain stuck articulating a vision set in the 1920s?

Wheaton College matters to all Christians for the same reason that Pope Francis matters to all Christians. We no longer have the luxury of assuming some homogenous culture. We are all looking to find ways of articulating our identity within a world that is more aware of its plurality than ever. And there is no “Christian culture” that doesn’t share in the great Venn diagram of American religious life that also includes Muslims, Jews, pagans, and the “Nones.”

Arthur Holder, Dean of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., wrote an essay on the issue of Christian education in the pluralistic society of Basil the Great. Toward the end of the essay, Holder proposes some steps in how we might address the plurality of our own time gleaned from the ancient teacher’s own pedagogy:

  • Know your culture before you critique it. You are part of the culture, not separate from it.
  • Affirm the good in the culture. No culture is completely cut off from God’s grace.
  • Immerse yourself in the tradition of the Church. Yes, this too is plural, but it’s there as a resource for us. Christian formation is communal.
  • Empathize with the students and their situations. Know them. Respect the differences.
  • Don’t skip over the hard stuff, the things you don’t like in your culture. Don’t ignore what offends you. Instead, cultivate what is beautiful to God’s eyes.
  • Be an example of Christian graciousness in the midst of a plural society for your students to follow.

Christian education needs to assume a plural society. We need not fear that plurality — we are part of it. We can embrace it and find our way into a gracious relationship as part of humanity in all its complexity. This is what Pope Francis has offered. And this is what present leadership at Wheaton fears.

Tripp Hudgins is a pastor, musician, and dad. He blogs at anglobaptist.org

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