The Wheaton College House of Cards

NewsThe January 11, 2016 edition of the Daily Herald covered the continuing story of a Wheaton College professor put on leave for statements of support about the Muslim faith: “Roughly 100 Wheaton College students filled the steps of Edman Memorial Chapel Monday to call on administrators to reconcile with political science professor Larycia Hawkins, who was placed on administrative leave last month and could be fired for saying Christians and Muslims worship the same God.”

Well, it rather fits with the school’s tradition to be divisive about the schism between Christian and Muslim faiths. It’s only been a few years since the college changed its own mascot name from the Crusaders. The institution clung to a medieval theology tradition for a little too long. But echoes of its ideology apparently still remain.

Knowing quite a few good people who graduated from Wheaton College, which is 10 miles from my home, it might seem wrong to pick on the place. But my personal history with intolerance from the institution goes back more than 40 years. That’s when a Wheaton College student as a Campus Life director at our high school pulled me aside after a weekly meeting to issue a harsh bit of advice about my pursuit of answers about Christianity. “You’ll never be a Christian if you keep asking questions like this,” he told me in a hissed whisper.

Ten years later, as I’ve shared in other posts about that encounter, we met by chance at a McDonald’s restaurant and made up on the spot. His tears and apparent anxiety on seeing me were motivation to initiate a discussion. We reconciled. That’s what real Christians do.

But that’s not what all so-called Christians do. In many years of church service and volunteer work, it has been common to find people at angry odds. Some of these have been pastors and youth group leaders, choir directors and board members. The list goes on and on.

Still, you don’t expect to see a public spat over theology to erupt in the form of the situation at Wheaton College. Tossing a professor out of her job for expressing the basic fact that Christians and Muslims worship the same God? That’s just being a bully.

Of course, the world’s culture has always been full of such bullies all the way back to the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was consistently forced to face down the threats of priests who aggressively asked if he worshipped the same God. And by the time Jesus claimed he was the Son of God, those priests tore their robes and screamed “Blasphemy!”

That’s because the institutional call for power and authority supersedes all other judgment. Which explains why Wheaton College has gone all authoritative on this issue of a shared history with the Muslim faith. The god they’ve worked so hard to define as their own has no room for other interpretations or even a metaphorical understanding of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.

Instead, the college is acting on its binary instincts for literal possession of the truth. These are sourced from the narrow-minded interpretations of scripture that lead to belief systems such as creationism and other fundamental attempts to reduce the Bible’s truth to theological memes and sound bites.

And now that their selfish motives are exposed, they will likely recoil behind claims of persecution as fundamentalist factions always do. Anyone that questions their underachieving yet overreaching version of religious doctrine will be accused of attacking the Christian faith itself.

Meanwhile, other more liberal (and more rational) believers in Christ with courage to challenge the Wheaton College meme and fealty to a literalist version of God will be accused of corrupting the one true faith. That’s how conservatives religious leaders worldwide are likewise responding to the liberal (and liberating) actions and words of Pope Francis. You literally can’t win with these people. Hatred for change leads the day.

Those of us that have long tracked these defensive responses to theological challenges recognize a religious House of Cards when we see one. It’s all about feelings of betrayal and revenge with these people. At Wheaton College, there will likely be demands for retraction and perhaps the appearance of an extension of forgiveness to professor Larycia Hawkins. But we all know the truth. The zealots who run the arch chapters of faith are incapable of greater understanding or change. Wheaton College may be a fine institution, but they simply urinated on their own feet when it comes to enlightened behavior. If that pisses you off to hear someone say, then you should take a close look at your own soaking wet shoes.

Perhaps Wheaton will wait for their shoes to dry before tromping on anyone else. But like the Crusaders of Olde, they are always gearing up for the next fight on another day. They’ll tell themselves they are defending God when in fact all they are defending is their own anxieties over the certainty they claim to hold, but are never quite able to defend in the public sphere.

All forms of religious fundamentalism are a House of Cards. Christian. Muslim. Jewish. The list goes on. But our interpretation and application of scripture should not be so brittle and arch, so literal and parched of meaning.

But that’s how some people seem to like it. It’s very hard to show them anything different. More typically they’re proud if a bit confused at how tall their House of Cards has actually grown. Which explains the likes of Joel Osteen or Franklin Graham.

But that confused wonderment at the seeming works of God do not make it an any stronger brand of faith in the end. Mega-churches and TV preachers may attract plenty of so-called believers, but there is often plenty more air than substance blowing through those structures. So it’s worth giving them a blow or two to see how they stand.

Salvation from a liberal perspective

By Christopher Cudworth

PaversThe Second Presbyterian church in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania was our family’s religious home from my elementary school years through middle school. Then we pulled up roots and moved to the tiny town of Elburn deep in the cornfields of Illinois. My parents landed at a Presbyterian church in Geneva, nine miles east.

I got confirmed with a group of fellow 8th graders at a congregational church run by the pastor who was our neighbor. Then our family moved once again and my church attendance dropped away with obligations in high school.

A brush with conservatism

But then a group of friends joined Campus Life, the evangelical youth ministry staffed mostly by students from nearby Wheaton College, one of the leading bastions of conservative education in the Upper Midwest.

Most of us did not recognize the conservative ideology behind Campus Life when it first arrived in our town. We attended with students from other high schools, which was pretty radical for the time. So it all felt new and exciting in its way.

As the program grew and its participants were encouraged to dig deeper into the theology behind the feelgood high school ministry, I began to ask questions about what we were being encouraged to learn. Some of these questions exasperated the head of the group, who pulled me aside with a warning and an admonition. “If you keep asking questions you’ll never be a Christian.”

I ignored his aggressive warning and finished out the year with the group. But something about the confrontation made me even more determined to ask questions about the Christian faith and its teachings.

New laws

In college I received a C grade in a New Testament course. I failed to grasp that in that particular situation the path to success was to recite what we were being taught, not to question its verity.

As a senior I fell in love with a girl with whom I watched the television program Jesus of Nazareth. It’s narrative was basically traditional, but the emotion was compelling. My curiosity about faith was kicked back into gear. My questions about some notable aspects of faith were answered. For the first time in life I recognized the liberal truth of Christ. He resisted the wrong kinds of authority. He fought back against people seeking to control religion through literal or legalistic means.

Watching that program taught me that Jesus also asked and welcomed a lot of questions. In fact he won many of his most famous arguments by asking questions in response to legalistic challenges. I’d found a hero of sorts.

Narnian virtues

The summer following my senior year in college I took turns reading all the books in the C.S. Lewis series The Chronicles of Narnia. Christian themes were evident in the metaphorically fantastic story of a band of children who travel to a different dimension where animals can talk and evil sorcery is resisted by the lion known as Aslan. Much like the parables of Jesus the Chronicles of Narnia use symbolism to convey spiritual principles. That opened my eyes even further to the fact that symbolism is one of the most powerful forces in all of scripture.

Marriage and beyond

I did not marry that girl from college but our mutual spiritual exploration did have a deep effect on my life. When I got married in 1985 my wife and I began worship at a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation because that is the tradition in which she had been raised.

The pastor at the time was a wise former campus minister who once gave a sermon titled “Liberals, Bleeding Hearts and Do-Gooders” in which he boldly challenged the growing perception that the Bible was strictly a conservative document. His main point focused on the fact that Jesus himself was a do-gooder, a bleeding heart and yes, a liberal. Scandalous!

When that pastor retired the church brought in a fire and brimstone preacher from the St. Louis area. He wore a wickedly bad toupee and spent most Sundays railing about an angry God. But my wife and I hung in there even when the church itself became an angry place to be. This was a new and not delightful experience for both of us. We loved our fellow church members and continued our bible studies, church participation and teaching. Yet Sundays often left us sad and confused by the near hatred we kept hearing from the pulpit. We talked often of leaving. But we hung in there.

Facts and fictions

Through a succession of increasingly conservative pastors for another 12 years my wife and I served that church in many ways. She took a job in the preschool. I sang in numerous choirs and ultimately had the opportunity to sing and play guitar in Praise Band too.

Our children were confirmed at that church. But during the process they both admitted exasperation at the manner in which certain “biblical facts” were being taught. The pastor railed against evolution, for example. Both of them had learned plenty in school that taught them science was a reliable, well-founded worldview. Yet both kids dutifully recited what they were told to learn for confirmation and the pastor praised them as model students of the Lutheran faith.

As the church grew increasingly conservative, sermons attacked evolution as a godless belief and characterized homosexuality as a nearly unforgivable sin. After 25 years our family migrated up the river to an ELCA Lutheran Church with open communion and even women pastors. God Forbid.

Questions and devotions

All through this process of growing up and raising a family, the questions I had about faith did not keep me from a certain devotion to God. All the journals I kept about my running through high school, college and beyond express thankfulness to God for the opportunity to compete and sometimes win. I prayed for insight through both challenges and triumphs.

My 25 years of service to a Missouri Synod Lutheran church taught me there was no special insight gained from conservatism. As a board member several times over I saw how decisions were made, or not made, by people with ostensibly ironclad convictions. How desperately wrong they could be, and in so many ways.

That confirmed many of the suspicions I had about conservatism in the world at large. Starting with Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, It struck that conservatism was far more concerned with ideology than justice. When Reagan installed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, he openly proclaimed himself an adversary of the environmental movement on grounds of religious views. Reagan himself claimed to be a protector of moral values in America, yet the so-called Great Communicator branded ketchup a vegetable and played dishonest games through the Iran-Contra affair. The fact that people called Oliver North a hero for his illegal activities and seemed to worship his “above the law” convictions confirmed my worst suspicions about conservatism and its methodologies.

Chance encounter

Ten full years after I had participated in the high Campus Life program where that evangelical counselor confronted me for questioning conservative ideology, I encountered the same man at a McDonald’s in my hometown. At first he avoided looking at me, but when our eyes finally met I could see tears running down his face.

Immediately I went over and invited him to sit down with me. We talked and he confessed that he was upset about what he’d said to be a decade before. I told him: “There’s no reason to be upset. What you said to me did not discourage me from a personal faith. I still ask questions. But I still believe.”

Perhaps he was surprised. We parted on friendly terms and I thanked him for his service to Campus Life. It still strikes me that so many people find it hard to believe there is salvation from a liberal perspective. As noted, Jesus often answered questions by asking questions of his own. This was particularly true when he encountered people with conservative opinions trying to impose their convictions on him. Here’s one classic example from the Book of Matthew:

That Which Defiles

15 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’[a] and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[b] But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’[c]

And that, in a nutshell, is why I’m now a liberal and will always be a liberal believer. That liberal pastor in the conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran Church was also right when he preached the Jesus was a “Liberal, Do-Gooder and Bleeding Heart.” Salvation from a liberal perspectives comes through the very act of questioning false authority, and standing up for the social justice deeply integrated in the liberal Christian faith. That’s how it’s always been, according to Jesus at least.

How biblical literalism affects politics, culture and the environment