Islam and us: What we could have learned

This column originally appeared in The Wheaton Record’s print edition, Issue 2. 

Last winter wasn’t fun for anyone, but we sure did learn a lot. One of the biggest takeaways from the episode surrounding associate professor of political science Larycia Hawkins: We’re all more like each other than many of us thought. It was a gigantic equalizer for Wheaton.

We students learned that we’re not so different from the faculty: They’ve got doctorates and years of experience, but job security is just as crucial for them as it is for those of us who are holding down jobs or entering the job market.

When they spoke their minds, defending Hawkins or the administration, it looked an awful lot like friends defending friends, which gave us a whole new way of looking at the hierarchical network made up of those we know as “doctor” and “professor.”

We learned that people with decades of administrative experience can mess up just as badly as we can. Provost Stanton Jones, who put Hawkins on paid administrative leave, became human to those of us who only knew him as “The Provost.” And he set an example as a brother in Christ when he apologized for some of his actions.

For all that we learned, though, there’s just as much that we didn’t.

No one was happy about the Feb. 6 parting of ways that tore up our social media feeds and leaves sore reminders to this day. One of the most difficult things that we’re forced to remember is that Wheaton College, the bastion of intellectual evangelicalism, was faced with a test no college would want and failed to answer the central question.

It was a perfect question for Wheaton, one of the leading institutions of theological instruction for millennials on the cusp of entering a job market where they will invariably grapple with it: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? And perhaps more importantly, if the answer is “no” then how do we relate to proponents of the fastest-growing faith in the world?

We collectively botched it. Ask a Wheaton student, and I think they’d be hard-pressed to say that they received an adequate answer to either question or viewed themselves equipped to answer it.

There was an enormous teaching opportunity for the taking, but the only real chances for enlightenment were relegated to more-or-less underground sessions facilitated by professors willing to field questions from concerned students. Q&A assemblies revealed little about Wheaton’s theological commitments, though they revealed plenty about the breadth of topics that the administration was unable to comment on. The conversation too quickly devolved into examinations of administrative prudence, which was an important topic, while certain cultural and racial overtones — also important! — turned the conversation to a place that didn’t answer the important theological question at the heart of the problem.

We have some of the world’s most brilliant theologians on campus, but the most I learned about Christianity’s relationship with Islam last winter came from external media and “I feel like…” answers from peers.

I understand that many professors feel the risk of throwing their hats in the ring after seeing what happened to one of their associates who provided her personal answer to the question. It makes sense. Professors need to feel like they have the academic freedom to pose questions vital to young, developing Christians.

If Wheaton isn’t preparing its students’ minds to deal with the extraordinarily relevant questions of Christianity’s relationship to other faiths in the real world, especially when those questions have some very real implications on the campus, it isn’t doing its job.

Wheaton needs to recreate an atmosphere that encourages academic freedom and theological exploration, the very same things that many professors come here for. I know that there’s a Statement of Faith. I personally don’t think that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, but I’m still at a loss for how we’re supposed to relate to our Muslim brothers and sisters, made in God’s image. That enormous question mark was thrust into the spotlight last winter, and, after an unsatisfying denouement, it’s taken shape as the elephant in the room this semester.

It still needs an answer.

Last winter, Jones said that the College has no explicit position on whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God. That should be an encouraging foundation for a stimulating theological conversation about the Trinitarian God and an equally important discussion of how we are supposed to relate to Muslims in 2016.

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