I was recently contacted by a fellow Wheaton College alumnus who had recently attended an event with other alumni where the President of Wheaton, Philip Ryken, appeared to explain his and the institution’s behavior in the face of the Professor Larycia Hawkins whirlwind. Professor Hawkins has immersed this President of our evangelical Harvard in a theological and political storm by making a narcissistic public display of her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same god. The tempest is being sustained by Hawkins’ sustained employment by Wheaton. Many, if not most alumni, expected her to be fired by now. Since penning this article, perhaps she has. I hope so. But this would not invalidate the points I am about to make.
My fellow classmate, dismissing what he believes is my icy and reductionist assessment of a very complicated mess, likens President Ryken to a conservative hero who is required to struggle with “Reality” while I have the luxury of objectifying it. What my friend does not understand, perhaps like Ryken himself, is that Ryken and Wheaton have a competing view of Reality which they themselves have helped to construct. Ryken is radically free and responsible for his own position. If the professors at Wheaton or the intellectuals who write for Christianity Today believe that the identification of Allah and Jesus is not patently invalid, while noticing too much that Hawkin’s is black and that her dismissal for heresy, as a precedent, would threaten the academic security of other questionable professors (meaning we have the right and duty to question any subordination of the tradition to their “learning” including having our own opinions about when this has occurred), then Wheaton has become a theological and political morass, which itself, in the altogether, must be fired.
In Christianity Today, we find a report from The Evangelical Missiological Society in which the modern referential theory of meaning continues to seduce our naïve evangelical academics as they consider the proposed identification of God and Allah.
“What other God is there?” asked Miriam Adeney, a world Christian studies professor at Seattle Pacific University. “In all the universe, there is only one God.” Paul Martindale, a professor of Islamic studies and cross-cultural ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, agreed. “There is only one, true, creator God. The Bible is clear there is no other God.”
But the meaning (mind you, the meaning) of the term “God” is not some universal referent, because what the term refers to is determined by its use. And it is in fact used to refer to a metaphysical myth named “Allah.” The meaning of the term is its use, even when it is used to refer. Its use by Christians and Muslims is profoundly different to the point of being incommensurate. Our academic line officers are so immersed in and confused by the modern tradition about the meaning of words that they are turning a molehill into a mountain of misleading complexity. In my recent blog entitled Why and How Wheaton Should Dismiss Professor Larycia Hawkins, I explain that one use of the term “God” is most certainly to refer to the very real God of the Christian tradition who becomes an experiential reality in Jesus Christ. But this is not how the term is used by Muslims. It cannot be more complicated than this except for naïve modernists.
We cannot conserve orthodox theology within the merely competing and relative Reality constructed by our evangelical academics. We must deconstruct this competing account of Reality in order to untangle orthodox theology. If this is impossible then we must shed the whole fabric. We must shed Wheaton.
Tenure is an inappropriate status for professors in a supposedly orthodox, Christian institution. Wheaton is a hub of contracts not only with professors, but with notions about the nature of meaning, reason, and truth, which must be accepted or rejected as an entire incorporation with all of its flaws. When a corporation becomes sick, non-viable from the stockholders point of view, it must be sold off, closed down, or radically reorganized around new by-laws. Reorganizing can be much more painful, and much less efficient and effective, than starting a new corporation. New wine cannot be itself in old wine skins which can only pretend to be new.
Kierkegaard, alongside of Sartre and Nietzsche (in case any professor at Wheaton wants a confirming secular authority), would throw up at the suggestion that Ryken is not radically free and responsible for his own position as one force which no one expects, on its own, to be overwhelming. Ryken is free to walk. He is free to protest. This kind of noise might start a landslide. His energy could release the stored up, frustrated energy of the whole evangelical community, sans the elites. The members of the board are in the same free and responsible position. They could all leave and propose to start a whole new kind of evangelical college with an explicit theory of meaning, reason, and truth which enforces traditionalism, rather than rationalism.
Wheaton cannot afford to provide its erstwhile constituents with an explicit statement of its theory of meaning (how language takes on meaning), its account of reason (which depends upon the nature of meaning), and its theory of truth (anchored in both of the aforementioned). What we would find is that it is a modern, Enlightenment theory, never before successfully smoked out and deconstructed by orthodox members of the community because of its logical incapacity to conclude that the true meaning of secular learning is determined by the tradition rather than the true meaning of the tradition being determined by the learning, which so often needs to be deconstructed by the tradition’s terms, by its paradigm of language. Wheaton’s modern, unanalyzed, undeconstructed assumptions about the nature of meaning, reason and truth is anti-traditionalist, anti-communitarian, making autonomously rational individuals competing experts about the theological truth.
Professor Hawkins, her colleagues, and the students at Wheaton have become competing centers of theological reason. While denying rationalism ritualistically, Wheaton, devoted to the notion that the liberal disciplines produce literal truth about Reality (“all Truth is God’s Truth”), which must therefore be integrated with faith and have a bearing on what Christianity really means, is rationalist and modern in actual practice. The administration and professors are not post-modern thinkers who are ready to undermine their entire careers, the very meaning of their lives, by suggesting that their disciplines are just rival, competing traditions anchored in a view of meaning, reason and truth which is anti-traditionalist; which claims to be tradition-independent. We have no clear sign that the philosophy department at Wheaton can finish the work started by Alasdair MacIntyre let alone Wittgenstein; we have no clear indication of post-modern sophistication. Wheaton is ironically unsophisticated from a post-modern, post-rationalist frame of reference.
I graduated from Wheaton, as a philosophy major and a teaching assistant. Nothing could have been clearer by the time I left than that Wheaton was implicitly, often explicitly, committed to the notion that reason is universal — that there are universal standards of rational justification. The philosophical underpinnings of the Christian Academy provided by Arthur Holmes (the head of the philosophy department in my time) were classically liberal — committed to this notion that there are universal standards of rational justification, a universal account of Reason. The declarations of Professor Holmes were, in effect, Wheaton’s unofficial statement of its modern theory of meaning, reason, and truth. Holmes’ disclaimers of rationalism were simply inconsistent. Classically liberal mythology about reason is consistent with a modern referential theory of meaning in which terms like “God” have their meaning determined by some supposedly absolute referent rather than their use. In this case, experts can acquire absolute knowledge which is tradition-independent; they can propose expert uses of language which should become universal by virtue of satisfying the absolute standards of justification which come along with the absolute meaning of words. Modern science, in an ironically anti-empiricist fashion, has presented itself as a method for pinning down the absolute and unambiguous meaning of terms which describe Reality. But this is joke. Science, as a supposedly literal description of Reality, is metaphysics. It is poetry about abstractions which we have never directly experienced in themselves and never will. “Energy,” “Force,” “Strings,” “Particles” and “Matter” are among them. (See my book, The Problem with Wheaton, available on Amazon.com.) Wheaton is oblivious. It is a babe in the post-modern woods. Holmes could not recognize that “facts”, and therefore their value, are tradition-relative. He took a universalist view of Reason for granted.
And so, we must conclude that Wheaton is guided by an evangelical elite of naïve modernists who, shockingly, cannot instantly distinguish between Christian and Muslim theology. Wheaton’s behavior has become so bizarre from our orthodox perspective (remember that it is now welcoming sodomite students as if this does not appear to be an acceptance of this “orientation”) that all we can do is fire the whole institution. We may welcome practicing sodomites into our homes and businesses, respecting their humanity and loving them, without endorsing their lifestyle. But based on ecclesiastical law, we cannot welcome them into the church and the Christian Academy. This is nothing less than a public change in our theology. Whereas we do not condemn the sinner, we do, in fact, condemn the sin. Whereas an explicitly repentant Larycia Hawkins, and a repentant sodomite, might be welcome in the Christian Academy as an extension of the church, the embrace of the unrepentant is a theological revolution. It is, at a minimum, a very wrong appearance.
I propose a practical project. The evangelical community in America needs to fire Wheaton as a whole. This aging institution seems incapable of renegotiating its contracts with modern theories about meaning, reason, and truth which support the professors’ and students’ demands for autonomy and inspire strange forms of integration, reinterpreting Christianity in boring, reductionist, and ultimately irrelevant modern terms. We need wealthy evangelicals to fund a whole new evangelical college with higher academic standards than Wheaton and an explicitly post-modern philosophy department enforcing a post-modern theory of meaning, reason and truth which enforces orthodoxy (traditionalism) and inspires the daily deconstruction of modern, rationalist claims about the nature of Reality. This will be a very dangerous, very dramatic institution (contra Wheaton’s relative blandness) which aggressively attacks the secular academy instead of pining for its respect and friendship. At this new evangelical college the notion that our Christian tradition can or should be separated from the kind of politics which severely limits the state as the chief competitor of the church will be scorned. We need an explicitly evangelical Hillsdale with much more sophisticated post-modern foundations. We will call it “New Wheaton” and place it metaphorically and physically west of Wheaton (which no longer seems capable of resisting the East) where we can solicit Wheaton’s students and appeal to their parents. This new college will have a whole new charter, and it will not give professors tenure or so-called “academic freedom” which even William F. Buckley, who launched the vanity project of sophisticating conservatism, deconstructed as a myth in his book about Yale. [God and Man at Yale] In other words, this new institution will be a true, explicit, and politically incorrect inquisition of western liberalism.
Don’t worry. Very few professors, currently at Wheaton, will knock on our door, as Wheaton dies from its modern account of meaning, reason, and truth, a cancer hidden in its bowls and detected too late. We will not have to “welcome” them, undermining our new evangelical institution as the repository of new evangelical wine.