How Wheaton Can Stop Short of the Cliff

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Published on: December 12, 2015

Wheaton College, which is both Billy Graham’s and my alma mater, should have known that the sodomite activists would not leave it alone and should have been prepared for it.  But then that presupposes that the administration and the faculty have not themselves gone crazy and decided to support the notion that there is nothing wrong with the sodomite lifestyle from an orthodox point of view.  In these two articles from Time Magazine (here and here) about sodomite activism on Wheaton’s campus, there is a hint that a few faculty members may need to be removed.

The first story reports how one student bearded the president of the college during a chapel Q&A, suggesting that Wheaton’s refusal to explicitly normalize homosexuality is morally imbalanced and petty; that it is actually unChristian.  

Christian colleges such as Wheaton have been at the center of the evangelical fight over “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” (LGBT) acceptance, especially as younger generations grow increasingly more accepting on issues such as same-sex marriage. 

The most recent conflict began when Philip Fillion, a class of 2015 organ performance major and married heterosexual, asked Ryken [the president of Wheaton College] a question about the theological consistency of Wheaton’s position against homosexuality. He posted his question in full in a public note on his Facebook page: 

“All students, via the Community Covenant, and all faculty, via the Statement of Faith, are required to affirm a sexual ethic that denies everyone except celibates and married straight people a place in the kingdom of God. This sexual ethic is not at all universal and depends on a reading of scripture that is incredibly narrow and ignores history, culture, and science. The Statement of Faith and the Community Covenant also lack any language about the sacraments of the Christian church. Why is it the case that our college, in documents we all must agree to or be expelled, insists on formally condemning and denying equality to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, on spurious theological grounds, yet completely leaves behind baptism and Eucharist, which Jesus Christ himself instituted to grow and strengthen the Christian community?” 

As he returned to his seat, the college tells TIME, another student sitting nearby threw the apple at him, and missed.  

The story goes on to suggest that the student who threw the apple was probably removed from campus for making sodomites feel unsafe.  Talk about imbalanced.  Wheaton thinks it is more dangerous to leave someone on campus who protested sodomite activism, harmlessly, than it is to leave sodomite activists there. 

I am fascinated by the position taken implicitly in Mr. Fillion’s question to the president of Wheaton College.  In particular, I am interested in the extent to which the question is based on premises which Wheaton itself has taught Mr. Fillion.  For clearly this young man, half-educated at Wheaton College, assumes that there is such a thing as universal reason which has claims on the Christian tradition; that contemporary learning determines the true meaning of the tradition as opposed to the tradition determining the true meaning of the learning.  From Mr. Fillion’s point of view, Wheaton’s Biblical ethics are not based on universal reason and concomitant universal principles of justice and morality and are therefore not necessarily authoritative.  His question suggests a modern dialectical view of history (for his appeal to history could hardly be an appeal to salvation history) in which opposites (like sodomite activism and traditional morality) are synthesized into new cultures, new science, new truths that have a claim on Christianity.  Christianity must integrate them as a modification of its very meaning and practice.  There must be, for Mr. Fillion, some absolute, universal, rational standard of “narrowness” in textual interpretation.   

Obviously Mr. Fillion owes us a theory of religious knowledge, which will drag him into a theory of meaning and a particular account of reason itself.  Of course, none of this is forthcoming from people like Mr. Fillion who are not embarrassed by being presumptuous; by righteous displays of ignorant dogmatism.  Wheaton has failed to make Mr. Fillion as self-critical and self-aware as he should be.  It has not made him conscious of the controversial, even self-subverting nature of his view of Reality.  It has not made him intellectually sophisticated.  It has graduated him into little more than modern narcissism.   

Mr. Fillion is simply appealing to the modern, classically liberal account of reason which Wheaton seems to be both implicitly and explicitly anchored in.  I should know.  I majored in philosophy there.  Wheaton views its devotion to the liberal arts as a devotion to universal standards of rational justification, leading to the conclusion that faith and learning must be integrated because learning, based on reason, is revealing a great deal of truth about Reality and “all truth is God’s truth.”  If Wheaton rejected this position, it would have to revolutionize its understanding of how faith and learning are actually integrated if at all.  Wheaton would find itself in the deconstruction-of-modern-learning business rather than the integration-of-faith-and-learning business.  Above all else, it would find itself rejecting the naïve notion that modern science, modern reason, literally describes Reality.   

I was indoctrinated, while at Wheaton, in all its naiveté about the nature of reason and the integration of learning with the Christian tradition.  I will never forget one philosophy seminar I attended in which one of the upper classmen, a student star of the philosophy department, pointed out how reason, as a presumably universal, objective, and authoritative capacity in man, surely has claims on the Christian tradition.  But soon after leaving Wheaton for the graduate school of philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University, I found myself amazed at the self-subverting, modern naiveté of this completely false form of sophistication.  While Wheaton was looking for respect by submitting itself to the modern account of reason, Hopkins was full of content mocking this submission as little more than ignorance.  Looking back at Wheaton, from Hopkins, Wheaton did not look very sophisticated.  It looked suicidal.  

Ironically, for the scholars at Wheaton, the classically liberal, Enlightenment account of reason, as universal standards of rational justification, has been completely rejected in what is often referred to as “postmodern” philosophy as a result of a triangulation between a relatively new pragmatic view of how language takes on meaning (see the later Wittgenstein), a pragmatic account of reason and knowledge which is coherent with this theory of meaning (see the philosophies of knowledge and science illustrated in philosophers like Rorty, Feyerabend, Kuhn, Quine, et al) and an actual historical analysis of the tradition-bound nature of all accounts of reason and justice (see, e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre).  The classically liberal, modern, Enlightenment view of reason as universal standards of rational justification is dead.  Every account of reason, every exercise of it, is tradition-bound.  In other words, even with respect to judgments about the coherence of propositions, the one and only standard of rational justification is just the whole grammar of the whole tradition — all of its rules for using terms correctly.  And the distinction between true and false paradigms of language is pragmatic.  Christianity’s huge advantage is its historical basis.  God actually entered history to provide us with our Christian tradition, which is also witnessed to by subsequent human experience as the truly moral path through human life.  And this is Reality — the one and only Reality.  All scientific reductions are inauthentic. 

From this point of view, Mr. Fillion’s confrontation of Wheaton, based on modern assumptions about modern learning, is just ignorant nonsense.  But ironically, it is not just Mr. Fillion’s ignorant nonsense.  It is Wheaton’s ignorant nonsense.  Wheaton has no right to wonder why its own students seem subversive.  It has provided them with the premises of the subversion.  

I doubt that President Ryken told the young man what he should have told him — that the whole idea that Mr. Fillion can assess whether or not Wheaton’s Christian tradition is true or false, right or wrong, or really means one thing rather than another, based on some tradition-independent standard, is self-serving vanity.  Wheaton needs to make it clear to every Mr. Fillion, on and off campus, that he, himself, is just anchored in his own utterly relative, tradition-bound view of Reality — that of the modern tradition.  And unfortunately this is a tradition which has not been revealed.  It is not rooted in history and finally rejects experience.  Contemporary science, as dogmatism about the nature of Reality, is a flight from experience.  In other words, Wheaton needs to deconstruct for Mr. Fillion his utterly naïve dogmatism, his child-like faith, his true belief in his own strange view of Reality; his failure to understand that his account of reason, science, culture and their relationship to the Christian tradition are nothing more than an expression of his own relative subjectivity, because in order to become objective his language would have to conform to the language of the whole community — the orthodox community of Wheaton.  What Mr. Fillion is trying to do, by degree, is insist on his own private language.  In that case Wheaton should simply insist on asserting its own much more public language as the very standard of rationality, assuming that its language is still relatively orthodox. 

Wheaton itself needs to be deconstructed for its self-subversion.  Why is Mr. Fillion so naïve to begin with?  How did Mr. Fillion become a senior at Wheaton without having his modern mythology completely shattered?   

Wheaton is beginning to experience the very painful symptoms of its attempt to achieve sophistication in a horribly unsophisticated way — by being publicly committed to the ridiculous notion that there are universal standards of rational justification which have an objective claim on the Christian tradition and that the way this claim is exercised is by recognizing the truth of the products of universal reason, even about the very nature of Reality, and somehow integrating that truth with the Christian tradition.  The result of this project can only be the eternal, ongoing transformation of the meaning of the Christian tradition; a hopelessly incomplete and unstable “world view.”  This project is simply the capitulation of the tradition. 

Modern knowledge, including scientific claims about moral and metaphysical Reality, are not based on universal standards of justification. They are anchored in the goal of rationalism — the achievement of a metaphysical totalization like materialism and Marxism.  They are based on a particular account of meaning, reason, knowledge and Reality.  They start out with a prescientific view of Reality.  If our starting view of Reality is our Christian revelation, then it is the judge of whether or not these other, competing views of Reality are truthful at all.  But in this case, for orthodox Christians, the notion that reason is or can be universal is dead.   

Unfortunately, for Wheaton’s faculty and students, the deconstruction of modern knowledge claims is much more rigorous, much more difficult, than simply attaching the secular hose directly to lazy, uncritical, unfiltered minds.  Christian deconstructionism undermines the value of the liberal arts where the liberal arts have been positioned as a series of rational disciplines, chock full of truth, which can be integrated into one world view and which must therefore correspond to Reality.  Postmodern, Christian deconstructionism requires a level of intellectual energy which would revolutionize Wheaton’s understanding of who belongs there.  We need a whole new Evangelical Christian Academy devoted to the Christian deconstruction of modern learning. 

Wheaton has been traveling down a road paved by the modern concept of reason for quite some time.  This road leads to a cliff.  But there are warnings, like the confidence and aggression with which apostate homosexuals now beard Wheaton.  If Wheaton is going to be saved, it must turn around.  It must completely reject the utterly discredited, modern account reason.  It must become explicitly postmodern.  It must assert the tradition, not the myth of universal reason making claims on that tradition.

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