Why and How Wheaton Should Dismiss Professor Larycia Hawkins

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Published on: December 21, 2015

In Christianity Today we find this story about Professor Larycia Hawkins who has been merely suspended by Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater, for identifying not just her own person with Islam, but the Christian God with Allah.

Larycia Alaine Hawkins, an associate professor who has taught at Wheaton since 2007, announced last week that she’d don the traditional headscarf as a sign of human, theological, and embodied solidarity [with Muslims]. 

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” she wrote in a Facebook post on December 10. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” 

Hawkins pointed to a 2011 Huffington Post op-ed from Yale theologian Miroslav Volf to bolster her claim. 

Volf told CT that “…..Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, [my emphasis] to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same. [my emphasis]  

This idea that the meaning of any term, let alone “God”, is primarily some objective referent leads, ironically, to the liberal theology of both professors.  Their implicit argument is: 

1.     The meaning of terms is what they objectively refer to.

2.     Whenever we are speaking meaningfully about God, we are referring to the same object.

3.     Muslims and Christians are both speaking meaningfully about God

4.     Therefore, Muslims and Christians are talking about the same God.

If we reject (3) then we need to explain why (3) is false.  Obviously (3) is false if (2) is false to begin with. 

It is ironic that most of the professors at Wheaton, as modern thinkers, probably take a modern referential theory of meaning for granted, assuming that it guarantees the objectivity of their disciplines and religious language.  Professor Hawkins is at least one example of this.  But this referential theory of meaning, explicitly invoked by Professor Volf, and which in this instance results in a very instructive theological conclusion (that Christians and Muslims must be talking about the same God), now appears to be a guarantee of little more than subjectivity, relativity, and liberality. 

In order to defend and sustain an orthodox paradigm of Christian language, pulling the logical supports out from under professors Hawkins and Volf, Wheaton needs to invoke the postmodern theory of meaning. 

The postmodern theory of meaning, which undermines Wheaton’s rationalist, worn out notions about knowledge and the integration of faith and “objective learning”, is that the meaning of a term is quite literally its use.  It is obvious to most people that Muslims and Christians are not using the term “God” in the same way and that this is part of an overwhelming body of evidence that human beings can easily change the meaning of language unless they are subject to traditional discipline (sometimes as ecclesiastical law).  Meaning is not anchored in some infinitude of references (essences) which could only operate as private, expert standards of meaning, reason, and truth.  (See Plato.)  There is no possibility of a working private language precisely because meaning is correct use.  A private language would make thinking that you are using a word correctly exactly the same thing as using it correctly.  (See Wittgenstein.)  Most people would agree, this is not the same thing.   

So by way of continuing my campaign to get Wheaton to reject the modern theory of meaning, reason and knowledge, precisely in order to preserve its orthodoxy, let us consider how and why talk about God is meaningful. 

If, for me, the meaning of my language, as its use, is its intended and predicted effects and affects, and the meaning of my language for my listener (who may not actually be listening) is the actual effects and affects it has on him, then it is easy to see how slippery meaning may become.  There is always the possibility of a disconnect between my intended effect and the actual effect on my listener, confusing us both.   

This suggests a powerful account of human freedom including why people create different paradigms of language and have a very difficult time understanding each other across those paradigms.  Human freedom is at base this capacity to invent and deny meaning; to invent terms or otherwise alter the use of the very same terms.  It makes the world difficult, but I do not see how God could have implemented human freedom without allowing us to use language in a much different fashion than our neighbors, the elites, the liberal church, the caliphate, Professor Hawkins, and the government and its schools.  Our capacity to create language is the image of God.  In the Christian tradition, the creative act is anchored in language. 

So if the meaning of my language is my use of it, but also someone else’s competing use of it (resulting in a failure of the effect and affect I was looking for) then how is it that we sometimes manage to construct a society and live in it together?  The answer to this question is obvious:  By consistently using language the same way as a community (a group of people really communicating).  The more I and my neighbor use language the same way (follow the same rules for using the same terms correctly no matter how complex and contextual the application of those rules) the more our affect and effect on each other becomes predictable. 

This consistency with which we utilize language and therefore establish a grammar (rules for using language correctly) is called a “tradition.”  Traditions are a paradigm of language, a whole grammar, which arises out of the shared moral, political, economic, cultural, and religious goals of a group of people.  But it is also possible that such a grammar, these rules for using language correctly, which we learn from hearing it used consistently, could be provided by God, especially if He and His prophets are operating concretely in human history instead of being little more than metaphysical abstractions.  It becomes obvious that any tradition which is rooted in the actual language used and recommended by God, becomes the authoritative account of reason, knowledge, truth, and goodness.  Professor Hawkins political science, and her relatively private use of religious language, shrinks to insignificance by comparison.  The Wheaton community, engaging in what is essentially traditional, ecclesiastical discipline, is the judge of Professor Hawkin’s religious language.  She is not the judge of Wheaton’s language. 

Now it is important to remember that language, the meaning of which is its use, can be used to refer to something perfectly real — like God.  Referencing something is one use of language.  The use of a proper noun is an obvious referring use.  But then the meaning is not the object referred to, but this referring itself where again, we are looking for an affect and effect by referring, sometimes in a particular way in a particular context; we are hoping for appropriate behavior, an appropriate response, which we associate with our referring act.  I ask Jim my question because he is the one I want an answer from.  The fact that I use the name “Jim” to refer to several people does not imply that Jim is not objectively real.  It reminds us that the name is not only used to refer to an object, but causes a traditional reaction, an affect and effect.  (“Oh, that Jim.” “Oh, that God.”  “Oh, Professor Hawkin’s God.”) 

John thinks he is being humorous by referring to both his wife and his dog as “God.”  It is supposed to be humorous because referencing God typically brings about reactions which he is suggesting are appropriate with respect to both his wife and his dog.  Now if the meaning of the sign “God” is only what it refers to, and the term can be used to refer to many things or anything, then the term has no meaning at all.  But if the meaning of the term is its use, and there is a history, a tradition of use, then we can understand how someone is misusing the term, or using it in new but related and meaningful way.  (See metaphors and similes.)  John is suggesting that there are consequences for failing to treat both his wife and dog with deference.  In context, we see, because of the traditional uses of the term God, that John is a humorist.  But of course, other people are not trying to be funny at all when they use the term God in alternative ways.  This is what the Muslims are doing. 

Professors Hawkins and Volf are not in fact using the term “God” in the same way as orthodox Christians who above all else use it to refer to Christ who provides such a vivid, concrete, and anti-Islamic image.  Professors Hawkins and Volf are trying to pull the wool over our eyes with a modern theory, a kind of theological positivism, in which the meaning of the term “God” is an objective referent.  To be sure, God is out there, and His enemies make sure that the use of His name is confusing.  It is called “taking His name in vain.”  Because both Muslims and Christians believe there is only one God, our apostate professors conclude that Muslims and Christians mean the same thing whenever they use the term “God.”  They exploit the notion that the one and only meaning of the term is this this one and only referent.  This naïve positivism is so thin it points to a level of incompetence for which, all by itself, Professor Hawkins should be dismissed.  The meaning of our competing uses of the term “God” includes our intended and actual affects and effects, and these are respectively and dramatically different, as every adult knows.   

And so Wheaton’s letter of dismissal to Professor Hawkins should include the conclusion that she is not using the term God in Wheaton’s expected, traditional fashion and that there is no defense in a modern theory of meaning in which she claims to be referring correctly, while Wheaton is referring incorrectly, because the meaning of the term God is one and only one reference.  No.  Our confused and self-righteous professor is now using the term God in a fashion which cannot elicit the traditional affects and effects with which Wheaton still, hopefully, associates the use of the term.  She does not have the objective and only meaningful truth.  What she has apparently evolved is her own tradition; her own competing and relatively private language, which is a dearth of meaning for Wheaton’s orthodox defenders of the faith. 

This should be a very striking lesson for Wheaton about the ongoing damage to orthodoxy which results from failing to explicitly reject the modern view of meaning, reason and knowledge. 

All of human life, all of human civilization, as Nietzsche suggested when he bemoaned the extent to which human language is saturated with the concept of God, is determined our competing uses of the term “God.”  It is the most important term in human history.  The failure to discipline the use of it is the most dangerous failure in human history. 

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