Editor’s Note: Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. His most recent book is “The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith.” The views expressed in this column belong to Larsen.
Wheaton College has been in the national news again. This time because of a professor who, in an act of solidarity, stirred controversy by saying Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
It should be no surprise that such a tempest, teapot-sized or not, should arise on our campus. This kind of thing happens so frequently that “activism and controversy” is a section on the college’s Wikipedia page. Nevertheless, my perspective from the inside as a Wheaton professor is that the college does not feel like a particularly controversy-ridden place.
I am utterly certain, however, that the media cannot get enough of Wheaton-controversy stories. At the benign end of the spectrum, these are what I call “Brigadoon” pieces: the little college that time forgot. When Wheaton added a student-union sponsored swing dance to its longstanding tradition of square dances, it became the lead story on CNN Education!
This is all good fun, except that lazy journalists then start twisting their coverage to make it fit. Early in my time here, Wheaton became an eager, fully mobilized partner in an anti-AIDS campaign. When a speaker came to address this issue, he opened his remarks by quipping, “There was a time when condoms never would have been mentioned in Edman Chapel.” We laughed good-naturedly. The next day a major newspaper, determined to report a Brigadoon sighting, wrote: “The first time condoms were mentioned, there was tittering in the audience.”
One of the controversies that garnered national attention was when my friend Josh Hochschild lost his faculty position because he became a Catholic. In the wake of that media storm, not only I, but seemingly everyone, knows that Wheaton is an intentionally Protestant institution. Nevertheless, with apologies to Martin Luther, I have come to the conclusion that the best way for journalists to understand Wheaton better is to invite them to start thinking of us as like a monastery.
Wheaton College is a covenant community. We faculty members all voluntarily allow our beliefs and practices to be held to account by the standards of this community. We annually affirm the college’s statement of faith and agree to abide by the manner of life in its covenant. Prayer, worship, study and work all exist side-by-side in the regular rhythms of our lives on campus. In most people’s minds, I think this makes us more like the Abbey of Monte Cassino than the University of Illinois.
Indeed, for some of our most thoroughgoing critics it means that we are not at all like the University of Illinois. A statement of faith, they assert, prohibits academic freedom and thus disqualifies us from being a genuine institution of higher education.
It feels differently from the inside. The vast majority of the professors Wheaton hires come either straight from a Ph.D. program at a major, secular school or from teaching at a secular university. Again and again they revel in the luxurious, newfound academic freedom that Wheaton has granted them: For the first time in their careers they can think aloud in the classroom about the meaning of life and the nature of the human condition without worrying about being accused of violating the separation of church and state or transgressing the taboo against allowing spiritual reflections to wander into a conversation about death or ethics or hope.
Just like no Catholic wants everyone to join a monastery, so I would not want every institution of higher education to be like Wheaton. Still, I have no doubt that the intellectual life of the entire nation is stronger because places like Wheaton exist than it would be if all higher education had its academic freedom curtailed by prohibiting theological lines of inquiry.
Wheaton is continually renewing and testing the caliber of its intellectual mettle in the wider academy: Every year we send out students who have been admitted into some of the best graduate schools, hire faculty members who have been trained in major research universities, and have professors present their research at the conferences of leading learned societies and publish it in peer-review journals. We gain the freedom to discuss matters of faith without losing the accountability that comes with having to meet the scholarly standards of the wider academy.
The media does not go into coverage overdrive every time a monk is disciplined for allegedly breaking his vows. Is it not time that journalists just accepted the fact that Wheaton College is an evangelical Protestant covenant community of higher education and stopped being “shocked, shocked” every time a case arises regarding what the standards of faithfulness are or ought to be in this community? Of course, like any monastery, Wheaton is always having an internal conversation about whether certain of its beliefs and practices have become too strict or too lax.
The monastery analogy has helped me personally as it has led me to meditate on the Benedictine virtue of “stability.” St Benedict argued that, like trees, people need to settle down in one place in order to bear fruit. When the gale force winds of media coverage hit us yet again, many of us just push our roots deeper into the soil of this campus, made sacred by the college being a site on the Underground Railroad and by innumerable lives of faithfulness nurtured in this place.
After 155 years of existence maybe it is about time that we were not even considered news.