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It’s been close to twelve years since I last walked the cobblestone paths at Wheaton College (in Illinois) making my way to class. Nearly twelve years since I somehow managed to hear God calling me to seminary even though I didn’t think women were supposed to do that.
It’s been almost exactly twelve years since I graduated from Wheaton and went to seminary – twelve years since I began my journey of accepting the gifts and calling God has given to me to be a minister.
But, despite my more than four years as a student at Wheaton, I haven’t been able to feel like anything other than an outside observer as I’ve read story after story from the media about Dr. Larycia Hawkins and the college’s move to suspend her as a professor. I’ve read now that her suspension may be leading towards her termination as a professor. All of this action is being taken because Dr. Larycia Hawkins (drawing upon the work of Miroslav Volf) made a statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
I’ve been silent about what’s going on at Wheaton for several reasons, but one of those reasons is that I cannot be an impartial observer. I’m not impartial. I have biases and experiences and even bits of nostalgia that keep me from speaking out.
And yet, while I cannot be impartial, I’m also finding it nearly impossible to remain silent.
So, here I am, writing about my alma mater with a whole lot of fear and trembling, fully aware that I have many friends still deeply involved with Wheaton – as professors, students, staff, and members of the wider Wheaton community. I love these people, and I loved many things about my time as a Wheaton student, and so I am choosing my words as carefully as I can.
What troubles me the most deeply about what is happening at Wheaton has very little to do with statements of faith, and more to do with a hermeneutic of suspicion. More narrowly, I am troubled by the fear that seems to be driving much of the conversation.
It seems to me that too many conversations within the church are being powered by fear rather than by love for one another.
Fear of making the wrong theological claim.
Fear of taking a misstep.
Fear of too closely identifying with the other.
Fear of losing money.
Fear of openness.
Fear of intellectual and theological diversity.
Fear of losing ground.
Fear of giving in.
Fear of not being set apart.
Fear of not speaking up.
So much fear abounds. Fear on all sides, not just one. Fear that immobilizes. Fear that is reactionary. Fear that cannot see beyond the immediate.
And what’s at stake?
Far too much.
And the fear that seems so prevalent today seems so foreign to me as I look back more than twelve years in the rear view.
When I was a student at Wheaton, a professor dared suggest that I needed to job shadow a pastor.
When I was at Wheaton, students stood up in protest of the dismissal of a beloved professor.
When I was at Wheaton, a professor spoke out against abuse – both on college campuses, and elsewhere.
When I was a student at Wheaton, a world civilization professor dared to teach the origins of Islam, even though the class had never been taught that way before.
When I was a student at Wheaton, a professor dared to illumine a classroom of students about the reality of systemic racism.
At Wheaton I had the opportunity for conversations with people who had lived their whole lives outside of the United States.
I was given the opportunity to grow and expand and be challenged.
My formation at Wheaton was not one defined by fear. Rather, it was highlighted with relationships and conversations and wrestling and growing.
And those experiences changed me and helped me become who I am today.
Fear cannot be the motivating factor for the way Christians live, move, and exist in this world. When writing about the Christian life, the author of Hebrews put it this way:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2a)
We run as people motivated by the cloud of witnesses all around us, and we run with our eyes on Jesus. We are not running because we’re afraid. We are not running because there’s something scary chasing us. We’re running as part of a group that has all eyes fixed on Jesus.
The reality is, life in Christ changes people. It has to.
In Christ, we begin one-anothering instead of othering.
In Christ, we see all people as our brothers and sisters because all people are created in the image of God.
In Christ, we shake off the shackles of fear and put on the love of Christ from head to toe.
If we allow fear to cut off our ability to learn from others and be changed, we are not fixing our eyes on Jesus.
If we are too afraid to listen, we will never be able to hear each other.
I don’t claim to have all the answers – or any for that matter – about what’s going on at Wheaton. I have opinions, to be sure, but I don’t have all the answers. What I do know is that we cannot be afraid.
As Christians, we’re going to have disagreements with each other. If history teaches us little else about the church, it certainly shows us how capable we are of disagreeing about almost every point of doctrine. The trouble has always come about when fear takes control of the conversation.
If fear is what’s motivating us, we need to remember that perfect love is supposed to cast out all fear.
If we are consumed with fear, we are not loving each other.
If the church can do nothing else in this new year, I hope that it can find ways to disconnect from the fear machine and find ways to love.
For Christ and his Kingdom.