Larycia in Wonderland: What Was She Thinking?

Bill Evans head shot

By now nearly everyone in the Evangelical world has probably heard about the case of Wheaton College Political Science professor Larycia Hawkins, who announced in a December 10 Facebook post that she was wearing the hijab (the headcovering worn by some Muslim women) during Advent (of all things!) as a sign of her solidarity with Muslims in America, whom she regards as subject to suspicion and oppression in this country because of their faith.

Her rationale was twofold. First, there is the fact that Christians and Muslims share a common humanity. So far, so good, although I not quite sure how her reference to how “we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind—a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014” leaves much room for the historical and specially created Adam and Eve that Wheaton faculty members are supposed to affirm.

Second, she argued that she stands “in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Here her argument appears to go well beyond the obvious historical observation that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are monotheistic Abrahamic faiths (i.e., that all three worship a singular deity, are Middle Eastern in origin, and look back to Abraham as a significant figure) to theological assertion; she contends that they “worship the same God.”

By December 15 Hawkins was in hot water with the Wheaton administration.  Realizing they had a PR firestorm on their hands, the College put her on paid leave pending further clarification of her statements. Her letter of December 17, however, apparently raised more questions. In it she recognized both theological continuity and discontinuity between Islam and Christianity, but argued that her Facebook “statement is not a statement on soteriology or trinitarian theology, but one of embodied piety.” In other words, she contends that while Christians and Muslims construe the deity very differently, they still experience the same divine being.

Hawkins has certainly had her defenders.   Yale theologian Miroslav Volf declared in a Washington Post opinion piece that her suspension was simply about “enmity toward Muslims.” Some Wheaton faculty members, especially in the Bible and Theology Department, have vigorously defended her (for a somewhat different perspective, see this thoughtful piece by Wheaton religious historian Timothy Larsen). According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, a group of female Wheaton students has taken to wearing the hijab themselves, and students staged a sit-in at President Philip Ryken’s office on December 16. I’m told that Ryken went on a previously scheduled skiing trip, so apparently he was not particularly inconvenienced by this gesture of student irritation.

That this issue would be particularly knotty for Wheaton College should not surprise. Not only does it involve an African-American female professor (with all the potential for identity politics inherent in that) but it also resonates with the concerns of millennial-generation students for tolerance and openness. And anyone who has spent much time on the Wheaton campus knows that faculty members there really, really, really care about their academic standing and reputation, and episodes like this, which remind us of the conservative Evangelical roots and identity of the school and its ideological distance from secular academia, are doubtless embarrassing to some of them. One friend deeply familiar with the Wheaton milieu remarked to me not long ago that the recent history of the school can be told in terms of the ongoing and unresolved tension between evangelical piety and academic ambition.

While I’ve never met Larycia Hawkins and everything I’ve read suggests that she is a nice and generous human being, I’m nevertheless troubled on four counts.

First, the theological justification for her expression of solidarity is rather thin. More specifically, her notion of a shared “embodied piety” as a basis saying that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” strikes me as bordering on meaningless. To borrow an argument from Yale theologian George Lindbeck’s brief but seminal volume The Nature of Doctrine, if religious experience is as linguistically shaped as recent research suggests it is, what basis do we have for saying that there is a shared experience of piety? Her assertions here appear to involve the assumption of what Lindbeck has aptly called an “experiential-expressive” model of religion—that people have a shared experience of the transcendent/divine but they express this common experience in different ways. Stephen Prothero of Boston University hit the nail on the head when he wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal: “No doubt Christians should strive to understand the Islamic faith fully, and vice versa. But pretend pluralism, feigning that all or most religious traditions hinge on the same truth, is no solution for the squabble at Wheaton or anywhere else.”

Second, the expression of solidarity itself—wearing a Muslim headcovering—is just about as meaningless as the theological rationale that underlies it. I’m all for showing the love of Christ to Muslims through hospitality, meeting physical needs, and working against discrimination, but, frankly, what is the point of wearing the hijab? Is it simply to make other Americans uneasy or uncomfortable? Is it to make the hijab wearer feel superior to all those other unenlightened Americans?

Third, the expression of solidarity is profoundly insensitive to Dr. Hawkins’ Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East, who today are being enslaved, raped, and murdered in the name of jihadist Islam. The fact of the matter is that Islam has a long-standing problem with religiously inspired violence (I’ve dealt with this issue at some length here), and that in a cultural context dominated by Islam there can sometimes be tolerance but no genuine religious pluralism.  In other words, Christians will always be second-class citizens.  James K. Hoffmeier recently wrote in an important article on this topic:

Hawkins’s aim may have been noble, but did she and her supporters consider how Middle Eastern Christians might feel about this particular gesture of solidarity with Muslims? Might it be offensive?

In recent years Christian minorities in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan have been driven from their homes and seen their businesses burned, young persons raped, and girls turned into sex slaves. Many have been shot and beheaded; some have even been crucified. In Nigeria the Christian majority is under attack from Boko Haram terrorists who recently swore allegiance to ISIS. These jihadists are responsible for the death of more than 15,000 Christians; often their murders occur in churches and schools. With such blatant persecution of Christians in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa by various Islamic jihadists, it’s perplexing that Hawkins would seek to draw attention to and identify with Muslims instead of the Christians whose suffering far surpasses any alienation Muslims might feel in America.

Would that Hawkins’ concern for Muslims were matched by a concern for her co-religionists, her real “brothers and sisters,” in the Middle East!

Finally, Hawkins’ donning of the hijab is insensitive to many Muslim women who view it as a symbol of oppression. The simple fact is that Islam has “woman problem” as well. Hawkins tells us that she checked with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a political lobbying organization that is doubtless more than happy for her to carry their water. But why didn’t she consult with Muslim women? Again, James Hoffmeier writes:

A female professor at a private Egyptian university explained that many of her Muslim friends feel pressured to wear the hijab to look like good Muslims, adding that hijab-wearing is a “sign of societal and cultural oppression” dating back to the Ottoman empire. Saudi Arabia and Iran are now pressuring the Muslim world to normalize the practice everywhere. It’s a type of religio-culture imperialism. My friend continued: “Nearly all, including the veiled women I know, acknowledge that hijab isn’t mandated in the Qur’an.” Regarding Hawkins’s hijab-wearing, the professor concluded, “I think her effort is misguided since in this particular case she’s siding with the oppressor, not the oppressed.”

In short, Larycia Hawkins has managed to combine theological incoherence and empty symbolism with profound insensitivity to Middle Eastern Christians and to many Muslim women—and to do so at Wheaton College of all places! I’m driven to a simple question: What was this bright and capable woman thinking?