Sunday, January 10, 2016

Psychology and Christianity at Wheaton

Why is a Christian Professor on Trial?

Elizabeth Dias of TIME magazine (2016) reviewed facts and opinions in a pending trial of Wheaton College professor, Larycia Hawkins. Following the shootings in San Bernardino, Hawkins wrote, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book.” She also observed, “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

As Dias notes, faculty have expressed different opinions. Dias includes comments pointing to differences among evangelicals in matters of theology. And Dias finds that some faculty support Hawkins. Not surprisingly, there is evidence of fear. At the end of the article we learn that Dias studied theology at Wheaton College.

A careful look at the issues from insider, professor Noah Toly, can be found in his January 8, 2016 post. At length, Toly explains his reticence in making a public response and appears to re-assure his administration that his disagreement with them is respectful. He then proceeds to offer a defense of Hawkins by commenting on the possible meanings of the theologically challenged words and phrases she used. In doing so, Toly suggests mysterious possibilities that “yes and no” can be nuanced, or in his article, “complicated.”
Letters between Larycia Hawkins and Stanton Jones are available on line. These highlight the theological issues at stake and refer to the Wheaton Statement of Faith. Readers familiar with the traditional teachings of the Christian church will find the statement familiar.

Professor Mangis at Wheaton. RNS

Why is the fuss newsworthy?

Racial tensions are close to the surface. Dias notes Hawkins is the first tenured black female professor. And adds, that activist, Jesse Jackson has compared Hawkins to Rosa Parks. Moreover, race-based clashes have been widespread in the U.S. in the past year—including campus-based tensions in nearby Missouri. Theology may truly be the focus of Stanton Jones and the Wheaton administration but, the public disclosure of key documents can be read in a racial context for those so inclined.

Muslim – Christian tension is widespread. It wasn’t long ago that Rev. Falwell Jr., president of evangelical Liberty University, garnered considerable attention over quotes about Islam (e.g., Politi, 2015). Yesterday, 9 January 2016, a U.S. Muslim woman was ousted from a Donald Trump rally. She reported her concerns about Trump’s backers supporting “hateful rhetoric.” (Brooks, 2016).

Muslims present a threat. Although only a splinter group of terrorists who identify as Muslims are obviously committing acts of violence, the association of Muslim or Islam with acts of terror triggers conservative reactions in the U.S. and elsewhere. Political rhetoric has also challenged the acceptance of Muslim immigrants based on the link to acts of terror. Hawkins comments are not in sync with the views of outspoken conservative U.S. Christians.

Wheaton College is a leader in Christian Higher Education. They have found ways to deal with matters of Creation and Evolution as well as Same-Sex relationships. The way of the past may suggest how they will cope with interfaith relationships in the future.

Students protest: Chicago Tribune

Why is the fuss interesting in the Psychology of Religion?

The concept, “evangelical” is a fuzzy concept. The arguments over flexibility regarding statements of faith reveal complex mental maneuvering within the minds of those Wheaton scholars who have made public statements.

It’s a bit easier to deal with fundamentalists who hold to a near surface meaning of biblical phrases. And this biblical focus has been adequately measured in research.

But evangelicals seem to want some wiggle room without being called liberal or progressive. Some readers may recall the famous quadrilateral often linked to John Wesley who described four factors relevant to a Christian’s belief (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience).

What the public comments from Wheaton faculty reveal to researchers is a problem in defining the concept, evangelical. If you give evangelicals a traditional statement of faith and they assent to the statements, then they look like a fundamentalist. But here’s the rub, they may have a very expanded notion of some words and phrases.

The devil is in the details. People are careful with words when under threat.

One devil is the common tactic of using metaphor.
So for evangelical Christians, the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist are not literally Jesus’ body and blood. The food item and drink are mere symbols. But does the word “virgin” refer to a literal state of Jesus’ mother or is that too a metaphor for her purity or is virgin an optional translation of an ancient word indicating a young woman? I recall one professor at a conservative school was quoted as saying “it’s all metaphor” when it comes to scripture.

A second devil is mystery.
 One of the issues Hawkins must address is her understanding of God— a tall order even for a theologian. Mystery is in play in the Christian doctrine of the trinity—one God, three persons. That’s not exactly an idea that’s easy to explain by referring to life experience—although William Young presents an interesting idea in The Shack as reviewed by Robert Berg.

A third devil is masked belief.
 At times, unbelievers work as if they are Christians. From time to time, clergy give up and leave their ministry because they can no longer carry on a pretense of belief. They may have once believed but at some point they deconverted. A recent study by Dennett and LaScola suggests the problem maybe widespread (Caught in the Pulpit).

We might wonder how many professors are playing theological dodgeball at Wheaton and other Christian colleges and universities—just biding their time until they can retire or find a more comfortable position. Perhaps we will see another book, Caught in the Christian College? Let me be clear, I am not accusing anyone at Wheaton College of being unchristian. But in a very real sense, correct theological beliefs are at stake for Professor Hawkins.

Fear on campus was mentioned by Dias and certainly seems plausible. Who wants to go through a faculty trial? Who wants to work on a campus under the glare of reporters—whether friendly or hostile? Who wants to live with uncertainty and worry about what can and cannot be said or printed? The role of fear in motivating religious behavior is a noteworthy field of study. And so it has a place here. Though the horrors of the inquisition are unlikely to be repeated in Illinois, the potential loss of employment is enough to produce a semblance of conservatism.  That is, we can predict faculty and staff will be careful what they say if they value their positions.

But what if fear results in a decline in quality education at Wheaton often considered an evangelical "Ivy" league school? It seems to me academic freedom is curtailed at Wheaton as it is in many Christian schools. There are some things you cannot say or question in front of students, staff, some faculty, and certainly not in social media. Brilliant faculty and students may want to look elsewhere if they are not able to publicly ask and investigate difficult and challenging questions about such matters as biblical texts, theological assumptions, the impact of evolutionary theory on human nature, and the moral traditions of conservative Christians.

Psychologist Stanton Jones is the prosecutor. Jones is the chief academic officer at Wheaton and is a former chair of the Psychology Department. He has published academic papers as well as books for educated readers. These works draw on his knowledge of Christianity and Psychology— in fact, they are works on the Psychology of Religion. Thus, at the center of the controversy is a psychologist who has written much about the integration of psychology and Christianity. His public stance is already controversial. Further actions and statements may weigh on the degree of trust accorded Christian Higher Education.

A look at his work reveals a consistent conservative stance that is loyal to Christianity. For example, in closing their book on Four Views (2000) he and his coauthor (Eric Johnson) wrote: “Christianity, we believe, is the faith system that alone has the potential to do justice to all of the complexity of both our human experience and that of the entire world (p. 256)”

In the context of writing about Christianity and psychological science Jones and Johnson opine: “…metasystemic thinking ceases to be legitimate for Christians when it embraces elements of thought that contradict core Christian belief (p. 257).”

Comparing these statements from 2000 to the recent letters and inquiry one sees a consistent concern that Christians cannot legitimately contradict core Christian beliefs. We can expect Jones to rely heavily on reason and address the strengths and weaknesses of a given position as he does in Four Views and a more recent essay on Sexual Orientation. In many ways, Jones writings illustrate an application of the Wesleyan quadrilateral with a strong emphasis on Scripture and the tradition of the church.


Twitter  @GeoffWSutton  


Johnson, E. L. & Jones, S. L. (2000). Four Views: Psychology and Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Pastor to Immigrants

Reflecting on the good things people have done reminds us that some people really do good things to help people they do not know.

An act of kindness can be a significant investment in the lives of others.

My story is about an Assemblies of God pastor. Rev. Fred Packer, of Vineland, NJ who met us at the dock in New York City, drove us down the NJ Turnpike, and welcomed us into his home for a few weeks until my dad found a job. After a few pay checks we were able to afford a small rental house. And dad bought his first car.

It wasn't just the pastor who helped us but he set the example. People in the church brought important stuff-- a cot for me, a chair, a radio. And a man at dad's new job gave him a ride to work until dad could afford to borrow funds for a used car.

Things got much better as the years went by. But you don't forget those people that gave you a fresh start. Americans who didn't know us but acted in accordance with their Christian faith.

Immigrants like us come to the U.S. with hopes and dreams but it takes a community to make those dreams come true. My dad never stopped giving back to the poor in South Jersey. When people initiate an act of kindness, it often becomes a seed yielding an abundance of good will for years to come.

Yes, I Realize...

I realize that not all immigrants are legal and some refugees might be terrorists but there are millions of good hard working people willing to invest their lives in their host countries. Many willingly give back.

I realize that some citizens of some countries object to foreigners of any sort but few of us have ancestors native to a particular piece on the planet --if we go back far enough in history.

I realize that as a child, I had little choice in coming to the U.S. I simply trusted my parents. Fortunately for me, my parents followed the legal procedures for entry.

Consider that children don't know much about why they are going to another country. And after years go by, returning is rarely a reasonable option when you've invested in a new culture. So what about the children, unlike me, whose parents did not follow legal procedures? Why punish the children? Why not offer them a chance to invest their lives in building a better country?

I realize we were Christians welcomed by a Christian church family. But hospitality is not limited to Christianity.

I realize not all people are trustworthy, industrious, and willing to pull their weight in society so I do not advocate a naive sentimental approach to immigration and settlement. But I do advocate an openness to welcome individuals and families-- my story is not unique.

I realize some clergy and church members do more harm than good. Bad news can be helpful to protect us and our family from evildoers.


Many members of the clergy practice what they preach. And we may not hear their stories.

Clergy and other religious leaders can influence their congregations by setting an example.

Many church members are kind people who show their love in concrete ways.

Many conservative Christians do a lot of good.

Read more

I wrote about my experience- here a link to the story.