Sunday, June 07, 2015

Strange bedfellows at Wheaton College

That quote, also an Internet meme --- "I take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally" --- is so popular among preachers and pundits in the progressive church that it's quite often misattributed. Esteemed theologian Karl Barth has gotten the credit as have quite a few others who like it so much they've decided that they thought it up themselves.

The credit belongs, however, to Madeleine L'Engle (1918-2007), a writer best known for young-adult fiction. A dedicated Episcopalian with a distinctly liberal worldview, theological and otherwise, L'Engle frequently wove Christian sub-themes into her work. Because she was a universalist, however, believing that "all will be redeemed in the fullness of God's time," Christian booksellers often refused to offer her work.

Universalism tends to be perceived as a threat by denominational gatekeepers intent on fostering the impression that the brand of theological snake oil they're selling is the only cure for the ills of humanity now and in the eternal future.

So it seems odd that the biggest collection of L'Engle's papers ended up in the archives of Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois --- perhaps the most esteemed of Evangelical Christianity's institutions of higher learning (Billy Graham is a graduate).

The explanation is fairly simple, however, and has nothing in particular to do with theology. L'Engle had close friends in the Wheaton English Department and the college itself has a solid academic reputation --- and that combination propelled many of L'Engle's papers west from her homes in Connecticut and Greenwich Village to Illinois.

Wheaton, like most if not all Evangelical schools, is cranky about the LGBTQ students who end up for one reason or another on its campus --- threatening to expel those revealed to be engaging in, gasp, homosexual activity and declining to recognize organizations supportive of gay students, including OneWheaton, formed in 2011 by Wheaton alumni to provide some of the support the college wouldn't.

Last week, L'Engle fired a modest shot toward Wheaton from the grave (or rather her niche in the columbarium at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine) when the Crosswicks Foundation --- founded by L'Engle and her husband, Hugh Franklin --- awarded $5,000 to OneWheaton to promote on-campus dialogue about LGBTQ issues. It'll be interesting to see how that goes.


Wheaton officials also were scrambling last week to untangle themselves from one of their own --- 1964 graduate J. Dennis Hastert, Republican former U.S. House speaker indicted for financial misadventures apparently related to a promised $3.5 million payoff of a male student he allegedly abused sexually while working as high school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville, Illinois.

Rather abruptly, the "J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy" became the "Wheaton College Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy."

Prayers continue to go up from Wheaton, however, "for Speaker Hastert, his family, and those who may have been harmed by any inappropriate behavior," the university said.

The college also holds Hastert's papers. No word yet on their fate.


Mary Ellen said...

l'Engle is one of my fav writers. I often reread "Circle of Quiet." Have to hope her intentions were to move Wheaton toward a Universalist expression.

Elzan said...

Have you read "HELL YES/HELL NO? I'm afraid I'm bordering on becoming a universialist but one of my friends asked me if I wanted to be in heaven with Hilter?...
good question! It seems to come to down to how powerful we see God becoming one of us in Jesus is...and how willing we are to extend his love to everyone.

Frank D. Myers said...

I'm reminded of the on-liner attributed to Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian preacher scratching for a way to distinguish Unitarians from Universalists. Something like: Universalists believe God is too good to damn them; Unitarians believe they're too good to be damned. But darned if I know about Hitler!