Endangered Speeches: Why It Matters (For All of Us) That Conservative Seminaries Are Firing Professors Over Theology

Summer is a predictable time for academic migrations.  New positions offered as early as last fall are now approved and finalized, and those who’ve been selected begin the transhumance of the professorate like a great herd of intelligent wildebeests.  Actually, a very small herd.  Maybe an endangered one.

With the announcement this past week of the dismissals of yet two more religion professors following doctrinal innuendos, the plight of the endangered comes forcefully to mind.  Just under a year ago we were reading about nearly the entire faculty of General Seminary in New York being dismissed.  The final week of June we heard of Thomas Jay Oord‘s ouster from Northwest Nazarene University (in the wake of a threatened “heresy trial”) and Daniel Kirk’s decision to leave Fuller Seminary.

On his personal blog, Kirk wrote: “Fuller has this phrase, ‘Fuller fit,’ that we use to evaluate potential colleagues. It’s an amorphous way of saying that we know “us” when we see it. My senior colleagues have decided that I do not qualify under this rubric. I will therefore be leaving at the end of the 2015-16 academic year.”

Both cases revolved around doctrinal issues where the professor and the institution did not see eye-to-eye.  These follow the similar expulsions of Christopher Rollston and Peter Enns in recent years.  There are actually many more; it’s easy to lose count.

Professors lose jobs all the time, but these are special cases. Tenure was instituted in higher education to protect faculty from threats should they come to conclusions out of sync with their school. It used to be called academic freedom. These recent situations, however, have all resulted from statements or publications that have failed administrative approval on theological grounds.

Some topics, it seems, are not even open for discussion.

I suspect that those of us among the more liberal crowd might be tempted to see this as the inevitable implosion of conservative institutions, but I find it far more troubling than that.  Having spent a decade and a half at a conservative seminary before facing a similar non-negotiable non-tenured option, I’ve devoted a lot of time to thinking about this.  Ten years, in fact, and counting.  It’s not just the fate of conservatives being weighed here—it is the very nature of higher education.

Higher education is a complex conglomeration of colleges (two and four-year), professional schools, graduate institutions, and research universities.  America has a great many of these schools, and several of them offer some kind of program to study religion. Obviously, seminaries and many Christian colleges take a doctrinal stance toward how religion is taught. In some cases they require signatures affixed to statements of faith. How belief and learning might coexist, however, is seldom considered—but this issue is at the crux of education itself.

Education discomfits.  Scientists are fond of informing us that the apparent reality of the everyday world doesn’t match the close study of the details. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a boson, but I have to believe they exist.  To learn science the obvious must be challenged, and frequently displaced. Scientists looking at religious studies sometimes marvel at how facile much of it seems. Some guy two millennia ago allegedly said something that has gone unchallenged ever since, and teaching that to students is called higher education? Those who’ve been through a graduate program in any field of religious studies know that the disciplines involved have developed their own scientific means of testing data. In the case of biblical studies, for instance, comparative philology is not for the faint of mind.

Those teaching in doctrinal schools live with dual tensions, perhaps even treble. Not only are they duty- or honor-bound to keep to what the school proclaims, they are also bound by intellectual honesty to remain true to what they’ve learned. A third possible tension is their own internal dissonance between what they believe and what they know. With the crisis in higher education, the likelihood of being able to make a lateral move of any kind is extremely slim. The only real choice available is to toe the party line and hope that they don’t say, publish, or imply anything that calls their commitment into question.  It may not seem such a crisis, since those unordained may have promising futures as baristas.  When the axe is laid to the roots of the tree, it’s a good time for a latte.

This situation should be of concern to anyone who values higher education. The serious study of religion is made to look parochial and foolish to those in other academic disciplines when minor differences of opinion are grounds for dismissal. In the case of religious studies a professor is dismissed, in all likelihood, for simply being honest. That’s a worrisome fact in anyone’s book. Academic freedom, anyone?  When religious institutions can’t bear honesty, where are we to look for religious integrity? Seriously, God can’t handle a little honest questioning? In what is the faith of the faithful placed?

The great academic migration gets smaller every year. The summer feeding grounds are growing smaller, and the herd is being culled. This should be a concern to any member of the species.

 

 

 

  • Jim Reed

    God can’t handle a little honest questioning?

    That is an understatement of the situation. Science is based on questioning. Christianity is based on not questioning. If you see it as a little honest questioning, than that is because you have not reached the point of seeing the big honest questioning. If doctrine doesn’t cut off discussion, then where does it lead? If Christianity becomes completely honest, then how can it still be Christianity? At least here we can be open about these things. For a long time, being that open never seemed like an option.

  • Craptacular

    “When religious institutions can’t bear honesty, where are we to look for religious integrity?” – Steve A Wiggins

    What is “religious integrity?” Staying true to the current teachings of the religion or questioning those teachings which seem contrary to our experiences? I think most religious institutions’ definition of “religious integrity” has little to do with honest, open academic communications or discussions, and more to with maintaining whatever those in authority consider “doctrine.”

  • Duck

    God can handle questioning but it has been my experience the religious cannot.

    “Some topics, it seems, are not even open for discussion.” – Can I ask which topics are not open for discussion?

  • Rmj

    You don’t understand the topic at all, do you?

    And if I tell you my seminary education was all about questioning, will you tell me I am wrong? Or that I am no longer a Christian?

    Your mind is made up, apparently. Not open to any questions, I guess…..

  • Jim Reed

    Out in the field, I believe a lot of Christians use Josephus as an example of a secular 1st century record proving Jesus was a real person, and known in that day. I think those at the top of the seminary know the problem here. That Josephus passage is fake, added later by Christians who were planting evidence for Jesus. What does your seminary teach about this? I have to wonder why they don’t spread this information down the line so that all the Christians hear about it in the churches. Do they consider belief to be more important than evidence, and you have to do what is necessary to help people come to belief?

  • Steve Wiggins

    It depends on the institution. Incredibly enough evolution is still one of those issues. Homosexuality is another. Things that society is apparently okay with, for some schools, provide tipping points.

  • Steve Wiggins

    I’m enough of a dreamer to believe institutions can keep true to their vision while questioning it at the same time. It is a balancing act, but like all balancing acts it takes practice. The practice will only come when institutions are willing to try. What is religious integrity? In my definition it is being honest with the evidence.

  • Steve Wiggins

    In my experience both Christianity and science are based on questioning. It is what you do with the answers that ultimately makes the difference. I do believe science and religion can get along, but being defensive (on either side) seldom helps the situation.

  • Jim Reed

    Christians enjoy answering the questions they are used to. I was trying to show, when the questions get harder, they tend to change the subject.

  • Steve Wiggins

    Breaking points have their uses, to be sure. I’m hoping for a peaceful rapprochement as I don’t think science and religion are as far apart as many people suggest.

  • Jim Reed

    Religion is a wide spectrum. There is no mechanism to advance towards truth, other than principles of humanism like the golden rule, but religion is primarily doctrine. That by its nature can never be true. Perhaps some day humanity can start over and begin with science and try to make something religious from that angle.

  • Whiskyjack

    Those who’ve been through a graduate program in any field of religious studies know that the disciplines involved have developed their own scientific means of testing data.

    Seriously? I am unaware of any means of ascertaining whether a theological proposition is right or wrong, and I’ve taken a number of religious studies courses. It’s one thing to apply linguistic or philological principles to an old text, but that has nothing to do with the truth content of the proposition. Knowledge of bosons, on the other hand, can be exploited in demonstrable ways.

  • Jim Reed

    It would be possible to make theological studies more rigorous if apologetics could be eliminated from the mix. The tricky part would be there are so many different forms of apologetics to deal with.

  • NancyP

    What percentage of seminary teachers (instructors to full professors) are “contingent” faculty (part-time, no benefits, no guaranteed course load)? Secular colleges and universities have very high percentages of contingent faculty, and most new full time jobs in private and state-funded colleges (community colleges to Ivy League) are non-tenure-track yearly contracts. Tenure and pretensions of academic freedom are increasingly rare. I am grateful that I chose an independently employable secular profession, even though I am a full time tenured faculty member at a large university. Prospects do not look good in any sector of higher education.

  • NancyP

    I would say “inherently unprovable” rather than “untrue”. There’s a difference. And yes, I am a skeptic.

  • Jim Reed

    I can see how you could make a case for that, but if you look at all the history, untrue seems to fit too.

  • apotropoxy

    The orthodoxy has been trying to keep their children coloring between the lines from the beginning. What has changed?

  • Duck

    I know that evolution is still a big issue as most Evangelicals are Creationists or ID. And homosexuality is a ‘huge’ issue.
    Do I understand you correctly that if professors are evolutionists or support homosexual couples, they are let go?

  • Teri

    A private university has the right to determine what is taught there. If you don’t want to abide by their rules, then you don’t teach there. A key term here is “theology” classes. That is about doctrine, God and relation with and in the world. it would be really nice if all colleges and universities taught with open minds. I’ve sat in classes dealing with aspects of religious practice where the professor had predetermined that there was no higher being, and it was all made up. How does one objectively evaluate the spiritual experience of another if at the outset they impose their lack of belief and the opinion that the person is delusional?

  • Steve Wiggins

    In my reading of the cases I mention above, these seem to be the big issues. I haven’t had a chance to talk to either of the two most recent dismissees to get their take on it yet. In my case, many years ago, I was let go without cause after refusing to go along with an anti-homosexual event. At some fully accredited colleges and seminaries this is considered okay.

  • While I agree with the article about the idea of professors challenging the doctrine and then being fired is wrong, I think this article is pointing out something far more distressing – that it is not happening just in seminaries. More and more professors are finding themselves in the receiving end of pink slips because their research is offending some big donor and the university wants the money more than the professor.

    The shift away from tenured professors to part-time adjuncts or non-tenure tracked professors has led to many being forced out of academia and into the public and private sectors where they cannot help to expand our educated labor pool or our pool of new knowledge. What we are seeing in religious universities and colleges is bad enough because it leads to twisted, unquestioned versions of any religion being mainstreamed to the detriment of faithful parishioners. When you consider that this is just the tip of the iceberg, what this author is talking about is corporate or theological control of all universities where only the corporate or theological agendas of a very small percentage of people will control the educational foundations of our world in the future because they will control the minds of our young people. This is incredibly dangerous.

    When teachers and professors are told that inquiring minds are no longer acceptable, and that to encourage such examinations of facts and beliefs is wrong, then our future is what is at stake, not just our souls. Blind faith is for ideologues, but true faith is faith that is questioned and challenged daily, and still stands in the face of such questioning. God can take it, but if we allow ourselves to have shackled minds, then we risk closing our minds to God completely. He wants us to understand completely within ourselves what it means to have faith, not just accept someone else idea of faith. When colleges and universities shut the door on questioning our beliefs, they shut the doors on learning and become nothing more than the educational equivalent of factory farms – all animals meant for slaughter are what grow there without any knowledge of a better life.

  • Steve Wiggins

    Many programs use social sciences (sociology and anthropology in particular) to guide their study of religion. In the case of biblical studies, often the extensive study of ancient languages, using classical linguistic techniques, are mandated. I agree with Jim Reed that apologetics might be the weak link here.

  • Steve Wiggins

    I don’t have a percentage for seminaries; I do follow this closely for higher ed in general. If seminaries are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), they may have to keep the numbers of adjuncts down due to “formation” guidelines. This is only a guess on my part, however.

  • Steve Wiggins

    I agree that private schools have a right to determine what is taught at their institutions, but many of those dismissed have run into trouble for their work outside the classroom. Having had this happen to me, I know that there’s always a tricky balancing act going on. I was upfront about my stance with the search committee. I was caught when a new administration had different ideas about what the terms meant. My point above is that academic freedom (i.e., what used to be called “tenure”) indicates that instructors have to be free to follow the evidence without fear of reprisal. This should apply to private schools as well, in my opinion.

  • Steve Wiggins

    Exactly, Devon! This is what I was getting at. Cutting off education for theological (or corporate) reasons sets a dangerous trend. Most institutions are never challenged for doing it.

  • Seems a lot of fuss over ancient mythology

  • catalinakel

    Being honest with the evidence despite established doctrine is what comes to mind for me. But, then again, religion is not science, is it? So why are we talking about evidence and conclusions? hmmm…

  • Danny

    Secular universities not only reject professors who oppose evolution, but even students. You can’t question their doctrine, you have to accept evolution as a fact, even if it is contrary to everything you see around you…

  • Steve Wiggins

    True, religion is not science, but the study of religion should be. The practice of religion is something that should be honestly studied, I believe, and the way to study it is scientifically. Of course, you can lose your job for that.

  • Steve Wiggins

    This is always a tricky one, it seems to me. Students shouldn’t be rejected because of belief, but the rejection of evolution is often done for political reasons. It has been well documented that stealth tactics are used to get anti-evolutionary ideas discussed as “science” (which they are not if they are based on faith stances rather than evidence). An honest, scientific skepticism of evolution should be allowed, I think, as long as it’s not a wolf in sheep’s garb.

  • Steve Wiggins

    Agreed. The only problem is people are losing their livelihoods over it. And these are the people who were encouraged to pursue higher education because of their gifts. It’s a sad waste of thoughtful people.

  • Constance Benson

    Steve Wiggins is right about the lack of academic freedom in the academy at large. For historical perspective on the subject I recommend the classic muckraker, Upton Sinclair and his little known expose of academic politics in his own day: The Goose Step: A Study of American Education (1923). In a nutshell he describes in detail how the Trustees of our greatest universities controlled the faculty. Knowledge was never to encroach on power.

  • catalinakel

    Agreed, yes, it ought to be studied with integrity, as should all subjects be. But what about faith v. sight? I’m thinking that some religious things are just accepted to be despite a lack of evidence. I wonder if I have just defined dogma here….I’m a bit of a neophyte in the realm of the study of religion, just musing outloud….

  • Let’s not have any false equivalencies here. Evolution is not a “doctrine,” but among the most well-tested and firmly-established theories ever. Every day, scientists in dozens of fields challenge aspects of our understanding of evolution, incrementally improving our understanding. What they receive are awards and promotions…as long as they present their challenges in the form of sound argumentation, not sectarian dogma or long-debunked, email-chain-worthy fallacies.

  • Jim Reed

    How does that play out today? Is higher education still under control of power? I feel like we are now beyond that on the internet in places like here. I don’t feel like we are under any powers in what we can say here.

  • Jim Reed

    Isn’t that a price you have to pay if you want a religious society? I think that is why you have separation of church and state. You can’t teach God in public schools, but religious schools don’t have to follow those rules. They can force their beliefs, and they probably must if they want the religion to continue.

  • Steve Wiggins

    I think you’re absolutely right. Doctrine or dogma are accepted by faith. The facts can be tested by science. The usual practice in the study of religion is the latter, although the former does happen, particularly in seminaries.

  • Steve Wiggins

    It is indeed a price to pay, but it is much more complex than it might seem. There are aspects that I’m not free to discuss even here, that make the situation far more tragic than it seems at first. I know that’s not a satisfactory answer, but it really is not as simple as it seems (there’s a reson Mark Twain stipulated that his diary would not be published until he’d been dead a good, long time).

  • Scott Paeth

    Exactly.

  • Scott Paeth

    Regardless of what “right” a private university might have to determine what’s taught there, it also as an *obligation* to ensure that it is a place where free and open inquiry into academic disciplines can and does take place. It can exercise it’s “right” to kick people out who disagree with it’s bounden doctrines, but it loses the right to consider itself a genuine university if it does so.

  • Jim Reed

    I think I am too old to wait for that time.

  • Sue Bonner

    I accept most aspects of evolutionary theory, but I do agree that honest, scientific skepticism should be allowed. Unfortunately in too many cases it’s not. To many atheists and other forms of non-believers it’s become a dogma that can’t be questioned because it takes a serious jab at what they believe. As a Christian what matters to me is not how God created the world, it’s that he created the world. I’m cool with however he did it.

  • Jim Reed

    The interesting part has to be what aspects of evolution do you not accept.

  • Steve Wiggins

    I know a lot of people in this same position. I don’t believe belittling words on either side do much good. There’s little doubt that evolution is a fact (the constant morphing of super-germs illustrates it a little too well), but when various ardent believers make it “my way or no way” it doesn’t help their outlook very much. I don’t know why honest discussion is so difficult to find. Thanks for your comment!

  • Steve Wiggins

    Agreed, Scott. The very idea of a university, or even a seminary for that matter, should be honest inquiry. If certain questions are “no go zones” it is pretty clear that this is a huge red flag for higher education.

  • Scott Paeth

    I’m surprised that we’re working with such a narrow conception of what is meant by “science.” Science in the classic sense is any organized body of knowledge, as in the German sense of “wissenschaft.” We’ve truncated it to a very narrow slice of its general meaning in the United States.

  • Whiskyjack

    Well, if we take knowledge to mean justified true belief, then theology fails as a branch of knowledge in my opinion – and for the reason I alluded to in my previous comment. I am unaware of any method for testing whether or not a theological proposition is true, so holding onto a theological proposition cannot count as knowledge, since its truth status cannot be ascertained.
    On the other hand, there are publicly demonstrable ways in which scientific propositions can be tested, and most scientists (along with Popper) disregard or discount untestable or non-refutable theories. Over the years, many scientific theories have failed and have been discarded. Have there ever been theological ideas that have been discarded? Lumping theology in with science as a legitimate branch of knowledge is, to me, committing a categorical error.

  • Scott Paeth

    There are certainly publicly demonstrable ways to test, for example, whether two bodies with different masses will fall at the same rate. But that’s a different thing than being able to test the proposition “the basic component of reality is matter,” which is a philosophical proposition that is no more testable than the idea that it’s mind, or that all reality is a manifestation of God’s activity, or whatever. Those are philosophical proposition of one kind or another.

    But the key problem with your approach is that you define “truth” in terms of one branch of knowledge and say that anything that purports t be knowledge must conform to the standards of that branch. But that reasoning ultimately leads to the logical positivist problem of being able to do no more than grunt and point, if you want to be rigorously empiricist with regard to your knowledge claims.

    “True” belief, in any way that it may be defined, is precisely the point in dispute. Whether one account of reality (say a materialist one) is “true” vs. a religious or idealist one is not something that science (or religion) can establish. They are each hypotheses that can be well justified on their own terms. What CAN be said is that science is very good at doing what science is very good at doing, which doesn’t really tell us very much about the metaphysical grounds on the basis of which it does it.

  • Steve Wiggins

    I recommend Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty to answer this question. The power that is defeating education is the very top-heavy business model that most universities have adopted. It is clear that faculty no longer have much role in decision making in many schools. Of course, the situations I mention tend to take place at smaller schools that have less direct corporate modeling. Having sat through many trustee meetings, however, I do know that such interests are present even there.

  • Whiskyjack

    I’m with Hume: “A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.” I have not had any evidence of anything that does not ultimately resolve into matter or energy, so I suspend any belief in things that are outside that domain. Metaphysical propositions involving underlying causes outside our bounds of knowledge are, by definition, undecidable. Which returns to the only point I wished to make: that theology cannot claim to have any resemblance to science. More arguably, it cannot lay a legitimate claim to knowledge in the common sense of the term.

  • Scott Paeth

    There are a lot of very good things about Hume, but he was, after all, so thoroughly in favor of “proportioning belief to evidence” that he even denied the existence of his own self as a coherent entity, and even the very notion of cause and effect that is the basis of science. On a Humean basis, cause and effect are just a habit of perception, with no more empirical certainty than the existence of God. We’re just *used* to viewing the world that way. He’s not nearly the supporter of science that you might like. Once again, followed to its conclusion, you’re back in Logical Positivist grunting and pointing territory.

  • Jim Reed

    Acceptance despite lack of evidence is how religion is supposed to work, but sometimes it goes beyond that. Sometimes it has to be acceptance despite evidence to the contrary. That can require enhanced discussion techniques.

  • Jim Reed

    Those with the money want control of the education. We still have the internet. But maybe the next goal of money will be to get control over the internet too.

  • How is it “a tricky one”? The theory of evolution is the best theory we have in biology right now (and for a while). It is part of established science. To describe it as “doctrine”, as Danny does, indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. To claim that a theory is part of established science is *not* to claim that it cannot be overturned, but simply that it is the best theory we have now.

    Regardless, I suspect even Danny doesn’t reject the theory of evolution. If he accepts modern medicine — vaccines, antibiotics, and all the rest — then he accepts evolutionary biology by default. He’s just too ignorant to realize it.

    The notion, then, that accredited universities should accept students or professors who reject contemporary science is just foolishness masquerading as a kind of weird parity.

  • Steve Wiggins

    To me it seems tricky in that any discussion of the topic is immediately polarized into pro or con. Evolution, just like any other best theory (and I have no issues with evolution) has to remain open to discussion. When one side immediately shuts down another (what scientist would readily listen to a creationist?) it becomes difficult to carry on a legitimate discussion. That is the sense in which I mean this is a tricky topic. Universities should accept students who reject science since such students will be unlikely to have to confront the truth in any other venue. Faculty are an even trickier matter yet!