Is Christian Higher Education Dead?

Gone from Wheaton College is Larycia Hawkins, The New York Times reports. This is a controversial decision. A sad one, too.

And the decision has stirred up a wasp's nest of blogoversy. I just read J. R. Daniel Kirk's angry post about Wheaton College's dismissal of Larycia Hawkins.

I am appalled -- but not for the reasons you may think.

I am appalled by how indiscriminately Mr. Kirk generalized his claim that Christian Higher Education is dead. My spouse, Priscilla Pope-Levison, and I shared a position at Seattle Pacific University for fifteen years. That's thirty years between us. So I have some perspective on this whole Christian Higher Education thing. And I just don't think Kirk is right, when he claims:

Even that self-proclaimed "Harvard of Christian schools" has trumped theological intelligence for fundamentalist fear. There is no one else to point to. Each school must point to itself and show that evolution, and critical biblical scholarship, and measured assessments of the world's religions are part of the warp and woof of the academic curriculum.

I welcome any school to give it a shot.

In the mean time, we've seen enough to know. You can't be a scholar with any sort of academic integrity and survive at an Evangelical school. So head to the State U or a mainline seminary to ensure that what you're paying for is actually an education.

In our thirty years, Seattle Pacific University went through seismic changes. (In fact, while the dean was writing up our contract in 2001, he stopped and wrote to us, "Gotta stop. Earthquake.) For example, the LGBTQ community, called Haven, struggled and strove for acceptance as a club. Repeatedly, the administration -- white, male administrators -- stalled and equivocated. Time and again.

Still, Priscilla, many faculty and staff, lots of students, their advisor Kevin Neuhouser, and I stood with them. Priscilla, a United Methodist minister, celebrated the eucharist right under the provost's nose two weeks after he had forbidden it. Priscilla and I helped leaders of Haven pen a letter to the administration. A strong group of faculty took out an ad in the school paper.

And we lost -- for a while. I lost some privileges I once had. We lost nights' sleep. We lost camaraderie with the administration -- and with some faculty colleagues.

But we never lost a paycheck.

And we never lost a job.

And a new administration -- with a white, male president -- saw the value in Haven and gave them club status.

Not all evangelical schools are the same. Not all are Wheaton College. Not all want to be Wheaton College. It is just not right to say that Christian higher education is dead because Wheaton College has done something unpalatable.

Nor is Kirk right to say that "you can't be a scholar with any sort of academic integrity and survive at an Evangelical school." Many of my colleagues at SPU were fine scholars--in physics, in biology, in health sciences, in psychology, in business, in history, and, yes, in theology. Many of them are excellent scholars, exceptional people, outstanding teachers.

Now I realize pleasant blogs don't get much traction. Noted Christian blogger Scot McKnight once mentioned the "anger hormone" to me that gets everyone riled up -- with lots of Facebooking and tweeting for a few days. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek Huffington Post piece like that, titled, "A Tirade for the Trendy Church," and was staggered by the virulence of reactions to it. So I understand the rhetorical impact of overstating the case. (I'm Italian, too, a New Yorker to boot, and no one has ever accused me of understatement.)

But this time Kirk is just plain wrong. Christian higher education is not dead.
How do I now? Because I value the colleagues I left behind there?

Well, yes, but only partly.

I know because, the day of a shooting at Seattle Pacific University, in June of 2014, I sat with students on a grassy quad known as The Loop and was stunned by their capacity to sit in ambiguity and silence. The maturity of their faith at that moment astonished me. When the religion editor at Huffington Post asked me to write "something redemptive," I found, somehow, that I actually could. You'll find the reason why Christian higher education isn't dead right here, in my reflections on the day of the shooting.

I know, too, because, six months after the shooting, SPU threw off the fear of outsiders that rankles our nation -- and campuses -- even now. While state universities in Texas are forced to permit the carrying of concealed weapons on campus, for fear of shootings, SPU went ahead with plans to host Tent City, a homeless community, right in that same quad, The Loop, where we had sat in ambiguity six months earlier. I wrote about that too. Why did SPU go ahead with this? Because justice is in its DNA. A Christian commitment to justice.