How narrowly should a Christian college set the parameters for theological fidelity for its faculty? While this question is one that often concerns many conservative evangelical schools, a current situation is again raising the question publicly.
Wheaton College has begun a process to fire a tenured associate professor of political science, Larycia Hawkins, for asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The college points to fundamental differences in how the two religions understand God. This is also not the first time Hawkins has had to defend her theological positions. The provost criticized an earlier paper on black liberation theology as an endorsement of Marxism.
Most conservative Christian colleges have some form of a statement of faith that the schools expect faculty to affirm. Certainly, these independent colleges are well within their right to define the boundaries of their identities and missions.
But having taught at two conservative Christian colleges, I wonder at what cost these rigid boundaries of belief are maintained. What is lost when theological dissent is not accepted or even welcomed?
I empathize with Hawkins. When I taught religion at the two colleges, I often faced questions from administrators, pastors and parents about my own theological beliefs. I was much less bothered by students' questions and resistance -- after all, that's what students are supposed to do.
I got in the most trouble for suggesting that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible (known as the Pentateuch), a fairly common stance in biblical scholarship but one that meets fervent opposition from fundamentalist Christians. I was told my Christology was not "high enough" for challenging the equation that Jesus = God. My faith was suspect because I supported the ordination of women, gay rights and reproductive justice -- as a Christian.
But I never imposed my beliefs on my students. I asked them to think for themselves. I asked them to develop a critical lens, to hear all sides of an argument, and to be open to changing their minds. I told them about the core Baptist belief in soul competency, the ability of each individual to deal directly with God without need for a mediator, and Baptist faith in the individual conscience before God.
I left both schools before I reached the point where Larycia Hawkins finds herself, but, before I did, I spent a lot of time in the offices of presidents, provosts, deans and department chairs defending myself, not for teaching students they had to believe any one thing in particular, but for teaching them to ask hard questions of the belief system that had been handed to them.
I am not the only one who left or was asked to leave these institutions because of theological differences. Each institution developed ever more narrow definitions of theological faithfulness and asked faculty members to affirm those definitions. In an ironic twist, I find much more welcome for my theological questions at Oregon State University, where I've been on the faculty now for 20 years, than I ever did at the Christian colleges where I taught.
As people who push at the boundaries of rigidly defined belief systems are driven out of Christian colleges, I find myself wondering what kind of theological education is left. Is it one that only repeats settled belief so that students end up simply as receptacles for predetermined ideas? What happens when students are only exposed to a narrow range of possibility and are not taught to think critically about belief systems?
I am now a member of the United Church of Christ whose slogan is "God is still speaking." I wonder if when the boundaries are narrowly drawn these institutions leave any room for God to speak still. Without voices of dissent, without the faculty who ask hard questions and push at the edges, where can God do a new thing, speak in a new way, reveal new ideas? Perhaps in their quest to protect a narrow version of truth, these institutions lose out on many truths that come through many voices.
Certainly any institution of higher education has to ask the question of how big the tent can be and still maintain fidelity to institutional mission. But if the mission for Christian colleges is somehow to produce more faithful Christians, perhaps these institutions should reexamine the role of dissent in building Christian faith. Faith that is threatened by hard questions and differing opinions seems to me not to be faith at all but rather a rigid system of belief that can abide no challenge and makes no room for the God who is still speaking.