Yesterday Pete Enns wrote a very astute post on the sorry state of evangelical biblical scholarship, or perhaps even more specifically, the problem with how evangelical scholars who “know better” are forced to teach their undergraduates and seminary students by “the system.” Without even having much direct experience with this phenomena, I absolutely believe it’s as big a problem as he implies.
At Fuller I would say we didn’t struggle with this in quite the same way because professors were expected not to be inerrantists, and I think this makes the biggest difference. At the same time, I do think certain issues were sometimes approached more “softly” because of the wide variety of student viewpoints present in the classroom. This has advantages and disadvantages: On the one hand, it maybe allows some students to maintain views that just really don’t “work” when confronted with scholarly realities. On the other hand, it allows students to gradually warm up to new ideas instead of flipping out and shutting off their brains the instant they hear something that contradicts what they learned in Sunday School. In fact, Jeremiah has noted this “There are lots of views; here you can explore them but won’t be pushed into them!” approach made it a million times easier for his theology to develop at seminary.
Of course an easy way to perhaps get the best of both worlds here—classes that don’t tip-toe around important issues and yet don’t overwhelm students—might be achieved by a real “degree plan” which ensures students take certain classes in roughly the same order. This would mean professors would know from the get-go what students did and did not know and be able to introduce certain ideas more gently. It would also mean that when I was finishing up my MAT I wouldn’t have had to spend twenty minutes bored in class listening to another student try to sound clever and innovative by suggesting that we could abandon inerrancy—which might have been a rather inspiring speech had it not been for his obvious desire to impress the professor and the fact that I had worked through this issue a full two years earlier. But I digress…
The point is, if it can be tricky for Fuller professors to sometimes know how to introduce certain topics without frightening students (who often come to Fuller a bit more conservative and leave a bit more moderate), then most certainly there is a much more intense pressure on professors at more conservative evangelical institutions. Not only are there bound to be more extreme student reactions at such schools, but there is more pressure from the board, more pressure from administrators, more pressure from donors, more pressure from peers… Not to mention the fact that every year you have to re-sign a doctrinal statement which typically gets into a lot of stuff Fuller’s doesn’t touch. And what if one day you decide you don’t want to use the word “inerrancy” anymore or don’t want to make a literal six-day creation the cornerstone of your faith or have begun reading Revelation as an amillenial preterist—what then?
As Enns points out, it has to be particularly heart-wrenching to come back to the school that trained you (or a very similar institution) and realize that you no longer are a “good fit.” It was this place that first nurtured your passion for your field and encouraged you to continue your education. And yet when you return with your PhD, they want the old, sheltered you rather than the diligent and truthful scholar you feel called to be.
Interestingly, I have similar questions and fears about how I would today be received by InterVarsity, the campus ministry organization I planned on working with after college until I decided to go to seminary instead. In college, InterVarsity affirmed me as a female leader, encouraged my passion for social justice, and gave me a great deal of freedom on issues such as inerrancy (on which I was then not entirely decided but never very committed either). More than ever before, I felt supported to pursue a thoughtful faith by reading good books, considering the contexts of various biblical passages, and hearing from a wide variety of perspectives. Yet even with all of this good—which shaped me in significant ways and prepared me for my education at Fuller—I am not certain that they would really want the person they would get back today. I could still sign their doctrinal statement, but I still wonder if I would be told I’m not a “good fit” for IV staff anymore. Sadly, I probably won’t get to find out unless I go through the trouble of the thirty-page application and the interview process (something I was going to do last year until I found out there was no space for me anyway and they really wanted more than the two-year commitment to one campus that I could give them). And call me silly, but it sometimes really bothers me to not even know if IV staff might be an option in my future. After all InterVarsity has meant to me, I think it would be nice to know whether that door is still open or whether I need to move on.
It is a strange and somewhat tragic thing for a spiritual “home” of sorts to cease to be a welcoming place or to feel compelled to hide your theological development for fear of rocking the boat. I suspect that the reason why many professors end up in such a position is that they don’t know where else to go. Indeed, the more moderate you become, I think the lonelier things get. I sometimes wonder if postliberals feel as isolated as postconservatives. In any case, I often wish I were a Duke Div student so that I could explore this “other side” of moderate Christianity and maybe discover ways we could bridge the evangelical/mainline gap so as to create a larger middle ground for everyone.