Dangers of Teaching Theology at Christian Colleges
The reason for my writing this post is that I recently learned that my successor, once removed, had resigned from his position about two years ago after teaching theology at the college for nearly fifteen years. The reason why he resigned is that he had come to the realization that he no longer believed in God. Yes, the school's former theology professor of nearly fifteen years ended up as an atheist. According to his own account, he wasn't fired nor was he asked to resign, which leads me to believe that he was able to teach in such a way that it fit the school's relatively conservative ethos. I was not able to do so. Thus, my teaching was dangerous to my job security, but for him it may have proven dangerous to his faith (I won't say soul).
My sense is that the differences between us are not only theological, but are rooted in the way we approach faith and theology. I have always looked at Christianity from a historical perspective. I've assumed that the faith that we have today developed over time. While I believe in critical thinking, I've never been enamored with overly rationalist or empiricist visions of faith. As for my successor, his theology, apparently, like much fundamentalism, is deeply shaped by modern rationalism. There has to be "proof" of one's faith affirmations, or they cannot be believed. In an interview with a former student (published 2 years ago) he describes his own vision of teaching, which in the end led to his abandonment of his faith:
My teaching career started with a militant commitment (not an exaggeration) to a fundamentalist/conservative interpretation of the Bible and to an informed Christian apologetic. I took the “always be ready to make a defense to everyone” (1 Pet. 3:15) exhortation quite seriously. At the time, I was sure that Christian “truth” relied on “divinely powerful [weapons] for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Cor. 10:4). I was completely confident that a divinely prepared apologist could destroy all “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5). At this point in my life, my goal was to demonstrate that the arguments against the Bible and the Christian worldview were without merit and that anyone spewing them was being used by the Devil for his evil purposes.Apparently when he discovered that his understanding of God didn't fit the "facts," his faith faltered and he completely left the faith. He suggests in his interview that his change of heart is rooted in his commitment to critical thinking theory. In the end, he became what he speaks of as a "rational empiricist." Seemingly overnight he went from theology professor to atheist. My sense is that many who grow up with a fundamentalist vision such as this, when doubt emerges it leads to an either/or perspective. There is no middle ground, no room to live with the questions.
While my departure from MCC was traumatic for me and the family -- after all I had spent years working toward this opportunity to teach church history and theology and I had finally attained the holy grail -- I never lost my faith. Again, that is probably because I'm not a rationalist empiricist. I do believe in critical thinking, but my engagement with Karl Barth, among others, allowed me to live within the tension that exists between an ancient faith and the modern world. I have my questions, of course, but I've never fallen into skepticism.
So, since my departure from MCC, during these nearly twenty years as a Disciples pastor, I have found my theological voice. Some would say I've gone liberal. Others might find me still a bit too conservative. Then again, I went and earned two degrees from a seminary that is considered too liberal for most evangelicals, and too conservative for many mainliners! What I would say is that, I'm comfortable in my theological shoes!
So, maybe teaching theology is dangerous to your faith, at least if you're going to be a rationalist empiricist. I don't celebrate my successor's change of heart and loss of position, twenty years after I lost my own position at the same school (though I do find it interesting that he could teach to the very end without any one questioning his teaching, when I constantly stepped into theological minefields during my brief tenure). I surely don't assign him to hell, as a result of his atheism. For one thing, even while I was teaching at MCC I was moving toward a form of universalism (at the time I embraced what some call annhilationiism). Besides, God is judge not me!
Ultimately, my ability to deal with the complexities of faith in God in a modern context, has been aided by my engagement with Barth. From him, I learned that would can embrace the biblical message without taking everything literally. I don't have to believe in a six thousand year old earth to affirm the promise of resurrection. The authority of scripture is found, not in its inerrancy, but in its witness to God's revelation in Jesus Christ (as I've noted in my little book on Barth and Biblical Authority. As for my successor. I pray for the best. I don't know if he'll return to the faith, but if he does, I expect it won't be on an empiricist or rationalist basis.