Dangers of Teaching Theology at Christian Colleges

I didn't know how to title this posting, so hopefully no one is expecting something about being attacked with a knife or something. I was once a theology professor at a Christian College, and am no longer a Theology professor!  It was twenty years ago this summer that I was asked to resign from my position as Associate Professor of Theology at Manhattan Christian College (Kansas). The reason for my resignation is that some in the college's constituency thought I was teaching liberal theology and so they demanded that I be fired. The ax fell shortly after I signed the contract for the year. I can say this, the college honored that contract, paying me not to teach for a year. I didn't want to resign at the time, because I enjoyed teaching and had good relationships with most faculty and a goodly number of students, and even though I was on the left end of the school theologically, I didn't think I was that far afield. But, alas, the die was cast, and my journey took me from academia to the church. The reason why I'm writing this reflection isn't because I want to come back to haunt my former employer. What transpired then, transpired. So, my reason for writing this "anniversary post" (I do find it difficult to imagine that it's been 20 years since my inglorious departure) will become clear momentarily.

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.


Eddie Elliston said…
As an alum of MCC, a couple more degrees and "certificates" I can/do affirm my conviction in the authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. I have seen the Lord answer my prayers in some amazing ways. When lost in a storm in a plane with navigational aids not working, I prayed and then gave the pilot specific directions and we landed safely. While being caught in three tornados (one in Manhattan), we prayed that no one in our neighborhood would be harmed even though 50 out of 100 mobile homes were rolled or exploded and no one was harmed. I have seen people who were demonized and speaking a language they had never learned, but one I knew delivered. I have been in a car which was being washed down a river and then able to drive it out of the river. I have seen the sick and ones in pain healed after prayer.... My theological education began in a formal way at MBC/MCC under James Carr. When I shared with him what I had seen, his horizon was broadened. This week we prayed for a friend and her car. Tonight she reported an amazing answer to that prayer. I have seen Him do much more than I could imagine (Eph 3:20). Having supervised doctoral students from more than 80 countries and now seeing what they are doing is truly amazing, e.g., an Egyptian teaching in a Muslim university in Indonesia baptizing Muslims who fly to Indonesia from Saudi Arabia to be baptized, four or five generations of churches being planted in Ethiopia and Kenya where we saw God at work.... My faith journey has taken me through three state universities and two Christian institutions to study and then through other institutions to teach and administer. We often face difficult questions, but God is able to work now as we have faith in Him.

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