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What should I post about my friend’s (whom I’m calling here “Speakerguy”) invited series of lectures at the evangelical Christian college where I’m on the faculty? Why have so many here reacted with shock, anger, or offense? Why are members of the religion faculty throwing around words like “heresy,” “cult leader,” and “unorthodox?”

This is a guy who has devoted his life to calling Christians of privilege to reorder their lives toward working for social justice and solidarity with the poor. This is a message that resonates around here. It’s one of the reasons I like working here: for all of our inconsistency and hypocrisy, we still take these ideas seriously. What went wrong?

jesus dinoThe problem as I see it is theology. Speakerguy’s final evening lecture touched on a challenging and surprising theological idea, prompting further questions from students in the follow-up Q&A. Then everyone went crazy. A few walked out. Students clustered together around the auditorium afterward, confused and angry. Our New Testament prof’s head looked like it might burst like an over-ripe tomato. My teaching assistant, who loved Speakerguy and made a big deal over our history and friendship, texted me from her phone: “Too bad about your doomed tenure review. It was nice knowing you!”

The dismissive accusations I’ve heard the last 2 days of “classical liberalism” and “old social gospel dressed with new arrogance” sound absurd to me. This is a man who wrapped up his lecture by declaring allegiance to and inviting worship for the resurrected Christ, God incarnate, savior of humanity from our sins. This covers a minimum of 2 or 3 creedal affirmations that would make a classical liberal choke.

I think what it really comes down to are four boundary-crossing theological opinions. They are not tightly held by my friend, and he never once invited anyone to abandon any theology of their own to accept his. As far as I can tell, in the eyes of many in my community, he simply believes “wrong” about the following 4 areas:

The Bible

  • clip bible Speakerguy said that all Christians find the God they are looking for in scripture. Whomever expects to find a vengeful, capricious, bloodthirsty God will find scriptural passages that describe this God. Anyone who needs a non-violent, all loving, perfectly forgiving God will find that God in the same book. He says most people simply ignore the parts of the Bible that contradict the God they want. He included himself, and didn’t seem bothered by this.

Sovereignty

  • clip hand string He said the idea that God controls everything that happens in the world is observably false. It’s obvious to him that all kinds of things happen all the time which are in direct opposition to what God wants to happen. And he went on to say that the reason God doesn’t stop these horrible things from happening is because God can’t. God’s love for everyone prevents God from forcing them to make different choices.

Hell

  • 1hell-thumb.jpg Speakerguy thinks there’s a Hell. He thinks he’s seen glimpses of it in the neighborhoods where he ministers to the sick and abused people of society. But he thinks one day Hell will be empty, that God’s love will never stop trying to save everyone, everywhere, living or dead, no matter what. He says the kind of God who would turn his back on people in Hell is not a God who deserves his worship.

“The Gays” (TM)

  • clip men Speakerguy says to stop obsessing about homosexuals, to just give up these unimportant battles. Homosexual people can’t live whole lives if they’re required to cut off all hope of connecting with a lifelong, loving relationship. Speakerguy says he would bless the marriage of a gay couple without a moment’s hesitation.

Provocative? Oh yes. Challenging and flamboyantly stated? For sure. But heresy? Outside the bounds of creedal Christianity? Give me a break.

This kerfuffle speaks directly to my earlier posts about what theology is for. When did we elevate believing the right theological propositions so far above the work of following Christ? We’re saved by faith through Christ, not by our theology. The evangelical obsession with narrow theological boundaries to the exclusion of people transformed by the saving grace of God expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (this describes Speakerguy perfectly) has really got me down today.

Not just because Speakerguy is my friend. He spends his days facing down drug dealers and working with kids in some of the worst situations a human being can experience. An indignant, judgmental college professor is not going to leave any marks on him.

Rather, I’m frustrated and discouraged because I live and work here. The people at this school are my friends and colleagues. And although I disagree with some of what my friend argued here this week, I don’t disagree with very much of it. Naturally, this worries me.


Picture by The Searcher via flickr

This week a guest lecturer is coming to my campus to speak about Christian mission. I work at a small private Christian liberal arts college in the Northeast, and I think this guy plans on talking about things I’d expect the students around here to be into: social justice and serving the poor. I know this because the “speaker-guy” (as I used to call him) is a friend of mine. I rented a room from and hung out with him and his family years ago before I was married.

hwje 4

I’m a little anxious. He’s been speaking publicly in recent months about ideas he’s previously kept to himself. Stuff about biblical interpretation, judgment and eternal damnation, gay people. In fact it’s a lot of the things I hear discussed by emerging Christians (and the traditionalists who loathe their theology).

But maybe it won’t be so bad. The students (and faculty and staff) at my college are pretty good examples of people without a 100% buy-in to the comfortable cultural system that rationalizes the hoarding of wealth at the expense of others. A lot of the students coming through my classes plan post-graduation lives of service. It will take many of them a long, long time to pay off their college debts because they will be working for development organizations that don’t pay jack (at least in dollars).

All of this is central to my friend’s typical message. Other Christian colleges that have been canceling his speaking engagements, even asking him to leave early in one case, probably don’t have the commitment to radical service to the poor that Speakerguy calls for in his sermons and lectures.

I mean, I hope not anyway.

In my previous post, I tried to explain the anxiety and restlessness I sometimes feel working at an evangelical Christian college. It’s frustrating to me that people around here judge me based on my theological beliefs. What they are usually saying is that they think I’m not really a Christian, and therefore some kind of threat to the cohesion of this Christian community.

Next month a friend of mine is coming to speak on my campus who has been drawing controversy lately by publicly espousing theological beliefs that identify him as outside the boundaries of what many of the colleges he speaks at find acceptable for Christians.

I was telling this to a colleague at lunch this week, and he responded by saying that the word “orthodoxy” means “right belief,” and Christians have been protecting the faith by making judgments about one another’s theological beliefs for two thousand years. He said “If your friend finds it too hard to believe the right things, maybe he’s in the wrong religion. Being a Christian is easier than that.”

Obviously, I took this personally, because I’m assuming my colleague would say the same thing about me if he knew that I hold a theology that probably fails parts of his litmus test for believing the right things.

I don’t care how easy people say it should be for me to follow Christ; in my personal experience I find it very hard! I struggle with weak faith, confusion about the Trinity, laziness and bad character, the existence of evil, injustice and suffering. I work out my theological conclusions in response to these struggles, so that I can remain faithful. If I believed some of what people tell me I should believe about (theology buzzword alert:) soteriology, eschatology, divine ontology, etc., I wouldn’t be able to stay a Christian at all!

I’ve found tremendous hope and help in the Mennonite church. Fellow Mennos care about and frequently ask me about my mission. “Following Christ and building the Kingdom of God!” is my usual answer. They ask me what I need in order to do that. There are many things I need: discipline, humility, meditation, good advice, submission to God’s will, community support, and more. And also I believe theological ideas that people judge me for.

Parts of my theology is awkward, and unpopular, maybe even incorrect or incomplete. But what those beliefs do is help me be a better, more faithful Christian.

This is “what theology is for” in my life. It’s to help me understand and follow and serve and submit to the will of Jesus. Not to draw boundary markers for club membership. I care very little for the theological opinions in the heads of most of the people I work with at my college. I simply care if they are healthy and at peace following Christ and building the Kingdom.

I wish I had more of a sense that people around here could look at me that way if they knew all that I believe.

I take comfort in the confidence that the Mennonites will let me stay in their group if ever the college I work for tells me to leave. I’m still working out what this means in the long term.

One thing about myself I left out of the previous post:

I’m a faculty member in the communication department of a Christian college.

Here’s what this means:

“faculty member”
I have a restless mind. I can’t stop thinking about things and talking about them. Sometimes I over-think things. Even more often I over-talk things. My job is exciting, exhausting, extravagantly privileged, filled with interesting and engaging colleagues and frustrating bureaucracy.

“communication department”
I am obsessed with human interaction. I love it. I keep wanting to write and talk about stuff. I love conversation and dialog, even when people don’t agree. But I hate fighting. Fighting is the opposite of communicating.

“Christian college”
This is the tough part. I’m a serious Christian. I’m really into it. I mean: JESUS! Right?!

So when I became a college professor, I thought it would be awesome to profess at a Christian college. And it is awesome. But it’s also discouraging and frustrating. I understand faith in some different ways from many (probably most) of my colleagues and administrators, because everyone else here seems to be coming from similar traditional evangelical perspectives. That’s not my perspective.

So I often don’t speak honestly about what I really believe. And when I do speak up, it more often than not brings a depressing barrage of criticism and bad feeling. A person trying to love Jesus can be called a heretic only so many times before he starts feeling very bad.

I worry about how I will be seen by members of my religious community. I worry my family will be rejected. I worry about promotion and tenure. If you don’t know what “promotion and tenure” means, you’re lucky!

I expect I’ll be writing about these worries pretty often if I keep up this blog.