Communicating Compatibility in Christian Higher Education, Part 2
>Introduction by Darrel Falk
In Part 1 of this series, we focused on the challenge faced by the college biology professor. Today we explore one administration’s response to the challenge.
University presidents are responsible to a Board of Trustees, a body which, generally speaking, represents the Church. Presidents walk a very fine line and their very challenging task is to walk that line with great care. If they lean too far to the evolution side, concerned parents will send their son or daughter to another college. That’s a big deal: The loss of 100 students, for example, can translate into a revenue shortfall of perhaps $2,500,000. This, in turn, translates into jobs lost and programs curtailed. If the president leans too far to the other side, he or she runs the risk of losing the best faculty, and this will impact academic reputation.
The author of today’s post is Cornell University Philosophy professor, Andrew Chignell, who was a student at Wheaton College, which some like to think of as the Harvard of evangelicalism. Nowhere are the tensions greater, than they are at Wheaton. On the one hand, Wheaton College has kept true to its evangelical roots by refusing to give too much ground to the academic pressures to which other institutions have succumbed. On the other hand, Wheaton attracts some of America’s brightest and best evangelical professors— it would not be good to lose them.
Wheaton is celebrating its 150th anniversary and has just finished conducting its search for a new president. You will find Dr. Chignell’s summary below engaging. However, to get the whole story, follow the link he provides. His story was initially requested by Christianity Today’s Books and Culture. In the end, they wouldn’t publish it. Knowing that in itself makes for an interesting read.
Evolution and Faith, Part 2
“Whither Wheaton?” was published in January 2010. It was intended as a retrospective/prospective piece on the occasion of Wheaton College’s 150th anniversary and the appointment of its first new president in almost eighteen years.
The article was invited by Books and Culture as a cover story in the fall of 2009, but it was first postponed and then canceled by the CEO of Christianity Today International (which owns Books and Culture), and ultimately came out in the SoMA Review. (The story of its fate at Books and Culture can be found at www.whitherwheaton.org). Although the article focuses on a particular school at a particular juncture, the issues involved will be familiar to people who have worked or studied at religious institutions of higher education—especially those that require specific creedal commitments of faculty and students.
Wheaton is one of many religious colleges founded in the United States during the 19th century, though it is somewhat unusual in having never had a denominational connection. Many of these schools—most, perhaps—have shed their explicit doctrinal and ecclesial commitments over the last century (see George Marsden’s now-classic book The Soul of the American University for details). Thus a useful foil for Wheaton in this regard is Oberlin College, another Midwestern liberal arts college founded by an abolitionist who was a devout Christian (at Wheaton it was Jonathan Blanchard, at Oberlin it was the evangelist Charles Finney). In contrast to Oberlin, Wheaton stayed close to its core doctrinal commitments, in part by adopting a kind of “circle-the-wagons” approach to the (perceived) threats of scientific modernity during the first part of the 20th century.
Even where robust doctrinal commitments are required of people working at private academic institutions, there is still the question of how the doctrines are to be interpreted, and the extent to which statements of faith need to be accompanied by precise specifications of the details of the propositions involved. Wheaton’s outgoing president, Dr. Duane Litfin, has repeatedly insisted on providing just that sort of specificity regarding Wheaton’s creedal statements—on the origins of human life and the exclusive and inerrant authority of scripture, in particular. He and his administration have also not shied away from appealing to those specific interpretations of doctrines in the process of hiring and retaining faculty. This approach has resulted in some controversies over the last seventeen years.
“Whither Wheaton?” narrates a few of those controversies, but the main point is to argue for an administrative approach at places like Wheaton that would instead err on the side of hermeneutical charity when it comes to reasonable disagreements regarding doctrinal specifics. Adopting such an approach need not mean that anything goes, or that the slippery slope to Oberlin would be unavoidable (nor was it Marsden’s point to argue that it would). But it might allow a bit more space for the kinds of reasoned differences, charitable debates, and creative thinking that characterize truly healthy academic communities, religious or otherwise.
The article is relatively short, so I couldn’t go into details regarding, for example, the biblical status of theories of common descent (most readers of BioLogos will have far more expertise than I do on that issue, in any case). A relevant personal anecdote, however, is that my father—a biochemist who earned his Ph.D. under Nobel prizewinner Maurice Wilkins at King’s College, London—taught two different courses on origins at Wheaton for more than 20 years. He was one of several faculty who helped to formulate Wheaton’s most recent version of the statement of faith during the pre-Litfin years, and one of the members of the natural and social sciences division directly affected when Litfin arrived and required all of the faculty to accept his interpretation of the statement. That interpretation says that Adam and Eve were not only historical figures but also the result of a special divine intervention; it is thus inconsistent with common descent views. Since retiring from the college, my father continues to write and speak on these topics, and now affirms a common descent position without feeling that the latter constitutes any threat to his faith.
Another aspect of Wheaton’s situation that has broader significance concerns the political characteristics of current students and younger alumni. According to many of the students and faculty interviewed for the piece, students at Wheaton are now much less politically involved than their peers at secular institutions. This contrasts with earlier eras in which there was a vocal group of politically-active conservative students on the campus, as well as a rowdy minority of moderates and liberals (I experienced this first hand as one of the leaders of the ill-fated “Wheaton Students for Ross Perot” group during my freshman fall in 1992).
Amy Black, a professor of political science at Wheaton, is now doing some work in this area, and a full account will have to wait for the results of studies like hers. It has already been shown to most people’s satisfaction, however, that young evangelicals are not in general relaxing their adherence to various traditional doctrines (see for example James Penning and Corwin Smidt’s Evangelicalism: The Next Generation). At the same time, those who came of age during George W. Bush’s presidency do seem to be more wary than their elders of connecting theological orthodoxy with explicit political affiliation. It remains to be seen whether this is a brief period of political disaffection among young and well-educated evangelicals, or whether some more significant shift is taking place.
Andrew Chignell is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University where he specializes in Kant and early modern philosophy.