Immature donors keep institutions immature

I linked to this earlier, but since Peter Enns has now posted a follow-up, let me share a bigger chunk from his post “‘If They Only Knew What I Thought’: The Sad Cycle of Evangelical Biblical Scholarship“:

Just two weeks ago I had the latest in my list of long conversations with a well-known, published, respected biblical scholar, who is under inhuman stress trying to negotiate the line between institutional expectations and academic integrity. His gifts are being squandered. He is questioning his vocation. His family is suffering. He does not know where to turn.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not.

I wish these stories could be told, but without the names attached, they are worthless. I wish I had kept a list, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have done anyone much good. I couldn’t have used it. Good people would lose their jobs.

Enns describes the “sad cycle” that begins bright young evangelicals are encouraged to pursue their education. Evangelicals love the idea of scholarship — just so long as all that learning doesn’t result in them learning anything new. The young scholars return, full of what they have learned, and that brings trouble:

Once they start teaching, they bring with them the excitement of learning new things, some synthesis of old and new for their students, because they feel such conversations are necessary for intellectual and spiritual health.

But Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening – or perhaps from getting out of hand. Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same  intellectual and spiritual path. A strong response is inevitable.

This leaves these scholars to ponder how to engage that conversation with their students carefully but with integrity – which is to consign themselves to a life of cognitive dissonance. Either that or they bury their academic and spiritual instincts for fear of losing their jobs.

Enns follows up with a guest-post from biblical scholar Andrew Knapp — someone who started out as one of those bright young evangelical scholars, but wasn’t allowed to remain one. Knapp, like Enns, has heard too many stories not to see the pattern:

I am now familiar with at least a dozen situations where Bible professors at Christian colleges and universities have been fired, or in some way forced out of their position, for the content of their teaching. I have known several of these professors personally; all of them are devout people of faith who dedicated their lives to teaching the Bible because they want to better understand and to help others better understand the word of God.

In every instance, one of the primary accusations against them as they stood trial at their institution was that they caused in several students a “crisis of faith.” Which leads me to ask: why is this a problem?

It seems reasonable, even inevitable, that 18-year-olds leaving home to educate themselves will encounter new ideas that challenge their preexisting beliefs and compel a reevaluation of the evidence. Young men and women who take their faith seriously and are honest with themselves will recognize that some of their beliefs are not tenable — they do not need to be defended with better arguments but modified or even discarded entirely.

This can be difficult — we do not like to part ways with cherished ideas upon which we have built a worldview. But this is why students get educated. And this is why students have crises of faith.

… Many young people have an immature faith. Schools do not do them a service by helping them embrace this faith via dubious apologetics. Examination should always precede entrenchment.

Knapp goes on to discuss the responsibility professors and teachers have toward students — helping them to test everything and to hold on to the good, building a sustainable faith on a sustainable foundation. Knapp seems wise and kind, and I think his post offers good advice to professors at institutions that permit such openness and exploration.

One reason that “examination” is not permitted to “precede entrenchment” at many institutions is because donors are, themselves, clinging white-knuckled to an immature faith via dubious apologetics. This is a precarious situation that’s tolerable only for so long as those donors are able to silence voices that would force them to hear the questions and challenges they’re working so hard not to hear. Silencing such questions thus tends to be, for them, a condition of their generosity.

Amy Laura Hall has some pointed advice about Christian institutions and one particular such immature, insecure and conditional donor: “Boycott, Eschew, Avoid … Just. Say. No.”

I hope that a few readers will find themselves reassured that they are not crazy for thinking that this game, this dance, this ritual of money-getting or losing is messed up.  We are not just bitter losers or gloating gainers for noting that something happens to the very definition of collegiality when a crucial sector (or two) in the Western academy is defined by one single, large, confusing foundation.  The ramifications for Christian scholarship may be less immediately obvious for theologians, perhaps, than for engineers in the field of mechanical engineering, which is dictated by funding from the massive defense industry.  But, as a Christian that takes my faith very seriously, I would submit that defining “religion” as a field is as loaded for the misuse of power as making bombs.  Christian scholars should jealously guard our capacity to think faithfully.  We should insist on working with our unhampered imaginations engaged, dancing forward, inquisitively, rather than backward, with one eye toward whether we are impressing our donor.  Our intellectual lives should prompt our students well to explore their own crucial, unique questions about what it means to be Christian and to think faithfully in this glorious, scary, intricate world.

I appreciate that many institutions depend on the generous support provided by Templeton’s gazillions and on donations from many other, similar, conditional donors. But it’s not really “support” is it? Those contributions aren’t meant to support the institution. They’re meant to change the institution into something they can rely on to support them.

This is not all hypothetical. Like Enns and Knapp, I know of countless stories that can’t be told explicitly for fear of getting good people fired. That’s not how it ought to be.


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