tenure: the right to keep a job (especially the job of being a professor at a college or university) for as long as you want to have it –Merriam-Webster
Tenure is the beautiful thing that allows professors to have a guaranteed position at a college or university for as long as they want it. It is a highly coveted achievement and one that is celebrated when it is received.
Part of the beauty behind this is that it gives teachers the ability to do their work with a sense of academic freedom. They wrestle with ideas for the betterment of their students. Because, after all, ideas have consequences.
Ideas shape our reality. Ideas can awaken us to new awareness. Ideas break down barriers.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you already know that ideas have consequences. There’s a good possibility that you, like me, have left the tradition you thought you would spend your life in. That you have been pushed out of community, ignored out of community, or passive-aggressively abused out of community. There was a line, determined by the social group you were a part of, and suddenly you were on the wrong side. You might have stuck a foot over the line for a while or tried to sit on the fence. But eventually, you simply became an exile, forsaken by tradition, or if you’re lucky, still “tolerated” to some extent, but still an outsider.
We were taught that crossing the line was bad. While our intent is often about finding space for discussion, sometimes the community we belong to interprets going over the line is a matter of good and evil. Understanding more of the world and bringing it into my understanding or stretching my worldview to include new ideas can be seen as an unacceptable compromise. Instead of having space to discuss and grow, maintaining the status quo becomes the highest priority.
One of my most memorable encounters with this type of boundary expansion was in my freshman english class. I had a professor that liked to use deconstructionism as a blunt instrument. He basically tried to rip away my understanding of how to interact with the Biblical text. It was a foundational battle that caused me to wrestle with my faith. Later I learned how important it was to go through this kind of challenge. (And, by the way, he was right about some things.) While I didn’t enjoy the tearing down while it was going on, it made me a better student, a more critical thinker, and a better Christian.
In response to his presentation of Job and Genesis, I could have called home to Mom and Dad and complained (which I did). I could have had them send a stern letter to the administration (they did not). But instead they encouraged me to buckle down, engage my professor in a meaningful conversation, and keep learning.
It was hard work. It challenged some of my core beliefs. And it was a significant moment for my growth as a student and a believer because I had to find a bigger answer than a simplistic, “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that’s good enough for me.”
During that time, another professor guided me through much of the tumult. Suggesting other sources, listening to me complain, and helping me through the mire. The input of teachers who cared about me, but sought to challenge me, formed me into the person I am today.
And so, it is with deep sadness, that I have watched yet another of these tremendous teachers be removed the from influence of students. Tom Oord is an example of a teacher both working to build students minds and their hearts. He encourages them to think outside the box, to engage in dialogue, and to grow into more developed people. He has also been working to help his church denomination navigate into the new millenium, and grow their collective understanding of the faith.He walks with students through the changes that are happening not only in their educational growth, but also in a changing culture. While I never have had the privilege of being in one of his classes, the people I have encountered that were his students are a true testament to the work he has done. They are intelligent, engaged, thinking individuals with hearts turned toward God and a love for the world that needs redemption.
But, it appears that influence is being cut off. Tom has been accused of walking too close to the line, even though he passed a two-on-one doctrinal examination with the leading theologians in his tradition. He has worked hard to expand the influence of his tradition into a wider theological discussion, but it seems that may have been too far. And so, instead of leaning into the promise of academic freedom and formation, Tom has found himself without a job.
When relational paradigms are exchanged for absolute power and doctrinal purity for fear of divine transformation, then the journey of faith has ended. When growth and progress are met with suspicion and fear, when discussion and interaction is cut off, the attributes of a living being – whether a person, a congregation, a college, or a denomination – die. When the door to dialogue is shut, we all suffer.
I would venture to say that this is more than just a dialogue problem. As we have lost the ability to dialogue, we have also lost the ability to have productive conflict. In many closed environments, conflict is not allowed and is always seen as a bad thing. But in actuality, conflict is inevitable. Healthy bodies of people find ways to have healthy conflict. When we separate ideas from people, rejecting an idea but not making the person bad for having it (whether we’re talking about faith, designing software, or running a company) we respect the inherent image of God we each carry even if we disagree about how to proceed.
Unfortunately, many of us have left the conflict zone feeling useless and rejected. We have been treated like a virus to be eliminated, not a catalyst for greater community and understanding. There are lots of places we see this behavior – political parties, religious fundamentalism, and the growing acceptance of narcissistic behaviors. The message is, if you don’t agree, get out.
But the story doesn’t need to end there, inspite of how it feels sometimes. For those of us in exile, I think we have a great opportunity in the face of this kind of response. We have the chance to use our experiences to allow us to create a robust innerfaith dialogue that creates a tradition of discourse as part of being a faithful believer. This may include dialoguing with the tradition we came from or just dialoguing with those outside who are ready to have the discussion.
By keeping the back channels open, but also by having discussions out in the open, we can learn to disagree while working together. We can pick up the hurting and bruised and offer them a space where their questions are welcome. We already do much of this. But by working to do this specifically, we can give people a place to land when ideas have consequences we didn’t expect.