The Christian College and the Crisis of Faith–and why that might be a good thing

The Christian College and the Crisis of Faith–and why that might be a good thing October 14, 2013

Today’s post is by Andrew KnappKnapp holds a Ph.D. (2012) in Hebrew Bible from the Johns Hopkins University. He has recently taught courses on the Bible and theology at Loyola University Maryland, Notre Dame of Maryland University, and Hood College. He specializes in the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible within its historical context, and has published most recently on the genre of the David narrative in light of ancient Near Eastern analogues. He currently serves as acquisitions editor for Eisenbrauns, a publisher in the ancient Near East and biblical studies. He lives in Indiana with his wife, Kandace, and daughter, Evangeline, with a second child coming any day now. 

Originally, Knapp emailed me these thoughts provoked by my post on a similar themeAs a father of three 20-somethings and a Christian college professor myself, I resonated with Knapp’s experiences, and I thought what he had to say would be helpful to many of you. I asked his permission to post it and he graciously gave it. 

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 Christian colleges include something in their mission statement about seeking to strengthen their students’ faith. Although I appreciate the sentiment behind this, I fear it can have bad effects. 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.

Allow me to offer myself as an example. I was raised as a good sola scriptura evangelical; during my youth I read Scripture constantly. (According to my father, my first crisis of faith came at the age of seven, when I discovered that I wasn’t a Jew, as Jesus was. However, I resolved this crisis later, on my own, when I read Romans 10:12: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile; the same Lord is Lord of all and generously blesses all who call on him.”)

I believed that since the Bible was the word of God to humanity, there was nothing more important to devote myself to. So when I arrived at Seattle Pacific University—a Methodist institution—I eagerly enrolled in a variety of Bible classes. Here I encountered historical criticism and my paradigm shift began.

Careful study of God’s word did not affirm my beliefs about the sacred text; it undermined them. I could not reconcile what I discovered about the biblical text with my assumptions about the nature of Scripture. My faith and my intellect no longer cohered, and I found the latter more compelling.

Like so many others from an evangelical background who hear the siren song of critical biblical study, I experienced the dreaded crisis of faith.

But my story does not end there. The Bible faculty at Seattle Pacific encouraged my questioning. They did not attempt to indoctrinate me. Instead, they shared how they answered the questions that I struggled with. Most importantly, they provided examples of god-fearing men and women who took both faith and scholarship seriously. And I have no doubt that all this helped me remain a believer today.

I consider myself blessed that all of this occurred at Seattle Pacific, an institution where a crisis of faith is not something to be avoided at all costs. I am not bitter with my Bible teachers for provoking a crisis of faith; I am grateful to them for helping me through it.

This is why I am crushed whenever I hear that an institution has invoked the fact that “Bible Professor X caused some students to have faith crises” as grounds for dismissal. This is what good Bible teachers do!

What if we extended this to other disciplines—if physicists had to fear for their jobs whenever they caused students to understand nature in a new way, or if philosophers came under fire whenever they encouraged students to question reality in a new way?

Wanting to spare students from having faith crises implies that the students arrive at university with a perfect understanding of the nature of the Bible, in which case, we do not need to teach Bible classes at all.

I’m now a decade and a few Bible degrees removed from my crisis of faith, and I have had the opportunity to experience things from the other side, teaching Bible at various colleges, both confessional and non-confessional. I try to challenge my students, encouraging them to read Scripture with a fresh set of eyes and refusing to accept simplistic explanations of complex issues.

I do not try to provoke crises of faith, but neither do I shy away when I see them coming. In one of my first semesters of teaching, during a discussion of the historical contexts of certain Old Testament prophecies that the gospel writers applied to Jesus, I saw one of my students visibly struggling. I eventually asked her if everything was okay and she replied, “I feel like I have been lied to my whole life.”

I understood her struggle all too well, and I sympathized. (Moreover, I acknowledged my responsibility, and though I do not consider myself a fundamentalist, James 3:1 makes me nervous.) But at the same time, I was pleased to see her grasp the material and appreciate its implications for her faith. I felt like I was succeeding at my task of teaching the Bible.

Of course, at that point I had only done half my job. Far more gratifying was helping her pour a new foundation for faith, based upon a more sophisticated understanding of God’s word.

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