Is Christian Higher Education Dead? The Debate Continues

Is Christian Higher Education Dead? The Debate Continues February 13, 2016

Last week, I read a post by Daniel Kirk. It (k)irked me. So I wrote a response in the Huffington Post, titled, Is Christian Higher Education Dead? Daniel and I have agreed to continue talking. If you are interested in thinking about whether Christian higher education is dead, or mortally wounded, or what not, then read those two posts—and join in. Happy to have you.

I’ve got 9 points–7 of disagreement, 1 of agreement, 1 conciliatory–with Daniel’s new post, which you can read here.

One disclaimer. Though I taught for 4 years at North Park College and for 15 years at Seattle Pacific University, both times alongside my spouse, Priscilla Pope-Levison, I recently moved to Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University—a very different sort of institution. Still, what I write here I would have written at North Park or Seattle Pacific.

Let’s take Daniel’s points in turn. I’ll quote him and respond. (Of course, if you’re smart, you’ll skip his quotes and read only what I write. Yes, kidding.)


Point number 1:

Daniel writes:

The opening salvo of Levison’s article lays bare for me the core difference in posture between those who see Christian higher ed as dead (or at least mortally wounded) and those who see it as perhaps flawed but generally a place where flourishing is possible. That posture is this: whether we fundamentally side with people who are in power in the exercise of that power and take umbrage at people who stand as outliers and prophets or whether we have a basic posture of siding with the prophets who raise their voices from the margins.

I am not going to let Daniel Kirk bait me into a debate about the merits of Dr. Hawkins’ case. I simply do not know. I can imagine, to my chagrin, that powerful, wealthy board members complained and that anxious parents protested—and that Wheaton’s administrators sided with them. So with respect to what I imagine happened, I agree with Daniel. (But I agree only with respect to Wheaton College–not his characterization of all Christian colleges.) That approach to a faculty member would be, as a friend put it, sickening. Still, I don’t know. How can I take sides on an issue about which I am uninformed?

So Daniel Kirk has set the terms of the discussion in the wrong way. He tells me I’m either a sycophant or a hero, a bootlicker or a brave new faculty member. Crazy, huh? And I didn’t side with anyone. My sole point was that the situation at Wheaton College—and Daniel’s referendum that Christian higher education is dead—does not characterize institutions such as Seattle Pacific University.


Point number 2:

Daniel writes:

But the overall point is this: the only way for the Levisons to do their work with integrity was to cut against the grain of the institution, to stand up against the administration, to lose professional ground, and endanger their livelihoods.

Not true. We cut against the grain of certain administrators. In fact, the grain of the institution is what allowed us to work within it to bring about change. SPU is a Wesleyan institution, which eschews the normal dogmatic assumptions of Reformed institutions. We simply don’t share the same penchant for dogma, and we come from a tradition that championed women long before it was savvy to do so. SPU’s heritage is also abolitionism. It was only natural that the LGBTQ community would be accepted, despite the maelstrom of evangelical Christianity. That is why, when Dan Martin became president, he made the tough but Wesleyan choice to make SPU more inclusive—and to certify Haven as a Club.

Don’t lump all evangelical institutions together. A Chihuahua and a black lab are both dogs—but they are very different kinds of dogs. SPU is not Wheaton—and has no desire to become Wheaton. Ruff ruff!


Point number 3:

Being at Christian institution did not foster or incubate their ability to do their work with integrity, they did their work with integrity despite the Christian institution.

I answered this under point number 2. The ethos of SPU made it possible to work toward justice among outliers despite the best effort of certain administrators. (I would add, too, that SPU is ecumenical, and this cross-denominational character made it difficult for the administration to be entirely rigid. Nor does SPU have the sort of Republican base that I suspect Wheaton does.)


Point number 4:

Daniel writes of his own blog post:

It was not a nuanced piece. I do not think that moments of injustice are times for the niceties of nuance. I am haunted by the myriad ways in which untold pockets of our society play the part of the white pastors to whom Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Injustice is never ok. Silence is always complicity. Being nice is always a play into the hands of the powerful.

After studying Israel’s eighth century prophets last night in class—Amos, Hosea, Isaiah 1-39, and Micah—we watched Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in order to grasp the power of the prophetic word in our age. King crafted his words—every one of them. There was neither an extra nor an unguarded one. He did not write a blog. He did not tweet his opinions. #justice! Sometimes a prophetic word needs to incubate, even if it means a period of relative quiet (and the disquiet that arises while waiting). Sometimes nuance counts.


Point number 5:

Daniel predicts:

With each Calvin or Wheaton or Gordon (three schools from which I would have expected better) that parts ways with a professor for being thoughtfully Christian in unexpected ways, the assumption that all self-identifying Christian schools are so run becomes more and more warranted.

Isn’t this the domino effect Wheaton College always warned about? Do you want to use this sort of logic? If four or five evangelical schools act the same, then the other 100+ will.

In fact, I remember how Wheaton justified its conservatism by saying that so many originally Christian schools had gone the way of liberalism: Oberlin, DePauw—heck, Southern Methodist University, where I teach now. Really, Daniel, do you want to adopt Wheaton’s logic of the domino effect to make the same exact point, but in the other direction toward conservatism rather than liberalism? If Wheaton goes, then Gordon, then Calvin—then every other evangelical college is sure to fall prey to ultra-conservatism. I don’t think that is the tack you want to take.


Point number 6:

Daniel advises:

If Christian academia is going to survive, it has to find a better way to define Christian. It has to start thinking about faithfully following Jesus on the way of the cross.

I agree. Faithfully following Jesus on the way of the cross. I am not quite sure how institutions, as opposed to individuals, do this, but I agree with this premise (finally!).


Point number 7:

I can’t recreate Daniel’s list of what is required of Christian institutions. (It’s too long.) But I can say this: Isn’t it ironic that Daniel excoriates lists—but presumably only lists that disagree with his? Wheaton College has its orthodoxy. Daniel Kirk has his. Both are list-oriented.

I don’t like lists, period. Show me a list, and watch me bristle. Wheaton’s or Daniel’s. It doesn’t matter to me.


Point number 8:

Daniel says, in no uncertain terms:

But this will mean a cost that few colleges are willing to bear: recognizing that it is not the crucifying / firing / manipulating administrators whose work embodies the will of God, but the crucified / fired / out-maneuvered faculty whose careers bear on their bodies, from the hands of those administrators and senior colleagues, the marks of Jesus.

I will not be baited. I will not be pressed to decide between Satanic administrators and saintly faculty, the serpentine wisdom of college presidents and the fluffy innocence of dove-like teachers.

I know better. I know what the author of Ecclesiastes says, that in the place of evil, there is good, and in the place of good, there is evil. I know my own divided soul, too. I know what the rabbis called the warring evil and good impulses.

Ask anyone who knows me. I’ve got my scars. As harsh a set of scars as anyone in academia. I am not a lover of administrators. But I am not a hater of them in principle. Some are actually attempting to lead in the way of the cross. I think Dan Martin at SPU (and it is probably easier to say this as a faculty member who is safe in another institution) is trying to follow the way of the cross. That is why he helped Tent City move onto the quad that was not fifty yards from a shooting six months earlier.

I know the act of courage that was. How? Because my son was a freshman at SPU that year, and parents were worried so soon after an on-campus shooting. Can you imagine how many board members and anxious parents cautioned against having a hundred homeless people on the main quad of an urban campus?

Unlike Wheaton’s administration (I imagine), Dan Martin did not cower. He did not fold. He was out there with students, putting plywood down.

It is a caricature to vilify administrators and sanctify faculty.


Point number 9:

Notice this. Daniel and I disagree about a lot of things. But notice this, too: we are talking. Debating. And, if truth be told, both of us are enjoying it.

There can be civil discourse. There really can.

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