Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lesson from Sem 4: Professors under pressure

While I wasn't as enthralled with the students as I hoped, I enjoyed almost every one of my professors. Some where touchy-feely, some were analytical, some were funny, and some were as serious as a heart attack. Although some were not very good teachers, they were all well trained and really seemed to know their stuff when pressed, with more than one being what I call 'stone-cold brilliant' - a designation I don't use lightly.

As I went through my classes, I found myself consistently wondering why I had never heard the gospel presented in the ways it was in Seminary. One professor (one of my favorites) walked in on the first day of class and said, "I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is that the god you were taught about as you grew up doesn't exist. He's a myth. The good news is that the God of the Bible does exist."

He was right. As I went through seminary, learned about the formation of the biblical canon, learned about textual criticism, learned about church history, and psychology, and hermeneutics, and theology through the ages, it was like scales were falling from my eyes. The journey can't really be described, but it was life-shifting. For me, this shift was in a good direction, for some others, the shift knocked them off their moorings.

The question I kept asking myself, again and again, is why this altered understanding of the Christian faith and of God doesn't filter down to congregations. The answer has to do with what that professor told us on the first day of class.

People don't like it when the god of their childhood is in danger of being altered. People don't like it when they find the very faith that they have clung to - the foundation of their thinking - is actually balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff. People don't like it when they have to realize that our scientific understanding of the world actually should change the ways in which we think about God, reality, and the Bible. People get scared when they are taught about the real nature of truth, or about the real history of the Christian scriptures.

Here's an example - one of the best New Testament textual critics in the world, Michael Holmes, works at Bethel University. (Textual criticism refers to reconstructing the original scripture, which no longer exists, from the many variant scripture documents that still exist.) He was a guest lecturer in one of my Greek classes, and walked us through several text critical issues in rapid fire succession. For someone like me, who saw the Bible as a bulletproof document with no problems whatsoever, these examples were devastating. I felt my world starting to shift. Others in the class must have felt the same way because at least a few, men and women alike, walked out during the middle of class, sobbing. Perhaps theirs wasn't a shift as much as a collapse.

Now, Dr. Holmes is a very strong Christian, very loving and kind, and very good at his job. This scenario is not entirely his fault. But the reality is that Biblical inerrancy like I was taught in church is problematic. The type and extent of these problems aren't well understood (if at all) by most laypeople, yet these issues cannot be historically disputed by any reasonable individual. Can you imagine the response of a congregation to teaching that drives seminary students from class with tears streaming down their face? Would their response be fear and trembling and renewed interest in the God they are so convicted is real, or would they respond in fear and anger towards the messenger out of a wish to preserve their beliefs? What does that then say about their beliefs?

Just imagine the turmoil that would occur if a professor decided to speculate on something that was disputable. What about the implications of the theory of relativity for the second coming of Jesus Christ? What about the implications of quantum mechanics on our understanding of truth and knowledge? What about testing the Biblical claims for prayer and right living against the claims of other belief systems?

Seminary professors are accused of living in Ivory Towers, but as I see it our Christian congregations have put them there. Greg Boyd (who is controversial in his own right) was run off from his professorship because he dared to proposed a theory that, at least to him, made more sense out of scriptures than other widely known theories. I don't agree with Dr. Boyd on spritual warfare theodicy or open theism, but it does take seriously some passages of scripture that often aren't taken seriously enough. Another professor (who has requested to remain nameless) was fired from his professorship for writing a paper speculating that "abstacta" may be co-eternal with God. Essentially, what this means is that abstract concepts, like mathematical truths and logic are not "things" that need to be created, and therefore *could* be co-eternal with God. Again, I don't agree with this view, but it does take seriously the nature of certain truths. This paper had been published for over a year when he finally explained to one of his classes what the paper was really about. A student took issue with the concepts in the paper, and had the professor sacked for "not maintaining orthodoxy".

Incidences like these are not uncommon. So, instead of professors making their work accessible to all, in the hopes that their work might be an aid to the very church-goers who fund them, professors make their work as inaccessible as possible; they enter the ivory tower. They adopt jargon that takes much effort to decode. They use ambiguous language that makes the unsophisticated reader unaware of what they are really saying. They use an abundance of footnotes to intimidate others from criticizing their work. They make their argument philosophical, so that the implications to actual church practice (where the congregation resides) are hard to determine. They refuse to speak up in church to correct misunderstandings or misinterpretations of theology, or the Bible, or of history.

Professors often find themselves between the pressures to affirm the "orthodoxy" that congregations and students demand, and the call they feel God has given them to do profound and scholarly work to further the kingdom of God on earth.

I wonder what would happen if professors practiced church discipleship, teaching ways of interpreting the Bible, of thinking about God and science, and of the history of Christian thought. I wonder how most of the people in our churches would respond. How would you respond?

What would happen if we decided that loving God doesn't mean demanding the exact same formulations generation after generation, as if our ways of thinking about God are perfect and divine, but instead realize that loving God means going on the journey to grope after God, though He is not far from each of us? What would happen if the scholarship we, as Christians, fund actually makes its way into the life of our churches?

If it shouldn't impact us as the Church, then why on earth do we fund Christian scholarship?


Tracy P. said...

Ben, this post gives me the opportunity to say what I've been thinking ever since I first stumbled upon your blog. I love the fact that someone as bright as you are with the background you have has peeled away the layers and found Jesus to be such a priceless treasure that he has sold everything...all the trappings and traditions and beliefs that, as you mention here, we so often seem to love more than our have HIM and to find the REAL Jesus. So many others would be disillusioned and throw the baby out with the bath water. Your quest has refreshed my hope. I am so grateful.

Eric said...

I want to know so much more: what else did your profs say? Can you really get sacked for counter-orthodox views? What about that guy that made people sob in class? Exactly what did he say? what did the sobers do next?

Also, your prof with the bad news: Do you think that kind of bad news in inevitable? Meaning, any transmission of faith through a religious institution will inherently be flawed? I am going to guess you think no, but what if this is correct? what if faith ideas always get lost in translation? And by what if, I mean always have and will? That prof didn't say, he thinks the bad news is true, he knew it was true.

In my classes, I take a crumpled, sliced up piece of paper and call it a building. That's architecture today: completely rethinking form and creation, but save for Gerry and a few others, most buildings will be built with 4 corners and a roof. The disconnect between education and practice seems to be ubiquitous.. Are you going to fight it? Will you start a new church? What do you hope to do with what you know now? Do you need an architect?

Benjamin said...


You're making me blush. Thank you.


Great questions! Unfortunately, I don't have great answers for a lot of them.

I mostly agree with you that there is a long-standing disconnect between academia and real life. I'm not sure I'm interested in fixing that disconnect, because it would involve rethinking the entire western educational process.

One of my roomates in college was an architecture major. He spent the semester doing stuff like pondering the essense of a brick. I honestly think this is a valuable exercise, but I also think this has little to do with building me user-friendly lab space to run my biology experiments at work.

Uh-oh. Hold that thought. I gotta run. I'll respond more later. (Might be a day or two, though.)

Amy said...

Ben, I wish they were all like you.

Eric said...

I've checked your blog at least 10 times, no new posts.. waiting patiently.. :)

Benjamin said...

Sorry about the delay. Thanksgiving waits for no man. Let's hit your questions sequentially.

You can indeed get sacked for counter-orthodox views. Some instititions are more trigger-happy than others, but it definitely happens. It happened to at least three professors I personally know. At Southtwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, they recently sacked a Hebrew professor because she is a woman. That one should make our collective blood boil.

All that my profs said, including Dr. Holmes, is long and complicated. I don't know how to summarize most of it. Those students who left Dr. Holmes' lecture came back the next class period as if nothing had happened. I have no idea what happened psychologically or spiritually with these people. Like I said in my post, Dr. Holmes was safe from being poached because you can't argue with recorded history. However, if you do something more squishy, like assert that the early modern conception of original sin has major problems (which is what one of my professors did) that's when the feathers start to fly.

Will any transmission of faith through a religious institution be inherently flawed? I dunno. The graduate in me wants you to define "any", "transmission", "faith", "through", and "religious institution". But, I'll play nice. Logically, at least, it does not necessarily follow that transmission of faith through a religious institution must be flawed. To make such a logical assertion would take considerable effort. That is, if we could even agree on the definition of terms.

Practically, however, at least some of the transmission always gets garbled. How much gets garbled is impossible to say. That's where belief kicks in. You either believe it is all garbled based on your internal construct, or you believe the transmission is salvagable.

So, do I believe that ANY transmission is INHERENTLY flawed? No. (Why? Because I have assembled coherent beliefs that do not cohere if the answer was "yes". This then becomes an epistemological problem.) Do I believe that SOME transmissions are POTENTIALLY flawed? Yes. But I don't know which ones, or to what extent. I'm left to grope for the truth.

What I've found is that many Christians think that the truth is something that they can posses, like a coin in their pocket, or American citizenship. Many Christians (too many) say that they "have" the truth, as if it is some tangible THING they can hold in their hand, or prove they comply with. I think this is idolatry.

Instead, I have become convinced that the Christian conception of truth is not something WE posses, but rather something that possesses us. We grope after truth, and, in return, the truth grips us. We don't have the truth, like it is a thing; we know the truth like it is a person, and we are found IN the one who is true. I think the Biblical intuition is that the truth has us - it grips us, rather than we have (or grip)the truth. But I digress.

What if ALL faith ideas ALWAYS get lost in translation? (Which is my understanding of your question.) Then we grope. The question then becomes, is God big enough to find us in our groping? This question is terrifying to most Christians, but excites me to no end. (A shrewd deconstructionist would realize my conclusion is based on a premise in which not all transmission in flawed. They would be right, but it's all I got. Sorry.)

Back to my roomate. He pondered bricks. You ponder blobs, or whatever architectural theory is into these days. To me, it's the same difference - blobs vs bricks. Neither helps me build a better building.

But at the end of the day, I strongly feel that we need people thinking about form and function apart from what has traditionally "worked". How else would we come up with something new and better? This effort necessarily drives us into philosophical space in which we rethink what "functional" is, or "organic", or "beautiful", etc.

So, is thinking about crumpled paper useful to building me a building? Not directly. But when I employ an architect to design me a space, or design me a method, I want someone who has pondered form, function, and whatever else architects ponder in order to meet my goals. That doesn't happen while thinking directly of crumpled up paper. That happens by thinking of concepts that transcend quasi-organic blobs. (Or whatever it is architectural theory concerns itself with these days.)

Let's cut to the chase, cuz this comment is already way too long (Tracy and Amy, you still with me?). Wouldn't a person want to employ those who have spent serious time thinking about concepts like trinity, futurity, beauty, and truth when approaching the Christian faith? Even if some of their thoughts are a bit divorced from normal practice, the insights gleaned from such reflection always seem to have real implications. I believe those implications are appreciated in almost every dichotomy (architecture vs construction, theoretical physics vs engineering, psychology vs introspection, etc.) except in scholarship vs church.

I hope to fight it, but I have no idea what that will look like. Prophets usually get stoned. But I'll call you if I need an architect!

Benjamin said...

It occurred to me that Chris B (one of those smart guys from seminary who wasn't very snooty) might have some good input on some of your questions, Eric.

You around, Chris? Any input?

Tracy P. said...

I wish my best thinking was half as good as your digressing. I'm with you.

I keep wanting to ask you after pretty much every post, then what (and how) do we teach our kids? This transmission of faith concepts IS sticky. But it occurred to me after reading this that if my kids see in my life and hear me say that my understanding is constantly growing based on new information, experiences, even revelation from the Spirit, then ultimately they will get the point that it's not what I told them on Dec. 3, 2007 that is their life's foundation. Even though a new insight on that day is significant, and sharing it is important, it's the QUEST for new understanding that's foundational.

What a pity that people find paradigm shifts so unsettling as though they discredit the life lived up until now. (Again something I experienced when teaching--people who reacted to training of new techniques as though they were being told they'd never done it right before.)

I love the quote from Mr. Beaver when one of the Pevensie children asked if Aslan was safe, and he replied, "NO he's not safe...but he's GOOD!" A relationship with Christ takes so many twists and turns, it sure can't be considered to be safe--BUT, he IS good!

Tracy P. said...

Ben, I still find myself wanting you to try to answer Eric's question about what Dr. Holmes said. My teacher's mind sees a Venn diagram with two intersecting circles: one titled "the God I met growing up" with His unique traits in that circle, the other titled "the God of the Bible", and the intersecting space with any traits common to both. This homework is due by noon tomorrow. Extensions available for just cause. :-)

Benjamin said...

What on earth DO we teach our kids?

I struggle with this, too. Some of my posts, like those from October 2006, are me trying to figure out how to teach some of this stuff.

A very large part of me has come to believe that Christianity is for adults. Unfortunately we've made Christianity into a religion for kids, which wears out when our kids grow up. I'll post about this one of these days. Maybe.

My goal with my kids will be to teach how to go on the journey more than how to merely give cognitive assent to a set of written beliefs. I think the example of Jesus and Paul helps us out in how to accomplish this. But I simply don't know the details of how to do it.

Tracy P. said...

Well hurry up and figure it out, because my kids are older than yours and they're not going to wait around! But no pressure...

Eric said...

I wrote a page, deleted it, wrote another and still can't find the words to say.. I am so in to these topics, so passionate about the topic. I want to scream and yell about all of my crazy ideas. To Tracy, the obligation to teach one's children is a double edged sword.. Kids are extensions of yourselves, why wouldn't you do exactly what you want with them? Yet, they will see so many beautiful things if they are allowed to find them on their own if a parent has the heart to let go. To Ben, I see things so differently and the more I hear from you, the more we discuss them, it becomes more necessary to get louder and obtrusive. A Christian is not content with bottled-up faith, neither am I. I believe now more than ever that faith is alive and needs to be rekindled, yet in a whole new way. We need a faith check. We need to see how crazy we have become and if need be, get crazier..

Benjamin said...


Your comment made me chuckle for all kinds of reasons.

Then I realized that I might be misunderstanding you. When you say,
"To Ben, I see things so differently and the more I hear from you, the more we discuss them, it becomes more necessary to get louder and obtrusive. "

I'm assuming that you disagree with a substantial portion of what I'm saying. I don't have a problem with this, because I walk a strange line between liberalism and conservativism that makes no one happy, not even the moderates. I'm used to it, and in your case, even amused by it.

If, however, you mean that you agree, my chuckle goes away, again for all kinds of reasons. Crazier than the end result of my ideas is scary territory.

Which is it?

Eric said...

in that case, laugh your head off! I totally recognize, however, that I lump all Christian voices into one. Call me ignorant, but I have you and your kind labeled and stacked neatly on the shelf as well :) It started as disagreements but now it is way past that. Remember that discussion on women and how Baptists have historically degraded them because the bible is very sexist? That could have been the beginning of all of this. I will not rest until women are preaching, the traditional is thinking, the rules are understood for what they are, and there's a big gay pride parade for all to enjoy. My uncomfortablenesses began in sunday school and thank God it has a place to continue to reverberate. The more you love something (ST) the more you won't sit and watch it fall to ruin.

I can't yet decide if I disagree with your beliefs or if you would disagree with mine. How can two intelligent people be anything but agreeable?! No matter what, you'd be a top choice for brain-picking, hands down.

And to hear about forgiveness so intelligibly, I know you have critical insights that would make a Christian rethink their faith (let's pray at least..) We have a lot of unlearning to do.

I'm in it for the long run.