On the (Self-) Coddling of Christian Universities

deathofsocratesA few weeks ago Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, released an open letter addressed to his university’s student body. In the letter, Piper appeared to take on the issue of “victimization” culture, railing against a student who apparently objected to the content of a sermon at one of OKU’s chapel services. A number of bloggers have already responded to Piper’s letter in various ways, chief among them my friend and colleague Chris Gehrz over at the Pietist Schoolman and historian John Fea, not to mention numerous commenters to the Pietist Schoolman post. While Piper’s letter won accolades from conservative commentators like Rod Dreher, who hailed Piper as “A Man Among Boys”, Gehrz, Fea, and a number of their respondents had more thoughtful responses. You can read the text of Piper’s letter here.

Rather than respond directly to the letter, however, I’d like to set it in the context of several other recent events involving Christian (especially evangelical) colleges. Briefly:

  • This past August, both Oklahoma Wesleyan and Union University withdrew their memberships in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities over the actions of two other then-member universities (Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College), who changed their hiring policies, after the Obergefell ruling, to legally married same-sex couples. The reason OKW and UU gave for withdrawing from the CCCU was not any sort of decision about the matter by the CCCU, but rather that the CCCU hadn’t moved to condemn EMU and Goshen quickly enough. This means, of course, both universities acted before even knowing what kind of response the CCCU (which had decided, not unreasonably, to discuss the matter first) might make.
  • In early December, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. encouraged his university’s students to carry concealed firearms, specifically in order to counteract a perceived threat from Muslim terrorists. The most chilling sentence in Falwell’s address was this: “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they, before they walk in and kill us…” Several commentators have already worried about the connotations of the phrase “those Muslims,” but the real problem, for me, is the before: Falwell isn’t talking, here, about responding to a threat that has already materialized; he’s talking about a pre-emptive strike: Let’s go out and get Them before They get Us.
  • Finally and more recently, Wheaton college recently suspended (or, to use their term “placed on administrative leave”) Political Science Professor Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins, apparently, had committed to wearing a hijab during advent as a way of showing solidarity between Christians and Muslims. While Wheaton had no problem with the hijab, the college suspended Hawkins for part of her explanation, in a Facebook post, for why she was doing so, in which she stated that Christians and Muslims “…worship the same God.” Again, what was troubling to me was not that there was debate about that statement (it’s actually a very interesting question), but the speed of Hawkins’ suspension: according to the Christianity Today article covering the event, Hawkins’ posted that Facebook message on December 10–the Thursday, according to Wheaton’s academic calendar, of the last week of regular classes before finals week. It seems likely that Wheaton officials would not have become aware of the posting, or at least have been able to discuss what to do about it, until the next day (Friday); the 12th and 13th, of course, were a weekend, and Wheaton’s suspension of Hawkins, according to its own press release came on Tuesday the 15th, which means that there was only a single business day (the intervening Monday) between Wheaton officials’ becoming aware of the post and placing Hawkins on administrative leave. This means that Hawkins was assuredly placed on leave before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place. It also means that all the substantive conversation about the issue, for Hawkins, has taken place under that administrative leave–under, in other words, at least the implied threat of termination (were that not at stake, there would have been no reason for administrative action at all). Nothing like forcing the suspect to make her case À l’ombre de la guillotine.

It’s the repeated before that’s troubling. Union University withdrew from the CCCU before it knew what the CCCU was going to do about EMU’s and Goshen’s changes in policy. The problem wasn’t, at that point, that the CCCU hadn’t responded as they’d wanted, but that the response they were looking for wasn’t the CCCU’s immediate, knee-jerk response. Falwell exhorted his students, chillingly, to go out and “end those Muslims” before they walked in, calling not for a response to an act of violence in progress, but for a pre-emptive strike against those he feared might possibly commit one. Wheaton took administrative punitive action against Hawkins before any substantive conversation about a complex theological issue could have taken place, forcing any subsequent conversation to take place not between colleagues and fellow inquirers, but between the institutional power of the employer and the termination-threatened employee.

Bear in mind that these are universities–the places that we supposedly set aside precisely in order to creates spaces to inquire into and communicate about difficult issues, to ask questions and seek answers about complex and important matters. But the common element of all three of these incidents is that the institutions acted almost immediately not to ask questions or communicate about hard issues, but precisely to prevent substantive and unfettered communication and inquiry. While Wheaton’s FAQ about the issue asserts that Hawkins’ administrative leave is “…a time for conversation and assessment,” there’s surely a significant rhetorical difference between a conversation between academic colleagues that takes place without constraint and one that takes place under an official administrative action by the institution, and there’s no reason that Wheaton’s administration could not have chosen to have some of those conversations prior to taking sweeping institutional action, especially an action imposed at the beginning of finals week. In the absence of additional information, everything about the Wheaton decision smacks of placing action before thought.

It’s that sense of–quite literally–acting before thinking that makes all these incidents disturbingly strange for institutions of higher learning. It’s as though it’s not enough only to be orthodox; one must also be immediately and autonomically orthodox, with no room for asking questions or communication before an equally-autonomic institutional response must kick in.

To put it a simpler way, these seem like responses born in fear more than thought (fear of what I’m not sure). There appears to be a disturbing insistence on invoking institutional power right away to insulate the institution from ideas or persons its most powerful members think might be unorthodox or dangerous, without stopping beforehand even to ask whether or not that might be the case. In none of these cases was authentic inquiry allowed to precede institutional action. Doesn’t this begin to sound like the story of the student who insisted on not being made uncomfortable by the content of a sermon, not being forced into a situation where he/she must struggle with challenging ideas rather than maintaining his or her own “orthodoxy?”

Who, then, is really insisting on being coddled?

[Note: Lest anyone think I’m merely being grumpy about all this, I’m going to take some time in my next post to talk about what I think might be some better alternatives for thinking about and dealing with such issues in more positive and (to use the the term in vogue in some evangelical circles) irenic ways.]

Dear CCCU Presidents: Retain EMU and Goshen, for Christ’s Sake

As both a follow-up to my recent posting on the role of the idea of the idea of the Gospel in Union University’s recent departure from the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, and a preamble to my next one, which deals with the idea of what really should create unity among believers, here are some wise and necessary words from Kyle Roberts, Associate Professor of Public and Missional Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

For the impatient, the most important point Roberts makes, I think, is that the differing stances on same-sex marriage expressed in the (inclusive) policies of Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University, as well as those of Union University and Oklahoma Wesleyan, are the results of good-faith attempts on both sides to understand and value the authority of scripture. The fact that they have come to differing conclusions should not be a reason for either to accuse the other of having abandoned respect for scripture.

Source: Dear CCCU Presidents: Retain EMU and Goshen, for Christ’s Sake

What is at the Heart of the Gospel? Hint: It Has Nothing to do with Marriage

Wise_Blood_(novel)_1st_edition_coverThe Gospel stands out against morality. The purpose of the Church should be to call the bluff on any attempts of finding morality in the Gospel.

Gerald T. Sheppard

One of my all-time favorite novels is Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Its protagonist, Hazel Motes, is a deeply wounded character who, after the traumas of being raised by a legalistic (and abusive) evangelist and surviving combat in World War Two, returns home with the intention of founding a new antireligion, what he calls the “Church of God Without Christ.” He describes his new “church” as one in which “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” Without getting into a full summary or analysis of the novel, what fascinates me about Hazel Motes is that, the harder he tries to repudiate Christ, repudiate the Gospel, the more he seems marked and pursued by it. It starts with the way his “evangelism” for his new anti-religion resembles the very brand of evangelism he so loathes, to the point that others mistake his message for its opposite. It continues with the ways in which grace pursues him in the persons of several (primarily female) characters who, despite the manner in which he pushes them away, continue to care for him. Throughout the novel, he seems “marked” indelibly by the very Christ he says he eschews (the blind preacher-cum-huckster, Asa Hawks, tells him this outright), and Motes seems continually haunted, in the way O’Connor once referred to the south as “Christ-haunted,” through to the very end of his life, to the point that he experiences a salvation–at least of sorts–there. O’Connor describes him in the preface to Wise Blood as a “Christian maugre lui–in spite of himself.

At the end of the day, I suspect that’s what all believers are (I know I am): Christians in spite of ourselves. It is one of the most traditional and conservative beliefs of Christianity that all human beings, no matter how good or moral they may seem, are tainted by the fall. It is even entirely orthodox to believe that no one, under his or her own steam, is even capable of willing his or her own salvation. Human beings, in this view, are too vulnerable to their own wills, their self-interest, their own constructs, to be able to achieve or merit salvation on their own. Even St. Augustine admits that he was unable, on his own, to assent to God’s calling to him, such that that act had to be God’s:

I kept saying to myself, “See, let it be done now; let it be done now.” And as I said this I all but came to a firm decision. I all but did it — yet I did not quite. Still I did not fall back to my old condition, but stood aside for a moment and drew breath. And I tried again, and lacked only a very little of reaching the resolve — and then somewhat less, and then all but touched and grasped it. Yet I still did not quite reach or touch or grasp the goal, because I hesitated to die to death and to live to life. And the worse way, to which I was habituated, was stronger in me than the better, which I had not tried. And up to the very moment in which I was to become another man, the nearer the moment approached, the greater horror did it strike in me. But it did not strike me back, nor turn me aside, but held me in suspense.1

But this, of course, is the whole point, the very center and heart Christian belief, this crazy, irrational, wonderful thing we call the Gospel. O’Connor’s character personifies this quality in frightening and beautiful ways, doing overtly what we all do internally: fighting the grace to which he had already assented. Trying, and failing, to beat the action of grace aside in favor of their own egos. The important thing is that, in both cases, what makes both Augustine and Hazel Motes Christians–in spite of themselves–is entirely God’s action, not their own. Their own constructs, systems of belief, of morality, of religious doctrine–all the things they themselves will into existence and cling to like stubborn mollusks–are ultimately futile. Only the action of grace brings them the rest of the way. And that–the act of God that enables fallen humans to take that last step into a reconciled relationship with the divine–is what we call Gospel.

I mention all this because the ideas of what lies at the “heart” of the Gospel, and what constitutes the source of unity among Christian believers, have been sticking points in a lively (and sometimes acrimonious) debate that’s surfaced in Christian university circles over the last couple of months. Long story short, two members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University) recently changed their hiring policies to include persons in same-sex marriages. On the heels of these announcements, the provost of another CCCU school, Union University, announced that Union was leaving the CCCU, primarily because the CCCU failed to immediately expel Goshen and EMU from the organization over that change. In his letter, Union’s provost, Samuel Oliver, argued that [his concept of traditional] “marriage is at the heart of the Gospel.”2

I have to admit that one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to blog on this matter is the degree to which that statement befuddled and angered me. I had to allow myself the time to quit huffing and puffing and throwing things to be able to write about the matter in a way that didn’t violate my own standards of what respectful debate between believers should look like.

I’ll admit for the record that I think that Oliver is dead wrong. I grew up within the Lutheran tradition (and am still active in the Lutheran church), and the idea of the Gospel holds a very special–revered–place in that tradition. We go on about it. A lot. John Pederson, a Lutheran theologian, Pastor Emeritus of Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver, and a long-time friend and spiritual mentor (not to mention one of my favorite people ever, and the person who introduced me to fine single-malt scotches), kindly gave me permission to reproduce a brief definition of the Gospel he shared with me in an email:

My most succinct statement would be something like: The gospel is God’s announcement of good news into all creation.

  1. The gospel is proclamation, announcement, performative utterance (J. L. Austin offers the example of “I take you to be my wife. . . .”), speech-act (Ernst Fuchs), and as such has more in common with the creation story (“And God said, and it was so.”) than Torah or any other ethical configuration. The gospel has more in common with the jury’s announcement/proclamation, “the jury finds you not guilty. . . .” than any moral aspirations I might hope for. The gospel is not exposition, exhortation, aspiration, achievement, and certainly not any stipulated moral code.
  2. The gospel is God’s action and not mine. I do not constitute the gospel by my performance of it or anything else. The gospel is God’s performance, just as much as is creation, covenant, and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Best not indulge human narcissism by suggesting any part of this on my own.
  3. The gospel is good news. It is uncalculated, unexpected, undeserved, surprising. It goes against the evidence, one might say. Evidence for the gospel is in God’s speech, God’s promise and not in any moral influence that may be effected in me. The gospel is not conditional in any way, but rather proclamation, performative, and, as Lutherans might say, forensic.

It is this (to my thinking very traditional and orthodox, and in no way limited to Lutheranism) way of thinking about the Gospel that made Oliver’s statement seem so alien and upsetting to me. To put a particular definition of marriage at the heart of the Gospel is to make a dangerous innovation on traditional Christian thought. To put a human construct in a place that only Christ has the right to occupy. The Gospel has never been a moral code, and has never been about anything human beings do. To replace that traditional idea of the Gospel with a moral code based on one particular (and arguable) interpretation of only a few passages of Scripture is, to my thinking, an offense against the Gospel, not a preservation of its witness. The Gospel is the opposite of any such code, a gift of unmerited grace. The whole point is that we can’t live up to even our own moral standards, much less God’s, such that grace is our only hope. The grace that chases us down–as it does Hazel Motes, and as it did Augustine–and calls for our response, however flawed, human, and inept our responses will be.

Our responses to grace are where things like moral codes and doctrinal ideas–such as ideas about what properly constitutes marriage–come into the picture. They are part of how Christians try to think and act in relation to the gift of grace, but are not themselves components of grace. And, of course, as fallen human beings, none of us can ever get that response exactly right. The fact that our responses are often divergent is a reflection of this imperfection: none of us have the right to claim moral high ground over any other, because none of us can claim the perfect response to grace. As much as I might disagree with Oliver, I have no basis on which to consider him anything other than a brother in Christ, because it is Christ’s action, not ours, that creates that relationships. All we can really do is recognize our mutual imperfection and try to continue, from our confusion and disagreement, to hammer out better responses to grace, and to one another. And we can only do that if we maintain relationship with one another. We’re simply not allowed to walk away. This is why I think the act of severing relationships with other, equally imperfect respondents to grace over the differences in our responses is also unwise–something I’ll try to argue more fully in the next installment.


  1. This is in Book Eight, Chapter 11 of the Confessions
  2. See my colleague Chris Gehrz’ overview of the initial situation over at the Pietist Schoolman Blog