The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth*

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What is the more important: a) seeking and speaking the truth; or b) toeing the party line?

A revealing, but unsurprising post yesterday from Fred Clark at Slacktivist about the challenge of working in an evangelical institutional setting. He shares an excerpt from Jonathan Dudley’s  book Broken Words, where he’s describing his time at Calvin College:

In my freshman biology class, I sat riveted as the professor explained why scientists believe in evolution (I had never learned about the subject in high school). The summer after my first year, I pored over a summer-school psychology book by an evangelical professor, who argued (shockingly, to me) that gay people don’t choose their orientation and cannot readily change. Over the course of my second year in college, I learned why scientists think there is an environmental crisis. And during my last year of college, a bioethics professor argued against popular evangelical thought on abortion. I was surprised to find out during an office visit that many other evangelical scholars shared his view, though not surprised when he said they would rather not speak up about it due to the avalanche of protests it would generate from college donors. …

My bioethics professor reinforced a conclusion I had drawn from my undergraduate and seminary years: There is a significant gap between the opinions that dominate the popular evangelical culture (which is the only part of evangelicalism with political muscle) and the opinions that prevail among leading evangelical scholars.

Clark goes on to note: “Most evangelical college graduates have a story like the one Dudley tells.” I wonder if any of you can relate?

Clark notes the shock one receives as an underclassman hearing these new ideas, and then later, in a private setting, hearing a professor explain “what is and is not allowed to be said and how it differs from what is and is not true.” I’ve written before on how Calvin College has found itself in a quandary of this sort.

>>Related post: If science conflicts with theology, what should give way?

Unreal. And the truth. I know this from experience at Calvin Seminary as well. There’s the official party line. Then there are other truths that must be hidden, because it flies in the face of the institution’s self-imposed limit on truth. It always strikes me as ironic that Christians are all about “seeking truth,” but then when the truth turns out to be slightly different than what our historic theological heroes put down to paper 500 years ago, suddenly we have to be mum about it. It makes no sense, really, and it is a disservice to students, and in a seminary setting, a disservice to future pastors – and by extension – to their congregations.

I remember hearing a pastor at a Pub Theology gathering in Michigan note: “Why are we so afraid of sharing biblical and theological scholarship with our congregations that has been accepted for over fifty years already?” She lamented that too often clergy serves as filters for what congregants can or cannot “handle,” and that when she did share such research and knowledge, parishioners were hungry for it! I think sometimes the mentality is to treat our congregants as children who aren’t “ready to hear” that some of their cherished beliefs or understandings actually might not line up with how things really are. Kind of like we don’t tell our kids the reality about Santa until they’re old enough to handle it. Apparently some congregants are never meant to grow up.

I have heard several pastors note that they are encouraging their congregations not to read their denominational monthly magazine because the articles are stretching the “accepted notions” on homosexuality, the historicity of Genesis and other topics. I think the more we earnestly wrestle with these things the better, even if there are no simple solutions. Some colleagues have even argued that because they’ve signed a statement of belief they don’t have to engage with certain ideas that interpret the Bible through other lenses. They literally use a “statement of truth” to protect themselves from the truth. It’s incredulous, really. The worst thing is to stick our heads in the sand, especially as professors, pastors and other leaders, and to keep trumpeting perspectives that are either out of date, not informed, or perpetuate common misperceptions. I’m grateful there are some willing to do otherwise, despite the obstacles thrown their way.

In the same column, Fred Clark cites Peter Enns, who describes the desperation he’s heard from many, many academic colleagues in evangelical institutions:

I had the latest in my list of long conversations with a well-known, published, respected biblical scholar, who is under inhuman stress trying to negotiate the line between institutional expectations and academic integrity. His gifts are being squandered. He is questioning his vocation. His family is suffering. He does not know where to turn.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not.

I wish these stories could be told, but without the names attached, they are worthless. I wish I had kept a list, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have done anyone much good. I couldn’t have used it. Good people would lose their jobs.

Ugh. And Clark notes that it’s not limited to academia: “I’ve heard similar stories from clergy, journalists, musicians, missionaries and aid workers — all wrestling with the conflict between what they know to be right and “institutional expectations” shaped by the threat of an “avalanche of protests” from donors with political muscle. Not healthy. Not good.”

I concur. You?

>>Related Post: Toes, Lines and Bad Religion

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Church, Theology

4 responses to “The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth*

  1. This post resonates well with my experience. In my spiritual memoir, “Cracking the Pot: Releasing God from the Theologies that Bind Him,” I raise some questions about the absolute-ness of our theological interpretations. When my book was published I was shocked – shocked(!) – at the number of pastors, college professors and seminary professors who thanked me for raising the issues and questions they were not allowed to…because they were bound by a form of subscription and would lose their job if they did.

  2. John wells

    I have gone through my own rennesiance and enlightenment over the last few years as I have began to think more critically about church history, theology, philosophy, and science. I have come to some amazing discoveries and conclusions that has shocked my Christian friends. I have moved from a pentecostal fundamentalist evangelical viewpoint to someone who accepts evolution as scientific fact and at best is theologically a process theist. I read and enjoy emergent theologians like Rob Bell and physicists like Lawrence Krauss or evolutionary biologist Keith Miller. I feel like I had my head in sand even though I questioned much of what I witnessed in church. I wanted to believe. Most of the time I turned a deaf ear to my reverberating questions shouting in my head. I have my ears and eyes wide open now. I feel I am more honest about my faith but I am also skeptical. I hope in a good way. I dont believe I am cynical but I have been disappointed and disillusioned. I try to focus on the big picture of scripture and relationships with people. I don’t think in terms of black or white. I want to be open, discerning, positive, and thoughtful. I want to reflect what Jesus lived for.

  3. Nancy G.

    I know this sounds absolutely awful to say, but this is the very reason I am thankful for not having been “churched” as a youngster. My friends and relatives who were tethered to the church were not ever able to break free to find God on their own. Witnessing the certainty they expressed taught my naturally rebellious father a great deal, and he in turn taught me how to think for myself. Thank God!!

  4. To the folks at Calvin College and Seminary: Before you get a dime out of me, answer this question in a public reply to me in 4 consecutive issues of Mlive and on NPR: under a banner: 50-Year Veteran Challenges his old Seminary faculty and denomination on the basic issue, How does God save the world, and doesn’t it mean a new form of human gov’t?
    Did God secretly plan the murder of Jesus, to satisfy his implacable justice, his justice being larger than his lovingkindness and forgiveness, as the condition of his lovingkindness and forgiveness?–the murder of the eternal son of god by God the Father being a sin a billion times more criminal than all the sins of the human race taken together over all time. This is the doctrine Paul concocted (1 Cor 15:3, Rom 4:25, etc, and that ‘Christ died for our sins’ on analogy with the slaughtered lambs and goats of Leviticus), and as the Canons of Dort and Calvinism, Lutheranism, Evangelicalism, and Catholicism keep teaching so unmistakeably and so horribly vilely. God didn’t need to murder his son so we could have life. He is almighty and his lovingkindness saves us without the murder of Jesus, which gov’t committed, not God.
    Or was Jesus correct (see Mt 21:33s, pars) that the exact opposite was true, that his iminent murder was hated, deplored, condemned, and would be punished by death by God the Father—the implication that the gov’t which really executed the Sinless One would be stamped out (see Dan 2:44) the same gang of crooks that killed 300 million of us in a few world wars just a few decades ago, and continue to do so), and who rob us blind daily with lies and lobby-driven bribery and pocket-lining in our capitals by rep’s whom we no longer need to support since we have instantaneous voting power on our i-phones now, paying for exactly as much gov’t as each of us wants or can afford, like shopping for groceries), and when Jesus promised that the new Gov’t of God alone would replace the oligarchies and parties and voting blocs of crooks, to rule the earth.
    You must choose between Jesus and Paul here. You may have to loosen up your idolatrous view of the Bible a little, letting God be god, not a morocco-bound book, the book of faith in revelation, not revelation alone, hence a book that may contain some discrepancies, like this one about how Christ saves us, by placating god’s fury, or by showing us how to love. And where is the murder of Christ in the story of the Return Home of the Prodigal Son? There is no Mediator in the driveway between the picture window where the Father awaits, and the far end of the driveway where the prodigal appears one morning.
    Either Christ came to die for your sins, to satisfy god’s fury, or Christ came to live and show us how to live and how to love by the pleasure neurons his Father and our Father implanted in us (for blessed and shared happiness together as a family of God).
    And we must stop turning a blind eye upon the gov’t which does with loveless power to all people what the Roman gov’t did to Jesus, as the vile Paul let them off since they were customers to whom he sold Jerusalem-sacrifice abattoir skins to the Roman legions for profit as a tentmaker, the same Romans who had murdered Jesus in 33 and all Israel in 66-74, and even Paul and Peter themselves in 68.

    Revd Andrew Tempelman

    PhD in Philosophical Theology under Paul Tillich, Univ of Chicago, 1972 Founder and Pastor, the Fellowship of Perfect Liberty, 1977 Exam Grader in Molecular Physiology, Genetic Engineering, etc., Harvard Univ and College, 1989-91 Chairman, Vietnam Peace Committee, 1st World Conf on Relig & Peace, Kyoto, 1970 4 Kinsley Street, Nashua, NH 03060 603-930-5593 Dr-T@Comcast.net

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