The Promise and Problems of Teaching in a Confessional Context

Lilly Dialogue Panel discussion
November 15, 2001

I never intended to teach theology in an undergraduate context. When my interviewer asked for a two page reflection on my vision of Christian liberal arts education, I had to start from scratch. But teaching ‘religious studies’ in a Christian liberal arts context has been a good experience.

My teaching and research lie in four areas: First, confessional theology – for instance, teaching the introductory General Education ‘doctrine’ class. Second, historical Christian theology – what we call "theological history." In comparative religion I have taught (third) Islam and Judaism, and (fourth) theory and method in religion.

Each of these specialties has a different heritage. In my opinion, in each one modernity has been a distinct shaping (and distorting) force, postmodernity a distinctly new (and dangerous) context, and Christian location a vital source of both coherence and temptation. For instance, at a school like Westmont:

  • Confessional education can be less apologetic and more intrasystematic.
  • Historical theology can celebrate the historical location of knowledge and the narrative nature of historiography without qualifying the historian’s call to responsibility with and to the past.
  • In teaching foreign religious traditions, I can distinguish between the unfortunate otherness that distances us from those we study, and the unavoidable subjectivity in describing traditions of any kind.
  • In discussing the category of religion itself, the critical space between the modern university’s supposedly neutral context and the Christian liberal arts college’s avowedly participatory context allows us to appreciate postliberalism’s critiques of scientific approaches to religion even while guarding against the modern relativism that domesticates religious traditions under a controlling metanarrative.

All of these ‘benefits’ also introduce challenges and temptations. But these are simply the temptations of our epistemic worlds, and we are about training students to take advantages of their opportunities without falling victim to their abuses. In all of these specialties, I have found that Christian liberal arts offers coherence, resisting the intellectual fragmenting of our disciplines and our students’ worlds, while resisting against temptation. At this point in my career I would prefer teaching in a liberal arts context to teaching in a university context.

But what about my academic freedom?

At some schools, people in the sciences feel the greatest guidance (or friction) between the school’s confession and the practices of their discipline. At others, it is we who work in theology. We face the strictest scrutiny of our theological views. Our writing and teaching speak directly to the claims of the statement of faith. Our passion of revisiting, questioning, recontextualizing, and possibly rejecting rather than merely restating those claims, seems to threaten our academic freedom.

I am new here, but I am rather bold in stating what I believe. As a Christian, I have more invested in telling the truth than keeping a job. I can only say that being at home in the evangelical tradition gives me a confidence that faithful teaching and research will produce faithful results, which I can explain in a way that will build up rather than tear down the unity of my community. So far it has. I haven’t pulled any punches, and I’m still working here.

If it doesn’t – and it hasn’t so far – then my community would respect the academic integrity and honesty that would lead me into a different teaching context.

A confessional context cannot compromise my academic freedom, unless I have already compromised my academic integrity. It could only jeopardize my institutional security. It seems to me that the question facing any community – any community – is the principle of its coherence.

A community that values institutional security over philosophical coherence ceases to be a community and becomes just a collection of employees. Westmont’s principle of coherence seems to be a healthy one, which negotiating a new statement of faith – rewriting our own local canon, as it were – is demonstrating. We are truly a community, and a basically healthy one at that.

There are many evangelical schools in which I would a poor fit. At these schools, I would not be helpful to the institution, and the institution would not be helpful to me. This school has been a good fit. I know this sounds like a commercial, but I can honestly tell you that my experience has been fundamentally positive.