Thomas Albert Howard
L'affaire Hochschild and Evangelical Colleges
The Wall Street Journal did evangelical higher education and, just maybe, the task of Christian unity a favor when it published a front-page story on the plight of Joshua Hochschild (January 7, 2006). A philosophy professor at Wheaton College, Hochschild was dismissed from the faculty after converting to Catholicism. The president of Wheaton, Duane Litfin, ruled Catholic theology incompatible with Wheaton's statement of faith, to which all faculty assent at the beginning of their careers and renew upon signing their annual contracts, a customary practice at many evangelical colleges.
L'affaire Hochschild, as we might call it, is but the latest manifestation of a simmering conflict of opinion over how evangelical colleges should posture themselves toward the future. In many respects, the episode at Wheaton mirrors another celebrated incident from the1980s, when the literary critic Thomas Howard (no relation, oddly enough) was obliged to resign from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts (my home institution) after converting to Catholicism. Like Hochschild, Howard wistfully boxed his books, but his departure raised more questions than it settled. Hochschild's departure raises similar questions.
Is an evangelical liberal arts college (i.e., not a seminary and not a church), and one that prides itself on intellectual engagement, served by a statutory environment that effectively excludes all Catholics, and indeed most non-evangelical Christians, from the faculty ranks? Having commendably avoided the seductions of secularism in the 20th century, do evangelical collegessuch as, say, Wheaton, Taylor, Gordon, and Westmontnow suffer from another problem: superattenuated retrenchment, a defensiveness increasingly unbecoming in a world in which many evangelicals look upon the legacy of Mother Teresa about as favorably as that of Billy Graham? By refusing even the possibility of a single Catholic faculty memberincluding self-described "born again" Catholics or those with deep sympathy for Protestant theologyare evangelical colleges failing to take seriously the biblical mandate for Christian unity? Would the prospects of genuine ecumenical work be improved if evangelicalism's best and brightest had a chance to rub shoulders with a Catholic scholar or two during their college years?
While the Wall Street Journal article prompts such questions, it misconstrues an important aspect of the contemporary Christian intellectual scene. Its author attributes the firing of Hochschild to a "new orthodoxy" sweeping through church-related higher education, a novel vigilance to uphold the religious mission of Christian colleges. This rings true in some respects, especially for mainline Protestant or Catholic institutions trying to recover religious identities compromised by historical forces analyzed trenchantly in James Burtchaell's The Dying of the Light (1998).
But the problem with many evangelical colleges is not necessarily the dying of the light, but rather hiding it under a bushel, a determined attachment to the certainties of a subculture derived from fairly recent historical experience at the expense of new, promising opportunities for theological depth and ecumenical engagement. Indeed, the phrase "new orthodoxy" for many evangelical scholars today, far from conjuring up strictures in hiring, will call to mind Thomas Oden's recent book, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (2003). A Methodist theologian at Drew University dispirited by the trajectory of liberal Protestantism, Oden has long called for a "new ecumenism," not the ecumenism in which social concerns often edged out doctrinal considerations, but a unity built around Nicene Christianity, a robust doctrine of the church, and reengagement with a shared apostolic and patristic heritage. Oden's call for an orthodox ecumenismone that elides while still recognizing the significance of 16th-century conflictshas been borne out in numerous scholarly projects in recent years. The cumulative impact of these efforts on evangelical thought and culture has been estimable.
Consider, for example, the trends analyzed in Colleen Carroll's The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (2002). A journalist interested in the religious climate among young people today, Carroll documents the enormous interest in ancient, liturgical Christianity among younger, educated evangelicalssometimes leading to conversion to Orthodoxy or Catholicism, more often leading to greater attentiveness to tradition and ecclesiology, almost invariably leading to criticism of stale Protestant-Catholic polemics and a weariness with the fearmongering anti-Catholicism that has pervaded much of twentieth-century evangelicalism.
And this brings us to the rub. The Hochschild case at Wheaton has a recognizable generational-cum-theological aspect, a conflict between those who want to circle the wagons around 20th-century evangelical doctrinal formulations (above all, a pinched definition of biblical inerrancy increasingly qualified or disavowed by evangelical theologians), encoded pointedly in faith statements, and those who believe that the fullness of Christian expression predates and transcends the wisdom of the last few generations. Put differently: on the one hand, younger faculty and many students (with some sympathetic administrators and trustees) increasingly feel that if evangelical institutions do not broaden their faith statements in the direction of orthodoxy (in Oden's sense), they risk intellectual narrowness and impoverish students' ability to act upon Scripture's ecumenical mandate. On the other hand, many senior administrators, such as those at Wheaton, and many trustees (with some sympathetic faculty and students), equate tampering with existing faith statements as a dive onto the slippery slope of secularism. If colleges alter their faith statements, President Litfin of Wheaton writes in his recent book Conceiving the Christian College (2004), the ultimate destination is "entirely predictable": "the institution will wind up just another formerly religious school, basically secular in reality if not in name."
To be fair, Litfin's worries are not unfounded: the evangelical schools that make up the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) don't need to look very far to find examples of once-Christian colleges long estranged from their original mission. As I have become acquainted with robustly Christian institutions and those living off the capital of a former glory, I'm persuaded that the future lies with the former, not the latter. Judicious hiring practices and faith statements therefore remain of abiding importance, not only to ensure a clear mission butand one can argue this on liberal groundsto nourish a rich institutional diversity in higher education. CCCU colleges have contributed greatly to this diversity, not by "celebrating diversity" in the abstract, but by being attentive to their actual mission.
And yetand yet. As Carroll's The New Faithful and other analyses suggest, we are living in a new era. Not only are the anathemas, divisions, and stereotypes of the 16th-century breach breaking down all around us at last, but also the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early 20th century, which account for much of the embattled sense of present-day evangelicalism, are increasingly remote from current challenges. If one uses political clout, publishing notice, and church attendance as barometers of cultural authority, evangelicals are now in the driver's seat with respect to certain aspects of American society. (It bears remembering that power corrupts, as Lord Acton famously said, and power that retains an embattled sense of powerlessness, is, well, Acton would have something pithy to say about this too.)
Signs of the new understanding across formerly hostile lines are aplenty and, for some, the catalogue below is a familiar one, but it's important for Christian educators, not just scholars, to take these into consideration as they consider the future. Particular importance should be attributed to the following:
The watershed of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), especially the Council's Decree on Ecumenism (Unitati Redintegratio), which made clear that "both sides were to blame" for the "crisis" of the 16th century, that "truly Christian endowments" exist outside the Church of Rome, and that greater cooperation with "separated brethren" was a theological necessity.
A massive shift in opinion over the past few decades among evangelicals in their attitudes toward Catholics, from viewing them as apostates and threats to the American way of life to partners promoting a "culture of life"or what Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School has memorably described as an "ecumenism of the trenches."
The historic papacy of John Paul II and his efforts toward mutual understanding, expressed best in Ut Unum Sint ("That they be one"), in which he even suggested that the Petrine Office is "open to a new situation" to promote ecumenical progress.
Tremendous theological rapprochement, especially on the crucial doctrine of justification, the major point of contention during the Reformation. For many, the signing of the Joint Declaration on Justification in 1999 by representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signaled the beginning of an hitherto unimaginable theological era.
A greater understanding of the "catholicity" of the Reformation itself, as promoted by leading American Protestant theologians such as Carl Braaten and Robert W. Jenson in their book, The Catholicity of the Reformation (1996).
The shift of Christianity's center of gravity from the Atlantic North to the Global South and an attendant necessity for cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, lest 16th-century-style conflicts repeat themselves to the detriment of a compelling witness.
The willingness of key thinkers, Protestant and Catholic, to point out the closing gap between former divisions. Witness Karl Lehman and Wolfhart Pannenberg's The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? (1990) and Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom's Is the Reformation Over? (2005), extensively treated in these pages.
Numerous collective efforts of unofficial theological cooperation, most notably in this country in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative spearheaded by Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson.
Greater efforts among some evangelical colleges to foster ecumenical understanding. The faculty at Gordon College, I'm proud to say, has begun relationships with St. Anselm's College, a neighboring Benedictine institution, and Hellenic College, a Greek Orthodox college, for the purpose of conversation and mutual instruction.
The considerable influence of what we might call the "Taizé ethos" among young people, and this French community's commitment to serve as "a concrete sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and separated peoples."
What do these developments add up to for evangelical higher education in general and for the maintenance of exclusionary faith statements in particular? How should schools proceed prudentially in this heady climate, faced with partisan A, who would like to abolish all faith statements in the name of academic freedom, and partisan B, who would reify current arrangements in perpetuity? Both partisans, I should reiterate, have good cause for their arguments and both recognize that genuine principles of intellectual integrity are at stake, not to mention practical concerns about alumni loyalty, faculty morale, student recruiting, and the like.
Let me suggest two provisional measures, which, although perhaps not entirely pleasing to the partisans, might at least create the necessary space for greater dialogue and understanding.
First, schools might consider establishing a working study group to examine the current faith statement, its rationale, and the intervening theological developments since its inception. For many evangelical colleges, present-day faith statements precede the aforementioned developments; many reflect lingering overtures to fundamentalist positions in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the twentieth century, which played out in a general Protestant milieu of entrenched anti-Catholicism. Such a study group could read together various documents, and present findings and recommendations to the faculty, administration, and board of trustees. Conversation often produces more conversation, and questioning can lead to questioning, but you have to start some place. Redoubled stasis is rarely the hallmark of dignified purpose.
Second, in light of the aforementioned developments, schools might consider an "exception clause" to current hiring practices. While maintaining current faith statements, this would recognize that certain scholars exist, Catholics but also Orthodox or mainline Protestants, who, while unable to sign the current statement, would not only respect but sympathetically engage the mission of the institution and offer themselves as a valuable conversation partner. Such an exception clause could even be designed restrictively, requiring for any given candidate the assent of the faculty senate and key administrators. This would not swing open the flood gates, but it might create the statutory possibility of, say, a Catholic of good will donning cap and gown on evangelical campuses, countering the tendency of such institutions to become, as someone quipped, coddling cocoons of the like-minded. Students would benefit enormously, for they would have the opportunity to hear the actual idiom of a "separated" brother or sister and they would thereby gain greater understanding of the distinctiveness of their own faith. All too easily, I have discovered, evangelical students can finish their undergraduate years with misperceptions of Catholicism inherited from their subculture largely intact. He who knows only one, knows none, the poet Goethe said about language. The same applies to expressions of the faith; young evangelicals need encounters with non-evangelical Christians not just to understand "the other" but to understand themselves.
What is more, an exception clause would amount to a principled measure on behalf of the institution. In the history of higher education, indeed in the history of most institutions, statutory changes are provoked, belatedly and awkwardly, by crisis and controversy. One could readily imagine, for example, a faculty member converting to Catholicism and then suing a college for discrimination if forced to leave her post. Presently, the courts might give preference to the institution in such a case, but this is a trend in jurisprudence that colleges shouldn't bet the farm on. Or, a college might act unbecomingly from pecuniary interest alone, after, for instance, some future study demonstrated a significant number of ecumenically inclined ("new faithful") parents are withholding their children and dollars from evangelical institutions for fear of a narrow education. (Alas, from anecdotal evidence, I know this is already taking placeand I have even heard promising young evangelical scholars express a preference not to teach at evangelical colleges, fearful of too restricted a range of theological outlook.)
Instead, it's better to proceed upon theological principle and an astute reading of the times. For Christian educators, the virtue of prudence might sometimes demand an impassioned defense of the status quo, but this is not an inexorable law. What appears as a high-minded defensive strategy from present seats of authority risks appearing as unimaginative and narrowly preservationist from the standpoint of the future. And this precisely is the challenge (and opportunity) of evangelical educational leadership today. In addressing the challenge, it bears remembering that the task of leadership is not simply to express the loyalties of one's constituents, but also to educate these loyalties in the direction of more capacious understanding and deeper propriety. Such actions might prove unpopular in the short term, but right action and popularity have always had a strained relationship.
The present challenge is especially pertinent to the current generation of educators who stand proudly in the reform or neo-evangelical tradition, associated with figures such as Carl Henry and Harold J. Ockenga. These thinkers, it will be remembered, rose to the occasion in the mid-20th century to challenge American fundamentalism for shortchanging the life of the mind and downplaying the need for social engagement. Carl Henry's Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, in particular, stands out as a signpost of forward thinking in an otherwise uninspiring time for conservative Protestantism. Thankfully, great strides have been made with respect to intellectual seriousness and social engagement since the mid-20th centuryand it bears noting that already in 1947 Henry spoke of a "truly spiritual ecumenicity" and the need to reconnect American evangelicalism to "the Great Tradition" of historic Christian orthodoxy.
Nevertheless, evangelical higher education still has an uneasy conscience to reckon with. The issue today is different from but perhaps not altogether unrelated to the one that Henry and Ockenga faced. In short, it's a failure to understand that cultural authority necessitates greater magnanimity toward others, and that Christ's words about Christian unity remain an imperative, not an option. Evangelicals need not fear the occasional non-evangelical Christian scholar in their midst, treating her like a infection to be excised. Rather, evangelicals should and can develop the institutional self-confidence to play the role of magnanimous host, recognizing in fact that there are certain crucial "other" voices that they should want among them. Indeed, what reflective evangelical parent in America today would not want the future Flannery O'Connor, G. K. Chesterton, or J. R. R. Tolkein to instruct their children?
But at an even deeper level, evangelical institutions should question the wisdom of current arrangements because they work against one of evangelicalism's strengths: taking seriously the Great Commission. In Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17, He prays explicitly for the unity of the church: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." Unity, and the fellowship it presupposes, makes truth attractive to those outside the fold; for, as Christ continues, "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (NRSV).
In the final analysis, the decision to welcome sympathetic Catholic scholars in the house of evangelical education should flow from the heart of the Gospel itself: from the evangelical concern about the Great Commission. Evangelism divorced from ecumenism, rightly understood, vitiates the cause it putatively serves. Evangelical liberal arts colleges are neither missionary agencies nor churches; they are not, in other words, on the front lines in proclaiming the gospel, baptizing and making disciples. But they are seats of intellectual growth, where young people can learn to think seriously and theologically; where ideas can be exchanged and improved upon; and alas, where divisions within the church's history might be understood and, with grace, worked to overcome. Without an occasional flesh-and-blood Catholic on the faculty, this task is enormously compromised. And herein lies the cause of a new uneasy conscience.
Thomas Albert Howard is Associate Professor of History and the Director of the Jerusalem & Athens Forum at Gordon College. He recently published Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford, 2006).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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