One of the typical characters in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, the southern Catholic writer of the 1950s and early 1960s, is the modern intellectual whose intense, analytical proclivities are often accompanied by a willful blindness to the truth of the gospel. This blindness is, admittedly, often exacerbated by the packaging the gospel has suffered at the hands of the cultural naïfs who preach it. O’ Connor’s story, “Revelation,” opens in a physician’s waiting room that contains a cross-section of southern culture, including Ruby Turpin, a farmer’s wife who prides herself on her respectable demeanor but who is actually smug, self-righteous, and hypocritical. Sitting across the room is Mary Grace, a sullen Wellesley student disgusted by the small talk and pious clichés passing between her mother and Ruby Turpin. Mary Grace knows small-mindedness when she sees it, and so when Ruby Turpin says, “If it’s one thing I am... it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!,’” Mary Grace hurls a book entitled Human Development at her, hitting her squarely over the eye. Thus the relationship between religion and higher education, O’Connor seems to be saying: nasty, brutish, and short (O’Connor 1978).
Forcibly restrained, Mary Grace is sedated, carted off in an ambulance, and disappears from the story. Ruby Turpin, however, dwells for the rest of the day on the blow she has received, especially Mary Grace’s hissed accusation that Ruby is a “warthog from hell,” and finally, in one of O’Connor’s most effective conclusions, the character realizes that she is both sinner and redeemed, both a warthog from hell and a respectable, upright woman. The college woman has had her effect on the church woman, unintentionally leading her to revelation. Unfortunately, however, so far as we know, the church woman has had no effect at all on the student. For O’Connor’s intellectuals, there is no possible wedding of faith and learning. In fact, these concepts are antagonists.
And so it has been for the past century. St. Anselm’s dictum, “I believe in order that I may understand” may have held sway in universities for several hundred years, but in today’s university culture, this integration of faith and learning appears to many to be hopelessly quaint. It is now a given that most new professors coming to Wheaton College, fresh Ph.D.’s in hand, have not experienced integrative thinking, even though many of them have chosen fields of study that would allow some personal connections between their faith and their disciplines, connections that usually must be kept private in the research university environment. The English department, for example, continually receives letters of inquiry from prospective teachers of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature, an area of study natural for the Christian scholar because it includes the greatest devotional poets of the English language. But most, if not all, of these graduate students have been encouraged, in the name of scientific objectivity, to keep the personal out of the analytical. One of my own graduate professors, for example, commented on a paper I had written on the character of Sin in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Watch your tone. It sounds as if you might believe this stuff.” Anselm’s declaration about the cohesion of belief and reason is, for all intents and purposes, dead in academia.
How did we end up in this predicament? Certainly the Reformers did not have this separation in mind. In fact, the Reformation, with its emphasis on a well-educated clergy able to equip a priesthood of all believers, was aided by the sometimes competing but often complementary influences of the Renaissance with its humanistic emphases on language training and the recovery of the classics. The scholar’s gown became the uniform of the Protestant minister. Harvard, founded in 1636 and by all definitions an American university of the Reformation, experienced a crisis in 1654 when its president, Henry Dunster, announced that he no longer could support the practice of infant baptism. As George Marsden says (in a prophetic statement he wrote in 1994),“There was no choice but for him to resign.... In the late twentieth [century], it would be like a Harvard president announcing opposition to equal opportunity for women. ”So important was theology to the mission of the university that Yale University was founded in 1701 as a response to the suspicion that Harvard was losing its sense of mission in upholding theological orthodoxy (Marsden 37,40,52).
Even though there was strong clerical control of the universities in the New World, the American nation was itself not particularly interested in promoting religious agendas in education. The strongly humanistic orientation of Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. Interested in universal public education, he tried unsuccessfully to change William and Mary from a church college to a state school. It remained under Episcopal leadership for a while longer, even though in 1780 Jefferson did convince college leadership to eliminate their professors of divinity (Marsden 70).
This was not typical of the ethos at most colleges, however. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hundreds of Christian institutions of higher learning, both Roman Catholic and evangelical, were founded. Thomas Trotter points out that the Methodists alone opened twelve hundred of these colleges, even though he also points out that only one in ten survived (Trotter 10). The clerical domination of these institutions was unquestioned. In fact, most college presidents were evangelical clergymen, and most of these regularly taught Bible courses in the college curriculum. As denominations began to found seminaries and divinity schools to train their own clergy, however, and as the Protestant colleges and universities began to emphasize less sectarian and more universal ideals, the direction and the curricular emphases of these schools began to change. As Marsden writes:
The very religious diversity of the American context thus was pushing American collegiate education in seemingly contradictory directions. On the one hand the decentralized atmosphere was conducive to free enterprise and sectarian rivalry. Each denomination started its own colleges. At the same time this centrifugal force toward fragmentation was always being countered by centripetal forces which fostered a degree of uniformity. No matter what the denominational identity and the theological issues in its background, each Protestant college had to deal with more or less the same American market. In such a free enterprise system a strong emphasis on theological distinctions could limit a college’s constituency and be a competitive disadvantage. Hence each college was more likely to emphasize the socially unifying aspects of its Christian tradition, especially its moral benefits, rather than theological peculiarities. (Marsden 80)
Soon college presidents were teaching courses in Moral Philosophy rather than Theology. As learning began to slide away from its earlier clerical sponsorship, the arguments of Enlightenment advocates began to make more sense. In 1871 the Reverend Noah Porter, in his inaugural address for the presidency of Yale University, criticized “old methods and studies” and called for “sweeping and fundamental changes” (quoted in Wind 14).
Wheaton College was founded in 1860, but it had existed for the preceding seven years as Illinois Institute, run by the Wesleyan Methodists and advertised as “an antislavery progressive school in a beautiful rolling rich prairie county” (The Wesleyan, 31 March 1853, quoted in Maas). By 1860, when Jonathan Blanchard, an ardent abolitionist, became president, the College was notably committed to educating women and African Americans. At this point, the majority of the Board of Trustees was Congregationalist, but over the succeeding few years the Illinois Congregational Association provided little financial support for the college. By 1874,Jonathan Blanchard was describing the school as Congregationalist but “unsectarian in its character... its classes comprise[d of] students of various denominations” (Maas 12). Within a few years, however, even the Congregationalist identity was compromised when Blanchard was kicked out of the denomination. His successor as president was his son Charles Blanchard, who converted to premillennial dispensationalism and formed close ties with Dwight L. Moody. President Blanchard also felt that the only true education was a classical education, and so, at a time when universities like Harvard were modernizing their curriculum, Wheaton remained tied through 1925 and Blanchard’s death to an essentially nineteenth-century, classical curriculum.
In the early years of the twentieth century, then, Wheaton was committed to classical learning but essentially untouched by the upheaval of educational values brought about by scientific inquiry and the new science; specialization, professionalism, and the emphasis on technology that was creating a revolution in the American university. Furthermore, American intellectual culture was on the brink of a new era, and just as clerical domination had declined in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, so at the beginning of the twentieth, the emphasis on denomination in universities began to be replaced by a growing concern with discipline. By this time Wheaton, too, had moved away from denominational affiliation.
At Charles Blanchard’s death in 1925, the fundamentalist pastor, J. Oliver Buswell, was named president. However, by 1940 his “militant fundamentalism” and “his insistence that evangelicals had to separate from mainline denominations” finally led to his firing. But Buswell’s legacy was to prove central to later concerns of the college. Under his leadership all faculty had been required to agree with a nine-point fundamentalist doctrinal statement. In spite of what would appear to be a narrow, fundamentalist agenda, Buswell was also “fearless about using in the classroom books written from perspectives hostile to fundamentalist—and even Christian—viewpoints” (Hamilton and Mathisen 273). The trustees replaced Buswell with V. Raymond Edman, “who reaffirmed Wheaton’s tradition of evangelical cooperation across denominational lines”(265).
Without a specific denominational affiliation, but with an intense interest in maintaining evangelical orthodoxy, Wheaton carefully had to guard its faith statement, and so it does to the present day. While many prefer to call Wheaton interdenominational or multi-denominational, the fact is that because of the plethora of denominations represented among the administration, faculty, and student body, the school tries to identify itself as broadly evangelical, and the faith statement that faculty and staff sign is designed to identify the school as committed to the tenets of classical evangelicalism apart from denomination. We use “nondenominational” to indicate that there is, in theory, no denominational competition on campus. In fact, while we keep statistics on the denominational preference of students, we keep no such statistics for faculty. While enrolled at Wheaton thirty-two percent of our students identify themselves as independent/non-denominational. The next highest percentage is, surprisingly, Anglican or Episcopalian, an affiliation claimed by fifteen percent of our students. Seven percent of our students are Presbyterian; five percent are Baptist. I do not have overall statistics for faculty, but let me describe one academic department, a central one for our purposes since it is our Biblical and Theological Studies faculty. In a faculty of twenty-five, eight identify themselves as Presbyterian, seven as non-denominational, three as Baptist, two as Pentecostal, one as Mennonite, one as Evangelical Free, one as Evangelical Covenant, one as Missionary Alliance, and one as Anglican. What is not always evident to casual onlookers is just how heterogeneous the Wheaton world is within its broadly Protestant, evangelical boundaries. Heterogeneity can often mean a lack of focus, and for that reason we have our faith statement, which affirms the sovereignty of God; the doctrine of the Trinity; the revelation of God in creation, the Scriptures, and Jesus Christ; the authority of Scripture as God’s inerrant word; the virgin birth; the resurrection of Christ; God’s direct creation of Adam and Eve; original sin; the defeat of Satan in the cross of Jesus; the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ; the forgiveness of sins through belief in Christ; the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; the strength of the holy, universal Church; the second coming of Jesus; and the resurrection of the dead. In addition, this faith statement is preceded by a preamble that “identifies the College not only with the Scriptures but also with the Reformers and the evangelical movement of recent years.”
Before a candidate for a faculty position at Wheaton can be interviewed, he or she must sign this statement and indicate where he or she might have questions. More questions come to me as Dean on the issue of inerrancy than any other feature of this statement. Wheaton’s position on this issue is highly nuanced and takes into account the variety of genres in which portions of Scripture may be written. We use the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, produced in 1978 by a summit of hundreds of evangelical leaders and scholars. However, because of general agreement that this is an outdated document that needs considerable rethinking and revision, we use it as a point of discussion with candidates who may have questions about where Wheaton stands. In other words, we use the document critically, and we do not discourage such a critical stance among our applicants. We do not use this document as a touchstone. Many at the college and many we interview are not comfortable with the term “inerrancy,” which seems to carry with it considerable fundamentalist baggage. Nevertheless, our emphasis is on sola scriptura, and we hold to our high view of Scripture.
In addition to the faith statement, Wheaton also requires faculty to support the Community Covenant, which as of three years ago replaced our old Statement of Responsibilities, which was essentially a list of prohibited behaviors. The new Community Covenant has rallied the entire campus—faculty, staff, and students— around its positive emphasis on the Christian virtues and the goal of living, working, serving, and worshipping together as an educational community centered on the Lord Jesus Christ. Most famously, the adoption of the Community Covenant at Wheaton began a new era in which dancing was no longer prohibited and the consumption of alcoholic beverages was allowed for faculty and staff. The goal of the Board of Trustees and the President was to create a description of what it means to live a gospel-centered life and to base that description on biblical precepts.
The application for faculty appointment at Wheaton requires four essays. The applicant is asked first to describe her professional expertise within her discipline, her professional growth and development since the completion of her last degree, and any current research, writing, creative, and performance projects.
The second essay asks the candidate to explain his concept of liberal arts education, with attention to how Christian faith relates to such education. If the candidate is applying for a position in the Conservatory or the Graduate School, he is asked to state his understanding of the relationship of professional and liberal arts education. This is a highly important essay and can sometimes become controversial—for example, when a senior professor with many years of teaching experience in only evangelical seminaries applies for a graduate position in our Biblical and Theological Studies department. Unless such a candidate has a strong liberal arts background in his own education, it is most likely that there will have been nothing in his experience as a faculty member that would have encouraged him to consider a liberal arts education. Even our graduate appointments in our Doctor of Psychology program or our Evangelism program require understanding of, support of, and a clear ability to articulate the liberal arts vision. In fact, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association has commended Wheaton for keeping the liberal arts at the core of its mission, even in its new Ph.D. program in Biblical and Theological Studies.
The third essay asks the applicant to describe her understanding of the relationship of the Christian faith to her discipline and, where appropriate, to discuss briefly the relationship of some contemporary issue in her discipline to Biblical themes and teachings.
Essay number four asks the applicant to describe his commitment to Christ, including his initial commitment, subsequent spiritual growth, and the expression of his faith in the life of the Church.
These essays along with a complete dossier allow a fairly complete picture to emerge in print before any interviews occur, and they allow interviewers to create informed questions for interviewees. They also signal to the applicant the level of seriousness with which Wheaton takes the endeavor of the integration of faith and learning, and of faith and living.
The Protestant pluralism so evident among Wheaton’s faculty, staff, and students creates an ethos distinct from that at an institution such as, for example, Calvin College, which requires all tenured faculty to be members of a Reformed church. On the other hand, Wheaton is also different from an institution such as Valparaiso University that maintains its Lutheranism but does not provide any formal directives to faculty or students about what the institution considers a normative belief. I myself am a Lutheran at an evangelical college. I continue to hold strong Lutheran convictions, embracing a “theology of paradoxes” at the same time that I am called upon by Wheaton to integrate Athens and Jerusalem. The process of understanding how to integrate faith and learning is ongoing, but I have learned richly from my colleagues at Wheaton—and from students who continually challenge me to bring learning and faith into the same arena. I hope, in return, my colleagues and students have learned something from me about living one’s life on the edge of paradox in the midst of two kingdoms.
And this says a lot about Wheaton. I have never felt, at any point, that in the classroom or in my research, my poetry, my critical writing, or in my institutional service, I had to be less Lutheran in order to feel comfortable or to gain tenure or to be promoted. Wheaton, in other words, takes its pluralism seriously.
David Bebbington has identified four distinctives of evangelicalism: biblicism, conversionism, evangelistic activisim, and crucicentrism (Bebbington 2–14). Like Harold Heie, I find Bebbington’s fourth characteristic, crucicentrism, not terribly helpful in discussing the ways in which evangelicalism is distinct from other traditions, since so many other traditions claim that emphasis, too, and I have not found any distinctly “evangelical” way this emphasis works itself out in daily life at Wheaton. In addition, I am not entirely certain that an explicit theology of the cross describes our efforts in the integration of faith and learning (Heie 247). But the other three distinctives are evident in the ethos of Wheaton College and in the formation of our mission and our expectations for faculty.
To begin with, biblicism is certainly an emphasis at a school where the Bible requirement is a hefty fourteen hours. Heie’s fear that biblicism deflects attention from serious study in the academic disciplines at evangelical schools is challenged at Wheaton by a curriculum that demands intellectual commitment. One of the benefits of having an academically astute student body is that faculty can assume that these students are intellectually ready for serious study. More than occasionally, however, their theological background, or lack of it, is problematic. The emphasis on biblicism in the culture that has nurtured these students means that they enter Wheaton with a certain biblical orientation, however unsophisticated it might be. But only a small handful of Wheaton students, usually those from Reformed backgrounds, enters with what could be called by any stretch of the imagination a theological orientation. Too often their theology is nothing more than a collection of Bible verses. This puts a burden upon professors to create an environment for students to think theologically about literature or sociology or history. Our faculty must be biblically and theologically astute. We recognize that this does not happen by osmosis. While many faculty come to us with formal theological training, many do not, and so we make an intentional effort to educate them in the endeavor of faith and learning, giving all new faculty release time in order to participate in a weekly Faith and Learning seminar. By the end of their fifth year at Wheaton, they must have written a paper to demonstrate the integration of their faith with their discipline.
Another problem Wheaton professors face with students who have a biblicist background is the confusion of the theological with the personal, and we look for faculty who will be able to lead our students to deeper theological insights than the students would ordinarily be able to attain on their own. For example, in a seventeenth-century British literature class, students are often fascinated by the devotional poetry of John Donne and George Herbert, and they are eager to connect the poetry with biblical sources and their own spiritual struggles. This is an important first step in active reading, and it often creates a palpable level of excitement in the classroom, but it can also lead to naïve and incomplete readings if students stop too soon. Because of their experience in Bible studies that emphasize the self-interpreting nature of Scripture, students occasionally conclude that their own feelings and superficial analyses are sufficient, that putting Scripture or their studies in the context of an intellectual, historical tradition other than evangelicalism is unnecessary. Heie calls this approach a “questionable intuitionist epistemology” (Heie 248). Students must learn to move beyond themselves to larger intellectual and theological contexts. The integration of faith and learning, in other words, that happens in an evangelical classroom must move beyond the private to the public, beyond dwelling on one’s own personal relationship with Christ to looking outward to the concerns of the church everlasting. This requires spiritual discipline and intellectual rigor on the part of both students and faculty.
Bebbington’s second evangelical distinctive, conversionism, has led to some singular events in Wheaton’s history. “Bebbington uses the word conversionism to refer to the ‘belief that lives need to be changed,’ that persons need to ‘turn away from their sins in repentance and to Christ in faith.’ Some evangelicals emphasize the ‘deep feeling’ experienced when such a conversion takes place. Some evangelicals also emphasize the view that the tell-tale signs that such a transformation has taken place are a deep desire to immerse oneself in the spiritual disciplines, such as personal prayer and Bible study, and a renunciation of certain lifestyle habits deemed incompatible with the Christian faith” (Heie 251). In our candidates for positions at Wheaton we look for evidence of all of the spiritual disciplines, especially an active prayer life and a commitment to serious study of the written word of God in the holy scriptures.
The emphasis on the experience of conversion has led at Wheaton to a corresponding interest in revival and spiritual renewal, and we look for faculty who can provide wise leadership in this area. This is, by the way, where a stodgy old Lutheran such as myself can only cough and stammer. Revivals have occurred periodically on the campus, the most recent taking place during the spring of 1995. During one week of intensely felt movement of the Holy Spirit, hundreds on the campus participated in public confession and repentance. The spirit of reconciliation was strong. Many students expressed the desire to sustain an experience, which they referred to as a “spiritual high.” They did not want the experience to fade away. Like Peter during the Transfiguration, they wanted to sustain the moment, to build their huts for Moses and Elijah, to keep the mountaintop experience alive and real and tangible.
That this one week happened to occur during Lent, a very appropriate time for confession and repentance, was largely unrecognized by the community because except for Christmas and Easter the evangelical world largely ignores the seasons of the church year. Such a recognition could have led to healthy results, especially to the understanding that spiritual growth occurs in seasonal spurts, and that confession and repentance always lead the Christian to the cross and then beyond the cross to the Resurrection. Lent leads us to Easter. Who, understanding this, would want to hang on to Lent and lament its passing?
But at Wheaton and in the evangelical world there is occasionally a resistance to the notion that we are a part of a tradition that has existed for two thousand years, not one hundred. The result is that we are tempted to remain centered on ourselves and our own spiritual health, and we need to be reminded, constantly, that our own individual story is part of a much bigger story that is the history of the church. If we are to be proactive in the integration of religion with higher education, we have to recognize this important truth. I am particularly interested in recruiting faculty who can help us negotiate between the worlds of the old fundamentalism and the mainline Protestant churches and who understand evangelicalism as a movement rooted in the history of the church.
Evangelistic activisim, the third distinctive of evangelicalism, is readily apparent on the Wheaton campus in the emphasis on missions in day-to-day campus life and in the sheer number of extracurricular “ministries” that involve students in active evangelism in area churches, urban sites, prisons, youth hostels, overseas projects, and the like. To their credit, students do needed evangelistic work in these areas, often under the supervision of lay professionals. However, the emphasis on this kind of “doing” that focuses on the immediacy of results often creates a conflict for the young scholar whose studies also require a commitment. In discussing this issue, Nathan Hatch has referred to the evangelical heresy: the belief that God was in the creation business but he retired to go into full-time ministry. Faculty are expected to be active in their local congregations, and so we also look for active church involvement in applicants, requiring a letter of recommendation from the current pastor of the church they attend. For our faculty, this is just a way of life and they could imagine no other. In addition, many participate in an annual Faculty Missionary Project. One notable faculty couple, living out the Mennonite habit of hospitality, open their home to any student who wants to attend Thursday night dinner and discussions. Sometimes they serve ten; sometimes fifty.
Strong teaching, excellent spiritual modeling, a record of institutional service, and recognition as a scholar are the basic requirements for promotion and tenure at the College. Thirty years ago Wheaton professors could probably receive tenure based upon the first three criteria. Now, however, more emphasis than in the past is placed on strong scholarship. One senses the growing conviction that one must be a steward of one’s talents, and that intellectual, scholarly pursuits are proper and appropriate activities for a different kind of evangelism, one that pushes Christian scholars into the academic fray, bringing them face-to-face with scholars from the secular universities.
At this point, I would like to mention some of the challenges we face as we endeavor to hire for mission at Wheaton.
Our first challenge: We have considerable difficulty finding women for our Biblical and Theological Studies faculty. Presently we have the embarrassingly low number of three women out of twenty-five faculty in that department. In an important new book by Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine D. Pohl—Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism, and the Theological Academy—the authors report on a lengthy survey they completed of evangelical women teaching in the evangelical theological academy. They discovered that most “evangelical women in the academy find themselves living on the boundary between feminism and evangelicalism or on the boundaries between the multiple forms of both feminism and evangelicalism” (12). They conclude that “evangelical academic women attempt to do theology in contexts not often open to feminist voices, contexts where the very presence of women as theological leaders can raise alarm.... Sometimes the effort required to stay in the conversation is all-absorbing. What theologically trained women are able to do must be accomplished between the cracks, so to speak, and will be in some way a dialogue between a feminist consciousness and a biblically informed life-world. Looking back and forth across this divide, our theological intuitions are sharpened and the dialogue becomes richer as vertical and horizontal dimensions of faith are informed by evangelical understandings and feminist insights” (150–51). I hope that we are about doing just that at Wheaton; I am sure, however, that we can do it better. We are doing very much better in other departments. For years, the English department, for example, had only two women faculty out of twelve. That number is now seven out of twelve.
A similar challenge faces us in finding and keeping faculty of color. In spite of evangelicalism’s early identification with the abolitionists—and Wheaton’s—something happened in the early years of the twentieth century when social activism and evangelicalism parted company. At this point liberalism and social activism began to be linked more and more, and evangelicals became more identifiable as political conservatives. Now, of course, one of the problems evangelicals face is that they are often identified with white, middle-class suburbia in red states. Thus we face a challenge in making ourselves attractive to candidates of color who often are very much in demand at schools perceived as being more inclusive.
Another challenge: As David Jeffrey posited in a lecture a few years ago at Wheaton, the future of the Christian university or college depends upon the establishment of a strong theological core for the institution, not a small feat for an evangelical college struggling with the scarcity of systematic theologians to help support this ideal. The evangelical world is replete with biblical scholars, but we have not, traditionally, trained many strong theologians. This provides a most immediate challenge for any Dean of Humanities and Theological Studies at Wheaton. It is a truism that it is difficult to define evangelical theology precisely and that evangelical theologians are a rare breed. In decades past, the assumption at Wheaton was that philosophy filled the gap and provided the driving force for the integration of faith and learning, but we have become increasingly aware of the fact that the philosophical model often does not take us far enough. Wheaton’s future as a viable Christian liberal arts college depends on a new, central emphasis on Biblical studies and theology in partnership with philosophy and English and history and the sciences, to name a few, and an articulation of a pronouncedly evangelical Christology. The whole package is important. Wheaton College sees Scripture as the foundation and the core. Reasoning outward from Scripture requires all of the scholars in the Biblical Studies department, in some form or another, to be theologians, extending beyond Scripture to engage contemporary questions. The center of the effort to be a Christian liberal arts college should be a Biblical and Theological Studies department that works hard to become the core of the college. We have in recent years embarked on a campaign to hire more systematic theologians. Up until five years ago, we had only two systematicians. Now we have nine, but this year we will attempt to hire three tenure-track lines to replace three lines that have been filled with temporary appointments. The good news is that, evidently, there are scores of young evangelical theologians out there. So far, we have 150 applicants.
In being careful to preserve its identity, in guarding its statement of faith so carefully, in demonstrating a hyper-awareness over the past one hundred years of the trend of the American University to travel, as George Marsden put it in the subtitle of his book, from “Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief,” Wheaton risks insularity. We must be careful that in our zealousness to preserve our heritage we do not cut ourselves off from important conversations. One immediate problem we face is finding a medieval philosopher. The strongest candidates in this area are, predictably, Roman Catholic, but we do not hire non-Protestant faculty. Thus we are facing the tension between preserving our identity with the Protestant Reformation and remaining open to the kind of academic discourse that having Catholics on our faculty would allow us. As Walker Percy said in his essay, “How to be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic,” “Catholic or Protestant, [the believing writer] is equally unhappy. He feels like Lancelot in search of the Holy Grail who finds himself at the end of his quest at a Tupperware party” (Percy 180).
Evident is an increasing level of frustration both within and outside the academy over its secular categories, and a growing recognition that the academy is poorer because no one within it is making truth claims. Now is the moment for evangelical Protestant Christian scholars to act: by publishing in the secular university presses, by strengthening their position within professional organizations, and by taking advantage of the help of foundations such as Lilly and Pew, which not only support in strong measure evangelical scholarly initiatives but which allow and encourage a conversation to occur among representatives from all of the schools that take their faith roots seriously. We must also realize that all of us, whether Catholic or Protestant, must confront the most familiar criticism of Christians that the secular world offers—that we are, all of us, hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another. Only those with no standards can say they are not guilty of hypocrisy.
It has been fifteen years since Nicholas Wolterstorff defined the first two phases of Wheaton’s history as “withdrawal from culture,” and “engagement with culture,” and then called for a new, third stage of “commitment to social transformation” (Bratt and Wells 42–43, quoting Wolterstorff 14–18). The obstacles have been articulated by Marsden and Noll, and there are many. In his 1995 inaugural address at Calvin College, Gaylen J. Byker spoke of the necessity for “embracing the tensions in Christian higher education,” not running from them (Byker 11–19). Comparing life in the contemporary Christian academy with the uncertainty, surprise, and tension of the parables, he challenged Calvin faculty to live the unknown endings, to embrace the tensions between piety and intellect, between teaching and scholarship, between the individual and community, between modern science and eternal truth. So it must be for Wheaton faculty as well. We spend much time trying to figure out God’s will for us and for our institution. We spend much time trying to resolve tensions that will not disappear. Instead, we must take seriously the command to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and all of our strength and all of our mind. We must learn to live and teach those conflicts that create the tensions between religion and higher education. We must engage the secular academic world with mind, body, and spirit. To that end, the Catholic novelist Ron Hansen gives advice,“We try to be formed and held and kept by Christ, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me” (Hansen 179).
This kind of freedom is risky and often in tension with some of the evangelical distinctives. It is a freedom not necessarily comfortable for evangelicals. But it is a freedom that increasingly energizes Wheaton students and faculty.
In Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, Hazel Motes is preaching his unusual sermon on the street in front of a movie theater.
“What church you belong to, you boy there?” Haze asked, pointing at the tallest boy in the red satin lumberjacket.
The boy giggled.
“You then,” he said impatiently, pointing at the next one. “What church you belong to?”
“Church of Christ,” the boy said in a falsetto to hide the truth.
“Church of Christ!” Haze repeated. “Well, I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”
“He’s a preacher,” one of the women said. “Let’s go.”
“Listen, you people, I’m going to take the truth with me wherever I go,” Haze called. “I’m going to preach it to whoever’ll listen at whatever place. I’m going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.”
The next morning he knocks on the door of a boarding house and the landlady answers. He announces that he is looking for a room.
“What you do?” she asked. She was a tall bony woman, resembling the mop she carred upside-down.
He said he was a preacher.
The woman looked at him thoroughly and then she looked behind him at his car. “What church?” she asked.
He said the Church Without Christ.
“Protestant? she asked suspiciously, “or something foreign?”
He said no mam, it was Protestant.
Non-denominational schools must guard against defining themselves with the negative: what we are against, what we do not do. We must move beyond the “non” in “non-denominational” and focus on our mission statement, which reads, “Wheaton College exists to help build the church and improve society worldwide by promoting the development of whole and effective Christians through excellence in programs of Christian higher education.” This mission expresses our commitment to do all things “for Christ and his Kingdom.”
Jill Peláez Baumgaertner is Professor of English and Dean of Humanities and Theological Studies at Wheaton College.
Bebbington,David. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Unwin Hyman,1989.
Bratt,James D. and Ronald A. Wells. “Piety and Progress.”In Keeping Faith. Ronald A. Wells,ed. Grand Rapids:Eerdmans,1996.
Byker,Gaylen J. “The Embarrassment of Riches.” In Keeping Faith. Ronald A. Wells,ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
Creegan, Nicola Hoggard and Christine D. Pohl. Living on the Boundaries. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity, 2005.
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