A Sobering Diagnosis for Christian Higher Education

WIPFSTOCK_Template

A Future for American Evangelicalism

A FUTURE FOR AMERICAN EVANGELICALISM: COMMITMENT, OPENNESS, AND CONVERSATION
HAROLD HEIE
WIPF & STOCK, 2015
156 PAGES
$20

With the publication of A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation, Harold Heie, one of the giants of evangelical Christian higher education in North America, presents us once again with an innovatively constructed book. Full disclosure requires that I mention my participation in an earlier volume of similar type, titled Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation (Abilene Christian University Press, 2014). Both volumes are built upon lengthy online conversations involving a number of evangelical scholars responding to questions posed by Heie. The final text of the book consists of extensive quotations from these interactions, selected and arranged in a way that allows Heie to pursue his own line of argumentation. What results is not quite a single-author work but not quite a multiauthor collection, either. Heie is the listed author of the book, and that ends up being appropriate because the final product does offer his take on the issues covered – though deeply informed by the very commitment to collegial, open-minded, humble conversation that is the hallmark of Heie’s work.

The subject of this book is indeed “the future of American evangelicalism.” The issues it tackles include evangelicalism and the broader Christian tradition, the exclusivity of Christianity, the modern study of Scripture, morality, politics, science (notably human origins) and higher education.

The conversation partners Heie assembled to help him think through these issues are predominantly self-identified evangelicals, most of whom serve in recognizably evangelical institutions. The names I immediately recognized included Vincent Bacote (Wheaton), Randall Balmer (Dartmouth), Justin Barnard (Union), Amy Black (Wheaton), Peter Enns (Eastern), John Franke (Yellowstone), C. Ben Mitchell (Union), Richard Mouw (Fuller), Wyndy Corbin Reuschling (Ashland), Kurt Richardson (Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics), Sarah Ruden (visiting professor, Brown), Mark Sargent (Westmont), Corwin Smidt (Calvin), John Wilson (Books & Culture), Molly Worthen (UNC) and Amos Yong (Fuller). It’s an impressive list that would have been more compelling if they all had participated with similar levels of engagement. As already noted, in the end, Heie sifts through these voices to offer his own perspective.

OPENING SPACE

There is a perhaps inevitable mismatch between the vastness of the topics named and the brevity of the treatment each receives. What results is a spare sketch of major issues in each area, along with some suggested directions of response. The general trajectory of each discussion tends toward opening up space within the evangelical community for a wide range of possible approaches, along with criticism of excessive narrowness.

The chapter on science offers a good example of Heie’s approach. He begins by identifying a lamentable “anti-science stance in some streams of evangelicalism.” He then explores a number of possibilities related to the “interface between science and religion.” He identifies obstacles on both the science side and the religion side to having “a respectful conversation about human origins.” Finally he explores divergences and possible common ground in current evangelical conversations about human origins. Here it is most interesting to see Heie allow space in the big evangelical tent for those who do not believe in the historicity of Adam and Eve and those who do not accept Paul’s claim that Adam’s sin is the origin of death. He is able to make such space because he believes that what really matters to evangelical identity are core theological commitments that are not actually threatened by views of human origins that some might consider unorthodox.

FAITH VERSUS INQUIRY

The most interesting discussion in this volume concerns the topic on which Heie has the most expertise and to which he has devoted the bulk of his career – evangelical Christian higher education. Given Heie’s career, his conclusion is shocking: “I have come to the hard-earned conclusion that the ‘conversations toward Truth’ ideal that I embrace [for evangelicals, and for higher education] has greater potential for realization at faith-based institutions that [Robert] Benne identifies as ‘Critical-Mass’” rather than at “orthodox institutions.”

As I see it, Heie argues that faculty members everywhere, including at Christian schools, need to be given space to pursue “conversations toward truth.” However, sometimes when they pursue truth, they bump up against the stated doctrinal commitments of the schools they serve. Or they encounter implicit rather than explicit boundaries of acceptable belief. Or they rile up powerful constituencies, which place pressure on the school. Tensions reach breaking points.

Many experiences of conflicts that have erupted in these situations now demonstrate that “orthodox” (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities-type) schools cannot “create a safe space that welcomes a variety of alternative views regarding a current core theological belief,” Heie says, especially if that belief has made it into the current doctrinal statement. This makes it impossible to pursue the kind of intellectual inquiry that is the very heart of scholarship, including Christian scholarship. And that is why, apparently, critical-mass schools that permit some faculty to dissent from prevailing institutional doctrinal commitments are to be preferred, at least in this fundamental dimension of the work of higher education. This includes, as far as I can determine, none of the schools Heie actually has served during his career. Wow.

The challenge to evangelical Christian higher education could hardly be more acute. A man who devoted his life to such institutions only to follow the evidence to this particularly painful truth is devoutly to be respected. Everyone who cares about evangelicalism and its versions of higher education must pay attention.

David P. Gushee teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta and Macon, Georgia.