According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Progressive Christianity & The Politics of the Conservative Christian Faith

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

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The Fundamentalist Witch Hunt’s New Prey

by Karl W. Giberson
April 21, 1955
Thomas Oord, former NNU Theologian

A beloved professor forced from a Nazarene university this month is the latest casualty in a war that’s being waged against thinking evangelical Christians.

Evangelicals have just voted another intellectual off their island.

On the eve of April Fools’ Day, while on vacation in Hawaii with his wife, Professor Tom Oord got an email from the president of Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) notifying him that he was being terminated. NNU is one of eight schools sponsored by the evangelical denomination Church of the Nazarene.

Oord was a tenured full professor—the highest rank in academia—who had been on the NNU faculty for 13 years, after several years as my colleague at Eastern Nazarene College. Oord was the university’s leading scholar, with 20 books on his CV; by most measures he was also the denomination’s leading scholar and one of a tiny number of Nazarene theologians whose reputations reached beyond evangelicalism. Oord had won multiple teaching awards and was wildly popular with students and respected by his colleagues. He had brought over a million dollars of grant money to the university—a remarkable accomplishment for a professor at a small, unsung liberal arts college.

Oord, however, was controversial.

He strongly supported evolution and had long been a target of creationists in the denomination. He embraced “open theism,” the view that God does not know the future but responds in love—rather than [Calvinism's] coercive control—to events as they occur, rather than foreordaining everything. Fundamentalist critics called him a heretic and had been vying for his termination for years. But Oord was also gentle and pastoral, especially with students.

As I write these words hundreds of dismayed NNU students are wearing bright-red shirts on campus, emblazoned with Oord’s motto: “I choose to live a life of love.” Almost 2,000 people, many of them current and former students, have joined a Facebook group called “Support Tom Oord” (just renamed “Support Tom Oord & NNU) in the past two weeks.

“American evangelicalism’s failure to make peace with the progressive scholars within its ranks—or even keep the conversation going—has alienated it from a broad range of scholarship.”

Getting rid of tenured faculty requires administrative creativity. In Oord’s case a small downturn in graduate enrollment cracked open a legal door that allowed the president to declare a financial problem. Curiously, this financial problem required the termination of only one faculty member. Even more curious, this financial problem came in a year of record overall enrollment when NNU was celebrating its great financial health in press releases.

NNU’s president, David Alexander, has denied on several occasions that Oord was targeted. In an April 15 letter to “NNU alumni and supports” he “assured” readers that his wildly unpopular decision was “not focused on any single individual.”

Alexander and Oord, however, have been at odds for years. As recently as last year Alexander informed Oord that he would not be returning because a theological review board was investigating him and was about, in so many words, to declare him a heretic. Such a declaration would remove Oord’s status as an “Ordained Elder in the Church of the Nazarene” and make him unsuitable to serve as a professor of religion in a Nazarene college. Prior to that, Oord’s course load had been restricted by President Alexander to quiet the concerns of fundamentalists.

I asked on the “Support Tom Oord” Facebook page if anyone believed Alexander was telling the truth in his claims that he was not targeting Oord. No one does. Apparently on April 14 NNU faculty met and overwhelmingly voted “no-confidence” in the president. The trustees have now launched an investigation into the entire affair; the president has apologized in writing to the faculty for losing their trust; and Oord's termination is "on hold" although not rescinded.

Thomas Oord, Philosopher Theologian
The controversy at NNU is, tragically, just one of many related incidents that have plagued the Church of the Nazarene. In 2007 biologist Richard Colling was forced out of another Nazarene university for his book arguing that evolution was true and should be understood as God’s way of creating. In 2010 I left Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) after years of being attacked by fundamentalists as a heretic for my views on science.

A few years earlier a colleague had been forced out of ENC for refusing to condemn gay marriage in his social work classes. Two months ago the chaplain at another Nazarene university was demoted for a sermon questioning whether enthusiastic war-mongering was compatible with Jesus’ command to love our enemies. An entire college could be staffed with the victims of fundamentalist witch hunts in the Church of the Nazarene. And, if we add the victims of witch hunts in other evangelical traditions, we could staff a [new] major research university.

The controversy at NNU is one battle in the long war that is being waged—and slowly won—against thinking evangelical Christians. Battles at the various institutions are eerily similar and unfold along the following lines: Progressive, educated scholars push their [religious] traditions to make peace with new ideas, to be open to reconsidering historical positions on human origins, the nature of God, the morality of homosexuality, the meaning of Bible stories, the status of other religions. Such conversations have long been part of religious traditions that, in earlier centuries, managed to make peace with troubling notions like the motion of the Earth

Thomas Oord at peace with his thoughts.
Fundamentalists, threatened by new ideas, push back but they typically lose when the war is waged on the field of ideas. Evolution, alas, is true and most educated people understand that. So, the battles are fought instead with political and financial weapons. Fundamentalist pastors, youth ministers, and concerned lay leaders apply pressure to college presidents behind the scenes to get rid of progressive faculty. During my years at ENC, a few irate fundamentalist pastors withdrew their churches’ financial support of the college because of me. Youth pastors would tell the enrollment office not to send recruiters to their churches because they did not want their young people going to a college that taught evolution. This was exactly what happened at Olivet Nazarene University when Richard Colling was forced out. And few doubt that Oord’s termination is anything other than President Alexander’s surrender to similar pressures.

In the short run, silencing controversial voices does quiet things down and probably creates space for college administrators to think about other things. But this peace is an illusion.

American evangelicalism’s failure to make peace with the progressive scholars within its ranks—or even keep the conversation going—has alienated it from a broad range of scholarship. In The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, historian Randall Stephens and I lament that most evangelicals now get their science from young earth creationist Ken Ham, their history from the discredited revisionist David Barton, their social science from the homophobic James Dobson. 

Evangelicalism’s greatest scholar is probably historian Mark Noll who, ironically, now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. Noll coined the term “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” to describe the intellectual crisis of his religious tradition—a crisis created by that tradition’s inability to break free of the fundamentalism out of which it arose.

In a few weeks we will know if Professor Oord’s pastoral, controversial voice will still be heard in classrooms at Northwest Nazarene University, encouraging students to think and to follow evidence and reason wherever it leads. Many suspect it will not. And that, once again, the fundamentalists will have won.

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