Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Is That So, Cedarville?

Posted by Jack

In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of news surrounding Cedarville University, my alma mater. Dismissal of faculty, the resignation of the President, the distribution of certain "white papers" to clarify doctrinal positions, and various other matters. 

As juicy as this situation may be to the hearers, I cannot speak to those issues. Despite apparent evidence, and the personal experience of friends and colleagues, I cannot definitively say that these incidents are related, connected, or otherwise part of some larger happening at the university. So, I won't discuss those matters.

(Note: I admire our friends over at Fiat Lux for committing to asking questions and having dialogue on these matters in a responsible, mature fashion. I look forward to resulting conversations.)

I can't comment on things I do not know about... but those white papers? Yeah, I read those. What was that about?

Although they have not been made public, the white papers were presented to faculty at Cedarville back in September in an apparent effort to clarify or otherwise magnify certain sections of the university doctrinal statement. They can be read here.

These papers serve to further narrow already existing doctrinal commitments. Whoever authored these papers seems to be suggesting that the one specific interpretation presented in the release is the only approved interpretation for faculty and staff to embrace. This seems like a concerted effort to silence all dissenting opinions and attach a concrete definition to some rather complicated issues. This action seems to shut out a rich history of scholarly debate and dictate against diversity of thought.

I must ask: Is that so, Cedarville?

The real threat is not diversity of opinion. The real threat is division.  

Unity does not come in the form of a sterilized, uniform society in which everyone holds the same opinion. That is not unity; it is conformity. Conformity is the enemy of a thriving community.

Also, it should be argued that when we silence or exclude dissenting voices, we do not achieve unity at all; we create division. Those with the acceptable view are in, others are out. We are building walls between each other while "unity" demands that we tear walls down.

Furthermore, in an academic setting, there must be some degree of freedom to explore ideas, consider varying interpretations, and allow room for growth, maturation, and often, adaptation of our previously-held notions.

I know it makes some people uncomfortable when I say this, but there is not one universally accepted “Biblical” interpretation of any one issue. Throughout church history, faithful, righteous, intelligent believers have approached Scripture with all the right intentions… and throughout church history, these faithful, righteous, intelligent believers have come to different conclusions on some issues.

Here are two basic approaches to unity:
1) Maintain fellowship in the midst of differing opinions, navigating those differences in love for one another and faithfulness to the Word, and coming out on the other side of those differences with a fuller understanding of God and His truth
2) Simply eliminate every dissenting opinion until the only ones left are those who agree

Differing interpretations are vital for flourishing community.  

Sometimes, God reveals Himself in the midst of dissent. Maybe two interpretations that seem to be at odds with one another really serve to balance one another out. Maybe the truth is broader than one interpretation has captured and a differing interpretation can round things out.

The issue here is not absolute truth (or absolute certainty). God’s truth is unchanging and cannot be swayed by discourse.

The issue here is the manner in which we seek that truth. Are we faithfully seeking after truth? Are we, to the best of our ability, studying Scripture with an open mind and open heart, asking God to reveal the truth to us? If so, the interpretation we come to, in the very least, qualifies for the discussion.

And many others may have that same faithful approach, yet come to differing conclusions.

When looking at a particular interpretation, perhaps it is more fruitful to ask, “Is it faithful?” rather than, “Is it correct?”

Frankly, we may not be able to tell if an interpretation is correct in every sense. But, in community, we should be able to identify whether or not an interpretation was gleaned faithfully.

Perhaps we need an epistemology (a system for truth) that is like a grain silo. It must be sturdy, strong, and unmoved by the wind. But it also must be broad, spacious, and capable of holding many similar, yet diverse grains.   

The white papers, and documents like them, seem to preclude such an option.

Strict adherence to a narrow doctrinal statement may create the illusion of unity in some settings, and it may provide comfort and familiarity in the face of tangled and complicated issues. But an “all or nothing” approach to doctrinal issues invites the danger of closing off dialogue with others in the universal Christian community. It sends the message that our view of the truth is complete and definitive, and that we have nothing more to learn from the contributions of others. It assumes that tacit agreement is the chief Christian virtue, that consistency in the minutia is more important than cohesion of the Body. Such an approach also limits our ability to gain new insight, gather new knowledge, or round out a particularly one-sided viewpoint.

And one more thing: when we all find ourselves in the consummated Kingdom of God, we will finally know Him, to the fullest extent possible by our redeemed minds. But I don't think there will be much talk about who was right and who was wrong.