Losing Faith While Teaching in a Faith-Based Institution (Skinner)

WithrowI have not been around a reliable internet connection for the past several days, so I wasn’t able to blog about Brandon Withrow’s interesting article from the Chronicle a fews days back (though I did tweet it). Withrow, a historian of Christianity whose academic training was undertaken exclusively in evangelical settings (BA, Moody Bible Institute, MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary), recently left his full-time seminary teaching post—quietly, I might add—because he found that he no longer believes. Yes, you read that correctly. He left of his own volition and without incident because he is no longer a Christian. Here’s an excerpt from his piece:

Leaving my faculty position freed my conscience, given that I had already left evangelicalism for the ranks of the unaffiliated, but it was not a decision I took lightly. Before I settled on any new and potentially controversial identity, I wanted to be sure it was the right one for me. While I continue to teach as an adjunct in religious studies at a local university, the choice to leave the seminary not only posed family difficulties, but also had the potential to be career suicide.

Finding another full-time faculty position is a grim prospect. The number of candidates for openings in my field far outnumber the full-time opportunities. I take some solace in knowing that I’m not alone, since this is true for most academics. (Misery in the job market, apparently, does love company.)

When your employment depends on a religious identification, and especially when your closest family and friends remain intertwined with that faith, joining the unaffiliated secular in America is not always the first or easiest choice, even if it is the honest one.

Teaching while nonbelieving is a special crime in faith-based institutions. My field is in religious history, and it is entirely possible for me to teach academically — meaning educating students without casting judgment on or interfering with their faith. The expectation of a professor in faith-based education, however, is that he or she is also a theologian, an advocate for the specific religious mission of the institution.

A secular humanist clearly cannot advocate for doctrine.

I found Brandon’s description of his progressive epiphanies and his decision to depart really interesting for several reasons. First, in the wake of a seemingly never-ending train of high-profile departures of professors from institutions over biblical, theological, and/or social issues (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and most recently here), it was refreshing to see a professor and institution part ways under these circumstances. Of course, given the state of the profession right now, I lament for Brandon as he (along with so many others) tries to find gainful employment in academia. Second, this article brings up a question that I’ve been discussing with colleagues a lot in recent years: Why does this type of thing seem to happen with regularity among evangelical scholars? What is it about the culture of evangelicalism, especially American evangelicalism, that causes or at the very least, regularly allows for such de-conversions and radical re-envisionings of the Scriptures and the life of faith? That’s a topic I’ll likely explore in the future, but for now I want to commend Brandon’s article to you. I appreciate his honesty, integrity, and insight and I hope that you will give his piece a careful read.