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.

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10 thoughts on “Losing Faith While Teaching in a Faith-Based Institution (Skinner)

  1. Mmm…worth noting that this is all happening in the US, where opinions and ideological/theological positions are far more polarised than in the UK or other parts of the world. The kinds of ideological witch hunts you mention don’t really happen in the UK.

      1. Hi Chris and Steve,
        I think it was Tom Wright who once noted that you have discrimination the other way round also in tbe US. If I recall correctly Wright said that you have no chance of being apointed at Harvard if you hold the view that Paul wrote Colossians …
        Something else that is worth investigating: during and after the rise of “Rationalism” in German Universities in the 19th century, there was serious discrimination against those who rejected the so-called definitive presuppositions of Rationalism.

  2. “We know that even while there are those who have journeyed away from their faith, there are many who have not. Indeed, we are personally familiar with a great number of scholars who retained a vibrant, living faith, albeit changed and shaped by their experiences in life and as a scholar. In thinking about this all, we decided to approach some of these people and ask them to tell us their life stories—the stories of their lives as believers and biblical scholars, including the challenges and joys they faced in both areas.
    The result is about to be published. It’s a collection of stories titled I (Still) Believe and it will published by Zondervan next month.”

    http://thebiblicalworld.blogspot.com/2015/07/i-still-believe-leading-bible-scholars.html

  3. LeRon Shults is a fairly well-known theologian who underwent a similar transformation. After publishing his dissertation on Pannenberg, he taught for a while at an evangelical seminary before moving to Norway to teach at a secular university there. Most of his publications over the past few years have focused on promoting atheism.

  4. Nobody’s taken on your very worthwhile questions! 🙂

    American Evangelicalism is rooted in and dominated by the Fundamentalist reaction to “Modernism,” i.e. critical science, critical historicism, critical theoretical thought in general. Antagonism for the source of these things — the modern German research university — is still expressed and closely equated in the minds of many older Christian scholars with a fearful and “godless secularism.” All American “Christian”-labelled colleges in existence today began as reactions, alternatives, or entities apart from the modern university. They were seminaries, teacher colleges, or focused on missionary training. Fundamentalism was from its birth an anti-intellectual movement (initiated by LA insurance salesmen) from within doctrinally focused Calvinist churches that became politically useful in nativist, anti-liberal, anti-communist politics of the Right from the New Deal to the present.

    Evangelicalism was in some ways an attempt to mitigate Fundamentalist extremes, but there is really no way to separate the two. Very few Evangelicals (at least until the 21st century) were brought up outside an 18th-centuryish epistemic framework, especially with regard to the Bible and the interpretation of history and historical texts. Unlike European Evangelicals, Americans did not go through the trauma and guilt of the world wars; they do not “get” and tend to be ignorant or hostile of other traditions, especially existentialist ones. Carl Henry was famously hostile to Karl Barth (on paper and in person) for being unwilling to clarify that biblical truth is the same as journalistic truth in reporting. That attitude was definitive and is persistent.

    When curious, thoughtful, creative, sensitive, intellectual personalities grow up in this culture they are formed in families and communities that tend to take the Bible at face value, including the OT historical matter that Orthodox Jews have long had no problem historicizing as myth, legend, and likely fabrication. Most evangelicals have no concept of the many things that are a matter of consensus about the history and texts; merely taking the documentary hypothesis seriously is enough to blow minds or make Evangelical folk blow their stacks. If this is where/who you come from, merely reading or (worse) getting a an education from comfortably “modernist” (or now “postmodernist”) sources may get you branded a heretic, and subjected to baiting questions from unqualified, uneducated, and unwanted interrogators — just within your extended family and church community. You are set up and prompted to play the role of the outcast by control-obsessed totalists who need you to validate them, and if you want to grow as an independent adult (to say nothing of your academic career), you may need to embrace that role.

    Naturally, many people do not. They choose to sacrifice themselves and their minds to others’ wishes, at least for a time. Perhaps that only defers the crisis for some. Two generations of “creation scientists” vigorously attempted to forge an impossible defense of one construction of biblical literalism with science. Not all of them ended up losing their faith, but some did. (See Ron Numbers’ magisterial study, <>.)

    It is understandable why repressive anti-modernism running on the fumes of late 19th/early 20th century reactionaries has produced a tradition of skeptics and “liberals” who made foot bail. There’s a book called <> that is entirely composed of autobiographies of people who were fundamentalists or evangelicals who became atheists, agnostics, liberals, or embraced another religion. Some of them are quite insightful, especially some of the ministers it includes, such as one who was in his prime in the 1930s.

    I think you could also take the tradition of Evangelical intellectual defectors into Anglicanism and Catholicism as tied into the same problems and reactions. It is far easier to be a theologically conservative and political liberal Christian in Orthodox, Catholicism or the mainline than within Evangelicalism. In those traditions, critical scholarship and historicism are no longer (or never were) seen as terrible threats.

    Currently several Evangelical denominations that most resemble the Protestant mainline and have deep ties to Evangelical intellectual renewal are part of traditions with a unique European provenance, and they have declined to embrace fundamentalist biblicism. They are now embroiled in controversies over evolution and homosexuality from which they will probably emerge being heralded and condemned as a new Evangelical Left even if they sincerely try to be a broad “third way.” Even if you do not want to leave, the dominant tenor of Evangelicalism is rejection if you question fundamentalist biblicism.

    1. The book titles got filtered out. They are:

      Ron Numbers, The Creationists
      Edward Babinski, Leaving the Fold

      I also recommend looking at especially the Jeffrey essay in Paul Anderson, ed., Professors Who Believe and Roger Olson’s recent series about his growing-up within a conservative evangelical denomination that had spiritually/emotionally abusive leaders running the college he attended. Their behavior was that of a totalistic, aberrant, Christian organization or TACO, a coinage Olson has put forth in the past.

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