Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Power or theology? Save our seminary, part 2

In an eariler post regarding the saveourseminary petition, I suggested that power and money are factors contributing to the political unrest at WTS and that a petition indicating a measure of disapproval from the wider WTS community would not accomplish much in terms of actually affecting what happens at the seminary. A discussion ensued in the comment section centering around whether the political developments at WTS is about power/money or theology. My intent in the earlier post was to point out that there is a bigger picture to assess. My contention is that although one can interpret the restructuring of the biblical studies department at WTS as a theological matter, there is also room for interpreting a forced change in faculty as a power play and that this may be a helpful perspective to consider.

For starters, it is not clear that the faculty members in question have (may) left (leave) of their own accord. It is not typical of theology alone to force faculty members to leave their place of employment against their will. That force is an external one to the faculty members in question; the force acting upon them is not theological, it is political and administrative (=power).

Second, the question of what theology will be allowed at WTS and what theology will not be allowed is not the only question on the table. There seems to also be the questions of who decides what theology will be allowed, how does WTS decide if a faculty member is not promoting that theology, what will WTS do with those faculty members who appear to challenge that theology and how to convince those who decide what theology is acceptable at WTS to take appropriate action against those who do not appear within bounds. These are not only (or even primarily) theological questions. I think they can be categorized as political and sociological. In fact, I struggle to understand the question of what kind of theology will be tolerated at WTS as a strictly theological question in the first place. It is at the very least meta-theological and might be reframed: In what ways will WTS relate the theologies of the faculty and the scholarship produced by the faculty to the official theology adopted by the institution? These seem to me to be politics of theological education issues.

Third, I have a relatively naive ideal when it comes to how theological matters are to be researched and discussed. I do not necessarily think that theology is a democratic undertaking yet I do have the expectation that there will be some measure of open academic discourse about a matter, including debates in journals and symposiums before scholars and other interested parties. Now these forums may have been provided and I remain ignorant of them, but the word on the streets is that no series of open deliberative forums has been granted to the theological issues under consideration. The situation has rather developed in such a way that POOF! one day one reads on the website that Steve Taylor is leaving WTS after a sabbatical and that (is this how it's going to happen?) POOF! hey, look, Pete Enns is leaving WTS.

Fourth, fighting for a sense of denominational identity at WTS is not the same as fighting for a sense of theological identity. Although theology might helpfully be thought of as a major part of denominational identity, there are also culural and sociological components. Perhaps there is an issue here, too, about what the relationship should be between a seminary and "the church," and, more specifically, between a seminary and "the denomination." My perspective on this is that in reality it is a complex cluster of relationships between the school and the churches, the school and the denominations. Theology by itself is not a big enough umbrella to encapsulate all of these. And "the denomination is not just "the denomination," but also "the supporting denomination(s)." Surely, this is an important factor.

I agree that the administration has a right to be the administration and has no obligation to pander to every constituency, but there's a sense among some within the extended WTS community that there are some clandestine operations being orchestrated in a concerted effort to halt progressive tendencies within the seminary. In these perons' opinion, the measures taken toward this end are inexplicably extreme. Whether desired or not, there are political aspects to this: WTS does not desire a progressive image and they will go to great lengths to prevent one from developing--that's one observation that is being made. Even if it's WTS's prerogative to decide what image it prefers and what lengths it will go to manage its public theological face perhaps WTS might help itself by stating up front that so-and-so was asked to leave because of such-and-such and that so-and-so is now under investigation because of such-and-such instead of letting people infer on their own what's going on (and what will happen) by reading blogs and emailing people they think are in the know, 0r even by being more of a tyrant, so to speak, WTS might better help itself by telling people that there are changes in the works that WTS has deemed beneficial to the work and mission of the seminary, end of discussion. As it stands, there is a perception of secrecy that seems to bother people to no end.

I myself am not interested in signing the petition. To be honest, I am not all that interested in what happens at WTS. I have uprooted myself from the place. I do think it's too bad that Steve Taylor had to move on and that Pete Enns might eventually do the same. I also understand that WTS has to do what WTS has to do. I am, however, interested in how this thing is falling out, faculty being booted behind closed doors--or at least this is how it is being recounted to me. There are some who are very upset about it. WTS is not adminstratively structured on a model that lets students have a say in these affairs. Still, there is a sense of betrayal in the air. I myself ponder why this has become so acute.

To sum up, I think to insist that theology is the primary issue is misleading. The implications are somewhat grander and seem to have broader ramifications for the direction of the seminary in general, not only theologically. I close this reflection with a quote from Anthony Diekema's Academic Freedom and Christian Scholarship:

Nothing is more destructive to the mainenance of morale in a faculty than the "chilling effect" that comes with the use of college authority to restrain or censor. Indeed, I believe that the most devastating threats to academic freedom come not from outside or from blatant tyranny but rather from well-meaning persons who have little or no understanding of the long-range negative effect of their actions to inhibit the essential freedoms of the academy. Well-meant but misguided concerns for the fact that the academy's freedom can or may offend some group or individual can have lethal effects on the long-term health of a college or university. When offensiveness is used as grounds for suppression, it opens the road to widespread censorship and restraint because almost everything of consequence in the life of the mind will be offensive to someone. (cited in Sparks, God's Word in Human Words, 367)