Christians and Conflict in the Academy

Statue of Justice

Statue of Justice at the St. Louis U. School of Law

I’m going to try to link two current stories involving Christianity and the academy, and I’ll be the first to admit that the attempt might not work. A big disclaimer: I am not an expert on either of these, so I’m going to provide some links at the bottom of the post.

Today, the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the case CLS v. Martinez, in which a university and a Christian student organization disagree about who — legally speaking — has the right to belong to a student organization as a public university. Last week, Bruce Waltke left Reformed Theological Seminary after appearing in a video saying positive things about (theistic) evolution.

In the interest of readers’ attention spans, I’m going to start with my conclusion, then provide some quick summaries of the two stories and links to news and opinions articles.

Both of these incidents represent the splintered world of higher education, in which I’m not even sure it’s possible to locate a “majority position” on big issues like truth, academic freedom, religion, or sexuality; and in which it may not even be possible to establish common criteria for deciding between different positions. To millions of Americans, the correct position is obvious and self-evident — the problem is, that “correct position” isn’t the same one. For example, to one group, Waltke’s statement about evolution (below) is as controversial as saying “one plus one equals two.” To another group, it’s a sure sign that he knows nothing about the Bible or science. To one group, Waltke’s departure from an institution over public statements related to his academic discipline is as close to the “unforgivable sin” as you can get in academia. Meanwhile, another group sees RTS as taking an important stand against bad theology.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, I predict incidents like these will become more and more common. Christians working within academia will have to learn how to negotiate — not two worlds of academia and the church — but multiple worlds representing almost every possible difference of opinion on “the big questions.”

Photo Credit: Statue of Justice at St. Louis University School of Law by Ann Althouse via Flickr. I think this is a great photo: most statues of Justice are so dispassionate; this Justice reminds me of the powerful images of justice in the Prophets.

The details and outcomes of these cases are very, very important, but I’ll let others to know more than I discuss them. Here’s what I think I can contribute:

  • Christians will need to work harder than ever — and need the Holy Spirit to work in us more than ever — to fulfill Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23. I’ll just quote the end of that section:

    May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and loved them even as you have loved me.

  • In order to be redeeming influences, Christians in the academy (such as ESN members) will need to learn how to speak the language of our fellow academicians and to sympathize with differing views on these important issues. If we can’t communicate in a way that makes sense outside of our own community, and if we can’t put ourselves in the place of “the other,” then we’ll have a much harder go of persuading others to our position.
  • As hard as it may be to accept losses, Christians must always define “success” in terms of faithfulness to Christ. This was a point made by Christian Smith in a webinar hosted by Christianity Today last year. I don’t have the transcript, but Smith noted that evangelical churches have to come to grips that faithfulness is more important than numerical growth, legal victories, or other forms of “success.” I think this is doubly true for Christians in the university.

OK, enough from me. What do you think theses incidents say — if anything — about the present and future of evangelical Christians in the university?

Summaries and links after the jump.


The first: Bruce Waltke’s departure from Reformed Theological Seminary.

A quick summary of the story as I understand it:

  • A few weeks ago, Dr. Waltke appeared in a video published on the Biologos Foundation’s website.
  • In the video, Dr. Waltke reportedly said (the video is no longer online, so I’m quoting from this Inside Higher Ed article):

    If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult … some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.

  • The video led to a controversy in which, first, Waltke asked for the video to be removed from BioLogos’ website, and shortly thereafter, Waltke resigned, was asked to resign, or was dismissed from RTS. (Both Waltke and RTS characterize it as a resignation; others, including John Stackhouse of Regent College, report it as a dismissal.)

In case you aren’t familiar with Bruce Waltke’s work, he has been one of the leading evangelical scholars of the Old Testament for decades. I’ll just point you to his Wikipedia entry for his credentials – let’s just say that he knows Hebrew better than I do. Among his many writings is a commentary on Genesis, so it’s not like the video was a revelation of something new. Here’s what he says about the scientific character of Genesis 1:

Contemporary scientists almost unanimously discount the possibilty of creation in one week, and we cannot summarily discount the evidence of the earth sciences. General revelation in creation, as well as the special revelation of the Scripture, is also the voice of God. We live in a “universe,” and all truth speaks with one voice. (Genesis, 77)

In both the commentary and elsewhere, Waltke credits Henri Blocher’s In the Beginning (IVP, 1984) as shaping his view of the opening chapters of Genesis.

See below for more links.

The second: the case Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which appears today before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A summary of the story:

  • The Hastings College of Law (part of the University of California system) has an anti-discrimination policy which all recognized student groups are required to adopt. The policy states, in part, that Hastings

    shall not discriminate unlawfully on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, sex or sexual orientation.

    (The “Martinez” of the case is Leo Martinez, dean of Hastings.

  • The Hastings CLS chapter allows anyone to attend and participate in its activities, but requires voting members and officers to agree with a statement of faith which, among other things, endorses the traditional Christian view of sexual morality.
  • Because CLS does not meet the requirements of Hastings’ anti-discrimination policy, it cannot be a recognized student organization without removing its requirement for members and officers.
  • CLS contends that Hasting’s policy violates the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion and freedom of association. Hasting disagrees
  • The Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled in Hastings’ favor in March 2009, and the case is now before the US Supreme Court.

This issue has come up before, often involving InterVarsity chapters. Up until now, federal courts have consistently sided with student organizations, ruling that public universities cannot abridge the First Amendment rights of student organizations. (Private universities are a completely different matter.) This is the first case in which an appeals court has sided with a university, which that different parts of the country are living under different rulings. The Supreme Court has taken up the case to clear up this inconsistency. InterVarsity, among many others, has filed an amicus brief in the case.

See below for more links.


Waltke and Reformed Theological Seminary

RTS’ official statement

A letter from Waltke

Joint Statement from Waltke and Darrel Falk, president of BioLogos

Inside Higher Ed’s article (ABC News also did a piece, but it’s horrible so I’m not linking to it)

A few blog posts on the subject:

CLS v. Martinez

Complete text of the opposing briefs and all amicus briefs (via American Bar Association)

CLS’ summary of the story so far

I couldn’t find a similar summary or position from Hastings, but here is a press release from 2006 (PDF) about the initial ruling

Inside Higher Ed’s news article about the case

Story about the case from Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly

NPR story summarizing the case, with some nice quotes from both sides

InterVarsity articles about the case:

Christianity Today’s editorial

My colleague Michael Schutt, who leads IV’s Law School Ministry as well as CLS’ student ministry, breaks down a few points on his Redeeming Law blog

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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