In a recent Books & Culture, Thomas Albert Howard weighs in on how evangelical colleges might prepare themselves for the likelihood that one or more of their (somtimes quite treasured) professors might convert to another of the Great Traditions of the Church. His proposal is suggestive.
I begin with this: this Thomas Albert Howard is not the other Tom Howard who, as a Professor at Gordon College, became Anglican and then converted to Catholicism, lost his job at Gordon, and went on to make a name for himself. Oddly enough, this Thomas Albert Howard is now a professor at Gordon. And he weighs in in a way that would have kept The Original Tom Howard at Gordon (Howard #1).
Howard #2 suggests colleges can either abandon doctrinal statements, harden them up into never-to-change-perpetual-statements-and-articulations, or work at learning how to keep them soft enough to be adaptable without being little more than a wax nose.
First, he suggests, get a working group at each school to study faith statements thoroughly. The problem, we all know, is that these statements (because they inevitably get too specific and wander into too many delicacies) get too far from the great creeds. Then they sit there for a generation or two, and then someone with enough moxie to say “Hey, we don’t really believe this anymore” gets his hands slapped, and everyone shifts into conscious but that gentle art of common Christian pretence of saying that word or line can actually mean more than first blush … and then it lasts another generation, and then someone wakes up one day, says “We’ve got to re-look at this” and the whole thing gets redone with very minor changes. And everyone pats one another on the back and says semper reformanda and “looky at how faithful we’ve all been for so long.” C’mon, we all know it: schools are afraid of worrying or offending rich supporters. It’s the opposite of what honesty is and what freedom of thought is too.
This little cheeky paragraph really only tells the truth and tells us that we need to develop a better system. Having a committee always checking said doctrinal statements is a good idea.
Second, Howard #2 suggest there should be an exception clause for those who would be significant contributions to the campus and who would contribute both to the Christian mission and to the conversation. Of course, this would not be easy, and some professors (as would be the case with some at my school) would start urging more and more exceptions until the dying of the light, but still, it is a very good idea to have an exception clause.
Howard #1 might still be at Gordon and Hochschild #1 might still be at Wheaton, and John Wilson, over at Books and Culture would have had a different article in this slot and I’d not have had a good time chatting about this issue on this blog for a few months.