Thursday, April 10, 2008

oh, cedarville

Cedarville, oh, Cedarville, my little school, you are growing famous. When I graduated from you three years ago and made my way out into the world (with a B.A. in English--what do you do with a B.A. in English?) I had no idea news of you would follow me. I mean, I'm not surprised by the occasional appearance in Christianity Today or on Facebook or through dinnertime money-hungry phone calls to alumni. But the Chronicle of Higher Education?

First of all, I have to say this. That B.A. in English from a little school in the cornfields was a quality B.A. in English (quality, indeed, is stamped all over it). I was introduced to a broad variety of literatures, contexts, and interpretive paradigms. In fact, the theoretical foundation I gained at CU ended up stronger than many of my peers' theory backgrounds. (Go figure: in a place where theory is contested or threatened, it's accorded more power and thus, in many ways, more respect.) My education in the English department was challenging, nurturing, and imbued with the sense that it mattered.

Similarly, the theological debates that raged while Josh and I were there, while they were sometimes divisive (which is obviously not good, especially for a body of people called by Christ to unity), were also suffused with importance. Why debate shifts in how we do church? Because it's of potential eternal significance! Why stay up late in the night battling over boundaries and limits for art, for worship, for concepts of God? Because these questions get at the very root of what we're here for!

I'm sad (and embarrassed) to see the direction some of these conflicts have recently taken. I understand that professors at Cedarville are desperately in earnest when they argue ideas of truth, that they carry the weight of responsibility not just for teaching their students information but for shaping their spiritual direction. This was not always clear to me: when a few professors took to warning students in their classes about Josh (by name!) because he was writing on a Catholic theologian for his senior seminar, my first response was to be outraged. How dare they--!? Isn't this a university--!? Did they even ask him--!? What about the "if thy brother offends thee, go to him" bit in the Bible they clung to so literally!?

But then Josh, in this remarkable gentleness, explained that with this weight of responsibility--not just for test scores or future careers, but for souls--could explain the reactionary spirit that seemed to take over the campus at times. And that if we read these issues as rooted in care, concern, even fear, the whole scenario seemed vastly different.

I think this outlook helps now, too, as our troubled alma mater goes through a public fiasco being narrated in terms of academic freedom. When you combine the contemporary university with conservative faith--when you seek to walk the line between academic and spiritual, learning and belief, the study of human efforts and the study of God--you run into trouble. "Religion" ratchets things up a bit, carries professors into fits of righteous indignation, blurs the lines between appropriate conduct in the academy and appropriate conduct in a church. The proper lines of communication and conflict-mediation grow fuzzy: and so classrooms can become battle grounds, where captive audiences listen to "lectures" anathematizing other faculty members. Conflict resolution becomes bureaucratized, divisions remain, and it seems okay since it's an academic setting.

But these are not issues of academic freedom and the safety of tenure. These aren't questions of fact, or differences of theoretical opinion. These are church issues, complicated by their presence in classrooms.

Honestly, I sometimes miss Cedarville: I miss the conflict, the discussions, the dialogue that always has an aura of really meaning something. I miss feeling as though I were participating in something happening, in the stretch and pain that precipitate God-ordained growth. I miss the provocation.

And I think that this conflict must continue: I think that the ideas have to be contested, because this is what development is. Lukewarm is not what we want: we want passion. We want ideas, questions, debates. For all the history of the church (not that I'm any expert), people have been wrestling over ideas, and this wrestling has moved us forward in ways we take for granted, but in this I see God at work.

But I think we need to find a way to maintain the sense of value, and even to disagree--vehemently!--with a little more respect (they'll know we are Christians by our love, right?), a little less fear (perfect love casts out fear, right?), a little more humility (we're following a God who took on the form of a servant for us, right?). We need to find ways to provoke without condemning, to listen without assuming, to care for the fatherless and the widow (read: the oppressed) instead of trying to oppress one another.

I carry the name Cedarville with me wherever I roam in the academic community: it's emblazoned on my C.V. and will accompany my work with every conference proposal, journal article submission, and job application for the rest of my days. And I'm sad--really sad--that the ONE reason the name might be recognized now is that Chronicle article and news coverage of this recent conflict. I know the school is grappling with the very issues I've been talking about, namely the tension between structures of academia and structures of church polity/community, but oh, how I wish it could be different. Oh, Cedarville, how is this shining?


  1. For myself, I don't see the issue here is what has happened, but how it happened. The events surrounding it seem so shady. I think that is why there is discredit to the University. If there is disagreement then let it be shown, not covered up. It makes me sad too.

  2. Lauren, I think that's a really good point that relates directly to the complexity of walking the line between church and university. Church structure may call for open confession / public discipline within the community, but university structure, governed by h.r. and privacy laws, refuses the publication of details in employee issues like this.

    You think?

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