On “statements of faith”

Job listings are starting to trickle out, a few of which require statements of faith. My reading of Mendelssohn earlier this summer makes me very skeptical of the whole concept, particularly as the statements get longer and longer (I’ve seen statements of faith so detailed that not even the most hardened fundamentalist could necessarily agree to literally all of it). I understand that a faith-based institution wants to have everyone on the same page, given that one of the major appeals of a faith-based school is that the students presumably will not “lose their faith,” and I understand how making everyone sign onto a statement of faith might seem like a good filtering mechanism.

The problem, though, especially when the statements start to include more and more things that seem incidental or questionable, is that you’re basically filtering for people who are willing to compromise their convictions (i.e., “officially” deny something they either affirm or are open to) for the sake of their teaching calling or else lie about believing something that, at the gut level, they either don’t believe or don’t actually care about.

To me, the more efficient model would be to just prohibit instructors from contradicting certain key beliefs. You don’t want me to tell the students that there probably wasn’t a historical Adam and Eve? Fine, I can do that — I can’t imagine how it would even come up. You want me to always teach a certain book in the gen-ed theology course? Awesome — that way the students will easily be able to find used copies. It could reach a point where it becomes too constraining, but that point is probably further along than most people would assume.

Why this concern, though, for whether your faculty actually believes in the constraints? Why do we need to go that extra step from obedience to one’s employer (authoritatianism) to being made to affirm that we like obeying (totalitarianism)? Something similar is at work with the widespread trend toward discussing behavioral standards in terms of a “lifestyle covenant” or “community covenant” — as though the rules you have to follow to play a role in a given institution are some kind of holy ordinance established by God. For instance, I know people who teach at Nazarene schools who have no personal objection to drinking, but who follow the rules because that’s part of what being a faculty member at a Nazarene school entails. The language of “covenant” (as opposed to “rules”) seems to imply that being willing to obey an arbitrary rule isn’t good enough — you have to like it, too.

Every institution has goals it wants to achieve, and they should be able to require that faculty members contribute to those goals. Setting up standards and rules is totally acceptable, and saying “you can’t contradict the following beliefs in your teaching and you can’t violate these rules as part of your contract” would provide clear expectations and allow for clear standards as to whether everyone was complying. But going the next step and making people affirm that they’re agreeing to all this spontaneously, out of personal conviction — that’s just inviting people to lie. What kind of foundation is that for any kind of community?

19 thoughts on “On “statements of faith”

  1. If someone asked me, individually, all the articles of the Nicene creed, each followed by, “Do you believe this?”, I could quite truthfully answer, “Depends on when you catch me.” A creed as a rule for mental behavior is a very strange sort of thing–as if I had the ability to ensure my own beliefs from moment to moment.

    It’s totally reasonable for an institution to ask me to commit to a rule for teaching or preaching. To ask that I believe it? That use really belongs to liturgy (and perhaps martyrdom, which may be a special case of liturgy), as it is God who elicits confession.

  2. I applied for a fellowship from a Reformed organization and it came down to a phone interview where the person running the organization wanted to determine how “Reformed” I was, as to whether I qualify for the fellowship or not.

    As it happens, this person did not know anything about my denomination (minus one thing, which I’ll mention later), which is somewhat understandable, but did have an opinion about the denomination not really being “Reformed enough” to qualify for a “Reformed” theology fellowship.

    Now, I talked about the importance of the Heidelberg Catechism to my worshiping community, etc., etc. I don’t think he had heard of the Heidelberg Catechism; at the time I was reading a lot about Mercersburg Theology, and I talked about that, and how I am interested in some intersections with this movement and contemporary radical though, but sure enough, he hadn’t heard of that either. But he did know that the United Church of Christ accepts homosexuals and wanted to know if I had ever participated or presided over a gay wedding or ordination. The conversation ended there.

    The email I received a few days later stated that I was not “Reformed” enough to be considered for a fellowship for young theologians in traditionally “Reformed” churches. The issue was not necessarily with my own ideas but my denominational affiliation was deemed to be standing outside of what was assumed to be “Reformed.” That definition was, consequently, also divorced from a historical understanding of the word as well.

  3. I’m giving up on applying to schools with statements of faith. Those statements may or may not be a big deal for other fields, but for philosophy they can be very problematic. One school I interviewed with wanted someone who would function effectively as an apologist/evangelist for the somewhat conservative version of Reformed Protestantism dominant at the institution. (They only wanted this of their philosophy faculty; not, say, of their English or History faculty.)

    It’s disappointing because I used to like the idea of teaching at a Christian college, but not under these conditions.

  4. Discussing this with Anthony, we wondered if these statements are an attempted end-run around academic freedom issues. Directly implementing some kind of “speech code” might draw censure from the AAUP or something, so instead you just aim to hire people who will naturally want to follow the code.

  5. I haven’t read Mendelssohn (yet) and I trust Bruce R. will leap in to correct any misimpressions I may leave, but Adam K.’s remedy sounds much like the “behavioral” Judaism of my upbringing within the Conservative (capital D) movement. My experience was such that when we were assigned to write “spiritual autobiographies” for a Jewish Mysticism class in college, my offering was so meager that I received the following response: “Not much reflection here.” I was so mortified that I burned my paper in the kitchen sink.

    That said, I complete agree with the remedy Adam suggests.

  6. Are these tenure track positions? I can see how one could teach from, say, a Reformed theology textbook without really believing it, and not have it matter. But these schools aren’t just concerned with teaching, but with research and publication, and developing schools of thought. In light of that, I can see how what you really believe might be important to them. If you don’t believe in, say, the consubstantiality of Jesus with the Father, then you can teach that doctrine and its history to your students, but you’ll never write a work constructively building on/working out that claim, and perhaps this is precisely the kind of research said schools want to promote.

  7. I once sat with a Catholic priest to qualify for the marriage-kind that would please our parents. Part of the protocol he ran with us was asking: “Will you baptize your children?” I asked, after looking at my wife-to-be’s growing frustration level: “Do you want us to lie?” He replied: “There is no way I can know you lie, that is between you and God.” When it was clear we were not willing to lie he proceeded to advise us to seek a priest that took more liberties in filling in forms required to apply for the Catholic marriage.

  8. I studied at an institution with a statement of faith, I know several teachers signed it without actually believing every part of it.
    It wasn’t a problem until one started to have critical discussions in class about certain tenets of theology, then certain professors would get a bit akward, give partial answers and make slogan like statements.

    I think it is ok for a school with a “ministry preparation” function for a specific denomination to have guidelines, but a statement of faith should be very basic and broad, at least if the school seeks to be academic.

  9. The statements of faith, at least where I’ve seen them in play, function less as a form of totalitarian thought-control and more as a selling point for prospective students (and their parents) and for prospective donors.

    I’m sure that there are real boundaries and expectations on what you can believe, but in practice (on campus) there’s often more leeway than the statements would lead one to believe. That’s not to say that Adam’s (authoritarian) suggestion is not a good one, I’m just pointing out that the primary audience for these statements of faith is likely not the group of professors that sign them.

  10. At a meta level, statements of faith preclude the critical function of theology that theologians in theology departments are supposed to perform. Theologians are supposed to be the ones (as well as occasionally defending the faith) checking that the faith internally. By signing up to a statement like this, I can’t see how this doesn’t preclude this function. And I don’t need to go to some liberal definition to prove how this might happen. One of my friends got a talking to as an undergrad for being interested in NT Wright. I suppose that many people, lecturers included, reading him might be persuaded by his more ‘Catholic’ version of justification. Would they be able to openly proclaim this when the statement on justification was far more reformed? I doubt it, as the flame-wars about someone as (in the end) conservative theologically as Wright seem to show us. Surely some of this theology as criticism must even run in evangelical circles?

  11. That’s true, Alex. The irony is that the schools tend to be most concerned about the statement of faith precisely in the theology department, where it most directly cuts against the departmental mission.

  12. The discussion of policing belief is very interesting. I think the question of a “lifestyle covenant” or “community covenant” is quite a different matter. One needn’t assume that covenant means “ordinance established by God”. The covenants at the university I attended (Canadian Mennonite University) were simply formal agreements, and I always thought the word covenant acknowledged their social provenance. We agreed that this community worked best if we didn’t have alcohol on campus, if we didn’t use drugs. We were asked not necessarily to like it, but to “covenant” with one another in the spirit of mutual edification. The whole not causing your neighbour to stumble bit. In fact, we could disagree with the “covenant” all we wanted, and many did… loudly and often. No policing of conviction required.

  13. Another piece of this is to consider also the resources that churches have placed into higher education in the US in the past and in some cases the commitments churches make to continue to keep their relationships with certain colleges and universities possible.

    I just sent off an essay that consideres the death of God controversy from the point of the Methodists, who were angry that Emory, a Methodist college, would tolerate heresy such as Altizer’s on the payroll. American Protestantism has a real sense of democracy about how the money put in the plate gets used on the national level, and an institutional memory of the Methodists in the south remembered how they lost control over Vanderbilt over the Bishops’ control of faculty appointments.

    I also think these faith statements are marketing ploys as well. Suburban parents with teens outside of the top 5% of the high school class and affluent enough not to qualify for need-based financial aid–that is, the ones from whom the tuition money comes–might fit the demographics of particular school’s iseal constituency.

  14. The real problem for me is that at many of these schools part of the statement of faith/community covenant requires you to sign onto what is basically anti-gay religious bigotry. It is for this reason alone that I’ve pretty much written off ever teaching at the kind of school that I went to undergrad at (a pretty run of the mill conservative evangelical school).

    I hope I’m never in a position where I have to choose between having to sign a statement like this or not being able to pay the rent.

    All of the other theological compromises are of a different sort. I think that the idea of using words like inerrancy or infallibility to describe the Bible is ridiculous. I have a theology of scripture and this theology would not make use of words like inerrancy or infallibility but it does end up concluding that the the Bible is inspired and true in a very real sense. But I’d be fine signing a statement that uses words I myself wouldn’t to summarize this basic belief. I can do this and still look myself in the mirror and keep my conscience and soul in tact.

    But to sign one of these anti-gay statements would be to sell your soul.

    But this really creates a problem, since in order for any of these schools to change their statements regarding gay rights they are going to need sympathetic faculty, and any sympathetic faculty would have to be willing to lie to sign a statement like that. I know that many faculty at the school I went to do not at all believe in the anti-gay parts of the schools statement, but they were from another generation when the political situation wasn’t the same as it is today. But now they are in a position where even to suggest that this anti-gay language should be removed risks their job.

    In principle I think that it is possible to craft some kind of statement of faith that still allows for academic freedom. But in the case of the anti-gay language is a clear assault on academic freedom.

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