Monday, August 15, 2011

Judgment, Tenure, and the Fall

Academia is weird. There's the robes and square hats we wear to graduation, the impenetrable papers we write, and the way we constantly use personal eccentricities to disguise the injustices we perpetuate on those who work for us. And it costs a LOT of money to send a student to college to be taught by these weird profs. I get it. It's tempting to look at tenure and chalk it up as just another quirk, even a damaging mark, in academia. I admit I've asked that question myself. Why do we have tenure in this day and age?

This is why.

To sum up: John Schneider, a theologian at Calvin College, presented an article (and apparently is working on a book) about how he interprets the early chapters of Genesis in the light of the information stored in ancient DNA. Basically, the DNA evidence suggests that the community of humans we're all descended from is small, but cannot be from a single person. A cover article in Christianity Today and recent NPR story included Schneider. I just found out from that story that, although he had tenure at Calvin, he chose to step down uder pressure from the board, after 25 years. So the tenure system didn't protect Schneider from his board when he published an article they disagreed with. At the very least, a tenure system is there to protect professors to be able to publish interpretations contrary to their boards. Now, the added element to this mix is Christian orthodoxy: did Schneider violate the terms of Calvin's faith statement? Read his article and I don't think you see a "false prophet," but a Christian with some insightful things to say about the nature of the fall and the power of art. Whatever you see, I think the question is at least open.

Even if there is a disagreement about the nature of the Fall between Schneider and the Board, it should be re-emphasized that the version of the Fall being fought over is younger than the Bible. The person whose word is being reinterpreted is not really Jesus or Moses, but Augustine of Hippo. Augustine's ideas about the Fall were one of many options at the time. The Eastern church has a much different view of the Fall that branched off from different Christian fathers. So Schneider is not being punished for contradicting the Bible, but Augustine. I have to believe that should put the dispute in a different light.

Of all the opinions put forward, this exchange is the one that sticks out to me, from the NPR story:

“This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler. “The moment you say ‘We have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world,’ you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the

The problem with Mohler's quote is that it is exactly contradictory to the sermon I just heard on Sunday. That sermon wasn't from Genesis 1. It was from Matthew 7, the Sermon on the Mount, the famously, probably too-often quoted "Judge not, let ye be judged" passage. It's struck me how this passage is in tension with other passages, particularly 1 Corinthians when Paul says "Don't you remember, one day you're going to judge angels!" to the lawsuit-happy Corinthians. One of the things my pastor mentioned was that the judgment of Matthew 7 is one where you think you can tell where someone is at spiritually from external "indicators." It is a judgment of the soul, of intentions, which is exactly what Mohler is doing. Look at that quote: it uses the same words but twists them to make the respect of the world the focus of the statment, when it's actually incidental to Harlow's comment. Mohler is saying that the respect of the world is the primary driver of the scientists who seek to reconcile genes with Genesis. I don't know why Mohler is doing this, but from his words I can see that he is doing it.

Well, if Matthew 7 is Scripture then Mohler has just opened himself up to the exact same judgment, and that's what I'm seeing all over the internet today, with scores of opinionated people trying to determine, descry and declaim Mohler's inner motives. So now we have a rampant speck-vs-mote tournament in the virtual world. Just stop it.

Note that this isn't really about evolution. It's about the Fall. And it's not really about Genesis, it's about Augustine and later interpretations of Genesis. Schneider's writing actually helped me understand some things about the Fall, but I'm not sure we know enough science to speculate entirely on its historical nature yet. I think there's a creative and surprising solution out there that may not be entirely biological! I want to keep learning about it, because I think there's some fascinating ways in which we can understand the Fall and how it broke things apart. I'm sure it happened, but I'm not sure how. And I'd like to hear others who have thought about it without fear of reprisal.

If the Fall that we're fighting about is really Augustine's theology and not Jesus's, then that means Schneider was essentially fired because his writing disagreed with a human construct built on the foundation of scripture. 2000 years ago there was another debate between Jesus and the Pharisees about another human construct built on the foundation of scripture. I remember how that disagreement turned out. It would be a shame for the church to make the same mistake. But then again, isn't that what we all do? After all, we are fallen.

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