Friday, February 01, 2013

The Cedarville Controversy

I want to weigh in on something I've been hearing and reading about for a few days...

Before coming to Princeton Theological Seminary, I don't think I had ever heard of Cedarville University. If you're familiar with Princeton and familiar with Cedarville, the connection might not make sense to you, but there are at least a couple of CU alumni here at Princeton - friends of mine - perusing their MDiv's. When one of my buddies told be about an ensuing controversy over the firing of one of his favorite professors and the dismantling of the entire Philosophy faculty at the University, I took interest. So I went back and read the article on Christianity Today, explaining really just a piece of the situation: "Crisis of Faith Statements." Another more recent article draws out some more pieces of the puzzle, as many high profile people have resigned or have been asked to resign from the university.

All these resignations and eliminations seem to have their origins in disagreements regarding the University's (very conservative) statement of faith and the perceivable agenda of the administration to avoid anything that might resemble theological openness and diversity. Students have come out in protest as they watch their institution move "back toward conservative fundamentalism" (you should browse Fiat Lux - one of the student protest sites), purging and firing those who don't conform perfectly to this agenda. It's not just "liberals" like me who are concerned with such a move, even conservative evangelicals have spoke out against what's happening at Cedarville, indeed the folks who are being dismissed are conservatives themselves.

Now, for me, the issue isn't Cedarville University (though I am outraged at the moral misconduct of firing a professor, not because he disagreed with a faith statement - though I have a problem with that too - but because he agreed with it in the wrong way). For me, the issue is larger. The issue has to do with how Churches and institutions wield their confessions. Faith statements can be a good thing if it's actually more of a mission statement. Such a confession of faith is supposed to work as a kind of guiding light for conversation, keeping the institution focused - not because every other perspective is evil, but because focus leads to excellence. Focus allows an institution to be really good at that one thing on which they focus instead of being really mediocre at a whole bunch of varying visions. It shouldn't be doctrinally rigid or exclusive. They should take diversity for granted - looking to give some grounding to the intellectual dialogue - presupposing diversity rather than seeing diversity as a negative and disagreement as a danger. But as soon as a faith statement becomes a weapon for purging all assenting voices out of the conversation, you undermine the project altogether. Indeed, such an approach - an approach that Cedarville seems to be taking - undermines the whole project of scholarship and academic dialogue. Even Alvin Plantinga, by no means a liberal theologian, commented, ""It does damage to a college atmosphere to pretend there's no sensible diversity of opinion among Christians."

There is always a risk, whenever an institution takes up a statement of faith, that real scholarship will be abandoned and replaced by dogmatism. What's happening at Cedarville University may simply be signs of growing pains. As the national academic theological conversation becomes more and more open, institutions have a choice either to silence new voices or to remain dedicated to the breadth of the conversation. Many of those institutions that nostalgically cling to their conservationism will choose the latter and will be forced further and further into the fringe of Fundamentalism (and, ironically, the voices that Cedarville silenced are certainly not "liberal" by most standards). And it's to that fringe that Cedarville University seems to be heading... and I can only hope that they're an exception to the cultural trend of Christian scholarship.

3 comments:

Nick Giovacchini said...

As a former CU grad, this post really resonates with me. Wes thanks for the great insights provided here.

It's really cool to see people outside of Cedarville taking interest in the growing lack of theological diversity.

Definitely enjoyed reading this.

Michael Corson said...

I was on the faculty of Cedarville, the College, from 1995 to 2000. When I left, I did not make it a point to keep up with events. Within the last few days I learned about the controversy at Cedarville University. I have spent today familiarizing myself with that controversy via the internet.

The theological/doctrinal controversy is a very serious one. Another serious aspect of this matter that should not be overlooked is the shabby treatment the college is giving to the professors who are under the gun. It is this second issue about which I wish to comment.

In an article dated from the lighthouse dated 10 March 2008 , Professor Hoffeditz is quoted: “I was never able to view any evidence for the charges being leveled at me, denied the opportunity to listen to my accusers, or cross-examine them, and the Administration was permitted to submit accusation leveled at me by nameless witnesses.” Subsequently a grievance panel at the college reached a split decision in the professor's favor, “citing administrative missteps as part of its rationale.” (http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/blog/?p=189)

My dismissal in 2000 was conducted in almost the same way as Professor Hoffeditz says his was. The issues the college had with me were not about theology or doctrine but involved interpersonal matters.
Like Professor Hoffeditz, I never had the chance to meet my accusers face to face or to question them. In the first round, I was at least told who the accusing students were. In a second round of accusations a couple years later, which was conducted under a different man as my department head, I was not told my accusers' names, nor was I given any specifics. Only the vaguest of charges were leveled at me. I was not permitted to confront my accusers and question them nor to present individuals to speak on my behalf. I was put in a position in which there was no way I could adequately defend my actions or my motives. I am 99% certain that my case was handled as it was because those who wanted to see me dismissed knew I could rebut their charges.

It therefore bothered me greatly when I read Professor Hoffeditz statement about how his case was handled. Thirteen years after I left the faculty I see that the university's upper-level administrators are still conducting their dismissal procedures with faculty members in the same unethical, un-Christian way they treated me. Not only are issues of Biblical theology at stake in this controversy, so are matters of behavior towards one's fellow Christian.

I want urge everyone who is taking a strong stand about the controversy over theology and doctrine taking place at Cedarville University to take an equally strong stand about how the university treats its people – about its policies regarding accusations, grievance procedures, and being given the opportunity to present a case in one's defense. My teaching career and my life were destroyed by the actions taken against me by certain men at the college. I do not want that same thing to ever happen to anyone else.

Michael Corson, Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

This is an older post, but I would like to chime in.

I was a CU student in the 90s, and graduated from CU. I have been watching the dramas associated with these controversies over the past few years.

It saddens me to see hear about these reports, where there seems to be a lack of justice, fairness, kindness, and charity in the treatment of the faculty and staff.

At the same time, working at a university (or anywhere) is not a right, and I believe that both the employer and the employee should have the right to part ways with each other for whatever nondiscriminatory reason they choose. This is simply freedom of association..

Nick, I read your comment, and I have to say that it seems to be based on the assumption that theological diversity is an intrinsically good thing.

If you believe this, then I would challenge you to try to make your case from the Bible; I think that you'll find it harder to make than you think.