In Defense of "Faith Statements"
This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog.” Narration begins at 1:45.
The commitment to “follow the evidence wherever it leads” has long been the foundational core of professional integrity within the academy. No matter what the discipline, no matter whether one is a researcher or a teacher, no matter the mission statement of one’s institution, no matter even the growing diversity of views as to what counts as reliable evidence — this is the mantra that binds the guild of higher education together.
The Prima Facie Case Against Faith Statements
Nothing would seem, at first glance, so inherently threatening to this shared and professionally sacred trust than the existence at some higher education institutions of mandatory “faith statements” or “creedal commitments.” (See the examples of Houghton College and Wheaton College.) These documents exist most frequently at institutions with some kind of religious affiliation, in some cases denominational, in other cases, interdenominational or nondenominational. Either way, these statements require faculty to agree to pursue their professional activities within the framework of a shared set of doctrinal commitments.
It is understandable that such a practice would precipitate unease in our contemporary world. After all, isn’t part of the purpose of higher education to liberate individuals from just such precommitments rooted in tradition or custom? Isn’t part of our common lore in the academy that religion has stood in the way of science and progress? (It is Galileo’s confrontation with the religious authorities of his day that is remembered, and so often in a fairly generic and simplistic way — rather than the experience of other scientists such as Robert Boyle or Isaac Newton, who found no conflict between their faith and their scientific pursuits.) It was no accident that the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, founded in 1660, wanted to deal with only knowledge claims that were empirically verifiable, not those claims coming from religious or political authority associated with the turmoil of England’s recent Civil War.
So many aspects of our Western traditions — from the Protestant Reformation, to the American commitment to “separation of church and state,” to the 20th-century logical positivists’ credo — have made the academic community suspicious of religion. Thus, these faith statements would seem to inhibit the overall purpose or end toward which all true education is directed, the liberating and expansive impact on individual and collective human flourishing.
Taking a Second Look. . .
Nevertheless, I would suggest that, in the true spirit of academic commitment to go beyond unquestioned assumptions, we move beyond the “first glance” to consider more deeply the potential drawbacks and merits of signing faith statements or creedal commitments as a precondition to employment at some academic institutions.
First of all, it is worth acknowledging at the outset that one of the great treasures of higher education in the United States is the diversity of its institutions. Unlike many highly centralized national systems of higher education, the American landscape offers students a rich set of options. It makes room for students with a wide range of abilities and in different seasons of life, and offers numerous missional contexts to match students’ varying desires around the purpose of education in their lives.
Second, critical to each educational context is a set of assumptions that undergirds the learning environment. This set of assumptions — let’s call it the “learning covenant” — exists within the larger shared teleological framework at all accredited colleges and universities. That is, religious institutions are not the only ones that have faith statements or creedal commitments; every institution has a set of undergirding principles that shapes what is considered appropriate for that institution. These principles include the boundaries of knowledge versus mere opinion; what methods are matched to the pursuit of particular disciplines and questions (e.g., we do not expect to find test tubes or spectrometers in a philosophy class); what boundaries the professor should set between what is professionally relevant and what is personal (e.g., we would expect a professor at a public institution to honor our general cultural understanding that one’s religious faith is a private concern rather than epistemologically relevant to the subject matter of the classroom); and more recently, what sensibilities should be honored in ensuring the aspirational diversity of each particular learning community.
Third, one might suggest that those institutions that require signed faith statements or creedal commitments are simply making explicit what this learning covenant is at their institutions. They are laying out before prospective faculty and staff candidates those presuppositions of the philosophical, religious, and moral vision that undergird the pursuit of knowledge at that institution rather than assuming that candidates already know what these presuppositions are. These presuppositions serve to communicate the particular commitments that are shared by the community so that a prospective candidate can determine if this setting is a sufficiently hospitable environment for the productive pursuit of one’s own professional aspirations as both a professor and a scholar. Furthermore, they allow for potential misunderstandings about an institution’s expectations to emerge at the time of hiring rather than in the much more painful context of an early tenure review.
Fourth, while it is certainly the case that faith statements or creedal commitments, whether signed or not, can come into apparent and sometimes very real conflict with the unfettered pursuit of evidence, it is not at all obvious that this is necessarily more likely to happen when the faith statements or creedal commitments are signed. It all depends upon what else is going on in the institution, such as the spirit and composition of the governing board; the style and personalities of the administration; the community’s comfort with disagreement and its protocols for resolving conflict; the current political or social pressures within the institution or the surrounding culture; and the self-confidence of the institution to contain within itself certain tensions that inevitably arise in any serious community of learning.
The Potential Value of Making the Learning Covenant Explicit
When appropriately understood within a commitment to overall academic integrity, there are potential educational values to the explicit nature of the faith statements or creedal commitments that are required at some religious institutions. Let me mention a few:
First, when the faith statements or creedal commitments are explicit, they can be interrogated in such a way that is much more difficult when the assumptions of the learning environment are unwritten. In fact, within religious denominations that sponsor educational institutions, it is understood that the educational institutions have an exploratory role in moving the denomination as a whole to a deeper understanding of various issues or in advocating for reconsideration of denomination positions. The relationship between religiously committed institutions and their sponsoring governing constituencies is not a one-way relationship; it is more than simply the governing board functioning as the gatekeeper on the educational enterprise. This privilege and expectation of interrogation of the core presuppositional commitments is not comfortable, but it happens, and it is made possible largely by the explicit nature of the learning covenant.
Second, when there is an explicit statement of the learning covenant, it is much easier for professors in their own self-awareness of the situation to draw students’ attention to it and make students aware that there are other educational contexts than the one they currently occupy. Furthermore, professors are more likely to work intentionally to assure that students are more fully aware of the range of ways that various issues are discussed, out of both their own commitment to disciplinary integrity and their desire that their students be prepared for what they will find when they move on to graduate or professional schools or into their professions.
Third, when there is an explicit statement of the learning covenant, students, especially those who have come from more conservative religious backgrounds, begin with more trust in their professors. They are less likely to be on guard. Consequently, they are more open to being invited into uncharted territory that challenges some of their preconceived or unexamined assumptions. (I have heard students say that it was their experience in a Christian liberal arts context that first allowed them the mental and emotional courage to look at their core assumptions, rather than contexts where “they were spending all their energy trying to hold on to their faith.”) In saying this, I am not at all making a statement about nonreligious institutions; rather, I am making a statement about students’ subjective openness, when they trust the learning covenant, to new ideas and questions that challenge their paradigms.
Furthermore, when faculty have also walked a similar journey to that of their students, faculty are able to facilitate not simply the inherently deconstructive aspects of an excellent education but the reconstructive aspects. On the basis of decades of observation, I would suggest that students seem to graduate from faith-based institutions more highly individuated than when they came in. Rather than the educational environment making them more like one another, given that they may share a common faith commitment, the faith-based institution seems to free them to explore the many aspects of their own lives and the world other than their faith. They also learn that not everyone who shares their religious faith shares their views on politics or controversial social-ethical issues. They are beginning to experience true diversity.
In short, it may well be that the faith-based sector of American higher education has a more truly liberalizing impact than the non-faith-based sector in preparing students from a strong religious background for participation and service in a pluralistic culture. They have had the freedom to explore their disciplines alongside and in dialogue with their fundamental spiritual and moral commitments, rather than in isolation from those undergirding assumptions. They often emerge with a more integrated sense of self between their professional and personal lives. They have been invited to understand the complexity of their own religious commitments and to see that their own religious community is not monolithic. Arguably, they may be in an ideal position to serve as bridge-builders and convening voices in the current polarized framework of our culture, given that religion is a critical component of that polarization. (See, for example, Robert Putnam’s American Grace ).
Finally, this explicit faith statement or creedal commitment would seem consistent with the attention given within the postmodern academy to one’s perspective or “situatedness” as one enters the learning process and engages in the pursuit of truth. While acknowledging, and eschewing, the potentially limiting aspects of ideological frameworks and the divisive aspects of the often accompanying identity politics, it is certainly one of the gifts of this postmodern moment to call attention to the Enlightenment’s false and blind confidence in objectivity and the possibility of finite individuals seeing perfectly clearly, given the blind spots of their own context.
In this essay, we have invited the exploration of two assertions. First, it may be more conducive in the long run to the richness and diversity of American higher education to encourage all educational institutions to be more explicit about their learning covenants, thus making more transparent the potential gifts that each type of institution offers to the culture and to potential students. Such a practice would also cultivate within the academy a greater awareness of the inherent epistemological limitations of each individual, each discipline, and each presuppositional framework.
Second, there may be value for the entire society when students coming from conservative religious backgrounds choose to obtain their education from institutions that, while sharing the educational commitments of the broader academy, are also explicit about their creedal affirmations. At this critical moment in American society and politics when fear and uncertainty are leading to ever greater polarization, the academy is one of the few remaining institutions that seeks to preserve space for civil discussion and honest exploration. Further study of the comparative impact on all students of institutions with and without explicit statements of their learning covenants would seem productive both for the academy and for society as a whole.
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