Dayton, Tennessee, perhaps best-known for being the location of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, is back in the news with a controversy at Bryan College, named for William Jennings Bryan, the anti-evolutionist counsel at Scopes. As of a recent board meeting, the faculty at the college are now required to agree to a clarification of the faith statement and this has everyone scurrying, writing letters to the student paper, and petitioning.
In this post-Nye-Ham debate world, any clarification of a statement of faith is likely to be about evolution. Bryan College is, in this case, a reminder that at Evangelical institutions the highest academic credential is the ability to sign faith statements. And if history is an indicator, this will result in casualties.
What is Bryan Clarifying?
Point four of the Bryan College statement of belief reads, "that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death." This article of faith was defined further in the following new clarification statement: "We believe that all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms." According to interviews with the Times FreePress, faculty will have a few weeks to decide if they will sign the clarification and many believe their jobs may be on the line if they refuse.
Clarifications are useful tools in schools where a faith statement isn't able to be amended, as is the case at Bryan, but can in fact be elaborated on. In other words, clarifications bring out the fine print between the lines. The room between the lines has always been a crucial safe place for faculty and students. What isn't said is what allows for diversity at Evangelical schools, and so many rely on these buffer zones as opportunities to foster a school's growth and openness.
Fundamentalism, however, abhors a theological vacuum. It seeks to narrow the circle of who is in and who is not, and this has unfortunate consequences for an institution of higher education.
The Educational Casualty
My own research on academic freedom in religious higher education has shown that situations like these are far from rare. Over the last decade, schools like Cedarville University or Calvin College, and seminaries like Westminster Theological Seminary, all have caved to revolutions demanding a return to a more fundamentalist past and its overly provincial concerns. Given the strong anti-evolution origins of Bryan, one has to wonder why this didn't happen earlier.
While schools should evolve with the times and embrace the notion that science has discovered a lot since 1925 -- let alone since the final edit of Genesis -- faith-based institutions of learning in the United States have the right to identify themselves as they please. These schools exist because of a faith; there is no institution without that faith present in some form. This does not mean, however, that if they embrace creationism, and fail to meet the standards of science, then they also have the right to have their biology departments taken seriously. The end result is that the quality of a student's education is significantly diminished when institutions of higher learning refuse to accept new discoveries and advance with the rest of the world.
The Human Casualties
There are many religious institutions that have had fundamentalist histories, but proved open to new (or newish, in this case) discoveries. But many Christians are afraid that once that box is open, there is an inevitable end in secularity. Regardless of whether Schrödinger's Cat is alive or dead in this situation, there are other concerns they should consider above their fear of change. The tunnel-visioned fundamentalism misses a Christian mission that (one might assume) Jesus would have put more weight on: caring for others.
Faculty who have made an academic community their family, and who have attempted to respect it, inevitably find themselves on the business end of a pink slip. Christian schools, like Bryan, who repeatedly affirm a Christian mission usually give an ultimatum: sign or leave. In the world of higher education, where full-time positions are vanishing and adjuncts make up 74 percent of college faculty, this is the same as sentencing a family to poverty and homelessness or hypocrisy.
So hopefully Bryan College will think long and hard before finalizing this new trajectory toward callousness. Maybe they can make room for another clarification statement that says, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Whatever the end result of Bryan's decision is, there is no doubt that they won't be the last institution to revise a statement of faith toward conservative fundamentalist theology. There will always be another story, another campus divided, and public statements expressing confounded disbelief at the existence of such schools in a modern society. In the meantime, maybe the best advice to Bryan students is a paraphrase of Mark Twain: "Never let your schooling interfere with your education."
Follow Brandon G. Withrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bwithrow