Professing one’s faith

It’s common enough that Christian universities hire Christian faculty, according to a front page article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. Some places even require that one sign off on a “statement of faith” that includes doctrinal declarations about such things as Original Sin or the inerrancy of Scripture. But one Presbyterian university, Whitworth, in Spokane, Wash., tries to find a balance between the extremes of being a nominally Christian institution and dictating faith to its faculty, and requires that applicants write their own statement of faith as part of the application process.

One applicant to Whitworth University is Jennifer Stafford Brown, who talks about her experiences teaching at secular university and why she’s attracted to Whitworth:

In Ms. Brown’s experience, at secular colleges “there’s a suspicion of people who are Christian.” And that gave her pause in the classroom. If, for example, she happened to mention to students her plans to go to church that Sunday, she would be sure to toss in an explanation about her “culture” or how she was raised. “You learn to tiptoe around the subject,” she says.

Yet Ms. Brown, a scholar of French literature, felt she couldn’t teach her field without discussing religion. “You can’t understand the literature of the Middle Ages without understanding faith intellectually,” she says. “The church governed everything in the Middle Ages. Unless you can see that point of view, you can’t understand why someone would go on a crusade or write a poem about their faith.” Ms. Brown expects to be more able to integrate discussion of religion into her lectures at Whitworth.

The faith statement is actually about inclusivity and diversity, say university officials. Faculty range the spectrum from liberal to conservative and from mainline to evangelical. The statement also allows them to hire people who genuinely want to work there, they say. But it’s not always an easy fit: some folks aren’t as comfortable talking about their faith. Others are clearly not Christians, and still others think Whitworth isn’t Christian enough.

Brown, however, found it a good fit, and will begin teaching at Whitworth in the fall. Her faith statement “began with a quote from C.S. Lewis and went on to discuss the Anglican/Episcopalian theology of the ‘three-legged stool’ of faith: Scripture, reason, and tradition”:

As she moved through the hiring process, Ms. Brown was surprised at how many people had read her statement — the search committee, the French department, the dean, the president — and how often it came up. “It’s clearly very important to them,” she says.

Those discussions not only helped Whitworth evaluate Ms. Brown, but they also helped her determine whether or not she would fit in there. In particular, Ms. Brown says, she wanted to be sure the institution didn’t encourage homophobia or discourage feminism. In the end, she was persuaded on both counts.

You can read the article, for as long as it as available free, here.

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