Tuesday, April 21, 2015

All I Have Left to Say

As things have unfolded at Northwest Nazarene University, I've been watching closely. I wrote earlier about my concern over the message this sends to the denomination - a lot of people have picked up the difficulty we're having on this (and other) issue(s). There's a lot to be decided in the near future and we've got generations that really don't understand each other (a great message for a younger generation was delivered at my alma mater, Eastern Nazarene College, recently, by a friend and seminary classmate of mine - it's worth checking out). I think another friend and NTS classmate hit on the real importance of this situation - unity.

If you've made it through all those links, you're probably up to speed enough to understand what I'm saying. I think the real problem has been a conflation of many things, related, yes, but also separate, that is making any effort to do anything real difficult to parse. First, there is the difficult relationship NNU President David Alexander has had with his own faculty. It's not been a good relationship and there are a lot of issues to work through in terms of trust, communication, and collaboration. Second, there is the very real difficulty many denominational leaders in the Church of the Nazarene have with, at least, the way in which Tom Oord presents his theology. Third, there is the declining enrollment in NNU's graduate theology program, the failure of outsourcing recruiting, and how the school has chosen to address it. Clouding all three of these issues in the general tenor of distrust and protectionism that's been rumbling through the Church of the Nazarene at large in recent years.

All of these things are related, but none are necessarily connected (in the very strictest definition of the word: they don't HAVE to be addressed together). Because of this, it seems we have all manner of disparate angry people upset to different degrees about various elements of a complicated problem.

I don't have a dog in this fight - other than my place as an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, the son of an NNU Trustee, and a friend of Tom Oord. In other words, there are some larger, less tangible things at stake for me personally, but there're an awful lot of people I care about who are right in the middle of this. I'll try not to speak out of turn and nothing here is anything beyond my perception of the situation. My only hope and aim in writing about this one more time is to hopefully provide some clarity for those who may feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the conversation.

1) I have very little to say about the relationship between NNU's President and it's faculty. The faculty are obviously pretty upset. I've known some faculty who've been upset for years. They're going to have to figure out a way to work together - and that means growth and change from both sides. I pray they'll be able to do it.

2) Tom Oord has chosen (as is his duty as an academic) to explore some areas of theology that break new ground. He's asking and attempting to answer questions that a lot of us wrestle with. I don't always agree with Tom - sometimes it feels like he's trying to put together the theological version of Stephen Hawking's Unified Field Theory and the missing pieces prove elusive - but I am encouraged by his efforts, because they are the same ones that intrigue and capture me. I hope what he's thinking and talking and writing about is not out of bounds - but I'm pretty biased on that account, since it would put me over the line as well.

Tom is a kind and gracious person, which is difficult to reconcile with claims that he leaves students with too many questions and not enough answers. I know they moved him to upper level courses in recent years partly because of these concerns. I do believe Tom does what many professors are (reasonably) leery to do, namely playing devil's advocate and challenging student thinking without always wrapping up the discussion in a nice bow of confidence. I think this is a fair and good way to teach (albeit with some inherent risks) - at the same time, I think having reservations about this style is also a fair position. There's a real (perhaps impossible) balance to consider when undergraduate education is involved. Tom's theology is far more controversial because he's a professor than it would be if he were a pastor in a local church.

I am one of those people for whom Tom's loving challenges have helped to explore new areas of thought and find real confidence in a faith that might otherwise be shaky. I can name a number of close friends, many of them ordained Nazarene ministers, who directly attribute their continued faith to Tom's influence. We're seeing many of the people Tom Oord has impacted in this way coming to his defense rigorously. I'm not sure it's good in a situation like this to weigh help and harm - it is always regrettable for a student to engage academically and lose their faith - but for those intent on doing so, please consider the many who likely would not have remained Christians without the freedom and permission a professor like Tom Oord provides.

That being said, as much as I might personally disagree with which places in the denomination those with authority determine are appropriate for Tom's particular teaching, I do think those we've given authority to in these matters have a right to make such decisions. There is certainly nothing different in Tom's method or belief that what we routinely encountered at Nazarene Theological Seminary (a place, were Tom to need one, I'd love for him to end up teaching) - a graduate seminary like NTS is certainly a more comfortable place than an undergraduate institution in this scenario.

I hope, if Tom Oord does move on from NNU, there is some great measure taken by the denomination or another denominational institution to include him, validate him, and bless him as a worthy leader in our tradition. I desperately pray this situation will not be one of the appropriateness of Tom Oord's theology and only an issue of the appropriate place for it.

3) NNU's online graduate programs have been pretty groundbreaking and pretty darn respectable over the years. They went after this market quickly and with great aptitude. I know a lot of people who've finished degrees through NNU and really enjoyed the experience. That being said, there is a very limited market for graduate theological degrees in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. That's just a fact. NTS is doing much better in competing for these students after really falling behind at the beginning. Outsourced marketing or not, there was very likely going to have to be faculty cuts at NNU as a simple reality of the marketplace. I find it sadly ironic that NNU's pursuit of ATS accreditation for a fully online MDiv program was likely to hasten the problems they're having with enrollment. Once other seminaries were given permission to replicate this model, things were only going to get more difficult.

If a cut was on the horizon (and thinking outside whatever is the required, agreed upon plan for making such cuts - something that internal NNU processes will adjudicate and something I've got no understanding of at all), the difficulties presented by Oord's presence (and the continued complaints, founded or otherwise), plus his immense position in the academy (and the reality that he'll likely have no trouble finding another job) are legitimate considerations for choosing him (even if they're easy to disagree with). I'd personally, if I were associated with NNU, want to keep as many of our best, brightest, and well-known faculty as I possibly could, even if it meant more headaches for me - I'd consider that worth the trouble. I can also understand why some might not consider it worth the trouble.

4) The Church of the Nazarene is in a bad spot. We just are. There's very little patience left with the administrative structure of the denomination and even less trust. There have been real witch hunts (or as real as such things get without actually hunting witches). We have leaders on record not just disagreeing, but denouncing various people, theologies, and ideas. While some apologies were given, the reverberations of such are always much less than those of the original statements.

I really feel the future of the denomination is walking out the door. Many of us are starting to wonder whether sticking around is going to get us thrown out the door in time. I'm not entirely pessimistic. I'm really not. I think there are enough people with enough grace to make things work going forward. I have a deep and abiding belief in the love of God to make the world right and in the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth, to make (and keep) us one, and to provide for a bright and unified future.

I guess I've written all of this to say: I'd love to see Tom Oord stay at NNU. I think he wants to be there and I think it's good for the school to have him there, even if it creates headaches and problems from time to time. At the same time, I don't think Tom having to leave is the end of the world. It would be sad, certainly worthy of grief, but there are many setbacks in life and even Tom believes in a God who works all things together for good, a God who holds the future (even if God doesn't always know the details).

What would be a real problem, though, is for this to be a referendum on Open Theism or a theology of non-coercive love or Tom Oord himself. We can't afford that. We can't afford this situation to become a theological dividing line. I know it won't be such a line in all places within our denomination, but it also can't be such a line at the center of our denomination. We must keep our pursuit of Christ-likeness at the center of our fellowship, unified around the pursuit of a holy life, even if we debate, discuss, and disagree about the ways some people get there.

So argue and debate and protest and mediate, but make sure you're aware of the complexities and make sure you're keeping God's gracious hospitality at the forefront of your mind.

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