Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Theology as Tribal Identifier: An Update from the Bryan College Case

A month ago I wrote a blog post about a small, obscure Christian college in Dayton, Tennessee that has been going through some internal turmoil. Some additional information has come out about the case that illuminates things further, and which exposes what I think is really going on.

It's no secret that there is, for some folks at least, a "culture war" within US society. This, in and of itself, is nothing new - people have had wildly divergent ideas about religion, theology, social norms, science, and a host of things ever since societies were formed. One of the challenges of trying to live in a pluralistic society is that we have to coexist with people who hold ideas very different from ours - an uncomfortable task for most of us. That we have managed it as well as we have (that is, with relatively little bloodshed) is a testament to the success of the American experiment.

But living with difference is hard for most folks to do. The primary coping mechanism is to form tribes or sub-groups of like-minded folks who can band together, increasing comfortable interactions with your "kin" while decreasing interactions with outsiders. This can take on varying levels of extremity - some tribes (old order Amish, for example) have extremely limited interactions with outsiders, even when they live in close geographic proximity to them. The Amish get a pass on this largely because they are peaceful and self-sufficient and don't bother anybody - they make no demands on the rest of us, so we leave them alone. Our world is filled with less obvious mechanisms to do much the same thing - which part of town do you live in, what church do you go to, which news do you watch on TV.

The Creationism "debate" falls into this category of behavior. The label "debate" misses the mark entirely, because it assumes that there is an exchange of ideas when in fact none is intended or allowed. Debates imply either winners and losers (as judged by some authoritative audience outside the debaters), or an exchange of ideas intended to illuminate and possibly change either or both. Statements about Creationism such as the Bryan College controversy have none of these characteristics.

At the root of the Bryan controversy is a "clarification" added to the college's Statement of Faith. The article linked above explains the change in this fashion:
Formerly, Bryan’s statement of faith, which all faculty and staff must sign annually, says “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[.]” 
In February, the college’s Board of Trustees -- backed by President Stephen Livesay -- approved of the following clarification to that part of the 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.”
To be clear, lots of Christian colleges have statements of faith that faculty and students are required to sign. All of them serve the same purpose: they are markers of identity for the community, a way of insuring that only the like-minded are included. There's nothing inherently wrong with doing so - there are plenty of benefits to creating a community of like-minded people, from fellowship to mutual support to growth. But it does have the effect of including some and excluding others.

That Bryan is essentially "tightening" their Statement at this time suggests that the community (or those who control its boundaries) feel threatened by forces outside the tribal boundaries, and are trying to draw the wagons in a little closer. This has the very predictable effect of excluding a few more people, who naturally leave (whether by choice or not is a separate question).

If that particular community wants to define itself is somewhat more narrow and exclusionary ways, that's their choice. The students will ultimately decide for themselves whether that's what they want, and if enough of them don't like the narrower box they will leave and the college will collapse. If they can persuade enough folks to join them on their particular tribal island, they can stick around as a going concern.

From a sociological and psychological perspective, I understand this urge to create and defend group boundaries. From a theological and spiritual perspective, I find the impulse a little at odds with my understanding of the fundamentally inclusive message of the Christian gospel. While they will claim to be "radically different" and "not of this world", what Bryan's leadership is doing is very much of the world - they are behaving no differently than many other institutions, both religious and secular, in drawing exclusive tribal boundaries to keep the foreigners and heretics out. I don't find that view of God particularly compelling, and I wonder what a radically inclusionary Christian institution might look like.

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