As of this morning, I am no longer an employee of Emmanuel Bible College. After something like nine years of teaching English literature there, I am no longer able to sign the school’s statement of faith, and so it withdrew its offer of a contract this fall.
My feelings are mixed, because I enjoyed my time at EBC, especially my opportunity to meet the students, some of whom I would now count among my friends, and I am saddened that I will no longer have the opportunity to be an alternative voice for them at the school, but I am increasingly uncomfortable, not only with some of the specific elements that the school includes in its statement of faith, but also with the very idea of a statement of faith, at least in the sense of a standardized list of criteria for orthodoxy. It is not that I object to the idea of people or even organizations expressing what they believe, but I do object to the idea that these kinds of statements should be or possibly could be definitive of belief.
When we make statements of faith, we need always to recognize how provisional and impossible they are, how inadequate they necessarily are to say anything definitive about God, never mind something prescriptive for those who might be trying to know God. To assume that any such statement could possibly include all those who are sincerely seeking God is simple pride and hubris, and to exclude on the basis of any such statement can only serve to increase division among people whose common purpose is, at least in theory, to know God better.
In my own case, for example, I object to the statement of faith affirming a belief in the Bible before a belief in God, and also to its description of the Bible as “the only supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct,” an idea that the Bible does not itself contain and that runs counter to the Bible’s frequent depiction of God working also through tradition and personal revelation. I would say that God, not the Bible, is the only supreme authority, and that the Bible is a means, one of several, through which God communicates.
None of this should put me essentially at odds with most of the people at the school. It is a point of theological difference where we might disagree, but it is not a matter where the sincerity of anyone’s belief is in question. Yet, the assumption that we all need to affirm the same list of theological criteria in order to be orthodox, and perhaps to affirm several different lists as we go from church to work to camp to community drop-in center, imposes a final and irrevocable division between us. This is a great sadness to me.
Let me propose an alternative. Suppose that each of us, regardless of our religious beliefs or lack thereof, was expected to have a personal statement of faith, even if it was only so short a thing as, “I haven’t a clue what to believe,” and what if we were to regard these things not as prescriptive in any way, but as opportunities to engage one another about these questions that, whatever we believe about them, lie at the core of our humanity, and what if we were expected to hold these statements of faith, not absolutely and for all time, but with equal amounts of humility and passion, so that we would be as willing to admit the possibility that we were wrong as we would be willing to live fully what we believe is right.
Perhaps, just perhaps, this supposition would have me teaching my students this fall.