The personal lifestyle statement indicates that Shorter “will hire persons who are committed Bible-believing Christians, who are dedicated to integrating biblical faith in their classes, and who are in agreement with the university statement of faith.” For me, this raises a couple of questions — how does one determine whether or not someone else is a “Bible-believing Christian?” And, equally challenging, how does one determine if such a person is integrating his or her “biblical faith” in the classroom? I am convinced that, by the term “Bible-believing,” the trustees and administration of Shorter University are referring to those folks who believe exactly what they believe about the Bible and God, and that they are not referring to those who might believe somewhat differently or even completely differently.
I USED TO ASK the following question of my freshman religion students at Shorter: “What percentage of God do you think you understand?” Admittedly, the rare student would insist, as the rest of the class listened incredulously, that he or she could understand 70 or 80 percent of God. Most students were a bit more humble than that. They weighed in at something less than 1 percent.
One of my great Baptist heroes, Roger Williams, recognized this human limitation. This champion of religious liberty and founder of the Rhode Island colony insisted that no human being could tell another human being what to believe. It was William’s conviction that to compel religious belief was to violate the sovereignty of God, the very same sovereignty to which Shorter’s Philosophy of Christian Education points when it states that “all truth comes from God and finds its fullest expression in the person of Jesus Christ.” If all truth does come from God and, if we agree that God’s truth will win out in the end, then we must cultivate in our Christian institutions of higher education a context in which various perspectives on God can be shared, even those with which a board of trustees and administration might disagree.
THIS KIND of context works — and it worked well—at what was once called “Shorter College.” That institution is now a mythical sort of place for me. Every year we averaged between 30 and 50 majors in the religion department at that institution. We were the largest center for ministry training on the college level in the state of Georgia. We had a variety of perspectives on God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and faith. We hashed it out in the classroom, in religion seminar, in office discussions, and in all sorts of other venues. We agreed on many things and disagreed on many others. Students came from all sorts of backgrounds — Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, with the occasional agnostic or atheist thrown in. Today these students serve as missionaries, pastors, priests, social workers, professors and teachers. They run inner city ministries focused on the needs of the poor, teenagers, unwed mothers, and those who suffer with HIV/AIDS. The significant majority of them are ministers making a powerful difference in the world today. Most of them would tell you that their faith was strengthened in the context of an open learning environment and that they serve in ministry today because of what they learned and not in spite of it.
THE BEST SORT of Christian higher education is the sort that recognizes the limitations of our perspectives on God, even the perspectives we receive when we read the Bible. It is the sort of Christian education that recognizes that we read Scripture through the lens of our own sinfulness and of our own cultural perspective.
It is the sort of Christian education that a student received at an institution like the old Shorter College where a faculty of deeply committed and faithful Christians sought to be examples of humility and faith to the students whose lives they touched. They taught without fear of reprisal and with a devotion to truth wherever it might lead.
I’m grateful to the faculty, staff and administration who made such a place possible, who were my colleagues whether we agreed or disagreed, and who taught out of a deep and abiding faith that transformed lives.
It was a good run. May Shorter College rest in peace.
Robert N. Nash Jr. of Rome is the former dean of Shorter College’s School of Religion and International Studies. He taught in the Religion Department from 1994 to 2006.