Idaho Statesman lavishes multi-story package on another evolving theology professor

I make it my practice to scan newspapers all over the West for interesting pieces on religion and sadly, it’s newspapers in large cities that provide 99 percent of the coverage. Smaller newspapers tend not to have the budget for a full- or part-time religion reporter, even though there are lots of good religion stories out there.

Recently someone forwarded me a lengthy piece in the Idaho Stateman, a 47,855-circulation newspaper based in Boise. Seeing a two-story-and-sidebar package about a controversial theology professor at a local Nazarene university is a rarity for a newspaper that size.

Come to think of it, though, Boise, pop. 214,237, is larger than Salt Lake City (which has religion reporters at both of its newspapers), but there are no listings in the Religion Newswriters Association database for members in Idaho. So, it was a surprise to see the following Aug. 14 story in the Stateman’s Sunday paper:

Why does God allow evil?
How come my loved one dies of cancer, even though I pray for recovery, but others survive without faith or prayer?
Where did creation come from?
These are the kinds of tough theological questions that many people spend their lives wrestling with.
The Rev. Thomas Jay Oord wondered about these questions, too. But the answers he gave likely mean the popular theology professor at Northwest Nazarene University never works at a Nazarene university again.

Northwest Nazarene, by the way, is based in Nampa, just down the road from Boise.

Oord, who pushed against the boundaries of Nazarene beliefs, will leave NNU in 2018 through a negotiated parting of the ways after he was first told he would be laid off in 2015.
School officials say his leaving is part of a plan to shift resources in times of tight budgets. Many others believe he’s going because of what he thinks, says and writes.
The Oord saga is a story of academic freedom, religious liberty, theological differences and higher education economics. But at the heart of Oord’s story is the very American question of self expression in the workplace. From politics to the pew, people want to have their say. The conflict comes when the boss sees a need to draw a line.
The question about how and where to draw the boundaries on free speech and diverse thought has prompted NNU to do its own soul-searching. The 103-year-old university with 2,000 students is rethinking its leadership structure and its commitment to academic freedom.

Usually stories of this type slip into the predictable pattern of embattled theology prof whose theological beliefs have evolved over the years versus a nasty clump of university administrators who don’t want to rock the boat. This story, however, is much more nuanced.

Everything was going fine in Oord’s career, the article relates, until about 15 years ago when the professor began writing about the problem of evil. As for his new theological ideas:

Among the most troubling: God, out of respect and love for his creation and humanity’s free will, does not control people’s lives.
His ideas counter a vision of God as all alls: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-controlling.
“A lot of people live their lives on that,” Hagood said. “It comes to a head in theology, when you talk about evil. Some people tend to say God caused it. He created it or he allowed it. Tom’s idea that (God) has limited his power to have a truly dynamic relationship with humankind sets people off.”
Such ideas aren’t entirely beyond the scope of Nazarene theology and are certainly not rare in many theological circles. It’s called open theology, a sense that everything in our existence has not already been figured out and that God may not know the future.  
But it’s one thing in academia. It’s received a different way in local churches and households, especially in conservative Idaho.

Is it right to blame "conservative Idaho" for this or the Nazarenes themselves?

The article switches to the viewpoint of the superintendent for the local Nazarene district and his worries that ministry trainees at the university were being disturbed by Oord’s questions. By 2010, Oord had been pulled from teaching introduction to theology classes. By 2013, the college president had set in motion a theological inquiry about Oord.

The piece goes into some detail about this inquiry, specifying that while Oord wasn’t exactly heretical, his were not typical Nazarene viewpoints. I called up NNU’s faculty policy manual to see if there was anything I could spot -- such as section 4.3 on “responsibilities of faculty” -- to see if Oord had violated that.

When faculty are hired at such institutions, they do agree -- signing on the doted line -- to teach according to certain doctrines which are spelled out in such manuals. The bottom line: It was unclear in these stories which doctrinal tenets Oord was said to have broken. That's a rather crucial hole in a story on this topic.

What was also foggy is what Oord asked for as a condition for his peaceful departure. The story said he first asked for $1 million and the school turned him down. The quote immediately after that is confusing, as it’s unclear as to whether Oord came back with a demand for more or less pay.

Those are my only two beefs, though, with a piece that goes to great length to get the points of view of the major players. This story, by the way, was twinned with another piece about the university’s self-questioning about academic freedom and when one professor’s freedom becomes a university’s stumbling block. But it’s clear the university hasn’t resolved things, by far. Near the end, the reporter asks:

But the question remains: Is there room at this theologically conservative campus for the liberal, challenging thought?

One problem I have with that approach is this: Private universities, especially religious ones, have issues with branding and identity just like anyone else. Students (or their parents) prefer places like NWU because it holds a certain theological line, which is why they attend it rather than, say, Boise State University. Why can’t journalists ask a dissenting professor why he –- or she –- stays on at a religious college when it’s clear their views have changed to the point they’re not representing the institution’s brand like they once were? After all, professors agreed to defend a specific approach to the faith.

And, will I ever see, a story asking whether a liberal college has room for conservative thought in the same way a conservative college is being asked to make room for liberal thought? Several of my colleagues, including Bobby Ross who wrote this post about a similar situation at Wheaton College last fall, have covered this question a zillion times. There simply aren't stories out there reversing the roles. 

Back to the Statesman: the larger piece provides links to other articles about the professor and a sidebar explaining the Nazarene denomination. I found some more links. Here is Oord’s personal blog and here’s a piece from Christianity Today saying Oord’s problematic beliefs included views on evolution and that other Nazarene colleges are struggling with similar issues. 

This is clearly not an easy time to be an administrator at a conservative Christian college. The Statesman's pieces are about as good as you're going to get in a situation where a lot of the college officials aren't talking.

My one plea to journalists: Even if it seems obvious who the villains may be, always ask hard questions of both sides. In this case, ask the professor why he hung on so long when it was clear he wasn't going to win this battle. Why didn't he bail out sooner and hunt for a more hospitable academic climate that welcomed his new theological beliefs? If he chose to remain, is it right for him to complain when the inevitable happens?

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