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Gittings/Houston Baptist University

Inquiring mind

Q&A | University president Robert Sloan shows that faith and learning are not a zero sum game

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

Graduations approach, and we'll hear a lot of vaguely Christian sentiments in commencement speeches at once-Christian schools. Robert Sloan graduated in 1970 from Baylor University with a double major in psychology and religion, and later returned to Baylor as a professor. As the university's president from 1995 to 2005 he strove to make Baylor a Christian university rather than a secular look-alike, but many professors and influential alumni objected. Sloan resigned amid controversy and in 2006 became president of Houston Baptist University.

As a student, did you go to Baylor thinking it was a Christian college? Yes. I had my acceptance letter from the University of Texas, but I wanted to go to a place that I thought would put me in a better environment for nurturing my faith. It was not what I expected: I found Baylor to be more of a large public institution that had a religious department and required chapel.

What effect did your psychology courses have on you-and were any taught from a Christian perspective? They pushed me to the edge of my understanding of human nature, of what it means to be human. I didn't hear a Christian worldview in the psychology department.

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Since you arrived as a professing believer, were you able to listen to the professors and see that there was a problem in what they were teaching? I certainly sensed that there was a huge conflict between what I had been taught growing up in a Baptist church. I reached a crisis of faith: I was pushed to a point of despair because if human beings are merely the result of biochemical forces, then Christianity is wrong.

Then you went to Princeton for graduate study . . . There I had a real crisis of faith. The professor in the first New Testament class I had critically analyzed the empty tomb narratives and concluded that the resurrection did not happen. Rather, the disciples had a crisis of faith: They went through despair, then felt better and reached into the ancient Near Eastern world to pick out the mythology of the dying and rising god-and that's how Christianity was created.

You believed the professor? I lost my confidence in the New Testament's historical reliability. People say you can hang on to the religious experience even when you suspect the historical material is weak, but that loss created despair for me.

Didn't you expect that from Princeton? You do but you don't. I didn't expect that emotionally.

How did you escape despair? I had a friend at an evangelical seminary who sent me some bibliographies. I began to read.

What books helped?

C.S. Lewis' Miracles. F.F. Bruce on the reliability of the New Testament documents.

Did many students lose their faith and not recover? I saw that often. Some tragic stories. It was in that matrix of deep, personal, spiritual crisis that I found my calling. I knew I wanted to be a professor. I ended up teaching at a seminary and then became a professor at Baylor. I got to go to my alma mater, a place that still remained a very mixed culture.

And eventually you became president. What were your goals? I wanted Baylor to be an academically rigorous place within the framework of a Christian worldview. We began to work hard to hire people of great academic reputation and visibility who were of a Christian sensibility. Hiring Christian people was the college's policy, but everyone would just wink and nod. They spoke up when I moved to enforce that, but I considered it my responsibility as president to enforce the policy. My critics said I would turn Baylor into a Bible college.

You created the Polanyi Center for the Study of Intelligent Design. That became controversial: Why? We brought a couple very fine scholars to be there, but immediately they encountered much opposition by the neo-Darwinians.

What objections were there to Intelligent Design at an ostensibly Christian university? I don't think there was a good objection. Critics said you're going to embarrass us professionally, everyone knows evolution is true, and who are these people but a bunch of seven-day creationists? The list went on. People threw up a thousand different issues. It is a shame that in academic life, which is supposed to be marked by open-ended inquiry, people-both left and right-are often dogmatic. Evolution was a dogma for some, almost like a religious faith that couldn't be questioned.

Looking back, what in your Baylor experience stands out to you? I made plenty of mistakes, I was very young and inexperienced as an administrator, but I don't regret the direction I wanted to facilitate for Baylor because I think it was Baylor's historic identity. The university has made great strides toward being a great place academically that is also faithful to its Christian heritage. I'm proud of the place.

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