It is often said that adversity does not create character, it reveals it. If this is true than it must also be true that adversity does not create flaws, it reveals them. The unfortunate circumstances surrounding the rejection of Dr. Alex Bryan as the next president of Walla Walla University exposed cracks growing in the foundation of our denomination, cracks that reach far beyond Walla Walla and do not bode well for Adventism as a whole. Now I will admit that I am the least qualified to discuss the particular question of whether Dr. Bryan should have the position. However, the issues raised by how the board reached its decision are troublesome, setting aside any discussion of whether the conclusion was correct.
The most glaring problem is the effect of the anonymous letter sent to the board of the university protesting the search committee’s recommendation. While this anonymous group mentioned several grounds for their objection, the main points seemed to revolve around two things. First, Dr. Bryan believes in spiritual formation and two, some of his favorite authors are people outside the church who believe in spiritual formation. This type of objection in itself is problematic and symptomatic of a broader issue in the church. To justify their position, this anonymous group used as their support a quotation from Elder Ted Wilson’s inaugural sermon to the General Conference in 2010. In that sermon, entitled “Go Forward,” Elder Wilson said:
Stay away from non-biblical spiritual disciplines or methods of spiritual formation that are rooted in mysticism such as contemplative prayer, centering prayer, and the emerging church movement in which they are promoted. Look WITHIN the Seventh-day Adventist Church to humble pastors, evangelists, Biblical scholars, leaders, and departmental directors who can provide evangelistic methods and programs that are based on solid Biblical principles and “The Great Controversy Theme.”
Although they only directly quoted the first sentence, it is clear from the tone (and appendix) to their letter that they also have a problem with Dr. Bryan finding inspiration outside the Adventist Church. The possibility that Dr. Bryan may have been rejected in part because he believes in spiritual formation or because he finds truth in books authored by people outside the Adventist Church is ridiculous. Here is where Elder Wilson’s comment has a disastrous effect – it lends credence to the idea that Adventism is the only repository of truth, and anyone who finds anything of value outside of Adventism is somehow violating the faith. Unfortunately people now feel emboldened to criticize and attack anyone who has the temerity to admit that they have learned something from somewhere other than the Bible and the writings of Ellen G. White. Besides the fact that this line of thought cannot be sustained historically (after all, our founders as a matter of course had to have read things not written by Adventist authors), the point is also antithetical to the goal of any academy of higher learning, and any religious endeavor. The ultimate goal of any educational institution is to discover and impart truth, regardless of where it may be found. This is why colleges and universities engage in research in many academic areas as, including religion. How does this process take place if academics only read and research those who have some preconceived stamp of approval? Moreover, the Adventist faith was founded by those who dared to go beyond the theological understanding of their day to discover something old and yet new at the same time. We know this concept as “present truth.” Present truth is one of the bedrocks of our faith – the idea that as time progresses we will learn more and understand God better. The process of coming to present truth by definition involves learning about new ideas (regardless of where they come from), testing them against Scripture, and then accepting or rejecting them on that basis. It seems hypocritical to the very spirit of Adventism to now attack members of our church who engage in that same process.
Although I am sure Mr. Torkelsen’s published statement was meant to alleviate concerns about the effect of the anonymous letter, his statement only exacerbated those concerns and raised new issues, as evidenced by the criticisms raised by students and faculty at Walla Walla. First, Mr. Torkelsen insists that the letter did not have any effect on the deliberations of the committee, stating “that the concerns raised should not and would not be a factor to disqualify him from consideration.” However, he speaks contrary to this point in the very next paragraph by stating that the Board also realized that Dr. Bryan was a polarizing figure. How some (if not all) of that recognition could not be attributed to the anonymous letter is something that neither he (nor I for that matter) can state with any level of certainty. Of course, it also should be noted that the whole issue of the anonymous letter could have been easily alleviated with some foresight on behalf of the board. As soon as the letter became public, the board should have denounced it, unless the anonymous parties were willing to come forward and substantiate their claims. This did not occur, and so the board itself caused the process to be called into question.
Furthermore, the description of Dr. Bryan as a polarizing figure raises further questions. While it is not hard to ascertain how they could come to such a conclusion, why that determination is important is another matter. Mr. Torkelsen raises polarization as the first concern, even before he discusses Dr. Bryan’s qualifications. It insinuates that the issue of polarization is the most important issue to be addressed, despite the fact that Mr. Torkelsen claims that Dr. Bryan’s qualifications were the reason that he was not elected. And even if we assume that Dr. Bryan is a polarizing figure, that conclusion leads to other questions. If Dr. Bryan is such a polarizing figure, it does not seem to make sense that you can on the one hand affirm his ministry in your church, but cite it as a reason for why he cannot be president of the university. There is a lack of consistency in the argument. If he is a polarizing figure, he should not be allowed to shepherd people through their spiritual lives, especially considering the accusations. Once again, I cannot speak to the truth of the accusations, but it does not logically follow that a man so polarizing should not lead our students academically but is just suited to lead them spiritually. Finally, Mr. Torkelsen’s response implies that being polarizing is a per se detriment to a presidential candidate. However, this is not the case. A candidate can be polarizing in a positive way as well. The fact that polarization is mentioned as a detriment further supports the idea that Dr. Bryan himself is unfit for the job, despite whatever deficiencies in his resume.
When I look at this situation, I see one main problem that has manifested itself in two different ways. There seems to be a crisis of leadership that extends beyond WWU and into the present form of Adventism. There is a crisis of leadership at the very head of our church that would make a statement such as the one cited in the anonymous letter. This type of statement has a now realized potential to divide well-meaning Adventist from well-meaning Adventist, and seek to brand one as legitimate and the other as invalid. These ill-considered statements have seeped into our culture and changed (or possibly exacerbated) the way we relate to each other. Unfortunately these statements have had a hand in the decision-making process at WWU. But there also seems to be a crisis of leadership amongst the Board at WWU as well. It was this lack of leadership that caused the presidential search process to be corrupted, and that gave credence to unsubstantiated rumors. But in the end there is much to be gained by this. Adversity does not create flaws, it exposes them. At least now we can begin to address the problem, fix what ills us, and create a better environment for all believers.