Reflections on SBL Statement on Academic Freedom

Reflections on SBL Statement on Academic Freedom June 5, 2017

I have just read the SBL statement on Academic Freedom, Critical Inquiry, and Participation in the Society of Biblical Literature.

All in all, I think it is a healthy and sensible statement. I particularly liked the core paragraph:

Members participating in meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature contribute to the intellectual community of SBL, and thereby agree to engage in an open academic discussion guided by disciplinary norms and in scholarly discourse characterized by critical inquiry and investigation. SBL expects all members to be responsible for the quality of this scholarly community when participating in its programs and forums. SBL’s rules of discourse and engagement are consistent with other learned societies in the humanities and social sciences. SBL embraces the opportunity to expose individuals, institutions, and communities to SBL’s institutional mission, intellectual methods, and humanistic values. As a learned society, its role is also to encourage the expression of opposing viewpoints and to provide a safe space for discussion in which everyone is encouraged to put forward their reasoned opinions while being offered respect and collegiality.

In my reading, this illustrates that SBL is kind of like the village green, where people of all faiths and none, from every perspective imaginable, come together to discuss a common interest, biblical literature and its interpretation.

There is neither a magisterium nor a politburo who has the power to censor views or to impose any single perspective.

This statement is needed given the mounting pressure to politicize the SBL. My concern remains that some SBL members will try to use the society to promote their own political interests and social projects. A good example is Doug Campbell’s well-intentioned petition to move all SBL and AAR conferences away from death penalty states like Georgia. Now I vigorously oppose the death penalty, but I also know that the federal government still employs the death penalty and it will do in the case of the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. If one follows the logic of the petition, we should move all SBL/AAR conferences off US soil – fine by me, I recommend Australia, make you Yanks suffer the agonizing 23 hours of flying and the grueling 38 hours of door-to-door travel! Plus I also know some very fine SBL members, both men and women, who support the death penalty for certain offenses, and they should not be made to feel ostracized for their views of law and order. Now I’m not saying that SBL should be apolitical or amoral. I think we can and should speak up on issues that directly affect the members of our learned society. For case in point, I think SBL’s statement on the EO travel ban is entirely appropriate in that it states that the travel ban will adversely affect some of its members, not limited to the Qu’ran studies association, and the ban also risks promoting caricatures of Muslims and foreigners. However, I think the statement should have been accompanied by a caveat that the SBL takes no position on immigration policies as a whole and its membership has wide-ranging convictions on the subject. Thus, any effort at being politically partisan or socially active always risks dividing the SBL community, potentially inhibiting some views and their adherents within the society, and should only be undertaken with great sensitivity and in pursuit of a consensus.

Otherwise, I worry that some members will try to lobby the SBL leadership to mandate that the diversity of the society as a whole should be replicated in each and every organization that has anything to do with the society and make it a criterion for associating with SBL. Hence the fiasco with the call to ban IVP from SBL last year (see here and here).

As I see it, the danger is that SBL could develop its own social and political orthodoxy and marginalize both individuals and organizations that do not line up with it. In effect, I am concerned that some of the activism within the society will potentially stifle academic diversity and simply serves to cement the divisions between blue and red states, the type of demonizing and deviant labeling that I believe created the Trump presidency.

In this context, a statement on academic freedom is timely and much needed.

It would also be good if SBL sought to deliberately align itself with philosophies like Confident Pluralism and movements like the Heterodox Academy as a way of nailing their colours to the mast when it comes to ensuring the diversity and pluralism of its membership.

So, all in all, I support the SBL statement on academic freedom.

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