Time for the End of the Sectarian University?

Time for the End of the Sectarian University? May 7, 2012

Churches have long been instrumental in the establishment of universities. Some of the most prestigious secular universities of the present day in the United States – whether Harvard University, the University of Chicago, or Butler University [wink] – were founded by either churches or people motivated by religion, and had strong religious ties.

But it may be that the time has come for those who consider higher education and research important to take a stand and say that education as it is currently understood is antithetical to having a religious affiliation that demands that employees and/or students sign a statement of faith.

Let me explain.

One of the key features of education is learning to think critically, evaluate evidence, and wrestle with conflicting interpretations. If an institution prohibits professors from advocating a particular viewpoint, then even seeming to advocate that viewpoint will be liable to get one in trouble. And so students will not hear a strong case for whatever that viewpoint is. The issue is not whether that viewpoint is right or wrong. One of the key accomplishments of a well-rounded education is that it forces us to realize that intelligent and well-informed people can at times disagree over the best interpretation to offer or conclusion to draw. When upholding a particular orthodoxy is required to keep one’s job, then on the one hand, the professor is going to be motivated to refrain from playing devil’s advocate when it will be pedagogically useful to provoke students to think about a different perspective, while on the other hand, students and trustees may take the notion of devil’s advocate literally.

Likewise when it comes to research, if one is beholden to particular views in advance, then one may have to choose between following the evidence where it leads – even evidence from the Bible itself – versus keeping one’s job.

And so perhaps we should keep the name university for institutions which espouse genuine and full academic freedom, and require that those which do not be called something else?

Please note that I am not saying that institutions cannot have religious affiliations, but that a distinction must be made between institutions committed above all to education in as broad and full a sense as possible, and those committed first and foremost to upholding and promoting a particular system of thought. There are many churches and individuals who consider it inevitable that whatever one believes, at some point you will doubt it, and consider that it is not helpful to drive those who are going through such inevitable experiences out of their church or school. As Andrea Dilley put it in a recent CNN article, “My doubt belonged in church…My doubt is actually part of my faith.”

Some may already have guessed that my posting on this is motivated by the recent dismissal of Anthony Le Donne. See the posts on this subject around the blogosphere by Christopher Skinner, James Crossley, Jared Callaway, Brian LewisBrian LePort, John Hobbins, and Mike Bird, as well as Ben Witherington’s – which one ought to read while keeping in mind the fact that he works at a seminary with a statement of faith. See also the quote from F. F. Bruce in an older post by Tony Jones.

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  • Ken Schenck

    You might achieve these ends by a kind of “University Manifesto” that affirmed some core virtues in the search for truth. It would need to be carefully worded so as not to ignore the postmodern critique of objectivity and the inevitability of assumptions. But if there were a standard for “objective” research as a goal, one that was primarily an evidentiary model, universities might distinguish themselves by whether or not they were willing to sign it. It might become a kind of distinguishing stamp. 

  • Scott__F

    Alas!  Education is sometimes only the fig-leaf over disturbingly sectarian naughty-bits.  All universities must give lip service to searching for truth/educating followers/blah blah blah.  But when I see a faith statement that presupposes the answers rather than encouraging inquiry, how can I take them seriously.

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    Identity has to have boundaries, which universities, such as these, define in religious terms. Unfortunately, diversity or liberty of conscience doesn’t allow for academic norms.

    Academic norms are defined by consensus, but those that think that religious conscience trumps The Academy aren’t prone to change their opinion, as they are not open to it! It is called “confirmation bias”, as it threatens religous identity.

    The West has developed, because we are based in Enlightenment principles, of liberty and reason. But, our tolerance has been our “un-doing”, when religious liberty allows for intolerant religious opinion to be the defining factor that determines culture!!!

    I do not think it appropriate to have a “defense attorney” call for the women attending a trial of a Muslim terrorist to wear “burkas”,  so that there will be “no offense”!!! Ludicrous! AND such tolerance is to be our “un-doing”, as such would NEVER consider liberty as a value!!!