Conservative Evangelicalism and Academic Freedom

Conservative Evangelicalism and Academic Freedom January 4, 2013

In a blog post today, Pete Enns asked whether an Evangelical institution of higher education can be truly academic and committed to academic freedom. It is an issue that has been garnering a lot of attention, particularly in connection with the administration at Emmanuel Seminary's effort to get Christopher Rollston to leave – a situation depicted wonderfully in this cartoon by Dan McClellan:

The cartoon is from a blog post by Bob Cargill on winners and losers in the whole Emmanuel Seminary affair.

Also announced in the blogosphere today by Jim Linville is a session at next year's SBL on academic freedom in the field of Biblical Studies. See the call for papers on Jim's blog or on the SBL web site. I hope that Pete Enns, Christopher Rollston, and Anthony Le Donne (among others) will consider presenting. I'd also be interested in doing so, having caught a glimpse when working in Romania of the broader global impact when American Evangelicalism's doctrinal concerns are exported and imposed elsewhere in the world.

You can read some of my own thoughts on this topic in a blog post from last May, “Time for the End of the Sectarian University?” (and also one from last February, on the spectrum that runs from apologetics and indoctrination on the one end, to the ideal of education that emphasizes critical independent thinking on the other).

In not entirely unrelated news, Indiana State Senator Dennis Kruse – yes, the same one behind the bills seeking to promote creationism in public school science classrooms – tried to propose a law requiring the recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public schools. I say it is not unrelated because the desperate attempts to influence children while they are young, and to prevent them from being influenced as adults in higher education, are two sides of the same coin, and reflect a form of religion that is scared out of its wits, because it understands its faith to involve clinging to untenable propositions in spite of mounting evidence against them. And that brings us back to the question with which we began: can a religious outlook that fears challenges from other ideas and viewpoints ever foster an educational and academic environment, when such challenges are a key part of what education is all about?



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  • Ian

    I think we need a different term.

    Any academic who has agreed to reach, or avoid challenging, a particular conclusion before starting work needs to be recognized as an apologist, not a scholar. Regardless of how good their work may appear, they have forsworn the basic premise of scholarship in return for their post. Any genuine scholarship they do produce should be seen as no more than a happy accident.

    I think until we get this really straight and accept no compromises, then biblical scholarship will retain its reputation for apologetics.

    Unfortunately, I think the opposite will happen. Post-modernist water muddying will tell us that there is no such thing as real scholarship (everyone is an apologist, don’t you know!) The SBL will further open its doors to sectarian special interests (nothing came of the campaign to get ‘critical’ put back, after all), diluting the integrity of every other piece of research presented (would a biologist’s research be demeaned if they presented it through an organization with a special ‘creation biology’ track? You betya.). And capable people with good PhDs chasing the almost-zero jobs in scholarly institutions will continue to take the Faustian bargain with sectarian schools and pretend to the world their soul is intact.

    • I think that your reference to taking a job at a sectarian school as a Faustian bargain is powerful. These schools think that they are keeping the “Devil” at bay through their statements of faith and stronghanded tactics, and yet agreeing to teach for them is like a pact with Mephistopheles. It ought to make them think.

      I largely agree with the rest of your points, but I think there is in fact some truth in the statement that none of us are objective. It is not committment vs, objectivity which is the key issue, in my opinion, it is making objectivity the goal we strive for by allowing our own perspectived work to be challenged and criticized by those who see things differently. To make an analogy, I don’t think that an economics professor having a preference for capitalism or Marxism disqualifies them as academics. The issue is when only one perspective is presented to students, and any other is given short shrift.

      But as you would presumably agree, I think that that is inevitable when an institution has a doctrinal stance that professors are expected to adhere to. And the truth is that, if your viewpoint is such that the only way to pass it on to the next generation is to make sure that they are not exposed to anyone who thinks differently, your position must be pretty weak.

      • Ian

        Thanks James. I agree with the last point entirely, yes.

        I also wholeheartedly agree that none of us are objective. And I agree none of us can ever hope to be. But scholarship should, imho, strive for objectivity.

        Objectivity in scholarship is just the same as perfection in other contexts. None of us are perfect, none of us can ever hope to be. But we should strive for it.

        So when I hear folks say that objectivity is a vain goal that should be abandoned, it sounds like someone saying, I can never be the perfect father, so I might as well be a jerk to my kids.

        Diligent effort to confront our biases, honesty about our knowledge and conducting research in an open and dialectic manner has delivered staggeringly objective results. Sure they’re not perfectly objective, but I fly around the world in the belly of them.

        I am not saying this because I think you disagree (though, of course, its possible you do!). But to justify why I distrust the everything-is-subjective school of post-modern theory.

        • I agree wholeheartedly and emphatically! I think this view of ours tends to be called “critical realism.” On the one hand, acknowledgment that our perspective is limited and subject to bias. On the other hand, recognizing that the quest to get as close to the truth as we can, and to compensate for bias and limitations, is worthwhile.

          • Mark Erickson

            Can you recommend some sociologists of religion studies that would deal with this issue?

        • Mark Erickson

          You’re leaving out the social nature of scholarship, which is the key. Yes, each should strive for objectivity, but that striving is not what creates reliable scholarship in toto. It is the fact that others, also striving and failing to be objective, are also on the field, criticizing or advancing everyone else’s conclusions.

          So the best way to avoid systematic biases affecting a field, is to bring in as many different viewpoints, backgrounds, and experiences as possible. This is the source of the current failures of New Testament studies. The people who self-select to pursue NT scholarship and are then given entry to the field by the members of the field itself are not that diverse. Sure there are believers, seculars, and even apologists, but almost all come from Western Christian cultures (most from Anglo culture) and the field still has a male gender bias, especially compared to other Humanities. I’m sure there are others or more specific descriptions, but those are a good start.

          Given the fact that many jobs involve the Faustian bargain you mention (which some gladly accept without shame or consequence), it doesn’t look good now, and the future looks worse.

          • Ian

            Well in the area of my PhD research (evolutionary mathematics) there was very little diversity on display at conferences. So I think calling it the ‘source of current failures of New Testament studies” is betraying a) your lack of knowledge of New Testament studies, and b) your lack of knowledge of higher scholarship generally. I’d estimate there was more diversity the time I went to SBL than many of the evolutionary computing conferences I went to. Though that isn’t saying much!

            As to leaving out the social nature, I didn’t do anything of the sort. I was quite clear that research should be open and dialectical. Objectivity, by its very definition, is not something achievable by an individual.

          • Mark Erickson

            But culture and background have less influence on math. Not a good comparison. Btw, when it is so small, your profile image looks pretty creepy.

          • Ian

            Creepy – I guess so 🙂 My unstylized face might be more so…

            There are definitely those who think that evolutionary science is a complete intellectual western elite circle-jerk, and that if the field had more diversity of opinion, its fundamental errors would be more likely to be seen for what they are.

            Sometimes get a bit peeved that there’s a lot of crap flung at NT studies, but not a lot of specific allegations that could actually be confirmed or falsified.

            My techiness on the subject comes from experiencing a similar thing during my PhD, when I frequented a lot of places where creationists hung out. They too had a lot of broad criticisms about biology, accusations of fraud, bias, fear, financial croynism. I’ve been maliciously accused of falsifying my results on two occasions (a pretty heinous accusation to make of a scientist).

            I’m not saying that mythicists are just as bad as creationists. I’m just saying that it is relatively easy to erect a wall of disapproval and throw stones from behind it. It is harder to identify, say, specific situations in the recent history of the field in which greater diversity would have led to a demonstrably better conclusion (i.e. not just a conclusion that one personally likes more).