Dear Dr. Heather Knight,
I was disappointed to learn this morning that I was dis-invited from the lecture I was to deliver to the Pacific Union College Psychology and Social Work students this Thursday for their Colloquium (PSYC/SOWK 394). As much as I would like to have heard this decision from you directly, it was nice to speak with Dr. Nancy Lecourt. As you may know, she was my English professor when I was a student at PUC in 1989. In those days I was extremely conservative and even refused to read Candide, by Voltaire, for my Great Books class because Ellen White forbade the reading of fiction, especially the works of infidel authors such as Voltaire. Dr. Lecourt graciously offered me an independent study to delve more deeply into Ellen White’s position and my understanding of the role of literature in the life of the Christian. Sad to say, I was undeterred, but she was patient and kind. I will be forever grateful for her ministry to me in my formative years when I was so certain of nearly everything.
Throughout my journey, from a fundamentalist young adult, to progressive Adventist pastor, to my current place as an atheist and a humanist, I have sought truth above all. I learned this virtue, in the first place, from my Adventist education. In my day, PUC’s motto was taken from this impactful Ellen White statement, which I committed to memory.
Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do. The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. Instead of confining their study to that which men have said or written, let students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation. Let them contemplate the great facts of duty and destiny, and the mind will expand and strengthen (Ellen White, Education, 17).
Even as a humanist, while I believe that these traits exist naturally in every human being rather than being bestowed by God, her vision still resonates with me. The work of higher education is, indeed, to inspire students to be thinkers and not just reflectors of others’ thoughts. The truth, if it is the truth, needs no special protection. Of all the places in our rich democracy where students should be exposed to the great variety of competing ideas, it is college. Our students don’t need protection either. The world they are entering is full of uncertainty and confusion. In the face of the instability and uncertainty, we should not attempt to dam up the oceans; we should teach our kids to swim.
This is why the fear, demonstrated by your decision to disinvite me, is so disheartening. The students don’t need to hear from me, specifically. There are hundreds of other sources of good information, including their first class professor, Aubyn Fulton. But when an institution of higher education censors ideas that it finds threatening, it ceases to fulfill its primary mission.
I realize this decision may have had little to do with the content of what I might say and more to do with public relations. With enrollment numbers down and the challenges involved in managing a college, it must be incredibly difficult to balance all the competing interests. I also recognize that having me on campus is akin to the Microsoft Corporation inviting a former Microsoft executive who now works for Apple, to come and talk about what made them leave Microsoft. It’s definitely counterintuitive. On the other hand, great leadership is often counterintuitive. More than this, great leadership is courageous. If I were to articulate a few qualities I would want graduates of any college or university to take with them into the working world it would be moral courage: the ability, when necessary, to make a difficult decision that is right for it’s own sake, even when it does not contribute to the financial bottom line or add to one’s resume.
To those who are concerned about the effect my lecture may have on young students who are struggling with their faith, I believe this decision will do more to solidify their skepticism and frustration with institutionalized religion than anything I might say. My presentation was not calculated to sow doubts in the minds of your students. To be clear, they already have doubts, but they have few people to whom they can safely express those doubts. Banning controversial ideas from campus only increases their suspicion that the church’s claims of truth are not as secure as they are told.
The mission of my new project, Life After God, is not to convert people to atheism but to hold space for people to grapple with their doubts and questions. Like it or not, many of your students are in this place of doubt and uncertainty. As I said before, they certainly don’t need me, but they do need you to be courageous and open to the questions that they are currently squelching for fear of alienation.
May you have the wisdom and courage to do the very difficult job of leading Pacific Union College.
Yours in pursuit of truth,