ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT

Last week I asked for your prayers for Wheaton as the College seeks a resolution to the heart-wrenching controversy swirling around our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Several of you have contacted me privately to say that you are praying, and speaking for the whole campus community, we are grateful. For now, the firestorm continues, exacerbated by an often misinformed media and by a cacophony of voices certain that they know exactly what has transpired and who is to blame.

Some of the criticism directed at the college comes from concerned Christians who believe in Christian education but disagree with how the controversy over Dr. Hawkins’ public statements has been handled. Much of it, however, comes from secular critics who believe “Christian education” is an oxymoron. From this perspective, the current controversy merely highlights the utter incompatibility of academic freedom and Christian conviction.

Last week my friend and colleague, Dr. Timothy Larsen, responded to such views in a thoughtful essay for CNN.com, and I highly recommend it. In his plea to “Let Wheaton and Other Christian Colleges be Christian,” Larsen reminded us all that “Wheaton College is a covenant community” in which faculty “voluntarily allow our beliefs and practices to be held to account by the standards of this community.” Secular critics, Larsen acknowledges, will conclude that this “prohibits academic freedom and thus disqualifies us from being a genuine institution of higher education.”

But “it feels differently from the inside,” Larsen observes. He goes on:

The vast majority of the professors Wheaton hires come either straight from a Ph.D. program at a major, secular school or from teaching at a secular university. Again and again they revel in the luxurious, newfound academic freedom that Wheaton has granted them: For the first time in their careers they can think aloud in the classroom about the meaning of life and the nature of the human condition without worrying about being accused of violating the separation of church and state or transgressing the taboo against allowing spiritual reflections to wander into a conversation about death or ethics or hope.

I am one of the professors Larsen is describing. I have previously written at length on this blog about my experiences in both secular and religious academic contexts, essays sparked by University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Conn’s crusade against religious institutions of higher learning. (See here, here, and here.)  Perhaps this much is worth repeating:

My professional life has been framed by two very different institutions. For the first twenty-two years of my academic career, I taught at the University of Washington in Seattle. In many ways, my time there was a blessing. The UW is an elite academic institution with an extraordinary faculty and world-class resources. During my time there it boasted five Nobel Prize winners, one of the largest libraries in North America, and was ranked by the Economist as one of the top twenty public universities in the world.

I also made several good friends at UW and benefited from a number of genuinely kind colleagues who took sincere interest in my wellbeing, both personal and professional. Finally, I should acknowledge that I flourished there professionally—in certain respects. I was awarded tenure, rose in rank from assistant to associate to full professor, won the university’s distinguished teaching award, and was accorded a prestigious endowed chair in U. S. history.

And yet while I was experiencing a certain measure of professional success, my soul was always deeply divided. I can best describe the alienation I felt by quoting from Harry Blamires, one of the last students of C. S. Lewis. In his book The Christian Mind, Blamires wrote hauntingly of “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.” Describing my life at UW, Blamires described his own experience as a Christian in the secular academy as akin to being “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.”

That is eventually how I came to think of my time at UW. For all of its discrete strengths, the university is less than the sum of its parts. Like the secular academy overall, it is “hollow at its core,” to borrow the words of historian George Marsden. There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity. After twenty-two years of faculty meetings, I can attest to the truth that the faculty functioned best as a group when we avoided larger questions about our collective mission and purpose. As long as we could each do our own thing we were fine.

When it came to matters of faith, the university’s unwritten policy was a variation of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It celebrated racial and ethnic diversity relentlessly but was never all that enthusiastic about a genuine diversity of worldviews, at least among the faculty and in the curriculum. If you espoused a vague “spirituality” that made no demands on anyone–or better yet, seemed to reinforce the standard liberal positions of the political Left–all well and good. Otherwise, it was best to remember that religious belief was a private matter that was irrelevant to our teaching and our scholarship.

For twenty-two years I accommodated my sense of calling to this secular dogma, bracketing my faith and limiting explicit Christian expressions and Christian reflections to private conversations with students who sought me out. In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer writes movingly about the costs of such segmentation. Vocation is a calling to a way of life more than to a sphere of life. “Divided no more!” is Palmer’s rallying cry.

If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton five and a half years ago, these are the words that first come to mind–divided no more. Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here. But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.

15 responses to “ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A CHRISTIAN CONTEXT

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  6. Thanks for your post.

    I write as a practicing Christian and alumnus of Wheaton. You write of the secular university (paraphrasing George Marsden) that “There is no common foundation, no cohering vision, no basis for meaningful unity.” Yet it seems to me that the Larycia Hawkins controversy demonstrates the same is true for evangelicalism. The Wheaton administration thinks Hawkins has committed a theological offense worthy of dismissal. Yet she (and many others who sincerely signed the statement of faith and joined the Wheaton community) do not. Who’s right? Who gets to decide? And what resources does evangelicalism have to sort it out?

    In fact, evangelical “orthodoxy” has always been smoke and mirrors. The early leading lights of modern evangelicalism, folks like D. L. Moody, had no interest in formulating systematic theology. Rather they presumed that a “personal relationship with God” and a sincere desire to read the Bible free of theological bias would magically produce interdenominational, non-sectarian agreement. But of course it doesn’t, which is why evangelicals can never completely shake off their fundamentalist heritage.

    As far as I see it, Wheaton should either 1) admit that it embodies a particular sectarian viewpoint, like any other denomination and with all the limitations that entails, or 2) stop drawing arbitrary theological boundaries while claiming to represent some universal “Christian” or “Protestant” perspective. It can’t have it both ways.

    Two cents from a former insider.

  7. Dr. McKenzie, I’m glad you were able to find your place at Wheaton. Even as a student at UW, I realized how difficult it was to express Christian values, whereas any other worldview was not only accepted, but held up as superior.

  8. I have recommended to our Lifetime Learning committee invite you to speak to the largest assemblage of Wheaton retirees in the world under one roof here at Windsor Park. Appreciate your blogs over the yeartsd and moderate tone on this isse as campus faces what looks to me as, arguably, the most challenging kerfuffle in the 65 years I’ve been a hands-on observer, participant, and former staffer, at Wheaton. Right now my emails on the issue are 314 and more daily, about 80% critical and focusing almost exclusively posturing Wheaton as anti-muslim. Some insightful blogs from several WH faculty and theologians posted on my Facebook timeline. Like almost everyone, we pray for respectful resolution. It isn’t scriptural but “this too shall pass.”  Ray Smith ’54, Past President, Wheaton Alumni Association

  9. Thanks for your post on this topic, which is very important for Christian academics. You make some good points, and it appears that Wheaton is a very good fit for you. However, it’s not just non-Christians that might find the concept problematic. Not all Christians believe the same way, and this diversity of thought is likely even more pronounced among Christian academics. For Christians who may not hold to the orthodox line of the institution, this truly is a violation of academic freedom. As a disclaimer, I’ve taught at two Christian colleges, as well as four secular colleges and universities. I value all I found in all of these places, but have not had a problem with secular institutions being “hollow”, nor have I found teaching at Christian institutions to be particularly liberating. I found items in the statements of faith of those schools with which I had issues, but had to choose to keep my views “in the closet,” as it were.

    The conclusion I have come to is that a statement of faith to which all faculty must adhere is incompatible with academic freedom. Basically, it is telling faculty to start with the conclusions about the most important questions in life, and make sure the facts they uncover back that up, or else the facts themselves are deemed invalid. This is the polar opposite of academic inquiry or rational thought. Faith does and always will have the prominent place in my life and thought, but I cannot agree with any institution that tells me what I must believe if the facts lead me elsewhere.

    I’ll qualify all of this to say that I respect many, many excellent scholars at Christian colleges and universities. They do amazing work and I consider many of them to be good friends. My comments reflect my only own conclusions on this question…your mileage may vary.

    • Thanks for your comment. I would like to reply, but like to know who I am speaking to. Do you mind sharing your name?

      • I read with interest Jacobs’s extended blog post relating to my reaction to this post. Unfortunately, his blog is not open to comments, so I have no opportunity other than here for a rejoinder. Of course, he and I must agree to disagree on many of these points. I likely will not convince him (nor is that my aim…I’m only speaking from my own experiences), and he likely will not convince me (as much of what he has said has not been borne out by my experiences).

        His comment regarding employment at a Christian college is extremely problematic to me. He states, “Let’s remember that a Christian college is a private voluntary association to which no one is obliged to belong. People choose to teach at them. So if ‘the orthodox line of the institution’ is not one that you can affirm, it makes sense to go elsewhere.” He’s right about one thing…it’s not honest that a professor would affirm a statement of faith with which they do not agree. But people’s beliefs can and do change with time, study, and experience. So, I guess if one’s honest study leads to conclusions that do not support the institution’s statement of faith, that professor must immediately leave their position (no matter how much they love or value other aspects of the school), and go elsewhere. That’s a pretty harsh existence, and a statement that only validates my later conclusions about the statements of faith of many Christian colleges and universities: that they start with the conclusions and backfill the facts.

        Jacobs’s assertion of an analogy between this situation and that of a professor at a secular institution is similarly problematic. He states, hypothetically, that “After much study and reflection I have come to believe that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ holds the full meaning of historical experience, and henceforth I will teach all my classes from that point of view.” Universities are to be open to people from a diversity of perspectives, and they do not require people to hold a certain perspective. Now I’m not naïve enough to think that this does not occur in a de facto way at universities, but in my experience this happens far less often than certain Evangelical anti-intellectual movies would lead one to believe.

        Finally, Jacobs states that “a Christian college is for people who already hold certain beliefs.” That, once again, supports my thoughts about the incongruence between academic freedom and some Christian college statements of faith. If people must “hold certain beliefs” in order to function within the community, that creates a very insular institution. How is there true academic freedom if everyone must “hold certain beliefs”? That, in itself, is a contradiction.

        As I’ve said, my feelings about Christian colleges are complicated. I loved my times teaching at both Westmont College and Pepperdine University. I respect so many people at both institutions. But I’ve found that, as a Christian, I function much more effectively and definitely with more freedom at a secular institution.

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