Check Your Brain at the Door: Faith and Intellectual Freedom

Am I free? Not legally (I’m not in jail) or metaphysically (who knows if I have “free will”?) but intellectually. Do I have intellectual freedom? After all, I teach at a school with belief commitments. To get my job, I had to sign our Faculty Teaching Position. And, if I ever changed my mind on a core aspect of that document, my job would probably be in jeopardy. In that kind of situation, can I have any kind of real intellectual freedom? Or, am I really just kidding myself by thinking that I’m an academic.

If you live in a confessional world, do you need to leave your brain at the door?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether Roman Catholics have less intellectual freedom than other Christians because of the strongly confessional nature of the Catholic tradition. Michael Patton began the firestorm, and quite a few have chimed in since then. I don’t want to rehearse the whole debate, so check out Brian LePort’s summary for his comments and links to other good posts.

Most of the discussion so far has focused on whether Patton is right about Roman Catholicism. (Hint: The answer is ‘no’.) But, somewhat lost in all of this is his argument that true scholarship and confessional commitment are antithetical to one another. His comments on Catholicism are based on his Cartesian commitment to skepticism as methodologically necessary for real academic work. If you’re not willing to doubt every idea/belief, open to the possibility that you might be wrong, then you’re not really an academic.

If he’s right, then, any school with confessional commitments only has limited intellectual freedom (at best). And, based on that argument, the faculty at Western Seminary don’t really have academic freedom. We throw it away when we sign the Faculty Teaching Position. Our job status is connected to at least some of their beliefs. Change those beliefs, and we’re in trouble. So, we’re not really academics. We’re just defending the status quo.

Granted, faculty can always leave and try to find a job at another school. So, we haven’t killed intellectual freedom entirely. We’ve just cut off both its legs. It can still move around, but only by painfully dragging its bloody torso somewhere else.

As someone who teaches at such a school, I think there are some critical things wrong with this (common) argument. Brian LePort explains his reservations (and appreciations) in Five Thoughts on Objectivity, Open-Mindedness, and Scholarship. You should definitely check it out. But, let me add three additional concerns about this argument that I think we need to keep in mind.

1. It over-emphasizes the individual. This is the Enlightenment at its finest. Presuppositions and traditions are the enemy of intellectual progress. They must be challenged and questioned at every turn so that I, as the ultimate human authority in my life, can be confident that I am coming to know things as they actually are and not just how they have been presented to me. You never get the sense that intellectual activity is a communal activity in this approach. Instead, you’re left with the picture of the academic locked away in his/her office or lab, seeking Truth through the power of unimpaired reason. Given Patton’s clear commitments to doing theology in community, that seems like an odd stance.

2. It devalues institutions. This one is connected to the last, but the argument seems to betray a subtle anti-institutionalism. This view of academics makes the professor an independent contractor with no real connection or loyalty to particular institutions. The individual sticks around as long as he/she is satisfied with the institution’s position. And, if you change your mind and can no longer affirm those commitments? No worries, there’s always another one around the block. It’s church shopping at the academic level. (I may comment on this more later. This kind of subtle anti-institutionalism is rampant in evangelicalism.)

3. It neglects the importance of presuppositions. Many people make this mistake. Most recognize that we all have our presuppositions. They’re a necessary evil that we have constantly guard against. And, there is some truth to that. But, people often fail to recognize that presuppositional frameworks have value as well. No scientist is going to waste their time investigating whether the world is flat. They’ll assume that question is settled. It’s part of their presuppositional framework. And this allows them to use their time investigating other issues. The same is true in theology. For me, the deity of Christ is a “settled” issue. Not settled in the sense that everyone agrees, and not even settled in that I think I understand everything about what that means (who does?), but settled in that I think that it’s true and not really open to question. Does that make me less free? I don’t think so. If anything, I think it frees me up to pursue other issues. Recognizing that some doors should stay closed, grants me the freedom to go through others. Being “open” to everything leads to bondage, not freedom. So, it’s not just a matter of acknowledging our presuppositions, but embracing them as necessary for real intellectual freedom.

Do I have intellectual freedom? Absolutely. I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from knowing who I am as a part of an ecclesial community with a clear sense of its history, identity, and purpose. And, I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from a community that raises hard questions and explores new ideas together, supporting each other as we strive toward faithful Christian living in a broken world. And, I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from seeing some things as “settled” so that I’m free to spend my time on other issues.

Granted, I don’t have the kind of intellectual freedom that’s willing to throw off all of that in favor of an individualistic pursuit of rational autonomy. But that’s okay. I’m not interested in that kind of freedom anyway.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 18, 2011, in Epistemology, Teaching Tips and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thanks, Marc — these are very helpful points, certainly for those of us soon to be looking for work at confessional schools. To that end I wonder if there is a sort of ‘tipping point’ of confessionalism, where what is required of faculty is made so specific over so many doctrines (many of which may be contested issues within that institution’s own Protestant / Evangelical / conservative stream) that the freedom of which you speak begins to diminish.

    Clearly we can see the value in a certain degree of confessional requirements for faculty: basic doctrines of Christian orthodoxy — such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the authority of Scripture — are obviously important for the sort of community door-closing that enables conversations and explorations to proceed in a decidedly Christian form. But what about when we start piling on top of that doctrinal positions that are specific to our own sub-sub-subset of the faith?

    I’m not asking if you think such schools ought to be imposing so much adiaphora on its faculty, but if you think there is a point on the graph at which too much doctrinal specificity begins to curb freedom rather than providing it. I imagine those who have lost their jobs because of (something perceived as) a doctrinal compromise might have a thing or two to say about intellectual freedom in a confessional context.

    • Great comment, Darren. I do think it’s unfortunate when schools have confessional commitments that are more comprehensive than their own ecclesial tradition. That seems both unnecessary and unhelpful. Since I think theological schools exist to serve the church, I’m not sure why a school would do this. (Indeed, that would seem to be an example of the school itself forgetting that it is part of a broader community. Institutional individualism, as it were.)

      To be honest, though, I’m not sure that the problem in many situations is with the confessional framework itself. I think an institution can have pretty robust confessional commitments and still have an ethos of pursuing new ideas and hard questions together as a community. But, any institution that stops doing that and takes a more defensive/protective stance is in danger of “tipping” in the direction you have in mind. Granted, even at our best there will always be times when some individual wants to go somewhere that the rest of the community has decided firmly not to. Such is life in a broken world.

    • So, I think the key is to know who you are and who/what a given institution is, and determine whether that’s a community that you want to be a part of. (Unfortunately, that’s not the mentality that I often see in even Christian higher education. Higher ed is such an individualistic affair, that the focus is usually on where I can pursue the things that interest me.)

      And, when you’re checking out an institution, don’t just look at whether you agree with their commitments. As you’ve pointed out, consider also what the things they’ve chosen to focus on says about the institution as a whole. For example, I personally would hesitate to teach at a school with a confessional commitment to some position on the tribulation (pre, mid, post). Even if I agreed with the statement, that would say something to me about the school’s history/identity that would send signals to me about whether that’s a good fit. It’s not that I think I’d necessary have less “freedom” there (again, that’s more of an ethos thing), but whether that would be a good community for me to work freely with.

  2. That post is an example of me actively trying to put what I learned in your philosophy class to work. 🙂

    Two things came to mind when reading your extra three points:

    (1) One reason why evangelicalism is so anti-institutional is because at its roots it emerged by challenging institutions, no? In other words, what we see at the individual level where everyone wants to be a free agent seems to me to be part of the DNA of evangelicalism for the better or for the worse. Evangelicals say “Yes, I may be part of this Methodist denomination, but my higher allegiance is to a trans-denominational network where we emphasize the gospel and A, B, C, and D.”

    (2) I think many younger evangelicals that I converse with wonder why if they are going to plug into truth as community and tradition it would be in evangelical churches who minimize community and tradition. If tradition is this important do not the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and even Anglicans make more sense? This is something that I have not been able to answer. I have remained an evangelical in part because, well, I like free agency! 🙂 So it is difficult for me to connect with evangelicalism on the basis of tradition when I feel like by “tradition” in evangelicalism we mean only small dividing points.

    This is why, in part, I think that evangelicalism has seen two major groups form in the last decade: emergent types and Reformed types. Emergent types take evangelicalism’s free agency to its logical conclusion and the thing that holds us together is some vague commitment to Christ. Reformed types react and they find the most tradition, yet not Catholic or Orthodox version of Christianity available.

    That is me being a sociologist. I’m not good at it, but I’d appreciate your thoughts (especially since so many of us younger evangelicals are your students!).

    • What’s this? Actually using something that you learned from one of my classes! Shocking. I hope you’ve recovered sufficiently since then.

      I think it would be more accurate to say that there were at least three different perspectives at work in evangelicalism’s early days. You had some who were strong supporters of various institutions (esp. Anglican and Presbyterian leaders), you had others who were pretty anti-institutional (esp. those defending from the dissenters and independents in England), and you had those who just didn’t pay all that much attention to institutions (esp. revivalist preachers like Whitefield). To some extent, those three streams are still with us, but the latter two are much more prevalent in the low-church form of evangelicalism that is the most prominent these days.

      Before I can respond to your second comment, we need to be clear that “evangelicalism” in your comment really refers just to a certain form of low-church and pietistic/revivalistic American Christianity (at least, that’s how I assume you meant it). I prefer to use a much broader definition of evangelicalism that encompasses a much broader spectrum (theologically, historically, and geographically).

      Nonetheless, you’re right that many evangelicals have tended to neglect and even denigrate tradition. That’s unfortunate and is no true part of evangelicalism’s history. The great leaders of early evangelicalism (and the Puritans who were such an important influence) all had a deep appreciation for those who had gone before. But, simply going to a tradition with claims to an older pedigree isn’t the answer either. First, I object to the claim that they actually do have an older pedigree as though evangelicalism wasn’t also a part of the story of God’s people. Appreciating tradition and community isn’t about how long your church has been around, but appreciating the story of God’s people and how that shapes the identity if your particular community. That can and should be done by every Christian group. And, although some branches of evangelicalism haven’t been good on this in the past, we’re getting much better.

  3. @Marc: I can see those three streams as well. It complicates matter a bit. N.T. Wright is an evangelical, J.I. Packer is an evangelical, Francis Beckwith is an evangelical (Catholic), and then we have the other side with people like Brian McLaren and the emerging church movement that is wrestling with whether or not it is part of broader evangelicalism.

    While I agree that tradition matters, there seems to be one part of evangelicalism that undermines tradition. That Douglas Moon and N.T. Wright could both be evangelicals, and claim that their shared commitment to the gospel is what really matters, makes you wonder how important their tradition is if it is admittedly secondary. When we come across evangelicals who begin to put their tradition above the unity of evangelicals (e.g. many of the Reformed crew) there is a backlash against them because it seems as if it is contradictory to be both evangelical and primarily Reformed (or even Catholic in Beckwith’s case).

    It is that aspect of evangelicalism that complicates matters. If the gospel is the bare minimum, and I can fellowship with people who differ on baptism or the charismata, then why should I pretend that my “tradition” is somehow more important than it really is?

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere (08.19.2011) | Near Emmaus

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