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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.


Why didn’t I get that teaching job?

Few things in life are more frustrating than going through all the work of applying and interviewing for a position that you really want and feel you are very qualified for…and not getting it. Fortunately, I was blessed with a position at Western pretty early in my job-hunting career, so I haven’t experienced this as much as most. But, I feel your pain.

If this is happened to you, or if you think it might happen to you, Timothy Larson Larsen from Wheaton College offers some insight into why you didn’t get that teaching job, by addressing the four most common questions people ask when they didn’t get that teaching position they so badly wanted. I can’t imagine actually asking the first question (out loud), but the others are ones I’ve heard more than once.

  • Given how eminently well qualified I am for this position, how can you possibly justify eliminating me so early in the process?
  • I know I was eliminated over a month ago, so why have you not had the decency to tell me so?
  • How in the world can you expect someone applying for an entry-level position to already have a handful of research articles in major peer-reviewed journals and a book contract with a leading university press?
  • What did I do wrong?

His answers are well worth reading if you an insider’s look at how the hiring process works at a major Christian college.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/31)

HT Kevin DeYoung

Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old who is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will? Personally, I’d rather give more people a chance, in large part because I don’t think we know which 22-year-olds are going to make the best academics.

  • A WSJ article with the provocative title “Why Rich Parents Don’t Matter” discusses a recent study looking into the impact of socio-economic status on a child’s mental development.

These results capture the stunning developmental inequalities that set in almost immediately, so that even the mental ability of 2-year-olds can be profoundly affected by the socio-economic status of their parents. As a result, their genetic potential is held back.

Merton (1915-1968) is one of the most significant religious writers of the twentieth century and a lasting influence on untold numbers of Christians (and non-Christians) from every tradition and culture. For those of us in the Bluegrass state, he also holds the distinction of being perhaps the most significant religious figure to reside in Kentucky, being a monk at Our Lady of Gesthemeni monastery near Bardstown for twenty-seven years. He is buried there today.

When it comes to a crucifixion no one would argue for beauty in an aesthetic sense. The form of a broken, bled-out human being certainly isn’t pleasing to the eye. And this lack of beauty is most true particularly in a crucifixion where the death sentence is piggy-backed onto a miscarriage of justice. But here, in the gospel account, is kingdom subversion. In one of the most brutal acts of physical horror and treachery on a cosmic scale, God weaves together the elements of beauty.

The movement got started with basic, biblical teaching about the gospel and holistic mission. It picked up speed with a network of projects and organizations committed to orphan care. And to this theological observer, it looks like it may have the momentum to reinvigorate evangelical systematic theology.

The Journal of Universal Rejection


Finally, an academic journal you can submit articles to and not have to wonder what their response will be. According to the website,

The founding principle of the Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR) is rejection. Universal rejection. That is to say, all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected.

And, if that’s not good enough, here are some of the other benefits the journal offers aspiring authors:

  • You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.
  • There are no page-fees.
  • You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).
  • The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.
  • You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.
  • Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission.

Or, if you’re not interested in submitting an article and just want to read it, here’s the subscription information:

An individual subscription may be secured for £120 per year (four issues). Institutional and library subscriptions are also available; prices will be provided upon enquiry. It is unknown whether the subscription will be delivered in print or as electronic content, because no one has yet ordered one.

HT Neatorama

Flotsam and jetsam (12/31)

There’s a lot of discussion taking place regarding the essence of the Gospel. People are asking questions like “What is the center of the Gospel?” and “Can (or should) the essence of the Gospel be distinguished from its implications?” Some insist the gospel is just the message of Christ’s substitutionary atonement and that anything else is an “entailment” or a “result.” However, the Bible says the essence of the Gospel is bigger than this.

Two Iraqi Christians have been killed in a new wave of apparently coordinated bomb attacks in the capital just two months after militants massacred 46 Christians in a church in the city.

But really it is the duty of readers to read in context, to read charitably – where there are two possible readings, the one that does not entail blatant contradictions two lines later is probably the reading we should adopt… It is unfortunate that in this case it appears many Christians have failed to do so and are so quick to publicly jump to conclusions about one of their brothers.

As a friend of mine once said, “atheism and theism died in the trenches of World War 1.”  Indeed.  If we continue to fear each other, the answers will always elude us and, alas, the past as we know it will disappear to us entirely.

  • You can now lend Kindle books to your friends for up to 14 days. (Has anyone tried this yet?)

Morning links (9/21)

Flotsam and jetsam (8/12)

Flotsam and jetsam (back from vacation edition)

Back from vacation and ready to go. Here are some links from the last couple of days you’ll want to check out if you haven’t already.

Tips for the ThM – Part 14 (good quotes)

It’s been a while since I’ve written on Tips for the ThM (you can see a roundup of the first 11 here). Today I’d like to comment on something that most students do frequently and, on occasion, badly – quoting.

Here’s a principle that you should always keep in mind when quoting: the quote should have a clear purpose. Your reader should not be left with the impression that you used a quote simply because you had an interesting quote and you needed something to do with it.

So, what are some of the purposes that a quote can serve?

  1. You want to demonstrate that your arguments/ideas have support in the academic community. There are times, particularly when you are offering a new, unusual, or unfamiliar argument, when you will want to establish that you are not completely on your own. So,  you’ll appeal to another authority to prove that you have support. Quotations like this do not advance your argument in any way (more on this in a moment), but they can provide some needed credibility to keep your reader on board with what you’re doing.
  2. You need to establish an idea that you want to use in your argument, but one that you will not be establishing yourself. For example, suppose that I’m writing a paper on Augustine’s epistemology and I believe it to be reasonably well established that his epistemology is essentially neoplatonic. Since I think this is well established, I don’t want to waste my time arguing for it. Instead, I’ll quote a recognized authority to establish that this is the case, and then move on to what my argument is about. Of course, in doing so I set myself up to the possibility that someone will disagree on whether this is actually a well-established point, but such is life.
  3. You are providing material for critique. If you are going to go into an extended discussion of why someone is wrong, you will usually want to offer enough of a quote to establish that he or she actually holds the position that you are critiquing.
  4. Similarly, you need to establish that a person actually did say what you claim. If I’m going to claim that Calvin taught an unlimited atonement, I had better be able to demonstrate some ground for that claim. Having said that, though, you need to be careful with this one. Students often overuse quotes in this category, particularly in historical papers. A summary of a person’s ideas and/or a simple reference will usually suffice. Typically, you only need to offer more if your claim is surprising and more than a simple reference seems warranted. Otherwise, unless you have some other purpose for the quote, leave it out.
  5. You found someone saying exactly what you want to say, but they said it much better than you can. Use this one very sparingly. Don’t use quotes as a way of letting someone else do your work for you. You’re the author and you need to make the argument in your own voice or the argument will not be compelling to your reader. Granted, you will occasionally find that truly outstanding quote that provides just the right rhetorical flourish for what you want to accomplish. Fine. Use it. Just don’t do it very often.

With those purposes in mind, here are some of the mistakes that I often run into:

  1. Quotes that have no clear purpose. Again, know what you’re doing with your quote and how it advances/supports your argument. And, I’d put in this same category quotes that are really unnecessary because a simple reference would have sufficed.
  2. Quotes that are too long. There are times when an exceptionally long quote is necessary (e.g. you are going to interact with the whole quote in an extended critique). But I find that it is usually more effective to provide a good summary that bog the reader down with an extended quote. So, before you use a long quote, make sure that the entire quote has a good purpose to serve.
  3. Quotes that serve to shortcut good argumentation. This is among the more common and frustrating problems (in all kinds of writing). Quotation is not a replacement for argumentation. As I mentioned above, you can use a quote to demonstrate that you have supporters, and a good quote can establish and idea that you’ll use in your argument, but a quote cannot prove that you are right. You have to establish that through the course of your argument.
  4. And, finally, quotes that seem to be there just for the sake of quoting. I think we do this for three reasons. First, we’ve done a lot of research and we hate to see it go to waste. So, we’re going to find a place to stick all those quotes if it kills us. Second, we think we need a lot of quotes to prove that we’ve done our research. Third, we quote to show off (i.e. see how much I’ve read). And, none of them are necessary. In academic writing, you do need to establish that you’ve done adequate research, but that’s why God made footnotes. And, you don’t need to stick every last bit of research into your paper. Do enough to show that you’ve done your homework, and trust that the quality of your research will come across in the quality of your argument. And we all need to stop showing off. We should just recognize that we have not now nor will we ever have read as much as we think we should or as much as we think other people have.

How to be a better writer

Read until your brain creaks.” At least, that’s the advice that Douglas Wilson offers those wanting to be better writers (HT Justin Taylor). Unpacking this a little, he says:

Read. Read constantly. Read the kind of stuff you wish you could write. Read until your brain creaks. Tolkien said that his ideas sprang up from the leaf mold of his mind. These are the trees where the leaves come from.

He then goes on to offer the following seven points.

  1. The first thing is that writers should in fact be voracious readers.
  2. Read widely. Reading shapes your voice, and if you want a wide, experienced voice, you have to get out more.
  3. Read like a reader, and not like someone cramming for a test.
  4. Read like a lover of books, and not like someone who wants to be seen as knowledgable, or well-read, or scholarly.
  5. Pace yourself in your reading. A little bit every day really adds up.
  6. As a general pattern, read quality, and go slumming occasionally to remind yourself why quality matters, and what quality is.
  7. Read boring books on writing mechanics.

First, amen.

Second, a big amen to #2. I realize that this is difficult if you’re in school, or if you have a family, or a job, or a life of any kind. But try to do it anyway. (Note to those of you who are students – there won’t be more time later; there never is.)

Third, I’d add one more. Find someone who writes the way you want to and start reading everything they’ve written. Unless it’s Augustine. That would take too long.

Fourth, without question, #4 is the one that I have the hardest time with. Part of it is, of course, theological pride. But, there’s more to it than that. For some reason, I can sit back and relish a book written by Marilynne Robinson, but many theology books I’ll just skim for things that look important. (Granted, this may be because of how theology books are often written.) Nonetheless, I have a hard time giving myself permission just to enjoy a good theology book. The “tyranny of the urgent” and all that. Tomorrow morning I’m going to grab a well-written theology book and just soak in it for a while.