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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.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/15)

Flotsam and jetsam (6/13)

  • The Australian Broadcast Corporation announces the launch of its religion and ethics portal. The plan is to provide both ABC content from its various media sources as well as original content from leading thinkers around the world.The home page features an article from Rowan Williams, “Refugees Make Us Strange to Ourselves,” about the role that racial and intellectual others play in fostering intellectual freedom and healthy cultural identity. (HT Byron Smith)
  • Biblical Interpretation has an article challenging the idea that we can chronologically separated “early” biblical Hebrew from “late” biblical Hebrew, contending instead that they are contemporaneous styles and that this has implications for how we date OT books. (HT Jim West)
  • Larry Hurtado comments on the success and frustration of his new blog.
  • Ed Setzer discusses four problems with the “rock star” pastor, and his suggested solutions.
  • Christopher Benson has an interesting post on “Why We Need the Dark.” I’m counting on Rev. 22:5 being metaphorical because I really like the dark. (I’m sure that suggest some deeply disturbing things about my psyche, and I’m okay with that.)
  • Joel points out that students can get Amazon Prime free for one year.
  • And, here’s a helpful resource for anyone who needs to learn how to talk smack in Chinese.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/11)

  • Matt Flannagan offers some reflections on three atheist billboards in New Zealand.
  • Rod Dreher comments on the University of Illinois professor who was fired for having the audacity to teach (in a class on Catholicism and Catholic morality) that Catholics teach that homosexuality is immoral.
  • C. Michael Patton explains why he decided to baptize two of his children at home in his swimming pool. Even beyond his rather low-church approach to baptism, I found his credobaptist reflections on how to determine when a child is ready for baptism to be particularly interesting.
  • Brian LePort continues his discussion of Jon Levison’s Filled with the Spirit. And James McGrath is still working his way through The Historical Jesus: Five Views with comments on the chapters by Jimmy Dunn and Luke Timothy Johnson.
  • In a shocker, the Church of England’s recent attempt to reach a compromise on the ordination of woman was unsuccessful.
  • And, although I refused to comment on the LeBron James fiasco last week, I would like to point out that almost 10 million people watched it. Apparently they thought they had nothing better to do than invest an hour of their lives on this. Though I’m sure that if any of you watched it, you only did so because you were conducting high-level academic research.

On Bruce Waltke’s resignation, evolution, and evangelicalism

CT just published a good piece on Bruce Waltke’s resignation from RTS over comments that he made in a video interview over at BioLogos. The article summarizes RTS’s concerns:

According to RTS interim president Michael Milton, Waltke’s resignation was accepted because of his “mainline evolutionary” views and “uncharitable and surely regrettable characterizations” of those who disagree with his biblical interpretation.

Apparently Waltke has not expressed any criticism of RTS for their decision, but did say that he sees the whole situation as “providential” in that it brought the issue to the forefront and gave him the opportunity to teach at Knox.

The article goes on to highlight several other evangelical scholars who have landed themselves in touchy situations over this issue. And, of course, it raises all over again the question of where the line is between academic freedom and confessional conviction. That’s never an easy line to draw. But when the issue is as sensitive as this one, particularly among your constituency, it gets even harder.