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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.