My former colleague Tracy McKenzie has posted a fine reflection on academic freedom and Christian colleges and universities, a topic that I have written about before and along very similar lines.
What I want to address here is a comment on Tracy’s post, which I’ll go through point by point, because it represents some commonly held views:
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.
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.
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.
I don’t know what institutions the commenter taught at, but schools in the Christian College Coalition tend to have — I think they all have — statements of faith that they ask all faculty to affirm. So if a school asks whether you affirm a particular set of propositions and you untruthfully say that you do, which seems to have been this commenter’s practice … well, then, of course you won’t find the experience “liberating.” Participating in a community under false pretenses can never be liberating.
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.
No, it doesn’t say anything of the kind. Faculty at Christian colleges aren’t newborn infants: they are adults, who instead of starting with “conclusions about the most important questions in life” have reached certain conclusions about what they believe, and want to try to live out those beliefs. And what’s at stake in the formation of the community are not “facts” but rather beliefs: if the facts that a scholar discovers seem to be incompatible with, or to challenge, certain beliefs, then we think out and work through those apparent conflicts as a community. Sometimes we discover that the conflict was merely apparent; sometimes the beliefs of the community are altered in response to the newly discovered truths; sometimes the scholar and the community part ways, one hopes amicably. (But alas, not always.)
And secular universities operate in exactly the same way. Imagine a tenured professor of history at a public university who announces, “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.” Would the university’s declared commitment to academic freedom allow him to keep his job? No, because he will be said to have violated one of the core principles of that particular academic community, which is to bracket questions of religious belief rather than advocate for a particular religious view. (Of course, atheists tend not to be held to the same standard, but that’s a story for another day.)
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.
No such institution “tells me what I must believe” — any more than a chess club tells me that I must play chess. Just as a chess club is for people who already like to play chess, a Christian college is for people who already hold certain beliefs. It says, Let’s gather together people who share these core convictions and see what the world looks like if we study it from within that structure of belief and practice. And if you do share those core convictions, as Tracy McKenzie does, then the experience of teaching in such an institution can be immensely liberating. If you don’t, then it won’t be, and it’s best to go elsewhere. But nobody at any point is telling you that you must believe anything — any more than the chess club is telling you that you must like playing chess. If you have become disillusioned with chess, then you can go somewhere else and do something else. But it would be rather absurd to walk away muttering that the chess club has infringed on your freedom.