How confessional rigor promotes academic freedom

Wheaton faculty member Timothy Larsen weighs-in on the controversy swirling around his campus. In the midst of it, he makes an observation about academic freedom that might be counter-intuitive to some readers but that demonstrates the deep need for Christian institutions of higher learning. Larsen is spot-on when he writes:

Indeed, for some of our most thoroughgoing critics it means that we are not at all like the University of Illinois. A statement of faith, they assert, prohibits academic freedom and thus disqualifies us from being a genuine institution of higher education.

It feels differently from the inside. The vast majority of the professors Wheaton hires come either straight from a Ph.D. program at a major, secular school or from teaching at a secular university. Again and again they revel in the luxurious, newfound academic freedom that Wheaton has granted them: For the first time in their careers they can think aloud in the classroom about the meaning of life and the nature of the human condition without worrying about being accused of violating the separation of church and state or transgressing the taboo against allowing spiritual reflections to wander into a conversation about death or ethics or hope.

Just like no Catholic wants everyone to join a monastery, so I would not want every institution of higher education to be like Wheaton. Still, I have no doubt that the intellectual life of the entire nation is stronger because places like Wheaton exist than it would be if all higher education had its academic freedom curtailed by prohibiting theological lines of inquiry.

Your average secular university believes in academic freedom so long as Christian ethics and worldview are excluded from the mix. Were it not for committed Christian institutions of higher learning, we as a people would indeed be impoverished.

10 Responses to How confessional rigor promotes academic freedom

  1. Mitch January 12, 2016 at 2:42 am #

    This is what you’ve got for January 11th? No godspeed wish to or fond memory of the Starman? I have to say I’m disappointed.

  2. Nathaniel Costo January 12, 2016 at 9:59 am #

    “A statement of faith, they assert, prohibits academic freedom and thus disqualifies us from being a genuine institution of higher education.”

    But it’s not just a statement of faith. It’s a demonstrated intolerance for anything that deviates from orthodoxy. There is an appreciable difference.

    It would not be worthy for discussion, but for the hypocrisy. Christians feel entitled to foist their worldview upon anyone in their proximity, and claim persecution when there is pushback, but then employ similar measures in their own institutions.

    It’s fine if you do not want to tolerate non-believers or unorthodox believers in your institutions. But (a) stop being so disingenuous about what you are doing; and (b) stop complaining when other private institutions make similar choices about what beliefs their employees and users may or may not have to continue remaining employed/utilizing the institution’s services.

    • Gus Nelson January 12, 2016 at 9:39 pm #

      Nathaniel: No one ever compels a professor to seek out a position at Wheaton or similar institution. Moreover, anyone who desires to teach there comes in (or should) with both eyes wide open. Wheaton and other Christian institutions are very clear about the confession of faith or principles to which they require professors to adhere.

      As a consequence, I don’t understand your claim of disingenuousness.

      Moreover, do you appreciate the irony in your comment about Christians feeling entitled to “foist their worldview upon anyone in their proximity?” You are commenting, in public, on a website run by a Christian who lets you disagree with him without reproach.

      Lastly, my sense is not that Christians are upset that institutions make choices about the beliefs their employees and users may or may not have – it is the lack of up front clarity that bothers Christians. If university X says up front that all its professors must adhere to secular materialism, then the Christian won’t be applying to work there since he or she won’t be able to adhere to the statement of faith. However, this is not what happens. Rather, what happens is that University X proclaims itself to be a keeper of tolerance and thoughtfulness and academic freedom, then surreptitiously and ironically excludes Christians from the fold through the employment process.

  3. Christiane Smith January 12, 2016 at 4:32 pm #

    Does Wheaton College have any stated position on ‘the Abrahamic faiths’ ?

  4. Curt Day January 13, 2016 at 10:03 am #

    Freedom must include everyone for it to be freedom. While those Christians coming from secular univiersities might feel academic freedom at Wheaton, I would bet that Larcyia Hawkins does not. So what those professors really feel is the privilege their secular colleagues felt at those secular universities while what Larcyia Hawkins feels is what those Christian professors felt at those secular universities.

    BTW, I’ve taught a religion class at a state university and never felt infringed on in terms of academics. I only felt that I could not evangelize–a practice that is not a part of the course anyway.

    • Chris Ryan January 14, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

      Prof. Hawkins is a good Christian professor. I’ve known her near 30 years and even when she was young she took the Christian walk very seriously. She is a very smart, very committed Christian and I was disappointed at how Wheaton treated her. Unless Wheaton is suggesting that she acts in a ministerial capacity Wheaton is violating anti-discrimination laws. So long as they’re taking Federal dollars they simply can’t fire her for her religious beliefs. While I think her statement regarding Muslims and Christians worshiping the same God is only true in the narrowest of senses (both being Abrahamic traditions), its no less true than saying that Jews and Christians worship the same God. More broadly, though, I applaud her attempts to bring Muslims and Christians together and to de-fuse some the Islamophobia that’s so rampant. She’s done a courageous thing. God bless and God speed.

      • Curt Day January 15, 2016 at 10:30 am #

        Chris,
        Thank you for your note. I fully agree with you.

    • Johnny Mason January 14, 2016 at 1:25 pm #

      So a self-professed socialist did not feel infringed on at a state university? Let freedom ring.

      • Curt Day January 15, 2016 at 10:26 am #

        Johnny,
        Actually, I was not a socialist when I started teaching and I still didn’t feel infringed on. Nor did I feel infringed on when we had an email debate about homosexuality and I stood for Biblical sexual morals. Why? It was because I expressed my views respectfully and I received only support from the administration. Go figure.

  5. Christiane Smith January 17, 2016 at 5:26 pm #

    This part of the article puzzled me: ” . . . Just like no Catholic wants everyone to join a monastery. . . ”

    It doesn’t make sense to me as a Catholic . . . truth is, for many of our monasteries, there is a welcoming spirit that looks on visitors as if they were Jesus Christ Himself . . . visitors are treated with respect, not rejection. I don’t understand the thinking behind the comment in the light of the nurturing and welcoming and offering of sanctuary to injured persons that Catholic monasteries have consistently provided to people who sought help in their pain, or in their need to leave the world behind for a while and pray.

    Sometimes something is said that reveals more about the one who says it than about those he is commenting about . . . this may be one of those occasions, but I cannot know that because I do not know the mind of the author of the statement, so I must in charity give him the doubt.

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