Responses to Ted Grimsrud’s essay on “Academic Freedom”

Responses to Ted Grimsrud’s essay on “Academic Freedom” (2001)

Response #1:  

Thanks to Ted for tackling this quasi oxymoron:  academic freedom within a Mennonite faith community.  My response, in the form of a few questions, is impressionistic and not intended as something rounded out.

Since “freedom” is always in the context of boundaries, what is the relationship between “academic freedom” and “discipline within the community of faith”—which is what I think Ted refers to by “Mennonite Church”?  Certainly, as Ted suggests, the church as a living organism should affirm the gifts of its members and should encourage the development and the exercise of those gifts.  But how does the process of “giving and receiving counsel” (which Ted mentions) relate to deepening our freedom and lending it meaning within the academic arena?  And what is there about community, particularly “faith community,” that at times gets in the way of “academic freedom”?

We need, perhaps, also to reflect on the catch-22 in which Mennonite theologians at times find themselves—damned by the church if they are too narrowly hooked into community and doomed to irrelevancy by the church if they have no community.

What special problems does teaching theology, biblical studies, and ethics pose by way of academic freedom that nursing, business or even sociology do not pose?  That is, what is there about the phenomenon of religion and religious studies that (when granted even a modicum of normativeness) makes academic freedom a tough issue?  Biology, for example:  no problem.  Until you introduce evolution, or the question of abortion.  Both religious issues.  It’s important, it seems to me, to analyze that phenomenon if we are to gain clarity and make progress on academic freedom.

 Response #2:  

I am grateful to be included in this discussion.  For what it is worth, here are a few of my comments.

1.  I am unsure of the central focus of Ted’s essay.  It seems to me that the essay shifts from a discussion at the beginning of academic freedom in the context of a college/university to the end where it focuses on the role (exercise of gifts) of the theologian in the church.  I think we need to address these two different topics in somewhat different ways.  I do not understand a college to be a church, and thus understand my role somewhat differently in these two institutional contexts.

2.  The question, for example, of academic freedom in the college setting encompasses a broader context than the question of the role of the theologian in the church. I think more broadly, for example, of my colleagues who are philosophers, scientists, artists, historians, etc.  Academic freedom in this context means the protection of inquiry (at my school, for instance, it means a tenure system) even if such inquiry and the results of that inquiry violates tradition, established dogma, or even the Bible.

Galileo did not have academic freedom, so he was put under house arrest by the church, because what he saw at the end of his telescope and how he interpreted that violated established dogma. I am grateful for colleges and universities (differentiated from the church) where such values are protected.  This is one of the values that the Enlightenment has passed on to us.  Thus I have problems with Ted’s fourth paragraph.  It is a mistake to treat the “Enlightenment” as a monolith that is primarily negative.  Like any cultural phenomenon, we need to be discriminating. Though I recognize that the Enlightenment is a particular cultural construct, and its claims about universal reason are exaggerated, I also believe the Enlightenment has also been a positive force in liberating inquiry from the control of dogma and tradition.

Also, I do not equate unqualified “freedom of expression in the classroom” necessarily with academic freedom (as Ted seems to do in paragraph two).  How I exercise my speech as a teacher in a classroom setting is an ethically complex issue that requires me to respect the beliefs and values of my students who may disagree with what I believe to be “true.”

3.  I also believe that academic freedom in the most basic sense (the power of truth to persuade rather than the “truth of power,” where coercive pressure is applied to inquiry to manipulate or control) is fundamentally consistent with an ethic of nonviolent persuasive love (manifest by Jesus in the cross).  In an inquiry (or conversation) where we pursue with others what is “true,” what moves us forward is consent, the inner conviction that we “know” something that “compels” us to believe that something is true.  This is a social process, one where we are constantly testing what we know with others, because of a profound humility – that we could be mistaken, that our own knowledge may be distorted and partial.  When the scientific community is working well, this is how they do it.  I have profound admiration and respect for that model.

Thanks, Ted, for engaging this important issue.

Response #3:  

I agree that “academic freedom” as a historical concept emerges from the sort of philosophical/historical/theological context that deserves critique from an Anabaptist perspective for its assumptions.  And that it retains some usefulness in the Mennonite context because our educational institutions need to “protect” their professors in the sense of giving them room to play a needed role in the church.  But I think there are limits to the protection that our educational institutions can and should provide to its professors.  What I don’t see in Ted’s essay is any exploration of where those limits might be or how one might begin to define them in any functional way without resorting to some test of orthodoxy that would obviate the academic freedom sought.  I think the recognition of differing gifts, which Ted identifies, is a good beginning in addressing this issue, but not enough.

The church is and must always be engaged in a search for truth.  I am hearing from pastors these days that their increasingly pluralistic contexts require a clearer message with less process and ambiguity in the public arena.  (And we academics are famous for endlessly processing issues.)  But many of those more conservative pastors who call for that public clarity recognize that schools and seminaries have a broader calling to explore theological options and are willing to give (some) room for that.

Academic freedom can operate effectively only in a context of trust.  And trust itself depends on a history of interaction that is perceived as positive and valuable.  Since the schools are ultimately servants of the church, we must treat with some care our calling, to ensure that we are providing a valuable service that is also perceived as valuable.  For without the trust and valuing of the church, academic freedom will be practically worthless.

One question I have is whether the men and women reading this essay believe that the Mennonite Church should move from what John H. Yoder identified as its historical position with regard to the calling of theologians in the midst of the church: namely, that theologians and biblical “experts” exercise their gifts and calling in the midst of and as part of a discerning body that receives those gifts while ultimately holding the experts accountable to the discernment of the body.

In summary, I like much of what Ted says, but wonder about what he doesn’t say.  I think he does a better job of clarifying how academics committed to the church should speak to the church (and how the church should listen) than he does of clarifying how academics committed to the church should listen to or submit to the discernment of the church.  I am assuming here, of course, that the church might theoretically express caution or even say “no” to an academic without necessarily “defending past orthodoxies” or “protecting its social status.”

Response #4:  

First, I agree very much with the general orientation which Ted is promoting, that those who claim a Mennonite/Anabaptist heritage (and others who claim the Christian church, for that matter) should center their approach in terms of the integrity of the individual gifts in the body—particularly the more academic gifts, in this case—and how those need to be free to function for the health of the whole as opposed to simply the Enlightenment value of academic freedom.

Second, the piece lacks specifics around which one might rally, or which one might correct, add to, etc.  What are the “core values” that provide some boundary lines for what is and is not acceptable at a Mennonite institution?  How specifically are these different from Enlightenment values?  While each institution would work these out for themselves, it would be helpful to have some working examples.

Third, I am wondering what expectations Ted would propose to be appropriate for faculty members of a Mennonite institution.  What commitments regarding the core values should one abide by?  I would think this would include a sympathetic presentation of or orientation to the core values.  What guidelines might one consider concerning those areas just outside the “core,” those which are embraced by significant members of the constituency but are of a more controversial nature?  At what point, for example, should one remove oneself from the institution if one cannot sympathetically endorse some of the core values?

Fourth, it would be helpful to suggest, at least in general, a process by which disagreements regarding the core values and/or controversial matters and the behavior of a given faculty member might be addressed.  Who might be a part of this?  Is there a way to apply the tradition of Matthew 18 and “giving and receiving counsel” in a structure appropriate to this context?  What kind of protection should a faculty member be given during such a process?  How private should it be?

Response #5:  

I read Ted’s essay with appreciation, because its message sent me back to my days teaching at a Mennonite college when I was dealing similar issues, only then the issue was centered on evolution and the attendant right of “free speech.”  In those days the Religious Welfare Committee held sway over what the institution should be teaching.  In general, I held my ground partly, I suppose, because I was not in the Bible Department!

I believe the key question is, How might Mennos engage in “freedom of inquiry”?  I suggest two possible approaches, although the two no doubt can be combined.  1) The approach of dictatorial pronouncements in which case one states one’s case as dogmatically as possible, and then attempts to “defend” one’s views.  2) The Socratic approach, I think, is better, chiefly because by means of pointed questions this approach can then lead to further inquiries.

I like Ted’s essay, and it should spark discussion.  After all, what are professors trying to do—pour gas into empty tanks sufficient for the long haul of life, or find ways to open the world of inquiry to students thus enabling them to continue their quest for understanding as long as they might live?  I’m sure we want to do the latter, for the days of a fortress mentality when colleges built high, tight fences with nothing getting in and nothing getting out should be long gone.  The world of academic inquiry is so much richer and interesting.

Response #6:  

Ted has done a good job of raising important issues.  However, I do have some questions.

This is how I would summarize his basic argument:  (1)  God gives the gift of doing theology.  (2) This gift is meant to serve the church so Mennonite theologians should be active members of the Mennonite Church.  (3) The context of this gift, that is being for the church, provides the freedom for engaging the gift.  (4) Theologians construct understandings of God and the biblical message for the contemporary world.  (5) A new understanding is required because the old ways are withering away.  (6) Theologians are to articulate a living faith in meaningful and authentic language for the present while being faithful to the convictions of the past.

I like the idea of doing theology as a gift for several reasons.  First, it makes clear that doing theology is a part of the life of the church as opposed to an academic or theoretical enterprise.  Second, as a gift, doing theology is a task, and not an ability.  Doing theology is purposeful and not simply a skill or knack.

This is important because one stream of the Enlightenment reduces things like gifts to instrumental reason.  This is clear when we talk about freedom today where it is virtually always used as the absence of constraints.  I am free when I can philosophize without strictures or fear of retribution.  To philosophize then becomes a technique where one can input any kind of data through the instrument of doing philosophy and have a philosophical output.  The machinery of doing philosophy is free when any kind of data can be input, the machine works without interference, and the output is not censured.

However, this is not the case with the gifts of the church.  Doing theology is not a mechanical process but is a human endeavor that is constrained by the truth, at the service of the church, and never finished.  It is thoroughly teleological and therefore constantly being interfered with (corrected) by its purpose.  As a gift, doing theology does not fit the main emphasis of the Enlightenment because it is not instrumental.

And this is why I see a conflict between 1-3 and 4-6 of my summary of Ted’s points.  It seems to me that points 4-6 assume an instrumental view of theology where it functions as a machine into which we feed the data of the contemporary world, it churns (constructs) away and spits out a contemporary faith language.  Like a machine, new input will provide new output.  Like a machine, inputing faulty data will result in the machine crashing.  The input would be contemporary conditions.  The machinery is a theological skill.  The work is constructing.  The product is contemporary conditions constructed in a theological form.  But this is backwards.

As Christians we believe that theology is to transform contemporary conditions, not by a re-construction, but because theology presents God’s life-transforming truth.  Theology must not be constrained by the contemporary, but only by the truth.

So, what is the difference?  Well, the difference might be:  (4a) Theologians are called to be attentive to the truth of God and the Bible as spoken today.  (5a) Our understanding of God must continually be tested according to the standards of being faithful.  (6a) The standards against which we test our understanding of God must be grounded in the truth.

In essence, the gift of being a theologian is not unlike the gift of being a priest.  It is a practice that is rooted in an encounter with God.  As a practice, it is comprised of a current form, a history and a purposiveness.

Also, I think there are very good philosophical arguments against talk of constructing understandings but I won’t go into them here.

I think these changes better suit Ted’s description of academic freedom as the conditions which allow individuals to pursue tasks.  In my opinion, institutions of higher learning run by churches are in a position to offer a far more robust form of academic freedom than could ever be found in a secular university simply because, in general, secular universities have given up the privilege of providing purposes to students.  Human beings are most free when they have purpose.

Response #7:  

I found Ted’s essay to be well-written, thoughtful, balanced, and persuasive.  I like his recasting of the issues away from “academic freedom” in the Enlightenment sense and toward what Ted calls “expression of gifts,” although I think he is a bit too eager to dismiss the genuine value of the Enlightenment spirit of free inquiry and discussion.

I have sometimes made a kind of similar argument about creative writing, trying to get beyond the tired dualism of individual and community, which has often been used to champion either “artistic freedom” or the need for “accountability.”  Sometimes artistic freedom simply means the airing of grievances; too often, accountability and discipline have been code words for the powerful within a community trying to protect themselves against criticism.  But this dualism overstates differences and understates the essential role of “marginal” figures in any healthy community.  After all, as a writer I’m a part of my community (of several, in fact) and everything that I do is colored, though I hope not narrowly determined, by my experience in community.  Often those who critique some communal traditions provide a crucial service in the constant renewal that a healthy church requires.

No community will prosper if it represses or drives away its most gifted and even eccentric members, or allows itself to be defined by a narrow and inflexible power structure.  At the same time, of course, some stability and continuity are required.  The rub typically comes when certain segments of community seek to define its borders in ways that exclude others, or to define various tests for “true” membership.  Does the believer’s church consist of all those who want to belong to it?  Or does some part of the church have the right to exclude others they find insufficiently orthodox?

Our answers to these questions are, I suspect, often determined by whether we are in the “in” group or the “out” one.  Within our church colleges, it is crucial that we transmit the Anabaptist story, in as much of its full complexity as we can manage, and that we both celebrate and critique the inevitably imperfect human dimensions of that story.  To do so will require, I think, hiring the best and most committed faculty we can find, and then encouraging them to work as boldly and fearlessly as possible.

Ted is right to emphasize the need to be constantly re-thinking and deepening our understanding of theological and ethical and other issues, and the necessary place of those trained in the disciplines (and committed to the church) in that work.

Response #8:  

I am happy to respond to Ted’s interesting essay.  I must mention at the beginning that there are many differences between academic theology in North America, sometimes under siege by fundamentalist controversies, and in Europe where I live, where it is unaffected by such issues at the cost of being for the most part irrelevant for the development of the Church.

The academic theologian is to our Church a marginal figure, and only in training the pastors of the future may he or she have a moment of impact—as a practical theologian infinitely more so than as a teacher of dogmatics.  The Enlightenment “freedom of speech and research” did not prevent the social organization of knowledge.  If the Church did not openly practice censorship, she could rely on the academic community to do it for her.  A complete freedom of thought just never was there.  To become a professor, one must among other things learn to be silent when required and to speak more forcefully to issues that originated in society, at least to issues held dear by those parts, reflecting such interests of society that win the favor of the decision-makers—both in the political and in the Church arena.

Let me start by quoting the part I agreed with:

Ted writes:  “Basically, I want to argue that it is because of the gifts theologians have been given and have nurtured and are hired to exercise that open expression is something our schools should cultivate (not because of the ideal of academic freedom).  However, in practice open expression in a Mennonite college and academic freedom in a state university might not look noticeably different.”

I welcome this approach through the notion of “gifts.”  Ted might have reflected more on the biblical idea behind gifts, since it is not the teaching ability that is a gift, biblically speaking, but the teacher as a whole that is a gift to the Church (cf. Ephesians 4:11 and the mention of the goals that these gifts are to pursue).  The purpose of the gift is also important.  The Enlightenment ideology expected human perfection through the exercise of (universal) reason and reason alone.  The Church must expect something else: the pursuit of unity in faith and the edification of the Church body unto the full knowledge of the Son of God (cf. Eph. 4:14)

Academic theological differences have profound consequences for Church practice.  So would it not be wise to exercise some restraint to the pioneer mentality of theologians that through academic encounter speaks more with the world and other religions than the laypeople in their churches?

Ted also writes:

“Rather, they are the precise factors that give theologians the responsibility to speak freely and forcefully, openly to articulate the fruits of their research, boldly to challenge stagnant orthodoxies and calcified certainties.”

This I do not fully comprehend. It may be the case that research leads the church into challenging stagnant orthodoxies and calcified certainties.  That is the job of the Church, to reform herself constantly in the light of her understanding of God’s Word and the contemporary situation.  But I cannot see that that is the primary goal of the church teacher.  We investigate, we suggest possible ways of understanding our faith and heritage, understanding the world and modern culture, but we do not challenge.  Our work need not be polemical, but enticing, not in confrontation, but by showing the better road.  Ted emphasizes a kind of attentiveness to controversy that I do not hold to be part of the core duties of the Church teacher.

The same argument can be made, I believe, against Ted’s description of the situation in which he works, which I find to be particularly North American (we have other problems!).

He writes:  “I believe the central tension we face today, then, is best seen in terms of the church’s openness to understanding its mission in the framework of the centrality of on-going discernment and adaptation to a changing world.  When the church understands its work in this dynamic way, it will welcome the contributions of all its members, each exercising one’s gifts in service of the discerning work of the church.  These needed contributions include the work of our theologians.  If the church, instead, takes on the task of defending past orthodoxies and protecting its social status, then it will stifle many of its gifted members – not only theologians.”

The “centrality of on-going discernment and adaptation to a changing world” is a key phrase here.  I guess that by discernment Ted means the process of Matthew 18, and if I may guess something like the enhancement on the plain text implications that were given through John Howard Yoder (e.g., the Rule of Paul and Rule of Christ joined together in a neat package.)  I believe it is true that we have been given the duty to address our contemporaries with the gospel, playfully, understanding our common culture and its limitations.  C. Norman Kraus’s concept of “locating the gospel” might be helpful here.

However, discernment and adaptation place too much emphasis in my view on the subjective component and the translation of the gospel in our time.  Adaptation is even more powerful than translation.  The word itself has biological overtones: in order to survive we need to change, our changes are successful if we improve our survival.  It makes survival paramount and that shows some tendency to see our mission in terms of “staying here,” on success,  right?

What we need is not a stress on adaptation (which occurs inevitably anyway) but a reflection on the ways we are changing, a critical distance, without cultural bias – the kind of bias that would make us value our traditions or, conversely (?), our modern culture more than our scriptural heritage.

In the discernment of Matthew 18 there is room for considerable freedom in interpretation.  But the standard of morality is shared, and the teachers are those that propound it, and what they teach from is Scripture.  Where does the canonicity of scripture come into play in Ted’s essay?  If the church chooses too complacently simply to defend orthodoxies of the past, she must be convinced to change her ways. I am in agreement that here lies the task of the theologian: to be able to witness for truth even against the majority in the church.  But if that same church adapts too much to the ways of the world, intimidated as she might become by the sheer weight of modern culture, the task of the theologian might be to keep the church on the path of biblical faithfulness.

Ted writes:  “The work of articulating a living faith, using language that is meaningful and authentic in the present while also faithful to the core convictions of the past, is precisely what Mennonite theologians are called to.  We are being irresponsible if we shrink from this work.  Many in the church may not welcome it, may even try to squelch it.  Our calling, I believe, is to press on anyhow.”

This passage I find too meager.  This sentence is my problem: “faithful to the core convictions of the past.”  Such “core convictions” are in themselves a theological construct.  They are partly derived from an imaginative reconstruction from a historian’s viewpoint.  They might express the particularity of a “living faith” (Kraus’s sense of the word) embodied in a historic community, but they do not express the centrality and normativity of what this community has taken as its standard all along.

What Ted has skipped over, is our biblicism!  Language that is meaningful in the present might very well be far removed (and to that extent inappropriate) from what we are commanded to say in the present.  Aren’t we a bit too aware of the opposition against the gospel?  What needs be said is not likely to be self-evident.  And modern language tends to obscure all but the glaring and superficial truth of the “facts.”  Our preaching and teaching has to be at variance with modern culture, translated yes, “located” even, but not adapting to jargon that might make us more friendly in the sight of the world.  A systematic theology that is not at its core a biblical theology of costly Nachfolge cannot be a Mennonite theology.

In sum, while I agree on the more pragmatic issue of academic freedom, I disagree with its general shape and purpose for those that serve both the university and the church.  Our role is more modest, and should never be in full polemical distance from the church.  The church makes decisions in the mode of discernment, we present to that discernment its possibilities and limitations, (in the mode of persuasion).  The common goal remains the unity of faith and the edification of the people of God as witness to Christ in this world.

Response #9:  

I suggest that the problem of academic freedom within Mennonite institutions can have penultimate answers but not an ultimate answer.

As people who claim to find our identity within the nonviolent story of Jesus, it seems self-evident that the nonviolent story is open to listen and to dialogue with other views, and cannot respond coercively to contrasting views.  At the same time, when pushed to the extreme, this tolerance contains the seeds of the community’s demise, namely tolerance of those views which falsify or betray the character of the nonviolent community.

To state the extreme instance, to tolerate and allow advocates of violence to dominate the community will turn the nonviolent community into the opposite of the nonviolent community.  But equally true, to go to the extreme of excluding some views also falsifies the claim to be a community or institution shaped by nonviolence.  Similarly, forcibly requiring some views—even requiring nonviolence—also falsifies the claim of the community to be nonviolent.

Ted’s questioning of the centrality of Enlightenment notions of individual rights and freedoms is on target.  Enlightenment principles were an effort to base truth in universally accessible and universally recognizable assumptions.  More recently, we have come to recognize the particularity of all such claims.  And we recognize (or should I say “I recognize”) that we base truth in a particular story, that of Jesus.  If the question of “academic freedom” is based on a supposed universally accessible and universally recognizable principle derived from Enlightenment notions of individual rights and freedoms, in effect the basis of truth has shifted from the particular story of Jesus to the particular claims of Enlightenment philosophy.

We cannot ultimately resolve the dilemma of academic freedom because it is a dilemma caused by the effort to confine the story of Jesus within a particular Enlightenment principle.  At the same time, we can agree that, short of the limits, it is better to allow a wide-ranging search for truth—including challenges to accepted orthodoxies—than to deny the challenges or to reject them coercively.  But respecting and protecting the integrity of the community while also tolerating other views that call the community into question is not a problem that can be decided for all time, on the basis of an abstract principle such as academic freedom.  There can be only penultimate answers that respond to the particular situation in which the nonviolent community finds itself.

A parallel might be the way John H. Yoder used narrative theology without being a narrative theologian.  As Chris Huebner explains (Conrad Grebel Review 16.2 (1998):15-38), to be a narrative theologian would mean that the source of authority had shifted from Jesus to the abstract idea of “narrative.”  Thus Yoder could use narrative in penultimate fashion but never as an ultimate statement of reality.  Similarly, academic freedom is a principle that serves the Mennonite community in penultimate fashion rather than as an ultimate statement of reality.

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