[This essay was published in the Anabaptist Scholars Network Newsletter 4.1 (May 2001). It originated as a “discussion starter” that I emailed to various Mennonite academic friends for their responses. We had a lively discussion; edited responses from the discusion may be found here. A shortened and revised version was published in DreamSeeker Magazine, Autumn 2001, with a response from the then president of Eastern Mennonite University, Joseph Lapp.]
For over one hundred years, Mennonites in North America have been in the higher education business. As was no doubt inevitable, as time has passed, Mennonite colleges and seminaries have adopted many of the values and practices of their surrounding culture’s higher education milieu. And yet, we still want to think of our “product” as in some sense distinctively Mennonite.
One area where these two communities (North American higher education and the Mennonite churches) perhaps most obviously have potential for being in tension is the area often referred to as “academic freedom.” Should academics who work for Mennonite schools operate in terms of “academic freedom?” Partly because I teach in theology and partly because this question seems especially pointed in relation to theology (broadly defined to include biblical studies, ethics, and other related disciplines), I will focus on theology in this essay. I believe my reflections, though, could to a large extent apply to all disciplines in our Mennonite colleges and seminaries. What constraints, if any, should be placed on the freedom of expression in the classroom for Mennonite theologians? What about our publications? What place is there for censorship on the part of Mennonite institutions? How about self-censorship?
I address these issues from the perspective of one who has taught at a Mennonite college for nearly five years, and who for ten years before that pastored in three Mennonite congregations. I also address these issues as a person who did not grow up as a Mennonite, but rather grew up in the “Wild, Wild West” in a milieu strongly influenced by rugged frontier individualism. So, while I write out of lengthy experience in Mennonite institutions, I also write as one who does not have the traditional Mennonite, community-first ethos in my bones. Continue reading