The Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education (Skinner)

Consider No EvilEarlier this summer I wrote here on the blog about Dr. Brandon Withrow, a historian of Christianity who lost his faith while teaching at a faith-based institution. What made his situation unique is that he decided to be open about his loss of faith and leave his full-time position without causing a controversy. After reading his story, I contacted Brandon and had the privilege of Skyping with him about his journey and a host of other things. During the course of our conversation, I became aware of his most recent book (co-authored with Menachem Wecker), Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education (Eugene, OR: Cascade). Last week Brandon graciously sent along a copy of the book and I was so engrossed that I read it within the first two days. (By the way, this never happens. I am usually too busy to drop everything and read straight through ANY book.)

The book takes an in-depth look at some of the problems, pitfalls, and unique features of faith-based higher education here in the United States. The book is divided into four sections, each of which consists of a chapter from Withrow in which he discusses some element of Christian higher education followed by a chapter from Wecker, who then discusses Jewish higher education.

Part One is entitled, “Our Stories.” Here both authors give an in-depth look at their individual backgrounds as they relate to the subject matter of the book. (I should say that the book was written before Withrow lost his faith but surely while that evolution was taking place. It would be interesting to see what he might add to the book today.) Part Two is entitled, “Our Traditions” and discusses the rise of Christian and Jewish universities, respectively. Part Three, entitled “Our Limitations,” was simultaneously the most interesting and troublesome part of the book. I was especially interested in Chapter 5, “The Outrageous Idea of Christian Academic Freedom,” as it dealt with so many of the controversies that have led to the termination of professors here in the US in recent years. The fourth and final part of the book is entitled, “Our Solutions.” Frankly, I found this section to be somewhat depressing because the solutions mostly boil down to future job candidates being mindful of what they’re getting themselves into. In other words, sweeping reform among schools that have the power to make an unwarranted decision to fire a faculty member is unlikely.

Perhaps the most important (and also depressing) insight I gained from this book is the realization that, regardless of the motivation behind terminating a contract, faith-based schools will continue to have the freedom to do so with legal impunity, at least here in the United States. Over and over again, the authors make the point that the courts consider these matters to be religious in nature, and therefore refuse to rule against a school that has terminated a faculty member. This means that such schools can (legitimately or illegitimately) claim that the termination was over an issue of religious import, and the professor in question has no recourse.

I really enjoyed this book and will likely use it (especially Chapter 5) when helping students understand the slippery role of Biblical interpretation in many of the non-essential matters within the life of different denominational groups. I will also recommend this book to those young scholars who are considering pursuing a post at a religiously-affiliated school. There is much to be gained from thinking through the issues Withrow and Wecker point out in the course of their various discussions. We should be grateful for both their wisdom and their honesty.

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Losing Faith While Teaching in a Faith-Based Institution (Skinner)

WithrowI have not been around a reliable internet connection for the past several days, so I wasn’t able to blog about Brandon Withrow’s interesting article from the Chronicle a fews days back (though I did tweet it). Withrow, a historian of Christianity whose academic training was undertaken exclusively in evangelical settings (BA, Moody Bible Institute, MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary), recently left his full-time seminary teaching post—quietly, I might add—because he found that he no longer believes. Yes, you read that correctly. He left of his own volition and without incident because he is no longer a Christian. Here’s an excerpt from his piece:

Leaving my faculty position freed my conscience, given that I had already left evangelicalism for the ranks of the unaffiliated, but it was not a decision I took lightly. Before I settled on any new and potentially controversial identity, I wanted to be sure it was the right one for me. While I continue to teach as an adjunct in religious studies at a local university, the choice to leave the seminary not only posed family difficulties, but also had the potential to be career suicide.

Finding another full-time faculty position is a grim prospect. The number of candidates for openings in my field far outnumber the full-time opportunities. I take some solace in knowing that I’m not alone, since this is true for most academics. (Misery in the job market, apparently, does love company.)

When your employment depends on a religious identification, and especially when your closest family and friends remain intertwined with that faith, joining the unaffiliated secular in America is not always the first or easiest choice, even if it is the honest one.

Teaching while nonbelieving is a special crime in faith-based institutions. My field is in religious history, and it is entirely possible for me to teach academically — meaning educating students without casting judgment on or interfering with their faith. The expectation of a professor in faith-based education, however, is that he or she is also a theologian, an advocate for the specific religious mission of the institution.

A secular humanist clearly cannot advocate for doctrine.

I found Brandon’s description of his progressive epiphanies and his decision to depart really interesting for several reasons. First, in the wake of a seemingly never-ending train of high-profile departures of professors from institutions over biblical, theological, and/or social issues (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and most recently here), it was refreshing to see a professor and institution part ways under these circumstances. Of course, given the state of the profession right now, I lament for Brandon as he (along with so many others) tries to find gainful employment in academia. Second, this article brings up a question that I’ve been discussing with colleagues a lot in recent years: Why does this type of thing seem to happen with regularity among evangelical scholars? What is it about the culture of evangelicalism, especially American evangelicalism, that causes or at the very least, regularly allows for such de-conversions and radical re-envisionings of the Scriptures and the life of faith? That’s a topic I’ll likely explore in the future, but for now I want to commend Brandon’s article to you. I appreciate his honesty, integrity, and insight and I hope that you will give his piece a careful read.