Academic Freedom, Christian ‘Universities’ and ‘Secular’ Universities

Like others (e.g. Bird, West, and by implication Hurtado), it is difficult not to feel that there is something deeply wrong about what happened to Anthony Le Donne at Lincoln Christian University. I’m probably not the best person to defend his case (I suspect it would get him more sacked, so to speak) but I think he has obviously been hard done by, though I also suspect he will have a very good chance of getting a job elsewhere.

Some related comments can be made.

One thing is striking: the label ‘university’. Why don’t such institutions just stick with the clear label ‘seminary’ or go for ‘seminary plus’ if they teach other things? They can do as they please, of course, but it seems that there is a potentially duplicitous game being played here which might explain some of this: wanting the credibility of the label ‘university’ whilst not buying into the ideal of independence associated with universities. That may be beside the point because I suppose we all know that places which impose theological and historical demands on scholars are seminaries in another name, and at least ‘Christian’ flags up what might be expected, but still.

[One point to avoid misunderstanding: work done at a number of seminaries or theological colleges isn’t necessarily better or worse than that at universities. I don’t know how to measure what’s better and leave that to one side]

One phrase which has come up repeatedly over the years in discussions of seminaries, theological colleges and universities, and in distinction from theological colleges and seminaries, is ‘secular university’, recently turning up on Ben Witherington’s blog. I’m going to make a plea for this term to be dropped, at least as things stand. A better term might be ‘independent’ because, ideally, universities are, at least in certain imaginations (like mine), supposed to provide a context for all sorts of ideas. Moreover, and speaking from the UK, it is hardly the case that confessional and theological views are excluded, as the term ‘secular’ might imply. In addition to a number of departments of theology containing theologians who believe in their theological positions and teach and research on such theological positions, look at a number of the major biblical studies posts in the UK held by scholars who are quite open about their theological interests. There are historic reasons for this (including connections with the church) but also because universities generally hold to an ideal of independence and allow a range of positions.

Here’s an interesting example. In 2008 I was at a conference on the Pope’s terrible book on the historical Jesus. It was funded by the British Academy and hosted by the Centre for Philosophy and Theology, which is linked with the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, at the University of Nottingham. The University of Nottingham Dean’s Fund also provided money which, according to the main organisers and editors of the following book, was ‘a demonstration of the University’s commitment to rigorous theological debate open to a wide audience’ (Pabst and Paddison’s acknowledgments in The Pope and Jesus of Nazareth). The conference featured people such as John Milbank, the Archbishop of Granada, and a number of priests, and the Pope’s theology was praised to the moon and back. Yet despite this a couple of us were taken aback somewhat by the relentless use of the term ‘secular university’ throughout the conference. The situation is not clear cut and this example shows just how problematic labels like ‘secular’ are.

The key point here is an ideal of independence. At least there are a number of issues which can be discussed at a university without fear of the sack, whether you are a liberal theologian, a dedicated evangelical, an exegete producing non-violent (in this life) views expressing dislike at practising homosexuals which are believed to be eternally true but apparently shouldn’t be labelled ‘homophobic’ because the negativity is out of love, a New Atheist, someone who thinks the resurrection is a product of grief visions (not including a certain German institution, obviously) or whatever. This brings me to a comment by Ben Witherington:

Honestly it’s not very different than when a major secular university puts restraints on what a faculty person can say or do in the name of political correctness. For example, some kinds of comments or views have been classified as forbidden in such institutions if you want promotion. That’s hardly what I would call academic freedom.

Leaving the point about gaining promotion (note: rather than being sacked) to one side, this ‘for example’ is a non-example (i.e. no evidence is cited) and it doesn’t seem comparable with cases such as Le Donne’s (and there are, of course, more) or the ideal of allowing theologians, non-believers, evangelicals etc. Besides, what can be said about ‘when a major secular university puts restraints on what a faculty person can say or do in the name of political correctness’? I don’t know what BW3 has in mind but there are certain instances where I think certain restraints would be fairly explicit. For instance, speaking/writing/researching about Israel and Palestine is liable to land you in hot water (see e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Douglas Giles and Nadia Abu el-Haj, though the latter was eventually promoted, albeit at a cost). I could imagine someone holding far-right or racist views would struggle gaining promotion in a university. These are also issues for seminaries or evangelical ‘universities’. But…holding conservative or evangelical theological views, or holding one sort of theological view, has not been a problem for promotion in universities, certainly not in the UK. I would make an educated guess that BW3, for instance, would not struggle to get promoted in the UK if he held what he assumes to be ‘politically incorrect’ views and wrote about them. Again, a number of major biblical scholars at major universities with major posts might reasonably be called conservative or evangelical. Some even hold theological views which Oscar Goldman calls ‘soft homophobia’.

Of course, universities are not places immune from ideological controls. There are a number of issues which won’t be touched properly (see above) and the manufacturing of ‘common sense’, consensus and consent is evident at universities, just as it is in evangelical seminaries and wider culture. Enough work has now been done, including work in biblical studies, to show how more subtle forms of ideology are at work in academia whether this concerns the nation state, Middle East, neoliberalism, individualism, liberalism, nationalism, ethnicity, identity etc etc etc… Universities are still tied in with state and private power and even though radical views can be espoused they tend to be ignored, buried, misunderstood, obscured, or obscure (see Jesus in an Age of Terror e.g. ch. 1). But at least there are limited privileges at independent universities which clearly aren’t present at certain seminaries and evangelical ‘universities’. At least people aren’t losing jobs for saying things – not even particularly radical things – about the historical Jesus. At least you actually can be a radical, conservative or mainstream historical Jesus scholar. And that’s something.

And finally, Adam Shields makes arguably the weirdest (though honourable) commitment to academic freedom I’ve read since Mike Bird claimed an approach to academia of permitting any view equals Maoism:

I would like to think that one of the ways to solve this problem is for schools (or some foundation) to set aside some money to cover a year’s salary for professors that honestly feel they can’t continue to work at the school because of the direction of their research.

This would allow more harmonious separation and be a better witness to the non-Christian academic world. As Christ said, we should be known for how well we treat one another and not how cut throat we are. Even when we disagree, we should be able to still treat one another lovingly.

And for a few hundred thousand a year or less, that would do a lot in my mind to help show the non-Christian academic world that we really are committed to both harmony and love and academic freedom. I know of no equivalent in the secular university world.

And that’s because people at ‘secular universities’ don’t usually get sacked for apparently thinking slightly beyond perceived confessional norms.


7 responses to “Academic Freedom, Christian ‘Universities’ and ‘Secular’ Universities

  1. Pingback: The Roundup « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  2. Pingback: Academic freedom, evangelical confessionalism, and the word “university.” « Near Emmaus

  3. Hey James, you might also be interested in the post by John Hobbins on this( as I think your points about the ideal of the independent University might respond to some of his points.

  4. Hey James, you may also be interested in John Hobbin’s post on this ( as what you write about the ideal of the independent University may answer some of his points.

  5. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    James Crossley’s thoughts on the firing of Anthony Le Donne. Worth reading in its entirety.

  6. The problem with a majority of educators is that they are focusing on ‘academic freedom’ not God’s word or God’s reality. First, we all know that secular universities do not allow true academic freedom. If that were so, evolution woul dnot be the only idea discussed in the science classroom.
    Second, when a person accepts Jesus as his or her savior, they have entered into GOD’s kingdom and must follow GOD’s rules. That means they teach what GOD wants which is the truth not a bunch of theories that have no hope of being proven true.
    Failure of Christians to follow GOD’s way has allowed many a young believer to be led astray by false teachers who do not believe in Jesus.
    Third, when a person takes a position at auniversity, they are under the rules of the institution not their own, not the other universities or scholars’ ideas of how education should run.
    Fourth, if Mr. La Donne broke the rules of his employer then his employer was right and within their rights to dismiss him from their employ. The university did nothing wrong but Mr. la Donne obviously did.
    Fifth, academics need to learn and apply the fact that their are rules ot follow. If one enters God’s kingdom they follow God’s rules; if they are employed by a univeristy then they follow the rules set down by the university (obviously believers must put God’s rules first). If an academic wants to follow his own rules or the rules of others then they need to be hired by an institution that allows such activities
    There is no such thing as ‘academic freedom’ if there was then it would be labeled ‘academic anarchy’ which is all you get from true freedom. There is true and false teaching which the Bible lays out very clearly and which every believer should understand and hold to.
    The believer needs to follow God’s way which means that they need to root out all false teaching form their minds, their work and replace it with the truth. If they don’t then they are in disobedience to God and Jesus. God’s message doesn’t get to the world when those claiming to be His followers do not teach it and teach it properly.

  7. Pingback: Academic freedom | theologyarchaeology

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