Who’s God?

There shall be wars, and rumors of wars. The Bible says nothing about being able to declare what future people might have to say about God. According to a story on the Washington Post website, Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor, was suspended from Wheaton College for claiming that the God of Islam is the same as the Christian God. Administrators felt this was one of those cases where the famous statement of faith required of Wheaton faculty was violated. Seems to me the administration might want to sit in on a class in history of religions. Everyone knows that Wheaton takes great pride in its Evangelical heritage, bordering on a kind of extreme conservatism. Even so, this seems extreme.

There is much we don’t know about the early history of most religions. Probably one of the resons for this is that, apart from the founder, we’re never sure if a new religion will take off. Many religions have started and then quietly (or not so quietly) died away. At the earliest stages nobody really knows which way it might go. We do know that by about the time of the Exile, the early Jewish faith was fast becoming monotheistic. Christianity, although disputed by some, also followed in that mold, accepting the God of Jesus of Nazareth (himself a Jew) as the one God. Here many Evangelical histories grow a little weak when focus is shifted to Arabia. The cultural context that led to Islam involved a world of pantheistic worship, but Mohammad was well aware of, and appreciative of, Judaism and Christianity. Recognizing that his faith shared the same books as the other two, his understanding of Allah was clearly the same God as the one worshipped by the Jews and that Jesus had called “Father.” The three monotheistic religions of that region, historically, have always shared the same God.

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Disowning a deity, I suspect, comes with some anxiety. As Islam expanded and Christianity itself became an imperial religion, clashes were bound to happen. Invective included calling the enemies “pagan” or “infidel” (technically two separate things), and as so often happens, rhetoric became mistaken for fact. Since Islam and Christianity were different religions, so the thinking went, they must recognize different gods. Triumphalism is seldom subtle. Fact checking wasn’t so easy back in those days. Suspending a professor for stating the truth is, I fear, nothing new. Some schools require statements of faith so that they may ensure academic freedom is a myth. Ironically, they seldom have trouble with accreditation. The ideology of a war between religions offers a doleful prognosis for a world where religions really need to try to understand each other and where obvious historical facts should count for something.

Academic Freedom

Azusa Pacific University, 2013. Emmanuel Christian Seminary, 2012. Interdenominational Theological Center, 2012. University of Illinois, 2010. Carroll College, 2005. Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, 2005. Unfortunately the list could go on and on. Academic institutions in the land of the free and the home of the brave dismissing faculty for saying or writing something that offended their doctrines. This is the land of my birth, and yet I’m still rocked by its permissiveness. That’s not permissiveness in that sense. I was latterly working on a paper called “the myth of academic freedom.” I know too many people for whom that myth has become a reality and all the while the governments, state and national, try to decide on more important issues such as whether or not to give children equal opportunity, our institutions crumble for petty points of pretentious pugilistic piety. Not only books may be banned, but those who potentially write them as well.

“You say you’re afraid for America,” Ellen Hopkins’s “Manifesto” suggests. Academics, of all people, should be afraid. Our society asks us to borrow thousands and thousands of dollars to become experts in some obscure topic only to release us from any possibility of finding employment that allows us to pay off said debt. “I don’t need no arms around me,” but I sure could use a podium in front of me. I am afraid for America. I am afraid for a nation that doesn’t defend its thinkers, instead following the wealthy to the peak of an unscalable Everest.

Academic freedom was once the guarantee that no question was disallowed, no thought anathema. We live in a time of pronounced conservative pushback, where those who feel threatened by knowledge persecute those who dare to think. Ironically in this situation many academics have become complacent. Having a place of your own, and the compunction not to make waves in this bathtub will allow your toy boat to float for many a year. Long enough to reach safe harbor. Beneath the surface shipwrecks lurk and books will never be written. Banned books are easiest to engineer at the aborted career stage. Even a pro-lifer knows that.

They don't write 'em like that anymore...

They don’t write ’em like that anymore…

Horsemanship

Hi ho Silver, away! I’ve been pondering academic freedom. (It was suggested to me that I might discourse on such.) My academic career, three years cold in the grave, seems a long way away. In religious studies it is kosher to fire someone for academic freedom issues. Doctrine permits no challenges, for it has already been decided. This doesn’t only apply to conservative religions, but to academic institutions of all stripes. Nobody likes to be challenged. Somehow, since 9/11 any academic dispute in religion is a potential threat. I have known many academics to have lost their jobs. I also know how it feels to see colleagues go from grace to grace because they have an institution that will vouch for them. I don my black mask and saddle up Silver. Those of us raised in working class families watched that show, you know, religiously. And Gunsmoke, among other campy westerns. Caricatures of good guys versus bad guys. You know the story.

In a moment of self-delusion, I thought I might be asked to deliver a paper at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I plodded along in my cumbersome way, reading a few books on academic freedom and interviewing a couple of its sacrificial victims. Turns out I was, well, self-deluded. It is probably for the best since I don’t wish to put myself forward as an expert on anything. Still, it felt like arriving at the front desk on that great and terrible day to find out your name’s not in the book after all, and so, where do you go now? Academics are running along as healthily as they always have. I was not raised knowing the difference between a salad fork and a meat fork. Some colleagues insist that universities crave the voice of hoi polloi; the authentic blue collar academic who worked his or her way up from a disadvantaged start through a doctoral program. I know it’s all just fancy talk. Academics are just as xenophobic as the rest of us.

Losing an academic position is easy. It’s like falling off a horse. I speak from experience here, having fallen off a big horse during a canter while helping underprivileged kids at horse camp one summer. It didn’t seem much like the wild west at the time. Seeing the world in a side view of the horse as you’re sliding off has a way of changing your perspective. You know the ground is coming fast. You just hope that your feet have slipped the stirrups. When it was all over the horse whisperer (or whatever they were called back then) publicly berated me for letting the reins fall from my hand. I should’ve slipped them over the saddle horn on my way down. Didn’t I know that the horse might’ve stepped on them? Rubbing my sore backside, I didn’t feel like such a masked lawman anymore. Silver had gotten away. At the dining hall I could feel the uncomfortable stares. Which one is the salad fork again? I never could keep my silver straight.

By Pleasure Island Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Pleasure Island Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For Love or Money

IMG_1258The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities is seeking a Christian way out of a contract. It seems, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, that Edward Blews was released from his $300,000 position “without cause” (I know how that feels—not the $300K part, but the “without cause” aspect), and he wants this resolved “in a Christian manner.” To the tune of two million dollars. That’s Christian if anything is. Christian higher education counts for a fair proportion of schools in the United States, while the CCCU, defining itself as “Christ centered” has only 120 members in North America at the moment. It was founded in 1976. Ironically, my old alma mater does not find itself on the list, although Grove City College often proclaimed itself as God’s Country Club during my years on campus. Among the services listed on the CCCU website is advocacy and public policy, that will allow them the “crucial right” to hire “only persons who profess faith in Jesus Christ.” And perhaps, who can’t afford a lawyer.

Academic freedom has been on my mind a lot lately. Conservative Christian views seldom benefit from academic inquiry. These views, most of which are decidedly modern, are passed along as a package with political riders, and strive to see themselves as counter-cultural, although, in fact, they resemble the 1950s more than the 2010s. I have no idea why Blews was let go, but I do know that “without cause” hides a multitude of sins. In my case, it was shorthand, I think, for just being too liberal. I was doing a great job, but endangering the morals of majors, I guess. Teaching critical thinking does have a price tag. I don’t see seminaries on the CCCU member’s A-list at all.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that we need to understand more about human religious motivations. Reason alone cannot satisfy brains where emotion may be just as critical to thinking as logic is. I know that when I’m depressed all thoughts seem to flee, except the most dismal of the lot. Reason can’t penetrate this fog. Yet reason itself cannot be ignored. The facts it teaches are frequently uncomfortable—to scientists as well as religionists. There’s nothing fair about it. When it comes to legal agreements, however, we are at the mercy of lawyers. Ironically, those who head Christian coalitions of various sorts feel the need for financial compensation. A little lucre to wash down the humility of dismissal. “Without cause” can be the most unkindest cut of all, eh Marcus? Even Judas got his 30 pieces of silver, but the cash never satisfies.