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You can read a few open letters written by Rollston’s friends over at Jim West’s blog; Tom Verenna has written on the matter at Bible and Interpretation; Bob Cargill went bananas (and after one of Rollston’s colleagues) in the comment box under Verenna’s article; and Jim Tabor has likewise weighed in. The latter is the sanest, but there may be others of which I’m unaware. The impression has also been voiced that we are seeing more cases of theological witch-hunting in recent days, though whether that is true or only an illusion due to our social-media-connected world, where these things blow up within hours, we do not know.
Personally, I admire Prof. Rollston’s scholarship, and the chorus of solidarity has been a moving testament to his impact on the field as a scholar and as a person of character. Friends should always speak out in support of another in times like these. I am now reading the memoir of a man who lived almost a decade undercover to avoid becoming victim to a fatwa, which has made me ever more appreciative of motions of solidarity (though I am in no way whatsoever comparing the severity of Rollston’s situation to Rushdie’s), and I am hopeful Prof. Rollston is deriving encouragement from knowing there are many behind him. The suppression of free inquiry is always damaging, no matter where and for what reason it exists. Within the world of biblical or theological studies, not a few students have gone on to become embittered souls, incensed with their almae matres for not teaching them how to think critically even about their own foundational presuppositions. So there is a conversation to be had over the place of confessional education in the larger context of higher education, and some of that Jim Tabor addressed. But I have another concern.
Some of the writing has turned acidic, and risks confirming for the administrators at Rollston’s (ECS) and other similar institutions the false impression that all ‘secular’ academics are poised to destroy the foundations of their faith. There is no need for the sarcasm and heightened inflammatory rhetoric. The question is not whether letters of support ought to be written, but whether the rhetoric has been appropriate, and whether some writers have fully understood the institutions that have become the object of their outrage.
I dare say that hardly any good ever comes out of the dust clouds of angry blogging; measured and mature responses often start the wheels of change, but some of the writing in this incident has fallen woefully short of that. And while using public outcry helped many of us to be part of saving Sheffield, in the present ordeal open letters cannot have the same goal because the addressees and writers are speaking different languages. If the goal is to force the administration of ECS and the administrations of other similar institutions to lay down their doctrinal commitments and walk away, we may as well be writing letters in Martian. We have no better chance at success than a Marxist party would have writing letters to Mitt Romney demanding his campaign take seriously their concerns.
We should consider that the administrators to whom the open letters have been addressed have constituencies that are far more important to them than Rollston’s loyal colleagues, and there’s no need for concocting conspiracy theories here. They have churches and donors who give to the institution because they are abiding by a specific theological confession in which they wholeheartedly believe. Tom Verenna seems unaware of how confessional institutions think when he writes:
In fact, I am not sure what Dr. Blowers specifically (but confessional institutions more generally) care about more—the successful education of the students (female or male) or the amount of money that can be made by rubbing elbows with investors whose interests are not always parallel to those interests of academics.
If I were the admin of ECS or another confessional institution, I wouldn’t answer a blogger to begin with, but if I did, I’d remark: ‘Of course we care about the “successful education” of our students, but our idea of what defines a “successful education” is different to yours.’ What’s more: sometimes, believe it or not, these confessional institutions are not thinking about ‘the amount of money that can be made’, but are instead possessed of a conviction that they must teach their students the doctrine that underpins their school, and they raise funds so that they can hire teachers to teach accordingly. They genuinely believe in what they are teaching, so to chalk it all up to greed and money and to envision men in blue suits rubbing shoulders in darkened rooms and counting stacks of money is to fail to understand they are serious about their statements of faith.
None of us as academics in SBL or ASOR or any other society have any influence in the decisions made at confessional institutions. Jim Tabor is right: some school may get lucky if they have reserve funds and can hire this great scholar away from this now tumultuous situation. But ECS do not have to tell us or anyone else how they are dealing with the matter, and to accuse ECS of being seditious and secretive for not telling the blogs what they are discussing with regard to Rollston is just silly. Why would any institution—even a state university—answer a blogger who demands openness about internal affairs? They may in fact receive legal counsel not to talk publicly about what they are doing. This is not a worthwhile line of critique, and I certainly wouldn’t want it turned around against our institutions so that we are made to answer the demands of the blogosphere. I asked a president of another confessional institution this weekend what he thought of the whole episode, and he confirmed my impression: their administrations are not moved an inch by the uproar of academics outside of their constituency. In the case of schools accountable to denominations, you can be sure they are more concerned with the reaction of a Sunday School teacher in West Texas than they are of a professional colleague in Europe.
As far as legality is concerned, confessional institutions also whistle a different tune to the one heard in the universities. They do not have to pinpoint a specific violation of a specific doctrinal point in order to terminate a faculty member. All they must show is that the employee in question has espoused a view that is contrary to the spirit of the confession. The spirit, not the letter. And even if their legal counsel is not satisfied, there are a host of other options on the table.
Verenna writes again: ‘If…you seek to stymie all ideas that are beyond your confessional theology…then let’s stop pretending and call it what it is: the prevention of academic and intellectual freedom and the censorship of critical ideas.’ But who is pretending, and what are they pretending? Some, though not all, of these confessional institutions would even consider ‘academic freedom’ just as subversive and dangerous as any form of liberal theology. These administrators are not thinking first about academic freedom. They already worry that the ‘secular’ academy is dwindling away what little faith is left in America, and it is naïve to think they will be moved to sympathise with those they consider dangerous. They are thinking first about their students—will this cause confusion and lead our students away from the principles we promised our constituents we would teach?—and then donors—will they lose faith in our ability to keep our institution on the theological path we told them we were on when we asked for their gift? Critical engagement always requires one to understand who or what idea is being opposed. If you want to contend with confessional institutions for the reasons outline above (and/or others), it would help first to understand who they are, and to be fair when characterising them.
I don’t think we should stop expressing support for Rollston. But the letters and the commentary need to be calibrated appropriately. Here are a couple of suggestions.
First, tone down the rhetoric, and stop writing openly to the administrators of ECS. In your enthusiastic support of Prof. Rollston, do not forget that at this point ECS is still paying his salary, and that he could be financially impacted in the coming days, in addition to all of the emotional torment he will face. It would be a pity if there were some sense in which they might have been willing to work things out, but Rollston’s well-intentioned supporters worked them up into such a frenzy that this option became impossible. The administration are not reading the blogs to find out how they should respond, but they could be reading and become more entrenched in their inclinations.
Second, the letters and commentary should be addressed to another audience. As Hans Küng this week called out for more grassroots opposition to the papal hierarchy, and as we have seen repeatedly through national revolutions contemporary and past, if change ever does come on any micro or macro level, it is going to be bottom-up. Writing an outraged note to an administrator will not go anywhere; even a sane one will be thanked for its sanity but similarly dismissed. Students, however, are the ultimate arbiters of the futures of confessional schools. And there are hundreds if not thousands of them who are disgruntled with the doctrinal constrictions in their institutions and denominations, but do not really know yet how to articulate the problem, nor where to go. If we want to help Prof. Rollston—and Le Donne and Keith and….—we should do so by appealing to the world of future students and clergy, who are now looking all over the internet to find out who can talk more reasonably about biblical studies before they write a tuition check. I doubt the firebrands are going to win many prospective students who feel caught in the middle, but more balanced heads might be able to show them that there is a sensible way to approach biblical studies that doesn’t ask them to be uncritical, nor to be unbelieving.
In any case, we should under no circumstances write letters with aggravated fury and sarcasm, which would only ensure the opposite outcome to the one being sought by the sarcastic and furiously aggravated writers. The last thing we need to do is to bow up and spout ferocities at schools that already think of the academy as a den of robbers lying in wait for the opportunity to pounce on their values and steal their students away from God.