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Monday, March 02, 2009

More on academic freedom

Roland Boer has his suspicions about the way academic freedom is being used in the discussions of the Luedemann episode. I think he is largely right but I’d question those areas of ambiguity in Roland’s comments. Roland concludes:
I won’t go into what is really a long, long story, except to point out that the debate over academic freedom is actually a debate over which master you prefer. In the discussion about Luedemann, it’s clear that most prefer the state as master rather than the church, especially when it comes to that last battleground of theology and biblical studies. There is a double paradox here: first the state legislates for academic freedom, which thereby makes it a constraint; then it gives the illusion of such freedom and actively undermines it through preferred research areas, funded links with ‘business’, money with strings attached, and so on.
I agree on the issue of state backing for the academic world. In Jesus in an Age of Terror I pushed this point hard, both on the relationship between higher education and universities and how this frames the questions in higher education, including biblical studies. In addition to the general point I tried to show this in practice in relation to Anglo-American foreign policies in the Middle East. I also concluded that the logic of such critique means that it could be very difficult for such arguments to be accepted in academia and so books that criticise the sensitive parts (so to speak) of state and intellectual power might be more effective outside the traditional walls of academia.

Roland also makes the general point (criticism?) that ‘In the discussion about Luedemann, it’s clear that most prefer the state as master rather than the church, especially when it comes to that last battleground of theology and biblical studies.’ I don’t know if ‘most’ is true or not. It may well be. But I’d add that I remain more hostile to the treatment of Luedemann than Roland because church interference is still a problem if (say) one goal is to reconstruct the life of Jesus and Christian origins. Now church power may not be what it once was but it does affect biblical studies in a way that it does not other disciplines and does disqualify questions and overall this has had both positives (theological perspectives) and negatives (anti-nontheological perspectives). The problems are minor compared to the ways in which state and private power/-influenced power has interfered (the most notable recent example being the case of Norman Finkelstein) and but ruling out certain questions is still a dubious way in (say) historical research and reconstruction. Because state power is a serious problem, doesn’t mean that the critique of religious power is necessarily wrong (not that Roland quite said that, of course, and Roland in his own comments section, which I noticed after I wrote all this,‘I tend to be very suspicious of both’). I’d push for the critiquing of both religious and state power in intellectual thought and that’s why I’m happy to criticise the treatment of Luedemann.

Here’s an aside…NT Wright, not for the first time, goes way over the top in his rhetoric when he suggests the following: ‘in the real world…the tyrants and bullies (including intellectual and cultural tyrants and bullies) try to rule by force, only to discover that in order do so they have to quash all rumours of resurrection, rumours that would imply that their greatest weapons, death and deconstruction, are not after all omnipotent.’ This strikes me as a little absurd and there may well be cases of certain unpleasant rulers believing in bodily resurrection (it would be interesting to find out what the Christian figures Reagan, Thatcher, Bush II, and Blair believed). Wright’s book though is as conservative and confessional as could be imagined in mainstream academia and Wright has worked at a major English university and academics in major academic positions have accepted key areas of Wright’s book. And Wright's book directly invokes the supernatural to explain Christian origins. Moreover, Wright is a major scholar of Christian origins with the support of major scholars of Christian origins so I’m not so sure his work on resurrection at least really feels the effect of cultural tyrants. Is it going too far to suggest, ‘quite the opposite’…?

Roland is no doubt right that theology/biblical studies is the last battle ground but crazy as I think Wright’s work on the resurrection is, I don’t think we should go as far as pushing this politically motivated agenda critiqued by Roland: ‘the scientific method, objectivity and critical inquiry joined the fray: to be ‘scientific’, ‘objective’ and ‘critical’ actually meant that you did not count God or the gods in the picture as a causal agent. They were and still are politically motivated claims – hardly objective at all.’ These sorts of views will no doubt be found in biblical studies and it could be argued that they may still remain important goals but setting the boundaries to exclude God/gods and divine causality isn’t done and shouldn’t be done, no matter how ridiculous some of us might think this approach to history is. Wright’s book and beliefs on resurrection are not only no serious threat to any state power but they are also no threat to the discipline of biblical studies as it stands. In biblical studies, with confessional dominance, the power is inevitably with believers and it is far more likely that we'd get more cases of a Luedemann threatened than a Wright (though I’d be very suspicious of motives if the state even bothered to intervene too much in issues like this – put another way, from the perspective of power, who cares?). We should not imagine that people still would not want to exclude others due to their beliefs. Michael Bird comes close to advocating a kind of censorship in academic university biblical studies in the comments section in previous post), at least when it comes to employing people in theology departments. These views may not be anything like as troublesome as the opponents of people like Finkelstein and Abu el-Haj but just because they are minor doesn’t mean they aren’t worth fighting (see also NT Wrong’s response to Mike – Mike never clarified in an answer sadly – and the discussion on Roland’s blog). And, I’d add, that if believers were the ones threatened in the way Luedemann was then I’d as happily challenge that mindset.

In fact, thinking about it, there’s little constructive in the above, is there? Just keep demolishing and, don’t forget kids, always fight the power and so on… Well, yes, but I think there is something constructive in what I say and there are plenty of constructive things to do in research but let’s spell those latter things out another time.

As I said, I noticed debate in the comments section on Roland’s blog which has some great interaction between Roland, NT Wrong and John Lyons which has loads of important stuff raised.


Blogger Michael F. Bird said...


A few observations:

(1) I am not advocating censorship. In the previous comments Judy expressed in terms far better than I what the problem is. What is the role of the faculty, who is its constituency, who funds it, what are its historic and cultural purpose? Theological faculties (usually) exist to train ministers often under the sponsorship of certain ecclesial groups who have "some" say in its operation. I do not think that Luedemann is the best guy to train Christian ministers any more than I am the best guy to train Imams or Rabbis. The ecclesial authorities and German govt. seems to think similarly. Academic freedom and academic fit are not the same issue. What is more, freedom has to be balanced with function.

(2) I said quite plain and clear that Luedemann belongs in a university. A religious studies department with no ecclesial affiliation or religious disposition would suit his current ideological disposition far better than a theological faculty.

March 03, 2009

Blogger James Crossley said...

Mike said , 'I said quite plain and clear that Luedemann belongs in a university.'
Yes, and you also said plain and clear that he does not belong in a theology faculty/dept which is, as I said, coming close to censorship. Not all members of theology depts are training for the ministry and even if they were, ideally it should be tough shit if the church (or anyone else for that matter) didn't like what was being taught so long as it was part of the subject matter. L teaches and researches the NT and he looked at the resurrection. These are theological themes and therefore should be allowed in a theology dept, right? L seemed to feel his work fitted a theology dept and other atheists seem to fit in theology depts. I've worked in theology depts and I did my degree in a theology dept so I don't get this 'fit' thing.

Let me ask you this outright: should L not be allowed to teach in a university theology dept or not?

Let me also ask you this outright: should Maurice Casey (an atheist who has also argued against the resurrection) have been allowed to teach in the theology dept at Nottingham which also trained ministers (as far as I am aware no one had a problem with this)?

Let me ask you this too: should atheists working in theology depts in the UK be removed from their posts (and I include depts which train people for the church)?

If these people should not be or not have been removed from their posts, why ideally (let's leave the legal question to one side) should L be removed from his post?

Mike also said: 'I do not think that Luedemann is the best guy to train Christian ministers'

Well shouldn't they go to a theological college/seminary instead of a university if they don't want those open questions?

So if a humanist society started funding university posts for non-believers only, would you accept that? I think that would be wrong, and I think it would be wrong if this was a historic and cultural function in any university, at least to the etent that it would get believers shifted from posts.

Look, I think you need to clarify the above because (esp. on the issue of removing atheists from theology depts in universities) because at the moment I cannot see how you are not advocating a form of censorship.

March 03, 2009

Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

To clarify a minor point, James. Maurice Casey taught in a theology department, and some of those he taught were training to become ministers in a nearby seminary which had a strong teaching partnership with the university. They were not, however, training to be ministers in the theology department. In the light of discussing the role of academic freedom and confessional and non-confessional approaches, I think that's an important nuance.

From my own experience of precisely that situation, I think I can say that some of my fellow students could listen to Casey saying something they profoundly disagreed with, but get upset with something far less "critical" said by Andrew Lincoln in a college confessional context – at least in the early stages of their training. In other words, even evangelical students were distinguishing between the appropriate freedoms of different contexts.

What I don't know in the Lüdemann debate is exactly how confessional contexts relate to German universities, especially in light of the church tax and the odd ways in which the state funds things religious accordingly.

March 03, 2009

Blogger James Crossley said...

Yes, you're right, point taken Doug. So (Mike) I nuance that a little more in light of what Doug said.

But I believe in Scotland there still is a greater overlap with church training and universities (correct?) so I guess the point could apply to Scottish universities (right?).

As for the German system, I don't know the specifics either and no doubt the legal rule was, well, legal.

March 03, 2009

Blogger Michael F. Bird said...


I'm looking at the German set-up not the British one. I'm not arguing the imposition of the German model in the UK.

If universities are beholden unto themselves they can hire anyone they jolly well like: atheists, Hindu's, even Lib Dem MPs, let him or her with the best CV win.

But if there is a joint appointment between the university and a religious organisation (and there are several of these in the UK including Christian, Muslim, and Jewish chairs) then surely both stakeholders get a say on who is appointed to the position. What on earth is wrong with that? If the Humanist society want to do, no-one is stopping them.

Can Maurice Casey teach in Nottingham Theology Dept.? (A retrospective question at best). I don't see why not and I never said he shouldn't. I'd be more inclinded to send my postgrads to him rather than my undergrads but that is a pastoral concern not an academic one. If the Anglican Diocese of Nottingham was putting up the cash they might object to Maurice and that would be within their right. But in terms of a standard British Theological/Religious studies position, nihil obstat, and may he have many years of blessed retirement to come!

James, are you advocating the censoring or eradication of external bodies from setting up positions, fellowships, institutions, centres, research groups, and faculties that meet their needs and that of their constituency? And you telling all the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian organisations who invest in the universities to take their money, students, and research grants and jump in a lake if it is not on your terms? That is hardly in the spirit of a university is it?

March 03, 2009

Blogger Michael F. Bird said...


Another point. Down in Oxbridge way there are a number theological colleges which teach Oxford and Cambridge degrees, their students can take courses across the university in arts & science, they access all the usual student perks like library access, students get govt. funding unlike independent Bible colleges, yet their faculty are usually denominationally aligned with their college. Some of them won't hire a Baptist let alone an atheist. Admittedly they might be considered para-university rather than part of the official religious studies dept. so to speak, but they are part of the collegiate federation nonetheless. So, if you were Chancellor of Oxbridge would you kick them out of the University? An argument has been made that their time has come and they should be disengaged from the Universities because they are confessional and they are not bound by most equality laws (though I am a bit more hazy on the details concerning workplace equity laws and the Oxbridge theological colleges - anyone correct me if I'm wrong).

March 03, 2009

Anonymous James Crossley said...

Ok, I *think* that clarifies things.

On funding etc, Im not sure what I advocate, esp. on private money (makes me very uncomfortable - money of the wealthy or those who have it not really freedom of thought), I'd have to think that through... but...I'd certainly be open to the idea that *if* (and this is a big if) people want to invest in universities it should have this qualification: anyone can be employed and any question can be asked and if funder doesn't like it then too bad. Presumably groups can set up think tanks, religious colleges etc if they want so desperately to come to certain conclusions. So, to be fair, I think I am talking in the spirit of the university.

As for Oxbridge, I'm not sure on the details so I'd be hesitant to comment. Again, in the ideal, all I can say is that in a university setting *anyone* should be allowed to be employed irrespective of their background otherwise wouldn't it be best to label them denominational colleges or something. My point is a very simple one and it's the only 'rule' I'd push and one I'd push for anything wanting to declare itself a university.

March 03, 2009

Blogger Michael F. Bird said...


I think we have some common ground between us.

Generally and ideally, all faculty hirings should be on individual merit with no disposition to one group and research conducted in a spirit of free enquiry. We can grant as well that certain pockets of the university may cater to specific constituencies and call for a more selective (but not necessarily any less academically rigorous) range of practitioners.

Still, I would say that the logic demanded by your own position is the mandatory ejection of the Theological Colleges from Oxbridge. I would like to know if the Theological Colleges are exempt from equity laws and how the universities deal with that. But that will be a very complex legal matter no doubt.

I've enjoyed this conversation!

March 03, 2009

Anonymous steph said...

I'm struggling to see the common ground ... very entertaining. And by the Lord God of Battles I don't think Maurice identifies himself as an "atheist"! :-)

March 04, 2009

Blogger N T Wrong said...

Interesting discussions.

And one thing these discussions make quite clear is that the involvement of the church in a university's teaching curriculum is mutually exclusive of critical academic inquiry. A university can either provide open critical inquiry and open critical teaching, or it can have the object of inculcating faith in already-agreed opinions. It cannot logically do both without a confusion of purpose.

So which activity should it do (legal, funding, traditional considerations, etc, aside)? Or should it choose at all? Is a confusion of purpose fine? Can a university set social agendas AND encourage open critical inquiry? Can clashes between its contradictory purposes be worked out by separating academics from dogmaticians, in separate departments? Should academic inquiry be subjected to the standard of furthering certain public goods? Or should it be allowed to pursue knowledge, irrespective of whether it leads to 'public bads' or public goods?

The questions start piling up when a university turns pushme-pullyou and it starts doing two opposite things at once.

"Colleges and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things (1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had previously not been part of their experience; and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills -- of argument, statistical modelling, laboratory procedure -- that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over."
- Stanley Fish

March 04, 2009

Blogger Leon said...

Secular scholars, or so-called secular scholars, tend to exclude themselves when they talk about the problem of power. They talk as if the powers that be were only church (theologians) and state. But the truth is that in biblical studies, the "secular" scholars have inherited the mantle of power from the religious authorities. Most of the non-religious people in the general population do not look to religion or theologians for knowledge about the Bible. They look to the academics who are supposeldy not theologians and claim to be giving us something more objective.

So the question is how well do the "secular" scholars handle power and how much academic freedom do they allow? What is striking, e.g., about how most academic powers treat the problem of the cirsumstances surrounding Jesus' death is that they repeat the traditional, religious story, almost verbatim at times. They even use theological terminology in their "historical" discussions — like the Passion (the title of Geza Vermes' recent book), the cleansing of the Temple, or sometimes the symbolic act of destruction, the antitheses, and even the trial and the betrayal which are essentially theological terms. So where is the academic freedom to dispute the theological control of historical studies?

The real question for the academy is to examine its own prejudices and how much real freedom it allows. Otherwise we just get a repetition of church power in disguised secular form.

Leon Zitzer

March 05, 2009

Blogger metalepsis said...

I know that I went to a seminary that would have done well to offer more view points and even an ounce of freedom, but alas their goal was indoctrination not critical thinking.

I don't particularly see the problem in a former believer teaching in a theological department, there is still the freedom of the student to choose what uni she wants to go to?

Plus, I know a number of scholars who didn't buy the NPP and chose to study under Dunn purposely so they would be able to be more critical of it, so couldn't the same thing happen in this case?

I also wonder if private money is analogous to corporate money in universities. The person with the money always gets to call the shots!

March 05, 2009

Blogger Roland said...

This one is still rolling on. Nice read ... I fear for the church if students for ministry have to be protected from that evil world out there full of unbelievers.

March 06, 2009

Blogger José Solano said...

It seems that many atheistic or agnostic academics are oblivious of the simple fact that "indoctrination" is an integral part of a religious university's or a religious department's work, only the religious tend to refer to it in the more positive sense of "spiritual formation." They understand that young students, disciples, are often not well grounded in their understanding or faith. They are impressionable and somewhat easily misled. (I am informed that certain secular European universities have departments for which faith is essential, even if they are somewhat lax about enforcement.)

Critical thinking cannot be an endless argumentation of foundational principals, of essential dogma or the production of an apparent deadlock or an interminable toleration that pits the faithless against the faithful. At some point the faithful scholar or the faith-based department must recognize that the faithless scholar may be placing the impressionable young minds in serious jeopardy. To continue to tolerate what they may perceive as providing free reign to the fox in the hen house is to radically betray their mission of safeguarding the souls of their students as they grow in knowledge. This appears hard for the faithless to grasp as they do not have the same pastoral concern.

The atheist scholar may be extremely knowledgeable and so may the faithful scholar but the role of the faith-based academy or department is to both increase faith and knowledge. And so the point must come when the faithless scholar must be told, "we're sorry but you do not complement our mission. You need to find another institution, department or class in which to teach." The university has a right to determine if their students are being misinformed and misled and they need not engage in endless argumentation to act on this. Academic freedom most certainly has its limitations and censorship may under circumstances be imposed.

We need not fear for theology and ministry students that are protected from the evil, confounding world during their spiritual formation years. They will come out much stronger to deal with those evils in due time.

March 07, 2009

Blogger Paul Smith said...

I agree on the issue of state backing for the academic world. But I'm not sure that theology and ministry students are protected from the evil. Using any free resume service will significantly improve student life.

March 11, 2016


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