Monday, March 19, 2018

Academic Freedom Wesleyan Style

I was asked to present some thoughts today on academic freedom from a Wesleyan perspective for a faculty forum. I of course have no authority to speak but shared my thoughts with a handful. Here are my basic thoughts:

1. First, the 1940 Statements of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure made a space for confessional institutions if they are clear from the outset about who can teach, what they can teach, how to teach it, and who can study there.

2. Then I presented Duane Litfin's "voluntary principle." When a faculty member agrees to become part of a confessional institution, they are in effect saying that they can freely publish and operate within the identity of the school. The university gives them full academic freedom assuming they have been honest upon admission or do not change.

So academic freedom is not carte blanche. Nor are academics purely objective Spock-like creatures. The search for truth always takes place within a perspective. So it's not just "let me pursue truth with no constraint," as if the search for truth is purely objective. A confessional institution assumes certain frameworks.

3. The Wesleyan tradition certainly operates within orthodoxy, but its focus has always been more on spiritual experiences and loving practices.  Wesley gave us sermons rather than a systematic theology.
  • "If your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mind." John Wesley
  • "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity." motto of Pilgrim Holiness Church
  • This suggests what has been called a "generous orthodoxy."
  • This suggests identity more as a centered set than a bounded set.
4. So it seems to me that the bounds of academic freedom at a Wesleyan school should:
  • Require a personal faith relationship with God. (heart)
  • Require submission to its lifestyle commitments, whether one agrees with them or not. A respectful attitude is arguably more important than some Wesleyan distinctives. (hands and feet)
  • Require confession of a core orthodoxy. The problem with using the Wesleyan Articles of Religion is that there are some matters like entire sanctification that are Wesleyan specific. Something closer to the historic creeds seems more appropriate. (head)
  • Require respect of Wesleyan distinctives and perspectives. A faculty member (outside the ministry school) might very well disagree with women in ministry, but they should respect the position of the school/church.
5. The Wesleyan Church is the host.
  • It owns the college. In theory, it could fire the board of any Wesleyan school and replace it.
  • Arminian theology, though, does not force agreement. It believes in "free will" of a sort. It can thus be open to some varying positions among its faculty, as long as they do not threaten the Wesleyan identity of the school or undermine a Wesleyan sense of mission.
  • It should be kept in mind that the beliefs and practices of a denomination can change a little over time. As long as it is done with an irenic spirit, it is in part the function of academic institutions to critique the status quo.

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