February 17, 2009

On Christian Higher Education

There is an argument raging on Leiter Reports about the APA's non-discrimination statement and the policies of certain Christian colleges and universities. Wheaton College, Azusa Pacific University, Belmont University, Calvin College, Malone College, and Pepperdine University are listed as institutions that allegedly violate the APA's non-discrimination statements with their policies about homosexuality. A pair of posts on The Prosblogion offer some helpful reflections. What I want to try to do here is analyze in light of this issue the question of what Christian higher education ought to look like.

To start with, let me distinguish three types of goals that a Christian institution of higher education might have. It is possible to combine these, and it is possible to have other goals, but these three strike me as the most important goals for Christian colleges and universities (in no particular order):

  1. The advancement of knowledge generally

  2. Religious education and training (e.g. the training of clergy or religious education of lay persons for personal edification)

  3. Secular education and training (e.g. liberal arts education or non-clergy job training) from a religious perspective, or in a manner more conducive to the intellectual or practical commitments of one's religion

I will call institutions concerned with (1) 'universities,' institutions concerned with (2) 'seminaries' (although this also includes what are normally called 'Bible colleges), and institutions concerned with (3) 'colleges.' I hold that the advancement of human knowledge is a Christian vocation, but I will not argue for that here, other than to note that the first universities were religious in nature and were started by people who shared with me this belief. So I will assume that some Christian churches or organizations want to support universities simply for their own sake. The intrinsic value (to religious people) of (2), and the instrumental value of (3) should be clear (though I will have more to say about (3) later). Let me pause to emphasize again that one institution can be in more than one category (e.g. be both a university and a seminary).

Now, as I see it, the main questions we need to ask are something like the following:

  1. Should faculty/staff at religious institutions be required to be profess the religion in question?

  2. Should faculty/staff be required to be doctrinally orthodox (according to the supporting church or organization's standards)?

  3. Should faculty/staff be required to live (or strive to live, or present the public appearance of living) according to the moral standards of the religion in question (as interpreted by the supporting church or organization)?

Now, the first thing I want to note, is that I think it is just ludicrous to require for any purpose under any circumstances that someone profess to be a Christian without having some sort of related doctrinal or moral requirement. This would render the requirement totally empty. It would be like requiring a job candidate to 'profess' to have finished a Ph.D program without actually caring what the candidate means by the words 'Ph.D program'. That's just silly.

So if there is a reason to require that your faculty/staff be Christians, then there is a reason to require that they meet certain doctrinal and/or moral standards.

But is there such reason? It seems to me that in the cases of colleges and seminaries it is obvious that there is. It is important to religious education that doctrine and morals are properly taught according to the beliefs of the relevant religion. Furthermore, it is important to moral and spiritual development to be provided with legitimate role models who believe and practice the faith. If the religion in question is traditional Christianity, then believing and practicing the faith is inconsistent with engaging in romantic or sexual relations with persons of the same sex. (Note: my use of the word 'traditional' renders this claim beyond any reasonable dispute: it is certainly true that Christianity has traditionally condemned such behavior. Whether this is good or whether Christian today should continue to make the same moral judgment, is a question I am not going to try to address right now, but see the post just linked.)

So institutions seeking to provide religious education and training, or secular education and training from a religious perspective, where Christianity is the religion in question, have good reason to adopt the kinds of policies the folks at Leiter Reports find objectionable. Perhaps those people would not find any fault in my reasoning as to the best way to accomplish the goals in question, but would just decide that they find the goals themselves objectionable. That's all well and good, but the goals in question are precisely those that the APA intends to recognize in its statement:

the APA recognizes the special commitments and roles of institutions with a religious affiliation; it is not inconsistent with the APA's position against discrimination to adopt religious affiliation as a criterion in graduate admissions or employment policies when this is directly related to the school's religious affiliation or purpose, so long as these policies are made known to members of the philosophical community and so long as the criteria for such religious affiliations do not discriminate against persons according to the other attributes listed in this statement.

It is worth noting that the 'other attributes' include 'sexual orientation'. However, the use of the term orientation implies that we are talking about someone's attractions and not their activities. It does not say anything about discrimination on the basis of past or present sexual practices, or on the basis of sexual 'preference'. (It is my understanding that LGBT activists are at present mostly opposed to the term 'sexual preference'.) Still, some religious groups might find it difficult to require that people adhere to their religion without also placing restrictions on some of the other criteria listed. This leads to the question of why the APA adopted this statement and what it is trying to accomplish and why they created the religious exemption, but I am going to set these issues aside for now.

It is also noteworthy that the APA statement references 'the criteria for ... religious affiliation'. This is a recognition of what I've said above, namely that there must be some standard of doctrine or practice which determines whether an individual counts as a member of a particular religion, if the religious criterion is to have any meaning at all. I, however, have implicitly gone farther in allowing that colleges or seminaries could have reason to intentionally select faculty or staff they consider to be good models of the type of religious life they intend to promote. This amounts to requiring not just that they be Christians (not just criteria for religious affiliation) but requiring that they be 'good' Christians, according to some standard determined by the college or seminary.

Now, I want to note here that I think such standards ought to be loose. However, this is because of my general opinion that churches ought to define Christianity broadly and allow the full diversity of legitimate Christianity to be seen in a single church. Because I think it is good for Christians, as part of their religious education, to see all different legitimate forms of Christianity, I think that colleges and seminaries, even more so than individual churches, ought to embrace diversity. This, however, has more to do with my understanding of Christianity than with my more generic understanding of religious education, outlined above. Furthermore, there are still limits to what counts as 'legitimate' Christianity. Not just any set of beliefs and practices will do.

I now turn to universities. So far I have, I'm sure, been upsetting a variety of secularists and some theological liberals. I will now try to upset some (conservative) Christians. (No discrimination here!)

The mission of a 'university,' I have claimed by stipulative definition, is the advancement of knowledge in general. Knowledge is best advanced when every viewpoint and opinion is aired and considered according to reason in light of the evidence. It is true that some viewpoints can reasonably be regarded as already having been adequately considered and rejected, and so may not merit a great deal of additional time and effort, but there is always the possibility that new evidence or arguments will be brought to light. For this reason, if a person who seems otherwise intelligent and reasonable wants to defend a view we think outlandish, we ought to listen to that person all the more - perhaps some of our views are fundamentally mistaken!

It is obvious from this that no doctrinal test applied to faculty in general can really be appropriate to the mission of a university. The 'in general' statement is important, because it may be the case that the university is interested in hiring someone to pursue a research program that only makes sense given certain presuppositions. Thus a university will not hire an evolutionary biologist who does not believe in evolution, or a theologian who does not believe in God. The same standards will not, however, apply to historians, philosophers, or sociologists of biology or of religion. In these cases, the presupposition is unnecessary. By the same standards, we might require nearly all of our faculty to believe that truth is a meaningful concept, since we are interested in pursuing knowledge and this goal makes no sense without truth. These considerations also seem to me to justify the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in trying (with limited success, I understand, at least in the US) to require theology professors at their universities to toe the Vatican party line: if you are doing Catholic theology, you have to believe in the fundamental presuppositions of Catholic theology, including the authority of the Vatican. If you just reject this outright, you are unable to pursue the research program you have been hired for.

What about moral standards? These, as far as I can see, are just irrelevant to the university mission (except standards of professional ethics, like not falsifying data or plagiarizing work). Furthermore, moral beliefs are connected to other beliefs, and moral behavior is (at least in the case of moral people) connected to moral belief, so enforcing irrelevant moral standards decreases diversity of opinion, contrary to the university's mission.

It is easy to see, however, how things get screwy when you have a single institution trying to be, e.g., both a seminary and a university. The two goals are often at odds. The only thing to do, as far as I can see, is to have a diverse university faculty with a variety of viewpoints, but only allow a subset of them (those who meet the moral and doctrinal requirements) to teach the religious education courses. The same applies to being both a university and a religious college.

Another concern many Christians will have is with sending impressionable young people to universities. To me, this just illustrates a problem with many religious colleges. In many cases, religious colleges (and K-12 schools as well) are used as a way for people to be sheltered from the facts so that their beliefs don't change. This is simply evil. It is utterly contrary to anything that can appropriately be called reason, education, or Christianity. 'Schools' of this kind should be utterly eliminated (by boycott, not force, the libertarian quickly adds).

What, then, is the legitimate purpose of offering secular education or training from a religious perspective? Well, there may be question or difficulties or matters of perspective which are characteristic of (or even unique to) people of a particular religion, and a school concerned with addressing these issues will thus be useful to such religious believers. For instance, people already convinced of traditional Christianity who are training for medical practice will likely have a distinctive set of moral and legal questions about practicing medicine. The same, I think, goes for many (perhaps all) other professions, but medicine is, I think, an easy to see example.

In short, I think that there may be good reasons for some religious institutions to have certain moral or doctrinal requirements for faculty or staff. However, broad requirements of this sort will hamper the mission of a research university. I have not yet joined the APA, so I don't know what the Jobs for Philosophers publication looks like. However, if the publication makes a distinction between research and non-research positions, I would support prohibiting institutions with restrictive policies from advertising 'research' positions, since these policies hamper legitimate research. Furthermore, I do think that it is clearly within the mission and purpose of the APA as a professional association of philosophers to advocate for the removal of such restrictions at schools that want to have 'research' departments of philosophy. However, for the reasons outlined above, I think that a position that involves teaching in a religious context is rather a different matter.

Posted by Kenny at February 17, 2009 9:38 PM
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