Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, March 7, 2014

Peter Enns and the problem of boundaries

I just came across this 2013 post by Peter Enns:

I’ve had far too many conversations over the last few years with trained, experienced, and practicing biblical scholars, young, middle aged, and near retirement, working in Evangelical institutions, trying to follow Jesus and use their brains and training to help students navigate the challenging world of biblical interpretation.

And they are dying inside.  

Just two weeks ago I had the latest in my list of long conversations with a well-known, published, respected biblical scholar, who is under inhuman stress trying to negotiate the line between institutional expectations and academic integrity. His gifts are being squandered. He is questioning his vocation. His family is suffering. He does not know where to turn.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not.  

I wish these stories could be told, but without the names attached, they are worthless. I wish I had kept a list, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have done anyone much good. I couldn’t have used it. Good people would lose their jobs.

I’m getting tired of hearing the same old story again and again. This is madness.

Enns is right that this kind of story is all too common, and all too sad. I’ve known, and talked to, and counseled, and prayed with, a number of such people over the years, and they’re not all in Biblical Studies either. But here’s the thing: I have also talked to an equal or greater number of equally distressed Christian scholars whose problem is that they teach in secular institutions where they cannot express their religious convictions — in the classroom or in their scholarship — without being turned down for tenure or promotion, or (if they are contingent faculty or pre-tenure) simply being dismissed. Odd that Enns shows no awareness of this situation.

I think he doesn't because he wants to present as a pathology of evangelicalism what is more generally and seriously a pathology of the academic job market: people feeling intimidated or utterly silenced because if they lose their professorial position they know they stand almost no chance of getting another one. Moreover, this isn’t a strictly academic issue either: people all over the world and in all walks of life feel this way about their jobs, afraid of losing them but troubled by their consciences about some aspect of their workplace. But I think these feelings are especially intense among American academics because of the number of people who can’t imagine themselves doing anything other than being a professor — and also because of the peculiar forms of closure in the most “open” academic environments.

As Stanley Fish wrote some years ago in an essay called “Vicki Frost Objects”,

What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the divinity of Christ and a so-called nonideological school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (Christ is not God or he is). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.

So if we’re going to have compassion for academics feeling trapped in institutions that are uncongenial to their beliefs, let’s be ecumenical about it.

Moreover, I can’t tell from his post exactly what Enns thinks should be done about the situation, even within the evangelical context. If he thinks that all that Christian colleges and seminaries have to do is to relax their theological statements — well, that would be grossly naïve. No matter how tightly or loosely a religious institution defines itself, there will always be people on the boundaries, edge cases who will feel uncomfortable at best or coerced into submission at worst. And if, like the modern university, an institution insists that it has no such limitations on membership at all, then that will simply mean, as Fish makes clear, that the boundaries are there but unstated and invisible — until you cross them.