In Defence of Faith and Reason

First, a caveat: I am not a Christian. Specifically, I am an agnostic who used to be a Christian. And I start with this personal revelation because I want you to understand why an agnostic, especially one who left the church after years of religious abuse, is writing here about the compatibility of faith and reason.

Second: I recently finished a graduate degree in postcolonial theory and global policy. This piece is not about either postcolonial theory or global policy so I will explain, briefly, that in my studies I applied philosophical theories on power, culture and identity to political, economic and security issues in the formerly colonized world. It’s an extensive topic made navigable through the rigorous study of philosophy, a discipline entirely focused on the development of ideas and the advancement of intellectual enquiry.

I begin with these points because I want to make it clear that no one reading this should underestimate my willingness to criticize the Christian church, or my appreciation for critical thought. Yet neither trait makes me an enemy of Christianity itself. Rather the opposite. It is precisely because of these traits that I recognize and respect Christianity’s tradition of interrogating faith with reason, and vice versa. My respect for this tradition leads me to be deeply concerned by the resurgence of a distinctly anti-intellectual approach to the development and practice of Christian belief in the American church. I say ‘resurgence’ quite deliberately. The relationship between reason and Christian orthodoxy has often been uneasy; church history is pockmarked with conflicts between intellectual pluralism and the need for doctrinal unity. These conflicts will be familiar to most: they span the entire existence of the organized church and range from scientific disputes to the theological divisions that eventually spawned Cedarville University’s own affiliated denomination.

But for as long as pluralism has always existed within the church, so have institutionalized attempts to suppress it. I do not believe that these attempts represent any quality intrinsic to either the Christian faith or religious belief itself. They reflect a universal problem: the corruption of an institutional hierarchy. Faith did not put Galileo under house arrest or persecute the early Protestants; those were the decisions of an established institution determined to retain its grip on cultural power.

In the United States, the Christian church does not, in any of its denominational incarnations, currently have the power to order arrests or instigate bloody counter-revolutions. Those of us who grew up in American Christianity are probably familiar with problems common to a more localized church politics. We’ve encountered persistent gossip, vicious debates over doctrinal statements, and struggles for leadership. Perhaps we’ve participated in broader and often more vitriolic discussions regarding gender roles or gay marriage. We can likely all agree that these conversations demonstrate the on-going need to apply the pursuit of reason to the practice of faith. When Christian colleges and universities are also considered, that need is even more evident. Unfortunately, so is a return to the institutionalized repression of the past.

Please understand this: I don’t intend to target Cedarville alone. This is a systemic problem. In 2006, 5 out of a total of 16 professors at Patrick Henry College resigned in protest over President Michael Harris’ intervention in their academic freedom. Professors were especially critical of Harris’ refusal to allow them to rebut accusations that they threatened the college’s adherence to orthodoxy. Two years later, Westminster Theological Seminary terminated Peter Enns, a tenured professor, over differences in the interpretation of the Westminster confession of faith. The vote to suspend Enns came directly from the Board of Trustees and directly violated faculty opinion on the issue. And 2011 proved a particularly chaotic year for Christian higher education: Dr. John Schneider found himself jobless after his employer, Calvin College, objected to his interpretation of the creation account and at Baylor University, Dr. Mark Ellis became the subject of a formal academic investigation after expression public opposition to US and Israeli policies on Palestinian statehood. Dr. Ellis is a leading scholar in Holocaust studies and liberation theology, and is a tenured professor at Baylor.

There is strong evidence that a persistent movement exists to exclusively establish a theologically and politically conservative identity at America’s Christian colleges and universities, and there is further evidence that this movement is willing to violate professional ethics in order to repress intellectual pluralism in the name of fidelity to the Christian faith. But at these universities, and at Cedarville, too, it ought to be understood that this movement is not spiritual in any meaningful sense. It is political. It has confused faith with a voluntary surrender of the desire to reason and criticize. And in so doing it has betrayed the best and most compelling aspect of the Christian faith: its relentless pursuit of truth.

Let us be clear about what a politicized Christianity is capable of doing. It can enforce silence and stifle innovation; disguise abuse and erase dissent. It creates its own vocabulary; one specifically intended to transform a line of reasoned questioning into a series of unfounded accusations. It delegitimizes criticism, and it is intrinsically incompatible with the search for truth. That search is dangerous. It is driven by questions and directed by doubts. And it is disingenuous to suggest that the pursuit of reason ought to be separate from it. To punish individuals for undertaking that search is to restrict the development of Christian belief. That is an intellectual process that even those of us outside the church still acknowledge and respect. For some of us, it is often Christianity’s only redeeming feature.

As a former Christian and a student of philosophy, I encourage Cedarville students to ask questions. Follow your professors on this dangerous search for the truth. You owe that to yourselves, to your mentors, and to the world that watches you.

Originally published in issue 9 of The Ventriloquist, the independent student-run newspaper of Cedarville University. Read the entire issue here


My stance on the controversy at Cedarville University

In 2011, I graduated from Cedarville University, one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the United States. By the time I graduated, I’d left the church and the Republican party and embarked on a life outside the Evangelical subculture. The space between this intentional exile and the fundamentalism of my younger days is occupied by doctrinal witch hunts, religious abuse and the censorship of alternative perspectives. Cedarville’s dedication to the politicization of Christianity is responsible for shutting down our student newspaper: trustees complained that its content was too liberal and therefore did not reflect the ‘Cedarville view.’ Our chapter of College Democrats is now mysteriously unable to find a faculty sponsor. During my years at Cedarville, I served as an officer in College Democrats and although we were able to locate a sponsor at that time, we were forced to justify every event we held and received funds from student government later than any other organization on campus.

As an individual, I was interrogated by staff about my desire to intern with a progressive organization. My social media accounts were constantly monitored. I received hate mail from classmates and got told by a professor that it would better for me to shut up during his class. I got called a feminazi by male students. I was accused of apostasy, and of corrupting my fellow classmates with my political views. The humiliation culminated in 2010, when I survived an attempted rape at the hands of the son of a high ranking member of staff. I didn’t report the assault for many reasons. Fear, yes. But I also knew I couldn’t face my classmates’ reactions. I’d been through enough and I’d reached the limits of what I could psychologically tolerate.

Throughout these experiences, I relied on the grace and compassion exhibited by several members of faculty and staff. They saw my anger and pain and treated me with kindness. They did not judge me for my doubts, or for my eventual rejection of Christianity. And they dared to teach alternative views. They respected their students enough to introduce them to the great ideas and the associated movements that shaped the development of human history. They taught students about white privilege, feminism and critiques of capitalism. And this may seem rather unremarkable to anyone located outside Evangelical discourse, but I assure you that for those of us who grew up speaking it as a mother tongue that these are radical acts. These members of faculty developed my mind and protected my spirit.

Now they too have become targets of Cedarville’s determination to rid itself of moderate voices. Over the past several months, the administration of Cedarville University has fired Dr. Michael Pahl for ideological reasons and dissolved its philosophy department not long after its faculty publicly announced their refusal to vote for the Republican presidential ticket. It also announced the sudden resignation of its Vice President for Student Life, Dr. Carl Ruby. Dr. Ruby attended Cedarville and has worked at the university for 25 years. Students were informed of his resignation via email and Ruby’s last day at the university is tomorrow (Jan. 16th). The resignation follows a Christianity Today article about Cedarville’s unofficial GLBT/allied support group, Cedarville Out, which quotes Ruby speaking positively of his friendship with the group’s founder.

Because of these recent events, previous controversies and my own experiences as a Cedarville student, I believe that the administration of Cedarville University intends to rid itself of moderate influences and establish itself as an exclusively conservative institution. Faculty, staff and students have become mere collateral damage. So I would like to use my tiny media platform to bring attention to this attack on academic freedom. My defence of Cedarville’s philosophy department is one of 86 entries from concerned students, alumni and academics. We’re organizing protests to demand transparency from the university. And we’re not alone. Cedarville University joins several Christian colleges and seminaries engaged in campaigns against members of faculty and staff perceived to hold liberal political and theological views.

If you’re concerned about academic freedom, religious fundamentalism, or the culture of abuse enabled by a lack of transparency at Christian colleges and universities, please call attention to the crisis at Cedarville. Share this blog post or link to the Our CU Protest web page. If you’re a Cedarville student or alumnus, email the trustees. Ask questions and demand answers. Sign our petition. Fight for the university you deserve.

It’s too late for me to benefit from a healthy campus culture that promotes transparency, respects ideological differences and values intellectual enquiry. I will, however, do whatever I can to ensure that such a culture is born and thrives on Cedarville’s campus, and I urge you to join your voice with mine.