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March 06, 2005

Affirmative action for theologians?

Steve Shiffrin claims that the secular left is ignorant of religion and wonders whether the universities might be be responsible. He's concerned that elite liberal colleges aren't preparing their graduates for public discourse with believers.

Leaving aside the quality of religious education in religious colleges and universities, to what extent are secular universities responsible for the lack of knowledge of the secular left?

Take Cornell University where I teach. There is a Christian chapel (a more ecumenical focus would make more sense on this multicultural religiously diverse campus), many campus ministers, and a religious studies program (primarily a social science program). But, so far as I am aware, there is not a single theologian on the tenure or tenure track faculty. I wish that Cornell was unique in this respect, but its treatment of theology appears (with numerous exceptions) to be widespread in American universities. See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University. (My impression – though it is nothing more than an impression - is that even those universities with divinity schools, e.g., Harvard, Yale, Chicago, have not integrated them into undergraduate life). [Hyperlinks and emphasis added -- link to Cornell University's Sage Chapel corrected.]

I'm not convinced that the so-called secular left is all that secular (or all that left, for that matter). But if ignorance of religion is rampant in this constituency, the universities aren't to blame.

It is impossible to get a liberal education without learning a lot about Christianity, regardless of your personal metaphysical orientation. This is a good thing.

What would first year philosophy be without St. Anselm's ontological argument, the Cartesian Circle, or Bishop Berkeley's idealism? Who gets an English degree without reading Paradise Lost (a better source on Christian hell than the Bible)? Where do people think the characters in the Canterbury Tales were going? Nobody can learn the history of Western art without learning a fair bit about the theology behind it. Gotta recognize cherubim when you seem 'em. Most of European history is bound up with the machinations of the Church and its offshoots. Does anyone think that historians have stopped teaching about the Protestant Reformation?

Like Shiffrin, I decided to use Cornell as a case study in religious education at an elite Eastern university. Judging by the website, religious life at Cornell is active, ecumenical, and well-funded. (Edit: link now leads to Cornell University's interfaith student center, not to Cornell College's.)

On the academic side, Cornell's Department of Medieval Studies publishes the journal Medieval Philosophy and Theology. In addition to the religious studies program linked above, Cornell offers a concentration in Jewish Studies.

Over and above the Christian content integral to a Great books/Western Canon education, Cornell offers a wide variety of undergraduate courses that seem designed to enhance students' understanding of contemporary Christian beliefs. The following are just the some of the courses whose titles suggest Christian content. I didn't even include any of the courses about religions other than Christianity. My list also omits a lot of courses on topics that couldn't be taught without substantive reflection on Christian beliefs (certain intellectual and cultural histories; the study of devotional art and architecture; etc.)

NES 223 Introduction to the Bible I (also RELST, JWST 223)
NES 298 Issues in Catholic Thought
NES 262 Daily Life in the Biblical World (also ARKEO 260, JWST 262, and RELST 261)
NES 390 Catholicism and Social Justice (also RELST 390)
NES 497 Religion and Bioethics (also RELST 497)

AM ST 210 The Emergence of Modern Conservative Movement: From Strom Thurmond to Ronald Reagan
AM ST 242 Religion and Politics in American History from J. Winthrop to R. Reed (also HIST 242 and RELST 242)
AM ST 251 Black Religious Traditions from Slavery to Freedom (also HIST 251 and RELST 251)

ANTHR 444 God(s) and the Market @ (III) (CA)

COM L 328 Literature of the Old Testament (also RELST 328) @ # (IV) (LA)

PHIL 263 Religion and Reason (also RELST 262) (IV) (KCM)

So, why is Shiffrin so worried about Cornell's dearth of tenure-track theologians?

Faculty bios reveal that Cornell already employs an impressive array of biblical scholars, biblical archaeologists, and philosophers of religion. (Again, a severely truncated list.)

Shiffrin takes the lack of tenure-track theologians as an indication that devout scholars and religious thought are excluded from universities:

To be sure, universities can exclude astrology on the ground that it is insufficiently scientific. This is not controversial. Excluding religion, however, exhibits blindness not only to the religious character of the culture, but also to the religious demographics of a university faculty. I am guessing here that the combination of believers and agnostics on a university faculty outnumbers the atheists, and many of the atheists would have the intellectual humility to think they might be wrong or that theologians might have something useful to say, or that students might benefit from knowing how they think.

He might as well ask when Cornell stopped beating its non-existent theologians.

The evidence suggests that Cornell is doing a perfectly good job in preparing its students for public dialogues on religion. However, certain elements in the religious right have the audacity to equate the finer doctrinal points of their faith with religious literacy. I know the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical and it hasn't contributed one whit to my understanding of American politics.

The religious right wants to cajole fair-minded liberals into debating on their terms. How stupid do they think we are? I've argued the Biblical case for homosexuality and won--but I'm not willing to do so in my post-adolescent life because I know that nothing follows from the fact that the Bible condones or condemns anything. Such arcane debates have lost even their academic interest for me. Besides, what fool would take the theological arguments of a self-proclaimed atheist seriously? After all, the Antichrist is supposed to be really good at quoting scripture.


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Thank you. I was plotting a similar post, and you've relieved me of that duty.

Curiously, my experience has been that secular liberals, particularly atheists, tend to have a much better understanding on average of theology than lay Christians, or at least conservative ones.

Not too long ago, during the FMA debate, a prominent Protestant congressman was bemoaning liberal attacks on the sacrament of marriage. I was with several Christians at the time I read that, and none of them understood why it was funny.

I think it's a little odd that Shiffrin takes knowing the difference between a "fundamentalist" and an "evangelical" to be so important to an understanding of the beliefs of Christians. "Fundamentalist," especially, strikes me as a concept that is primarily used by non-Christians to classify types of Christians. Perhaps the same is true to a lesser extent for the notion "evangelical," though maybe not.

Similarly, I'm not sure I see why non-Christians should "appreciate the heterogeneity of evangelicals" in order better to understand how Christians see themselves. I would guess that many evangelicals are themselves unaware of the heterogeneity of evangelicals. For many evangelicals, the most important distinction seems to be that between the "secularists" and the "saved". Such people are often uninterested in differences among secularists; they're also typically uninterested in differences among the saved. If anything, I would think that many evangelicals would be interested in trying to appear to be part of a homogeneous community of believers. Differences of opinion inspire doubt.

Generally speaking: Shiffrin's piece seems to be calling for non-Christians to familiarize themselves with an "insider's view" of Christianity, but I think Shiffrin's specific recommendations might betray a decidedly outsider's view on his part.

Thanks for this analysis. The original complaint looks like yet another variation on the somewhat ridiculous "religion is under siege in America" meme. Thankfully, with O'Reilly's championing of Christmas and daring statements like Shiffrin's in defense of theology in academia, this will never be the case.

I do not want to get into a detailed discussion of religion at Cornell. My empirical point was that, so far as I am aware, there is no tenured or tenure track theologian on the faculty. The main post here does not deny that. It refers to a lively chapel and religious life at Cornell (by giving links to Cornell College, not Cornell University - they are different, but I believe the chapel and the religious life at Cornell University are lively). It also points to the Jewish Studies program (not primarily a program about religion, but it has some courses relevant to my post) and the Religious Studies Program which does offer some courses in theology (e.g., a course comparing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The Catholic courses exist because of a donor and the money runs out this year; in all probability, they will be gone. I think the post, however, provides a useful corrective to the impression of Cornell one would get from my post on Left2Right.

Nonetheless, my claim is that a member of the secular left is ill equipped to respond to bad religious arguments of the religious right (and, by the way, knowing whether the religious conservative is operating from fundamentalist premises can be important). Although I admire the rhetorical flourish in the post here, I do not see how it is politically adventageous (or good education) for members of the secular left to have their argumentative hands tied behind their back. Moreover, as I argue in the post, I think it perfectly appropriate that secular universities hire theologians (I do not argue for affirmative action for theologians). It is interesting to me how many of the responses on Left2Right deny that claim.

I am as saddened by the dearth of theologians at America's universities as I am by the lack of wizards, oracles, and phrenologists. I believe more is lost attempting to communicate and/or debate with the Right through stooping to recognize their gods and superstitions than there is lost through simply not communicating at all, for it serves only to empower and encourage them to make relgiously motivated political arguments and decisions.

My empirical point was that, so far as I am aware, there is no tenured or tenure track theologian on the faculty...

Nonetheless, my claim is that a member of the secular left is ill equipped to respond to bad religious arguments of the religious right (and, by the way, knowing whether the religious conservative is operating from fundamentalist premises can be important).

My first impression may have been a bit off. A couple of clarificatory questions, then:

Just to be sure, you are counting as theologians only those who have D. Div.'s? It's implied but not stated as such outright.

Assuming you answer the first question in the affirmative, the follow-up question would be what advantage would a future member of the secular left have in countering bad religious arguments learned from a D. Div. versus, say, learning them from a Ph. D. in philosophy with a specialty in philosophy of religion?

Please pardon my lengthy post--this topic really touched a nerve.

While it may be true that "a member of the secular left is ill equipped to respond to bad religious arguments of the religious right," I'm not sure that's as much of a problem as believers being so poorly equipped to critique their own "bad religious arguments." Until they can submit their own beliefs to the discipline of reason, I doubt that we're going to sway many of them with our own logic, no matter how informed our theology. Sure, it would be nice if the secular left were better versed in the beliefs of their opponents. But it would be even better if their opponents had an opportunity to see their beliefs held up to some kind of critical scrutiny--to get some idea of how their beliefs look to intelligent nonbelievers.

I'll give an example. In one of my American literature courses, I teach a number of Mormon texts, including excerpts from the Book of Mormon (which makes readily falsifiable claims about ancient New World history and overtly racist claims about Native Americans), excerpts from the Book of Abraham (which invokes the racist "curse of Ham" doctrine), and the King Follett Sermon (a funeral oration in which Joseph Smith baldly establishes Mormon theology as polytheistic, claiming that God was once a man, that Adam, once a man, is now a god, and that there are in fact a plurality of gods). I ask my students--about a fourth of whom are LDS--to read and discuss these texts just like the other religious texts we read (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, the Autobiography of John Woolman, and so on).

My own comments on these texts mostly concern a.) the way they show Joseph Smith as such a quintessential American of his time, in the Emersonian "self-reliance" sense of following his own vision wherever it leads him, and b.) their relation to some of the hot controversies of the time (for example, competing theories of the origin of Native Americans, with the Book of Mormon borrowing heavily from one particular participant in this debate).

Some of my Mormon students react quite defensively to this entire unit, and when they do I press them gently about why they are upset. After all, we are merely reading the texts themselves. What can be wrong with that? The real reason these students get upset, of course, is that for the very first time in their lives they are seeing their pet beliefs exposed to non-Mormon scrutiny, and the results are unavoidably painful for the true believer (just as reading other texts can be painful for students who are super-patriots, Founding-Father-worshipers, etc.).

A few of my LDS students find this experience too much to handle, and skip class for the duration of the unit. One even dropped the class, and at one point a local bishop asked me if he could sit in. (I was happy to oblige, but he backed out.)

However, considerably more of my LDS students have thanked me afterward. Many of them are at an age when they're struggling with what they've been told by their elders, but for the most part they struggle alone. It's just them, caught between the orthodoxy of their elders and the occasionally virulent anti-Mormon flack they get from local conservative Christians. There's no space, free of the pressure to believe, for them to get some kind of objective take on the beliefs and discuss them.

Something similar happens in my Bible as Literature course, though at a lower pitch. (BTW, this is consistently my highest-rated course.)

The point I'm trying to make here is that what's good for the secular left would be even better for the religious right (and left, and middle). I think every general education curriculum should include a comparative religions class where a wide variety of religious beliefs are explored objectively. And theologians--to the extent that their beliefs impede their objectivity--would not necessarily be best-equipped to teach such courses. And of course the last thing in the world that conservative Christians would want is to see their pet beliefs being taught--in a comparative context, as just one belief among many--by a bunch of liberal college professors. But what makes them and their beliefs so special?

"My empirical point was that, so far as I am aware, there is no tenured or tenure track theologian on the faculty."

Surely this is simply because Cornell doesn't have a divinity school/religion department? (It was, after all, founded as a secular university.) At Universities with such schools/departments, there are theologians. And as for 'integration' of such departments, when I was at Harvard (a decade ago), I think that the religion department has as many people taking courses in it as comparably sized departments, e.g. philosophy. (Just my impression from the time, I could be wrong.) But I think that taking Cornell as the example here is distorting; and plenty of secular schools have plenty of theologians.

Tom, Christianity is hardly just a right-wing phenomenon.

But I think this whole discussion misses the point. The wingnutters don't just want you to learn the history of Christianity; in fact, I doubt they very much care about that. They want to indoctrinate students with the (conservative) Christian ideology--you know, the one that teaches that 'every sperm is sacred' (ha ha) and that god hates fags. They are surely not satisfied with students getting a 'secular' account of the Christian religion.

Is this a "High Church"/"Low Church" kinda thing?
I can understand a Newman or Tillich, but although I am sure there are very intelligent scholars at Oral Roberts or Bob Jones, I am not sure I could talk to them.

Lindsay, you seem to collect Philosophy blogs, and I may have missed this one somewhere on the page but Adam Kotsko & Company's "Weblog" is on my
on my RSS feed for a regular dose of bewilderment.
Way, way, over my head but imagine Zizek & Deleuze meets Apostle Paul and John Wesley.


I would be very, very surprised to find one 'intelligent scholar' at Bob Jones U.

The religious right wants to cajole fair-minded liberals into debating on their terms. How stupid do they think we are?


After all, the Antichrist is supposed to be really good at quoting scripture.

Yeah, but I don't think the Antichrist is supposed to be really good at being an atheist. I can't picture an Antichrist who would be an atheist, but I suppose I could imagine one who was not an atheist but who only pretended to be one. Antichrist: pretend atheist, or pretend theist? That's a tough call - definitely one for some of the more advanced theologians.

As an undergrad at Syracuse University, I got a great education on religious ideology. Campus Crusade for Christ served a free lunch every Wednesday, and for free food, I was willing to put up with listening to just about anything. Many of the people at Campus Crusade seemed to think I was "searching for Christ" so they were more than happy to argue with me. (Others probably recognized that I was "searching for lunch" but didn't mind. Most of the members of Campus Crusade are right-leaning evangelicals. I would recommend the whole lunch-and-debate circuit to anybody undergrad who wants a working knowledge of a certain brand of ideology. There is no need to spend money on professors when there's a already a forum available at most colleges for teaching anybody who wants to learn.

I have argued with conservative Christians about their interpretations of the Bible. I have argued for homosexuality, for women's equality, and for a whole host of other issues. And I won those arguments--that is, I raised many points that the conservative Christians could not satisfactorily refute.

Did that make a damn bit of difference? By and large, no.

Shiffrin is sadly mistaken if he believes that most conservative Christians will be convinced by intellectual arguments based on the Bible. Some will, certainly. But most will not. Shiffrin appears to believe that conservative Christians are Christians first and conservatives second--that is, that their conservative beliefs stem from their interpretation of the Bible, and that if they could be convinced to change their interpretation, they would no longer be conservative.

I don't think he's right about this. In my experience, conservative Christians come to the Bible with predetermined views on gender roles and related issues. Their conservative views are (often) more important and more deeply rooted than their desire to read the Bible honestly--as such, they look for confirmation of their prejudices in the Bible.

If someone is open-minded and intellectually honest enough to listen to alternate biblical interpretations, then there is no reason why we cannot reach them with secular arguments as well. The problem with the religious right in general, however, is that it is unwilling to be convinced by any argument, biblical or otherwise.

Damn, your a hottie.

P.S. Twice as hot that you know there is no god.

P.P.S. The wingers consider all secular thought to be a religion in itself- to level the field, so to speak.

Great post, Prof. Mazel.

In fact, it was in such a setting that I started to question my own faith. We had a comparative religion class at college that analyzed texts from many different religious traditions - the Old and New Testament among them. Seeing that these books could be treated as literature and were no more or less verifiable than other religious texts started me on a path of inquiry that resulted in me taking what I think is a far more broad-minded and realistic view about religion in general.

It is good to see that present day Cornell offers courses in the history of religion in America. I truly doubt they were offered until recently, or were any good. Or were widely attended.

Regarding the ideas of Christianity, or observance, I have no argument with you, Lindsey. Those to the left of Louis XIV are quite familiar with Christianity, and not that secular. Regarding the American religious tradition, we are woefully ignorant, especially those of us in our mid thirties and older. Most non-evangelicals actually believe that "Inherit the Wind" described fact, frinstance. It did not.

And the failure of liberal arts universities to study American evangelism with any kind of care is a perfect illustration of the hoary cliche that those ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.

Akin to or as an alternative to requiring a course in comparative religion, perhaps a course in the basic history and doctrines of Christianity, and especially the major doctrinal fissures that caused the Reformation, would help -- I have spent the better part of the last two weeks reading a history of the Reformation and although I considered myself to be pretty knowledgeable about European history and Christianity, it has really been instructive. I don't think most Christians (or at least most American Christians) follow through or think deeply about some of the so-called tenets of their Christian faith. Most notably, the whole concept of justification by faith and predestination -- where it comes from, its biblical source, its social ramifications, its philosophical precedents in the ancient world, and so on. I read about a recent study that showed that Europeans have a greater understanding of Christian dogma than Americans.

It sometimes comes as a shock to many Christians to learn that many non-Christians are in fact quite educated about Christianity and have rejected it for that reason. It's true that their education has not been the self-serving and self-defining orthodox kind, but I really don't see why that would ever be warranted in a university setting.

Philip Brooks, I'm still laughing at your joke, and John Calvin is probably still spinning in his grave.

I work at Duke Divinity School, though I am an administrator, not a scholar. I wanted to weigh in (hopefully briefly) on this discussion.

It seems to me that public universities tend to emphasize "religious studies" rather than theology, and Cornell being a land-grant university is somewhat quasi-public. Theology is more likely to be taught at colleges with a denominational heritage and a tradition of training ministers. Theology is part of pre-ministerial curriculum (though not inevitably -- after all, you could study biology at college without being pre-med). As such it's perhaps appropriate that it not be emphasized at state schools.

Harvard and Yale of course were founded with training ministers as a cardinal mission, but that tradition has faded. (it's faded somewhat at Duke too but not so far back into the mists of time). The divinity schools at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Chicago are known more today for producing academic theologians than parish clergy.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I struggle to come up with a clear definition of theology ("study of the nature of the divine and the human-divine relationship," I guess). Religious studies treats religion as a social/historical entity; theology gets one more inside. But I'd submit that the boundaries are permeable, as with the other humanities (philosophy, literature, etc.). And it drives me a little crazy to read comments implying that theology is an illegitimate discipline in the academy. Theology after all was one of the foundations of the original universities. Peer review journals abound -- by no means are the standards of scholarship less rigorous than in literature or history.

Theologians have no obstacles to winning tenure at Duke. The div faculty who DO have trouble are the ones who teach more practical subjects: preaching, pastoral care, etc. The Div School unfortunately has a low profile here -- I'd venture to say some Duke undergrads don't know we exist -- but what influence we have in the larger campus is a liberal one. The most outspoken anti-war voices here (Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays) have been from the Div School. The Div School also contains a preponderance of the African-American graduate students and faculty at Duke.

Nonetheless, my claim is that a member of the secular left is ill equipped to respond to bad religious arguments of the religious right

I have no interest whatsoever in responding to bad religious arguments of the religious right.

I do, however, have a very strong and compelling interest in responding to bad political arguments of the religious right.

I would submit that the two should be fundamentally distinct. The fact that they are increasingly indistinguishable in this country is, to me, what we really should be discussing.

Once we start attempting to rebut the Religious Right's theology qua theology, we've conceded the fundamentally secular character of the polity. Political debate becomes a matter of competing schools of biblical exegesis. I know this isn't what Prof. Shiffrin wants, and yet...

Uncle Kvetch,

You make a good point. But the fact is that to a fundamentalist, religion and politics are indistinguishable, and always have been.

The problem is that we don't know how to respond effectively to fundamentalist propaganda. And part of the reason we don't know how is because we don't have a deep knowledge of what the issues are. And that includes understanding both the secular and the theological issues. And confronting both.

Even if that concedes, for the sake of argument, the fundamentally secular character of the polity. I don't like it anymore than you do, but we will continue to lose all sorts of ground to christianists until we realize that we simply cannot avoid studying and apprehending exactly where they are coming from, as well as what they are up to.

Tristero, I don't disagree with what you say. But I do think there's a very real "slippery slope" argument to be made here.

I'm thinking in particular of how Hilary Clinton is now talking very vocally about "faith" in her public appearances--and more specifically, about how she's espousing the idea that Christianity is really about fighting for social justice, equality, etc. All well and good, until you step back and realize that the argument has suddenly shifted from competing notions of a fair and just society to "Not your idea of God's will, but mine." Where do non-Christians fit into this particular kind of debate? Are notions of social justice that don't fall back on New Testament underpinnings less worthy than those that do? Taking things to their logical conclusion: can there be moral values without organized religion? And if not, can atheists and agnostics be considered fully fledged citizens?

All of this is putting aside the fact that unless the execution is skillful in the extreme, any attempts by the left to co-opt the "language of faith" are bound to fall flat on their face. Howard Dean's invocation of Job during the campaign was an object lesson.

I don't like it anymore than you do, but we will continue to lose all sorts of ground to christianists until we realize that we simply cannot avoid studying and apprehending exactly where they are coming from, as well as what they are up to.

I have no quarrel at all with the idea of "studying and apprehending" where they're coming from. That's quite different from claiming that we can't "speak to" them--i.e., we can't debate them--i.e., we can't counter them--unless we enter the debate on their terms. That's an absolutely crucial distinction, I think, and I don't think Prof. Shiffrin made it clearly, if at all.

I see what you mean, Lindsay. I'm not a Christian in the sense that I can't swallow the Nicene Creed or accept Joshua ben Joseph as my personal savior; but at the same time I was raised and educated as a member of a predominantly Christian culture: my values are Christian values, I know more than a smattering of Christian theology, and most everything I've learned and read has been suffused by Christianity to some degree or other. It would be hard to argue with a Muslim who called me "Christian".

Fish aren't aware of water in the course of their daily lives. An educated, aware fish would be better off to take a class or two on water before it graduated. If there is a structure in our lives that has such a pervasive effect, even if we repudiate it, we are much better off to understand explicitly what we are repudiating, rather than leaving it in the shadows to continue to affect us while we ignore it.

Anybody who convinces themselves that there's a presiding intelligence in charge who gives two shits about the individual organism ain't paying attention and ain't worth arguing with.

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