“Pluralism and the Art of Disagreement”

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Last week we wrote about Princeton University president Christopher Eisgruber’s criticism of the religious questions posed to federal judge nominee Amy Coney Barrett by Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Today we call your attention to Eisgruber’s speech at Princeton’s opening exercises entitled “Pluralism and the Art of Disagreement.”  It is a clear statement of the purpose of a university.

Here is a taste:

Some people have suggested that the University should issue an official statement about Charlottesville, or that I should use this occasion to pass judgment upon President Trump’s comments.  The events and the president’s response troubled me profoundly, and it is tempting to share my thoughts with you in detail.  It is, however, neither my role nor that of the University to prescribe how you should react to this controversy or others.  It is rather my role and the role of the University to encourage you to think deeply about what these events mean for this country and its core values, and to encourage you to find ways to participate constructively in the national dialogue they have generated.

You will find plenty of professors on this campus whose scholarship and erudition will provide you with insight about Charlottesville.  As journalists worldwide have sought to illuminate these events and their aftermath, they have turned to professors here, including Eddie Glaude and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in African American Studies, Lucia Allais in Architecture, David Bell and Kevin Kruse in History, Julian Zelizer in History and Public and International Affairs, Robert George and Keith Whittington in Politics, and Peter Singer in the University Center for Human Values.

I urge you to seek out these and other faculty members, hear what they have to say, and learn from them.  Keep in mind, however, that what they offer are not authoritative pronouncements but arguments backed up by reasons.  It is your responsibility to assess their views for yourself.

This University, like any great university, encourages, and indeed demands, independence of mind.  We expect you to develop the ability to articulate your views clearly and cogently, to contend with and learn from competing viewpoints, and to modify your opinions in light of new knowledge and understanding.  Your Princeton education will culminate in a senior thesis that must both present original research and also contend respectfully with counter-arguments to your position.

This emphasis on independent thinking is at the heart of liberal arts education.  It is a profoundly valuable form of education, and it can be exhilarating.  It can also at times be uncomfortable or upsetting because it requires careful and respectful engagement with views very different from your own.  I have already emphasized that we value pluralism at Princeton; we value it partly because of the vigorous disagreements that it generates.  You will meet people here who think differently than you do about politics, history, justice, race, religion, and a host of other sensitive topics.  To take full advantage of a Princeton education, you must learn and benefit from these disagreements, and to do that you must cultivate and practice the art of constructive disagreement.

Read the entire speech here.

Confident Pluralism

confident-pluralismI have been reading Washington University law professor John D. Inazu‘s challenging and refreshing book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press, 2016).  

Here is a passage from the Introduction that really hit me between the eyes:

Wellesley College, an all-women’s school, now confronts internal challenges around its growing transgender student population.  Even though Wellesley admits only women, a number of its current students have transitioned to men after matriculation.  As a recent New York Times story asks: “What’s a women’s college to do? Trans students point out that they’re doing exactly what these schools encourage: breaking gender barriers, fulfilling their deepest yearnings and forging ahead even when society tries to hold them back.  But yielding to their request to dilute the focus on women would undercut the identity of a women’s college.”  One student reasoned: “I realized that if we excluded trans students, we’d be fighting on the wrong team.  We’d be on the wrong side of history.”  A recent graduate reached the opposite conclusion: “Sisterhood is why I chose to go to Wellesley.”  The New York Times noted that this woman “asked not to be identified for fear she’d be denounced for her position.”

The last example exposes a particularly acute challenge: Wellesely cannot remain a women’s college whose identity in some ways rests on gender exclusivity and at the same time welcome transgender students who identify as men.  It will have to choose between two competing views.  But perhaps even more important than what decision Wellesley reaches is how it reaches that decision.  Will Wellesley be able to choose its own institutional identity, or will the government impose a norm on the private school through law and regulation?  Will other citizens tolerate Wellesley’s choice, or will they challenge its accreditation, boycott its events, and otherwise malign its existence?  Will the process through which Wellesley reaches its decision be one of open engagement across deep difference, or will students, faculty, and administrators speak only under the cover of anonymity?

A lot to think about here.  I am looking forward to finishing the book. Stay tuned.

InterVarsity Press and Society of Biblical Literature Issue a Joint Statement

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Last night I posted on a report that the Society of Biblical Literature is banning InterVarsity Press from displaying books at its forthcoming meeting.  This morning I learned about a joint statement–yes a JOINT statement–put out by IVP and SBL.

I am encouraged by this statement.  Some of the concerns I expressed in my post last night still stand (about principled pluralism), but I am encouraged.  The statement corrects some misconceptions and illustrates the kind of dialogue on this matter that I hope will result in the SBL permitting IVP to display books at its next conference

Here is the statement:

InterVarsity Press Publisher Jeff Crosby has confirmed that the Society of Biblical Literature’s Council, at its next meeting on October 29-30, is taking up the question of IVP Academic’s right to exhibit at the 2017 annual meetings of the jointly-hosted AAR-SBL. That conversation is a part of a larger discussion the SBL Council will have regarding its protocols and standards for exhibitors at its events.

Crosby was notified of this intent in a letter of October 12, 2016 from John Kutsko, SBL’s executive director, who made clear that it is a question — not a decision — regarding whether or not IVP Academic will continue to have access to the exhibit space.

“I have been grateful for the cordial conversations I’ve had with John Kutsko of SBL, and appreciate the many complexities a person in his role is navigating at any given time,” Crosby said. “For 70 years, IVP has been committed to fostering dialogue and a robust exchange of ideas. All of us who represent the IVP Academic program genuinely hope the Council will continue to make room for the particularity of the discourse that IVP Academic brings to the theological academy via SBL’s annual events. Indeed, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature gatherings have been an essential component for our academic program for more than three decades.”

“While many concerned scholars have commented on social media and by email about a supposed ban of InterVarsity Press from exhibiting at the SBL-AAR Annual Meeting, IVP has not been banned or limited in any way at the Annual Meeting or for other matters relating to SBL. At its meeting later this month, the SBL Council will discuss protocols and standards for exhibitors and other groups associated with SBL in the context of ongoing discussions involving academic freedom and the disciplinary standards of discourse the organization fosters. Indeed, IVP was invited to contribute to this conversation. Further, SBL was not speaking for the American Academy of Religion, though any protocols for exhibitors would be drafted in conjunction with it. Finally, SBL values the contribution of IVP, and many SBL members have published with the Press,” John F. Kutsko, Executive Director, Society of Biblical Literature, said.

Report: Society of Biblical Literature Bans InterVarsity Press From Selling Books at Annual Meeting

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Here is Rod Dreher at The American Conservative:

This is extraordinary. The Society of Biblical Literature describes itself like this:

Mission, Visions, and Values
The following Mission Statement and Strategic Vision Statements were adopted by the SBL Council May 16, 2004, and revised October 23, 2011.

Mission Statement:
Foster Biblical Scholarship

Strategic Vision Statement:
Founded in 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines.* As an international organization, the Society offers its members opportunities for mutual support, intellectual growth, and professional development through the following:

  • Advancing academic study of biblical texts and their contexts as well as of the traditions and contexts of biblical interpretation
  • Collaborating with educational institutions and other appropriate organizations to support biblical scholarship and teaching
  • Developing resources for diverse audiences, including students, religious communities, and the general public
  • Facilitating broad and open discussion from a variety of critical perspectives
  • Organizing congresses for scholarly exchange
  • Publishing biblical scholarship
  • Promoting cooperation across global boundaries

Here are what the SBL says are its “core values,” in a statement revised in 2011:

Accountability

Openness to Change

Collaboration

Professionalism

Collegiality

Respect for Diversity

Critical Inquiry

Scholarly Integrity

Inclusivity

Tolerance

You might wonder why an academic organization devoted to Biblical scholarship holds as its core values “respect for diversity,” “openness to change,” “inclusivity,” and “tolerance”? Isn’t this just one of those typically euphemistic liberal ways of saying, “No Biblical scholars who don’t accept progressive views on LGBT issues allowed”?

Why yes, apparently, it is. SBL has reportedly banned InterVarsity Press from having a booth at the 2017 SBL convention in Boston because of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent decision to hold firmly to orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality, and to ask employees who dissent to resign.

Read the entire piece and the links for the full context.

Here is another piece on the topic from World magazine.  If someone is aware of any other posts or articles please let me know.

I am holding judgment on this story until I get some more information.  Certainly the Society of Biblical Literature is not suggesting that men and women and organizations (IVCF) who believe that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman should be banned from their annual meeting.  There must be more to the story.

InterVarsity Press publishes some great books.  Some excellent historians and theologians have published with the press, including Mark Noll, Tracy McKenzie, Harry Stout, David Bebbington, Thomas Oden, Douglas Sweeney, Justo Gonzalez, Crystal Downing, Alister McGrath, Gerald McDermott, Roger Olson, G.R. Evans, Brian Stanley, Richard Mouw, and Kevin Vanhoozer.  I don’t know what most of these authors think about gay marriage, but it would be a shame if their scholarship is banned from the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meetings.

I am also an InterVarsity Press author.  I wrote the foreword to John Wilsey’s excellent American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea

I mentioned the American Academy of Religion above.  They have not made any announcement yet on the fate of IVP.   I have never been to a meeting of the AAR, but in November there will be an entire session at this conference devoted to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible SocietyTo be honest, I am not sure what to think about attending a conference that plans to have an entire session on one of my books, but will not allow another book with my name on the title to be displayed in the book exhibit.

Let me be clear:  For me this whole thing is not a matter of the correct definition of marriage.  It is a matter of principled pluralism or what George Marsden describes as a “more inclusive pluralism.”

I need to think this through a bit more and, as I mentioned above, gather more information.

Religious Leaders Oppose California Senate Bill 1146

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Azusa Pacific University, a Christian college in Azusa, California

Christianity Today’s website has published a statement, signed by Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders, opposing a bill sitting before the California State Senate that will essentially punish religious colleges that uphold traditional views of human sexuality.

Here is the statement, in full:

The California Assembly has proposed legislation that is harmful to the free exercise of religion in higher education. In particular, the legislation disadvantages low-income minority students who want an education at private religious colleges. Though it purports to eliminate discrimination, Senate Bill 1146 results in its own form of discrimination by stigmatizing and coercively punishing religious beliefs that disagree on contested matters related to human sexuality. If SB 1146 were to pass, it would deny students’ ability to participate in state grant programs—programs that exist to help low-income students, and which are overwhelmingly used by racial minorities—at schools that are found in violation of the bill. Moreover, it would severely restrict the ability of religious education institutions to set expectations of belief and conduct that align with the institution’s religious tenets.

While we do not all agree on religious matters, we all agree that the government has no place in discriminating against poor religious minorities or in pitting a religious education institution’s faith-based identity against its American identity. This legislation puts into principle that majoritarian beliefs are more deserving of legal protection, and that minority viewpoints are deserving of government harassment. Legislation of this nature threatens the integrity not only of religious institutions, but of any viewpoint wishing to exercise basic American freedoms, not least of which is the freedom of conscience.

We, the undersigned, do not necessarily agree with one another’s religious views, but we agree on the necessity of the liberty to exercise these views. At the root of the American experiment is the idea that conscience and religious conviction come before the demands of the state. Some of us disagree with the sexual ethics of orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims giving rise to this legislation, but we are unified in our resistance to the government setting up its own system of orthodoxy. As the American founding father Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” No less is this true than on matters of religious liberty. Where the state can encroach on one religion’s free exercise, it can just as easily trample on any other religion’s free exercise. We therefore join in solidarity across religious lines to speak against Senate Bill 1146.

We call on the California Assembly to abandon Senate Bill 1146. To ensure the future of the free exercise of religion in higher education in California and across America, we respectfully call on the supporters of Senate Bill 1146 to immediately withdraw their support of this bill, with the commitment to disavow similar intrusions in the future. Opposition to this bill is not grounded in the protection of religious liberty only, nor for the special pleading of one religion in particular, but for the protection of American society and American democracy. Such protection requires a civil society welcoming of religious diversity.

The future of a free America requires the full participation of religion in public life. Religious higher education cultivates both the mind and the soul. Senate Bill 1146 endangers the integrity of religious education institutions and discourages them from acting according to their conscience for fear of government retribution. As Americans with a rich legacy of freedoms afforded to us by the laws of nature and of nature’s God, and enshrined in the Constitution, we can do better. As we renew our commitment to religious pluralism in the public square, we should embrace debate, welcome dissent, and encourage civility as we work together for the sake of the common good and of a country we are all unreservedly blessed to call our home.

The bill is signed by many prominent religious leaders and thinkers.  Names that might be familiar to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home include Russell Moore, Rick Warren, Robert George, John Inazu, Ron Sider, Samuel Rodriguez, Michael Cromartie, Timothy George, Thomas Kidd,  Richard Land, Gerald McDermott, Richard Mouw, Marvin Olasky, Paige Patterson,  Ramesh Ponnuru, Karen Swallow Prior, and R.R. Reno.

Frankly, I am disappointed that the list of signers is not more politically and theologically diverse.  Why are there so few liberals (political and theological), mainline Protestant thinkers, or Catholics endorsing this?  Did the authors of the statement reach out to people who are not part of either mainstream evangelical or conservative intellectual circles?

Having said that, I wholeheartedly affirm this statement.

As my readers know, I am no fan of the idea that America is a Christian nation. So I would not put myself in the camp of people who suddenly jumped on the “religious liberty” bandwagon because Christian attempts to reclaim the nation have failed in the wake of the Obergfell decision.

I do, however, believe in religious liberty and religious pluralism. There seems to be some legitimate models out there for living together with our deepest differences.  They include George Marsden’s idea of “principled pluralism” as set forth in his book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief and John Inazu’s idea of “confident pluralism” as set forth in his book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Our Deepest Differences.