Struggling To Remain A Vibrant Intellectual Community
[guest post by Dana]
Rod Dreher published fascinating email exchange sent to him by a source inside Duke Divinity School (DDS). The emails reveal the chasm between some staff members at DDS, a school which claims to be the embodiment of Duke University’s motto: Eruditio et Religio—Knowledge and Faith. The exchange begins when Anathea Portier-Young, an Associate Professor of Old Testament, strongly encourages colleagues to participate in an upcoming training designed to combat racial inequality:
On behalf of the Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Standing Committee, I strongly urge you to participate in the Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training planned for March 4 and 5. We have secured funding from the Provost to provide this training free to our community and we hope that this will be a first step in a longer process of working to ensure that DDS is an institution that is both equitable and anti-racist in its practices and culture…Those who have participated in the training have described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing.
ALL Staff and Faculty are invited to register for this important event by which DDS can begin its own commitment to become an anti-racist institution.
Assuredly, today’s diversity and inclusion trainings are the inevitable outgrowth of liberal orthodoxy and driven by that which is deemed politically correct. And given that DDS claims to be on a mission to cultivate a vibrant community through theological education on Scripture, and engagement with the living Christian tradition, this is when Paul J. Griffiths, Warren Chair of Catholic Theology, boldly entered what would become a revealing exchange of emails:
I’m responding to Thea’s exhortation that we should attend the Racial Equity Institute Phase 1 Training scheduled for 4-5 March. In her message she made her ideological commitments clear. I’ll do the same, in the interests of free exchange.
I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.
We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to thnk, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste. This training is a waste. Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize.
“Thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it” because the mission is Christianity. Nothing should get in the way of that. Nothing should be more compelling. And nothing should supersede that divine call. That Griffifths was compelled to make this statement is amusing in light of those at DDS who seem to feel that Jesus’s own words, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” aren’t quite cutting it in the How-we-are-to-live department at a school of… divinity. Side note rant: Oh? What’s that you say? I am oversimplifying today’s cultural complexities of racism and inequity by reducing its rectification to a childish command spoken in the New Testament? Well, maybe, just maybe Jesus knew all too well that there would be nothing new under the sun and that the one constant in this life would always be the befouled heart of man. Every man. So perhaps when He cuts like a laser through the bullshit layers of ego and self, straight through the bone down to the darkest and most self-deceived stronghold of all, the human heart, His massaging of this command into the organ of life is precisely what transforms our minds to that which is pleasing to Him. This having nothing to do with a man-made training and politics, but rather a transformation that requires our own dark night of the soul as we yield to that which is greater than our own smugness.
At this point, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, Elaine Heath, got involved in the chain of emails. After enthusiastically supporting the training, and claiming that it would increase intellectual strength and spiritual vitality, she trained her sights on Griffiths’s email. Unfortunately, rather than address his points with any actual intellectual strength, she chose instead to misrepresent him:
It is certainly appropriate to use mass emails to share announcements or information that is helpful to the larger community, such as information about the REI training opportunity. It is inappropriate and unprofessional to use mass emails to make disparaging statements–including arguments ad hominem–in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree. The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.
As St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, regardless of how exquisite our gifts are, if we do not exercise them with love our words are just noise.
Heath’s inaccurate reading of Griffiths’s comments then compelled Professor Thomas Pfau, a 26 year member of the DDS faculty, to jump into the fray. Stating that he viewed the school as an “intellectual asylum,” he expressed solidarity with Griffiths regarding the demand that yet one more training in a “seemingly endless string of surveys, memos, and training sessions” was being made. And one more demand that had no relation to that for which he (and others at DDS) were originally hired. Pfau reasonably suggested the school make every effort to remain a vibrant intellectual community while simultaneously calling out the Dean:
So if faculty members choose to say in public (as Paul Griffiths has just done) what so many are saying in private, one might at the very least want to listen to and engage their concerns, especially if one holds sharply opposed views. Any academic unit, DDS included, can only flourish if differences of opinion on any variety of subjects are respected and engaged on their intrinsic merits. Having reviewed Paul Griffiths’ note several times, I find nothing in it that could even remotely be said to “express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.” To suggest anything of the sort strikes me as either gravely imperceptive or as intellectually dishonest. Instead, if a faculty member raises serious doubts about the efficacy and methods of an initiative aimed at combating racial and other kinds of bias – and about the ways in which such training manifestly encroaches on the time faculty need to pursue their primary mission of teaching and research – then this view ought as a matter of course be respected as a legitimate exercise of judgment and expression. And while Paul Griffiths casts his criticisms in harsh terms, it would be nothing less than politically coercive and intellectually irresponsible to imply that his statement amounts to an “expression of racism.”
If DDS wishes to remain a vibrant intellectual community, then all kinds of different perspectives must be engaged analytically and in good faith, as propositions and judgments warranting earnest scrutiny rather than facile condemnation. To tar communications such as the one that Paul Griffiths has shared with the faculty as politically retrograde, let alone to contemplate institutional sanctions, is to take an alarmingly illiberal approach that, ironically, will end up confirming at least some of Paul Griffiths’s criticisms regarding the proposed initiative. Those struggling to grasp the difference between honest engagement and institutional censorship ought to revisit Herbert Marcuse’s account of “repressive tolerance.”
Read the whole thing. It’s not only instructive but also clealy illustrates the heights of intellectual dishonesty to which some will stoop when trying to malign those who resist.
(Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.)