We were doing an interview on an NPR station, a kind of “point-counterpoint” thing. The other interviewee was a self-identified agnostic, and the topic was the rights of academic institutions to “discriminate” on the basis of religious beliefs. My dialogue partner was not overtly hostile to religion as such. Indeed he said some nice things about the school where I was president at the time. Fuller Seminary produces some excellent scholarship based on our religious convictions, he observed. But why do we hire only folks who subscribe to those convictions? Having religious beliefs is fine, he said. But for institutions to hire only faculty who subscribe to those beliefs is contrary to the principles of academic inquiry.
I pushed back in the obvious way. The freedom to abide by religious convictions is not only a matter of individual liberty; it is also a freedom that ought to be encouraged for institutions in a pluralistic society. Communities have a right to configure the patterns of their collective lives in accordance with their deepest convictions. This applies also, I argued, to academic communities.
The other scholar responded by describing his own academic setting. “Look,” he said. “I happen to teach at a school sponsored by the Jesuits. I am happy to be there. I respect the Jesuits, even though I disagree with them. But I especially appreciate the fact that they don’t require me, as a faculty member in their school, to subscribe to their creed. Why can’t you evangelical types be like the Jesuits?”
At that point the moderator cut us off to take some phone calls from listeners. Since the calls moved us in different directions, I did not get a chance to talk about the comparative perspectives of Jesuits and evangelicals.
That exchange happened several years ago, but the point made by my fellow interviewee is certainly a timely one right now. Rather quickly over the past few years, the question of the right of religious institutions to “discriminate” on the basis of religious convictions has become an urgent topic for many of us. So I think it is good to give careful attention now to the “Jesuit” question. My dialogue partner was technically correct. Evangelical academic institutions are not like his Jesuit university in their hiring practices. But the difference disappears when we focus, not on Jesuit universities, but on the Jesuit order.
Just before I finished my studies at the University of Chicago to join the Philosophy faculty at Calvin College, I received a letter from a veteran professor at Calvin, an accomplished scholar in “middle English” literature. Welcoming me to the Calvin faculty, he also wrote that I was making an important commitment in this assignment. “Many of us can be at other places, at excellent secular schools,” he said. “But we are at Calvin because we have taken special vows—it is sort of like becoming a monk”—but he added, “without the celibacy!” He went on: “To teach at this school is to respond to a special calling—to take this community, this theological tradition, with utmost seriousness, and working to make it a healthy tradition by a shared commitment to creative teaching and scholarship.”
That was immensely important counsel for me then, and it still influences the way I see academic institutions that claim an evangelical identity. We are something like a religious order. And our “special vows” compel us to organize our academic life-together in certain ways, which—like the Jesuits—establishes some boundaries to the beliefs and practices that will shape the patterns of our communal callings.
The Jesuits, in setting up their colleges and universities, have typically not required their non-Jesuit colleagues to share their vows. But there is nothing about their sense of academic propriety as such that would prohibit that kind of boundary-setting. As far as I know, no accrediting agency right now would object to the credentialing of a Jesuit theological school where all faculty would be required to pledge their support for Jesuit beliefs and vows—or even to require all faculty to be Jesuits.
I think, then, that most evangelical institutions of higher learning would be happy to say that, in understanding the specific callings of their schools, they are very much in line with Jesuit thinking. In light of all of that, it would be nice if some Jesuits would come to our defense in articulating these matters in the public arena.
Originally published in First Things. Reprinted by permission.