Thursday, May 11, 2017

The right to be wrong is not necessarily the right to be sloppy

Duke divinity library, two views; photo by Duke Divinity Library
photo by Duke University Divinity School Library
We all ignore truths, demands, arguments we would prefer not to face. At my best, I only hold arguments I find offensive to a higher, perhaps impossible standard of proof. At my worst, I ignore truths I would prefer not to deal with and avoid pressing arguments for fear of giving offense to other people.

There is a difference between avoiding uncomfortable ideas and challenges, and making a public virtue of it.

 The conservative blogger Rod Dreher quotes with approval the reaction of a professor at Duke University School of Divinity to the announcement of an anti-racism training:
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, clich├ęs, 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.
Paul J. Griffiths
Warren Chair of Catholic Theology
Duke Divinity School
When I read this note, I  had just finished two performances at the opera in the wake of a bias crime against two members of the cast; an attack, which, by multiple accounts led directly to sub-standard medical treatment tainted by racism. At church the following Sunday I spoke to and Anglican chaplain at one of the local hospitals (not the one involved in this incident). What she told me made very clear to me: ministry at hospitals includes dealing with cases like this, where racism and other biases does not mean merely opportunities denied but broken bones and torn flesh. Indeed, as we have seen too often, clergy in the "West" both in Europe and at Americas, frequently conduct funerals in the shadow of racism, "white" supremacy, and overt racist violence.

Mr. Dreher's defence of Dr. Griffiths's dismissal of and anti-racism program unseen and unheard addresses the matter as an issue of pure academic freedom. In the end, Mr. Dreher's defense of Dr. Griffiths comes down to the claim
there is nothing remotely racist, sexist, or bigoted about Paul Griffiths strongly criticizing the anti-racism training. He might be wrong in his judgment about the training — I don’t think he is at all, but he might be — but at real universities, a professor has the right to be wrong.
That might hold water in the if Duke University taught theology purely in the abstract, aiming only to educate scholars, writers, and teachers who might somehow practice Christian theology without reckoning with the actual offenses and immediate suffering of the world Christ came to redeem. The website for Duke School of Divinity says the following about their Master of Divinity program:
The Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program is a three-year degree that prepares students for a wide range of ministries in the church, academy, and world. Our distinguished faculty members teach a broad set of core course requirements that cover the classical disciplines of church history, Biblical studies, theology, and practical ministry, as well as elective opportunities that allow students to either complete ordination processes or to pursue the particular interests and passions to which God has called them.
In other words, Duke offers a professional program, preparing students for a ministry: to, in the beautiful phrase of Ellis Peters, "to coax and counsel and comfort common human sinners". In the year of grace 2017, in the society we live in, that job will inevitably mean dealing, and dealing often, racism, comforting the victims and the counseling the perpetrators.  To a committed Christian in a sacramental church, such as both myself and Mr. Dreher, the preparation for ministry should count as a professional program at least as important as other professional programs such as law or medicine of engineering. I understand professors have the right to be wrong. But in a professional program, livelihoods, lives and even souls may depend on the competence of the graduates. I do not believe the professors in such a program have a right to be sloppy. And I consider dismissing a program aimed at dealing with racism because teachers of theology have too much importance to bother with it sloppy.

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