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Proselytizing versus Academic Freedom

Today, our faculty fellowship completed a discussion on the contrast between ‘proselytizing’ and the academic freedom to discuss our worldview in various aspects of the university setting.

Because ‘proselytizing’ has such a negative connotation, it has been used as an easy accusation to put Christians on the defensive. The Wikipedia entry seems to be a rather thorough and balanced treatment of the subject. I highly encourage you to read it before continuing here.

Key points include the Jewish origins of the concept of the ‘proselyte,’ the idea that today it isn’t limited to religion, but also atheism, agnosticism, or pretty much any idea that can be ‘followed,’ that there are both legitimate and illegitimate types of proselytizing, and that there are appropriate limits, but there is legitimate differences of opinion on what those limits are.

As faculty, there are legitimate concerns of which we must be aware. Primarily, we are in a position of influence and even power over students, and so whether we intend it or not, students can perceive pressure to assent to whatever we say. I would argue at this point that this is true not just for Christian faculty, but also atheists, naturalists, Marxist and any other faculty who passionately follow a political or religious worldview and proclaim it from the bully pulpit of our position as faculty.

To further complicate matters, in today’s culture, ‘author intent’ is almost irrelevant compared to how the reader perceives the message, known as ‘reader response.’ In the context of this discussion, this means that it pretty much doesn’t matter what your intent, context or style of communicating is, if someone takes it wrong (i.e. as proselytizing), you are guilty of offending them. It has become an issue of being guilty until proven innocent.

Because of this, charges of proselytization are particularly hard to refute, and it can become an easy way to marginalize people of faith, and Christians in particular. Furthermore, in the culture of some academic fields, there is a perception that faith has no place to be discussed at all, unless in completely derogatory terms, and some go so far as to say that if someone is a Christian, it is impossible for them to be competent in the field.

So, now that I’ve done pretty thorough and depressing job of describing the problem, what are the solutions?

First, God is bigger than our problems, and He also promised we would have problems of this sort, so we are not to be surprised, and even to rejoice when they occur. That said, He also warns against seeking out trouble where it isn’t offered, through Paul’s exhortation to “so long as it depends on you, live at peace with all.”

Secondly, we must remember and hold on to the idea that the university, by definition, is meant to be a place where diverse and controversial ideas can be explored, discussed, argued, tested and refined. The Christian voice is a genuine and relevant part of the diversity modern universities celebrate, and so we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be shelved. With inclusion should come a responsibility to be civil and respectful in all discourse, regardless of how we are received. This is also the heart of Biblical evangelism.

Third, we have the freedom (and in some cases, the responsibility) to inform our students of the nature of our worldview as one’s worldview can affect our perspective on topics, and in fairness to objectivity, announcing our bias is part of disclosure. It is helpful to teach/remind them of this—that all people have a worldview, and so all have a filter through with they interpret data. Students also tend to be a little curious about what manner of person their instructor is, so a passing autobiographical abstract is appropriate at the beginning of the semester, and our faith is legitimately part of that. That said, there are times, classes, situations, where such declarations can inhibit free discussion of ideas, so discernment is, as usual, necessary.

Fourth, when students bring up religious-based topics and ask for your opinion or background, you have nearly carte blanche to discuss it, again within reason and respect.

Fifth, you are free to drop hints as relevant in lectures discussions, and any interested students who pick up on them can follow up independently. Be sensitive to their interest level, like you would discussing any topic with anyone.

Sixth, when a student group invites you to speak to them, accept the invitation! They are explicitly asking for you to expound on the topic in an intramural rather than classroom environment. They are not a captive audience having paid tuition dollars to be in your class, they are voluntarily associating with others and you are the invited speaker.

Finally, if you are accused of proselytizing (and sure you have been completely appropriate and above legitimate reproach), don’t roll over. The Christian voice has a legitimate place at the diversity table. There are resources available to help you. They include your local faculty fellowship, the faculty ombuds, the academic freedom/grievance committee, and maybe others. Get informed, respond with grace, pray, don’t go on the attack. We are human and make mistakes, so if you do cross the line, determine objectively to what extent you did, own up to it, agree to be more careful, apologize and move on.

Unfortunately, academic freedom is neither absolute nor infallible. Like any freedom, it is easily lost when assumed, neglected and not nurtured or defended.

Be encouraged, be faithful, be without fear.


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