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The ideological fixation of today’s academia

Barton J. Gingerich | The American Academy of Religion makes no room for truth


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The ideological fixation of today’s academia
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A few weeks ago, David Decosimo, a philosopher at Boston University, tweeted his concerns about the upcoming meeting of the American Academy of Religion, popularly known as the AAR. The AAR is a professional society for scholars of religion, but, as you might expect there is more to the story.

Decosmio highlighted a couple of panels that would interact with hot-button topics—religious liberty and abortion—with an emphasis on recent Supreme Court decisions. These panels lack viewpoint diversity, creating an echo chamber that seems to endorse an official position on deeply contested issues.

“It is disappointing to see [the AAR] create yet another panel lacking an appropriate diversity of scholarly perspectives & a due representation of deep disagreement concerning a major, controversial political topic,” Decosimo wrote. He argued that if the group “sponsors panels on hot-button topics, these should reflect the ethical diversity of AAR itself and of scholarly debate on the topic, rather than elevating one view and excluding all others.” He added, “We would not do that in our classrooms; AAR should not do that as an institution.”

Of course, Decosimo is right to complain about this state of affairs. The AAR is not demonstrating the rigorous sort of discourse that should exemplify good research and learning. Controversial topics deserve honest controversy, particularly in the form of logical argument and persuasive rhetoric, all communicated in the same grammar. In the recent past, it was ideal to feature able champions who really believed in their positions on a certain topic and have them debate one another in an open forum. Various institutions like the AAR saw it as their part to serve as a fairly neutral host and referee to such important conversations.

But, as novelist L. P. Hartley famously observed, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That even includes the fairly recent past, with its shared ideal of rigorous discourse and diverse viewpoint representation in academic settings. While that ideal still lives on in a few circles, another sad reality has emerged and now exerts more dominance than it has in times past. This reality is a calcified progressivism, where ideology muffles traditionalist voices that in fact represent large swathes of the country’s population and (in the case of the AAR) millennia of religious reflection.

Like the ideal of the university, the American Academy of Religion has morphed.

It behooves traditional, biblical Christians to review where this came from and where this may be headed. In terms of history, the AAR shares the same secularizing script that characterizes much of the American academic world. In a previous life, the AAR was the Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools (1909) and then the National Association of Biblical Instructors (1933).

Like the ideal of the university, the AAR has morphed. For most of its history, the university in the West used to find its stabilizing principle and purpose in the Truth Incarnate. This grounded the university’s pursuit of learning and brought some kind of harmony to various fields and subjects, which influenced other scholarly organizations. All knowledge points to the divine Source of knowledge, the Creator, who also became man to redeem and glorify the creation, teaching us with divine wisdom, which we are able to receive only by the power of the Holy Ghost. Obviously, we’re not in that world anymore.

To summarize a very complex and intricate history, over time, Truth incarnate was removed as the central, unifying point of learning and has been pushed further to the fringes, leading to chaotic confusion and outright rebellion against God. From a traditional Christian standpoint, the tragedy of the AAR’s panels isn’t just the lack of viewpoint diversity. It is the lack of truth. Indeed, the abdication of truth. Apparently, the AAR doesn’t want to platform and listen to the truth about abortion, sexual morality, or religious liberty.

That is because the AAR actually does seem to be unified by a singular religion, but that religion is a progressive ideology. You can call yourself a Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or anything else. You just have to affirm the ideology to get along and truly belong. Of course, this ideology can quickly change based upon the spirit of the age, current fads, and regime changes.

In this rendering of the issue, Christians who go along for the ride—who repudiate Christian teaching to accommodate this ideological religion—are akin to the worshipers of the golden calf at Dan and Bethel. Such priests and prophets claimed to worship the God of Israel, but the truth of God’s Word was not to be found, nor was His guidance on issues affecting the people. After all, those who would speak the truth had not been invited to the table, thus presenting a false view of reality. Sound familiar? Like King Jehoshaphat in 1 Kings 22, we may ask, “Is there not here a prophet of the Lord besides, that we might enquire of him?” Don’t look for such a prophet at the American Academy of Religion.


Barton J. Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude’s Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, Va. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Patrick Henry College and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

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