Faith is no barrier to intelligent discourse

November 2, 2007

Academics are wary of mooting ideas rooted in their belief for fear of raising secular hackles. It's time to argue for our convictions, says Joseph Mintz. Universities are places where freedom of speech is treasured and guarded. The ability to debate ideas that might often be in conflict lies at the heart of the idea of academic freedom and the pursuit of truth. Yet for those whose values are informed by a religious outlook, the fact that only particular kinds of knowledge are considered valid can mean that the reality of that freedom is much circumscribed.

This is not to say, of course, that ideas relating to religion are not part of academic discourse - the existence of thriving theology departments is evidence of this. Rather, it is the fact that the values drawn on to develop the narrative of university life - from discussions on sustainability to university mission statements - are from a narrow furrow ploughed by the liberal consensus, where specifically religious values are seen as inapplicable.

This limitation is seldom explicit, yet the reality is that religious ideas are rarely voiced despite a significant minority of academics having values rooted in religious traditions. Often this is because, consciously or unconsciously, such academics feel that religious values are discouraged.

For example, at my own workplace a Christian fellowship group run by the university chaplain recently sent out e-mails advertising its meetings. Since then, a common watercooler conversation in the office has been along the lines of "Why do they think we want to know about their faith meetings?" If the e-mail had been about a creative writing group, would it have been given even a second thought?

Of course, the liberal consensus holds that people should have the right to practise their religion, so long as they keep it private. Secular hackles can be raised even more if people with a faith dare to suggest that their religious values might play a part in decision-making at work.

Recently, at an equality and diversity training day, one of the facilitators talked about how her approach was grounded in her Christian faith. I was shocked by the vehemence of some delegates, who insisted that she should be keeping her religious ideas "at home".

If it is so difficult for Christians to make their faith part of the landscape at work, what about those from minority faiths? As a Jew, I often wonder where my religious tradition directs me in relation to values-based discussions in the workplace.

One discussion in my and other institutions has been whether one of our key values should be that of social justice. Internally, I wondered how the utilitarian insights of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and the social contract ideas of John Locke that inform much of the writing on social justice related to the ideas of my own religious tradition. Yet I would have found it difficult to get up and say: "Well, the Jewish viewpoint on this is ..."

Perhaps this is partly due to the Anglo-Jewish instinct to keep our heads below the parapet. Yet after the discussion I felt that something had been left out.

My mind was drawn to the writings of Simson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th- century rabbi and philosopher who was one of the foremost advocates of the possibility of living a normative orthodox Jewish life as part of the modern world. Hirsch maintained that the decisions that we make, and even the views that we express, in our business as much as our personal lives should be guided by an idea of right living, which should be rooted in the values of Judaism.

There are parallels here with movements in Christianity, such as liberation theology, which have sought to link action in the modern world to specifically religious values. This is all well in theory, but how would secularist colleagues react if those of us from religious traditions started quoting parables or Bible stories when giving our views on the proposed restructuring of the division? Surely our colleagues have a right not be exposed to religion if it's something that they feel is incompatible with their own value system?

There are no easy answers, but certainly, when confronted by secular concepts, I wonder if my response is authentic. I feel almost resentful that the weight of secular expectation excludes the possibility of my bringing to bear Jewish ideas and values on issues such as equality and diversity - especially as I often feel that many of the ideas espoused have their roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

None of this is to argue, of course, that there should not be a free debate of ideas between religious and secular viewpoints - rather, that religious academics should be careful not to mistake respecting other people's views for a capitulation to a secularist orthodoxy, where hatred of anything to do with religion prevents real debate taking place.

Religion has powerful and important things to say about how we should be in the world. It is important that we have the courage to introduce ideas based on our traditions into debate. After all, how can we honestly pursue academic freedom and academic truth if we ignore or devalue any potential source of understanding and knowledge?

Joseph Mintz is principal lecturer in education at London South Bank University.

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