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What Churches and Universities Could Learn from Each Other

William J. Stuntz's Faculty Clubs and Church Pews
What Churches and Universities Could Learn from Each Other

By Drew Trotter

 

As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “When you tire of reading the latest article or book, do yourself a favor: re-read an old one.” It is almost the tenth anniversary of the publication of the article I am here recommending, but it is as current and crisp as the day it was written. The “red and blue” paradigm that Stuntz plays off of, which was so fresh when he was writing, is now part of the political and social landscape, and the alliance he calls for has yet to happen because both groups are still entrenched in the mistakes they both make concerning their views of one another. The good news is that both groups still carry the strengths Stuntz argues could benefit the other.

Bill Stuntz was, until his untimely death in 2011, one of the most popular teachers at Harvard Law School, a criminal justice scholar, whose views were always so insightful that they regularly confounded colleagues with their deep wisdom. His New York Times obituary speaks of his “counterintuitive insights” and Stuntz’s former dean, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, is quoted there as saying that his work was “impossible to pigeonhole” and that “Scholars came to call his ideas ‘Stuntzian’”. Beyond that, though, Stuntz was known as something of an oddity because he was an evangelical Christian. The Times obituary even ends with relating his favorite verse and Stuntz’s response to it:

“He kept writing when he was dying of cancer, saying that he found hope in a single passage of the Book of Job. ‘You will call and I will answer,’ Job says. ‘You will long for the creature your hands have made.’”

Mr. Stuntz wrote, “The concept that God longs for the likes of me is so unbelievably sweet.”

I include so much of who Bill Stuntz was, not only because he was my friend and I think his story should be known more widely than it is, but also because the article I am promoting has that same, quirky “impossible to pigeonhole” character that much of Stuntz’s legal writing had, and it cannot be understood properly without knowing that. Remarkable for its insights both into the Academy and the Church, the article’s suggestions for improvement in the relations between the two ought to be taken seriously by both.

Stuntz begins his article by laying out what many of us know: evangelical churches are often the “reddest of the red” in American society, and university faculties are often the “bluest of the blue”. Typical evangelical church members believe all academicians to be immoral, or at least morally anchorless, and typical faculty members at secular universities believe all evangelical church members to be stupid, dumb as the proverbial wall.

As Stuntz puts it, “People in each of these two worlds find the other frightening, and appalling. All of us are appalling, I suppose, but these reactions are mostly due to ignorance.”

When hypothesizing about the two sides getting to know each other, Stuntz comes up with one of his “Stuntzian” insights. He suggests that if the Evangelical visited the faculty club and the professor went to church, he or she would find some remarkable similarities. Both institutions care about language. Both care about ideas. Both seek to read hard texts and discern their meanings. Both love the world we live in and seek to understand it “with all its beauty and ugliness”. Education is a focal point of what goes on in both the Church and the University.

Another commonality between the two is that, whereas in most of the rest of American society individualism reigns supreme, in the church and the faculty, there are clear signs of unpaid willingness to help out to make the institution work. Unpaid volunteerism drives the church of course, but faculty regularly serve on committees, spend long hours counseling students, work at preparation of their lectures and books and are paid no more for it than professors who work less hard. As Stuntz puts it: “Selfishness and exploitation are of course common too, in universities and churches as everywhere else. But one sees a good deal of day-to-day altruism, which is not common everywhere else.”

The differences between the two are even more instructive of why they should get together more often. Stuntz recommends that the Church could profit from the “love of argument that pervades the universities”. As those who profess to love the truth, Evangelicals should spend more time rigorously seeking it, “testing beliefs with tough–minded questions and arguments.” Stuntz does not see enough of that testing going on in the Church today, and he believes it is impoverished because of that lack.

On the other side, university faculty could use a good dose of the humility Stuntz has seen operative in the Church throughout his life. Interestingly, he brings up the practice of the “testimony”, a decidedly low church exercise, to describe the humility that is clear in many churches, low or high. Such a talk usually articulates how much of a mess of life the speaker has made, and Stuntz relates that to the way Evangelicals often view themselves: “…the evangelicals I know really do believe that they—we (I’m in this camp too)—are half-blind fools, stumbling our way toward truth, regularly falling off the right path and, by God’s grace, picking ourselves up and trying to get back on.” Contrasting that with the arrogance of many university professors about their knowledge or stature within their discipline, he encourages them to learn humility, even if only as a tactic for argument.

Lastly, Stuntz turns to the political arena and finds common ground between left–leaning professors and right–leaning Evangelicals. The issue is the poor, and he fascinatingly lays out an agenda for thinking about poverty and its alleviation in America that is first liberal, then conservative, then liberal again, then conservative again.

The whole article is “impossible to pigeonhole”. How better to stimulate robust, interesting conversation about the Church and the Academy than to read and discuss this kind of essay?

 

The article can be found here on-line. It was originally published online at a now defunct blog spot called Tech Central Station.

 

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