The following in-depth look at academic freedom from one of Washington Adventist University's top academics was originally initiated for publication in Adventist Review. Excerpts from the article below have been printed, but the whole article has not appeared in print until now. -Ed
The concept of academic freedom at most religious educational institutions, including Adventist, is a complex issue. The main challenge of Adventist academia in relation to academic freedom is finding resourceful ways to stay true to both academic rigor, which involves free, progressive and scientific exploration of all dimensions of God's truth in Scripture and nature, and deep appreciation of and abiding in Adventist faith tradition. Adventist institutions adhere to the principle of continuing and progressive revelation of God and progressive understanding of God's truth, yet within the boundaries of the biblical context of the inspired revelation of the Word of God and the living faith in Christ. Faith and Science Council, Geoscience Research Institute, and Biblical Research Institute are among the main entities that assist the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and Adventist campuses in their efforts to meet the needs and challenges posed by the ongoing interaction between faith and science. So far, the main focus has been on careful dialogue and thoughtful interaction between faith and contemporary science and scholarship.
I believe that many Adventist scholars and students feel that this engagement should now include also constructive discussions about academic freedom, as the crucial imperative for both faith and science. The responsibility of the church administrators and academicians includes leading in collaborative efforts to generating a statement on academic freedom that will help Adventist campuses and professionals successfully engage their faith and academic standards and so maintain their reputation as institutions and individuals of faith and learning.
Adventist higher education has recently gone through major transformations. Our higher education has attracted many different cultural and religious groups, and so the number of non-Adventist students has increased on our campuses. This has given us new possibilities and responsibilities, and along with those, also certain new challenges. One of the challenges in this regard includes deciding what aspects of Adventist faith (doctrine, life style) and to what extent should be enforced on our non-Adventist students. Yet, we have to stay committed to welcoming all students to our campuses, regardless of their racial, religious, and social background, as a God-given value and requirement. Adventist higher education has to continually search for and implement new ways of sharing its unique values and standards with all students. We do not want any of our students to feel isolated, excluded, or even frustrated by the environment that we create and in which they have to live and study.
Another crucial role of Adventist higher education is offering education that is relevant to academic and spiritual needs. Our institutions have to be equipped to provide competitive academic programs that will enable students to be recognized and appreciated by the professional world. Finally, another role of Adventist education is to demonstrate the way of redemption through education. In other words, Adventist education should generate a sense of belonging to God and His people and foster love and service to humanity.
The theme of freedom rings loudly in the Scripture. God created human beings with the incredible gift of creativity and freedom of choice (c.f. Gen 2:15-17). Even after the Fall, God continued to uphold human freedom to such an extent that the only way God chose to eradicate evil from the universe and save humankind was through the death of His beloved Son. The plan of salvation in Christ is the utmost proof of God’s non-coercive and loving ways of dealing with His creation (see Deut 30:19; Jos 24:15; John 1:11, 12). Jesus of Nazareth always demonstrated full respect for human dignity and freedom. He directed people to use their freedom for God-given values in life, but He never violated the principle of latitude given to people by their Creator (e.g., John 8:2-11). The apostolic Church provides examples of how people can exercise differences in opinion and remain in Christian fellowship (Gal 2:11-14).
The First Apostolic Council demonstrates that the first church had some serious differences, but was committed to dialogue and prayer until the solution was found and accepted by all (Acts 15). It would have been much easier for James as the presiding over the council to exercise his authority and settle the matter quickly than to listen to a newly converted and ex-persecutor Paul arguing his point (v. 12). Yet for them fellowship, openness to truth and divine guidance, and love were much more powerful principles of securing the right path in which the church should go than institutional coerciveness and limitation of free expression and conscience. Having said this, however, we should not forget that freedom in the Scripture is exercised within the boundaries of the inspired Word of God and God’s law, which is called the law of freedom, namely the core foundations of Christian faith (c.f. Gal 1:8, 9; Jas 1:25).
The responsibility of the community of faith includes careful studying of the biblical message of God’s Word in its historical, literary, and theological context to ensure its correct understanding and proper application to the modern context.
We have to offer freedom for exploration of religious and other truths. If we want to become the competitive 21st-century, Christian higher education institutions, some latitude should be given to our teachers and scholars to investigate all aspects of truth in its progressive nature. Within this academic dialogue, I believe the Church will be greatly enriched and empowered. The Adventist colleges should be the places where the Church does its thinking. Adventist academic institutions need this space where non-coercive and cordial reflection and exchange of arguments and ideas within the broader context of Christian tradition and Christian character can be freely exercised. This principle was deeply embedded in our pioneers’ search for scriptural truth in Christ. Progressive and continual pursuit of truth, and so academic freedom, has been part of our tradition and history. Our movement would have never been created and sustained without these. In this sense, Adventist beliefs and academic freedom are compatible. Yet, each new generation has to find new ways of fostering the principle of freedom that will answer the challenge and need of their time. I believe that church administrators and academicians realize that we should be more deliberate in rethinking and defending the principles of academic freedom within the Adventist context. Only if we work together will we be able to consider all the relevant issues and find satisfactory resolutions.
If we seek to pursue scholarly inquiry and genuine expression of academic freedom in a way that extends and enriches academic disciplines, we need to have events in which the acclaimed participants who do not belong to our community of faith will express their views and engage in cordial conversation with our students, teachers, and staff. These events teach our students some of the core values of Adventist education, including freedom of thinking and expression, openness to learning through exchange of ideas and arguments, respect and appreciation of others, self-examination, tolerance, and other values.
When we invite speakers of different faith backgrounds, we also present them with an opportunity to learn something about and from us. We should always remember that the Advent movement was born out of different faith traditions. The Advent movement was not an isolated island nor should our campuses ever be. Hearing something different should not be perceived as an attack on our faith but as an opportunity to learn, grow, or be reaffirmed in our beliefs. The world and self test our faith every day. Our students have to learn to embrace the challenge and come enriched by it at the end.
Aleksandar S. Santrac is Professor of Ethics and Chair of the Religion Department at Washington Adventist University. He also serves as Extraordinary Professor of Dogmatics at North-West University in South Africa and as a visiting researcher in bioethics at Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
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