Several people have asked me to dig into this and post something on Pharyngula, but I really don’t want to — the more I look at it, the more I recoil in baffled disgust. Cedarville University, one of those bizarre Christian colleges that just makes me want to gag in the first place, has terminated the contracts of two tenured faculty, David Hoffeditz and David Mappes, in their biblical studies department. Right away, I oppose the action of the university on general principles: short of engaging in some kind of criminal behavior, it’s a key part of academic freedom that tenure means the freedom to explore any intellectual path, no matter how weird. I even support Michael Behe’s tenure at Lehigh, and you all know how looney I think he is.
So what did Hoffeditz and Mappes do to earn revocation of tenure? Rob a bank, seduce a student, make death threats to Howard Stern? None of the above: they chose sides in an extremely abstract and utterly useless theological debate.
A theological impasse dividing Cedarville’s campus has also played a role in the controversy. Known as the “truth and certainty debate,” the dispute involves a somewhat rarefied but hotly contested question of faith: Can Christians enjoy certainty of Biblical truth, or do they merely have the assurance of their faith that the Bible is factual?
It is a question that folds into a still larger debate over how much Christianity should reconcile with the intellectual context of postmodernity. Those who hold to a belief in certainty, Mr. Hoffeditz and Mr. Mappes among them, tend to consider themselves more theologically conservative.
Those theological themes figured prominently in the open letter written this January to the faculty, administration, and trustees of Cedarville by a group of 14 current and emeritus Cedarville faculty members–a group calling itself the “Coalition of the Concerned.”
That letter refers to Mr. Mappes and Mr. Hoffeditz–and also to three other professors who either resigned or were denied tenure in the 2006-7 academic year–as “theologically conservative” members of the Bible department. “There is fear that other theologically conservative members within the department and the general faculty may be terminated,” the letter says.
It’s like watching two groups of clowns arguing over the brand of cream pie filling they should use, only less substantial. It just confirms my opinion that any parent who sends a child to Cedarville is doing them a criminal disservice — please send them to a real college, OK?
However, it also looks like Cedarville doesn’t really have academic freedom — the point of academic freedom is that you don’t get to fire professors for holding views that you find objectionable, and that’s exactly what is going on here. On top of all that, the American Association of University Professors is investigating the case, and they’ve said flat out that it’s problematic because church-related institutions have “explicit limitations on academic freedom” … which is to my mind grounds for denying them the privilege of being called an institution of higher education in the first place.