By Ephraim Radner

One of my first memories of what a university looks like comes from my boyhood in early 1960s Berkeley. In my father’s tow, I witnessed huge crowds of student protesters covering Sproul Plaza. We were in the middle of the Free Speech Movement. People were bellowing into bullhorns. Mario Savio, one of the Movement’s charismatic leaders, galvanized his listeners with a rhetoric whose colloquial passion proved powerfully persuasive. Thousands gathered; hundreds were eventually arrested. And I found myself placed on a raft that would swiftly ride the next decade’s turbulent current.

The Free Speech Movement had its origins partly in resistance to the State of California’s coercive demand that faculty sign loyalty oaths to the government. The university then fired dozens of those who refused, including prominent scholars who had themselves fled Nazi Germany only a few years earlier. As students took hold of the protests, they sought, among other things, to gain permission to organize politically in ways that went outside the bounds of the Republican and Democratic parties. Student protests were nothing new, of course, as a look at the medieval university shows. At the center of the 60s movement however, at least on paper, was a more novel value: the freedom to teach, to organize, to write and speak according to a person’s best lights.

In this way was I introduced to the university, a place where, I early imagined, persuasion should flourish and coercion melt away. At the end of my teaching career, I look around and much seems like déjà vu. We are once again agonizing over who can say what, who must say what, policing curricula and scrutinizing syllabi. Universities, school boards, seminaries, my own context included, are all involved. But now the fight seems to be taking place with the reductive and bitter insistence that marks the mere gleaners of a blasted field of ideological struggle. In terms of intellectual and political life, Berkeley was far more diverse in the mid 1960s than it is today, when the very notion of free speech has been thinned out into a pale wash.

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Given my deep conservatism, it may seem odd that my views about teaching are framed by Mario Savio. It is true that I believe that wisdom is less about making new discoveries than about tinkering with the givens. But tinkering too requires freedom of the widest kind, otherwise the givens are hidden away and eventually obliterated. To pick up an image from one of Savio’s most celebrated speeches, there exist in our midst grinding “gears” of brutal intellectual machinery that would run roughshod over this freedom. It is indeed upon these — from an evangelical perspective — that we must “throw our bodies.” After all, others have done so, done it nobly, and left us an example.

As a young man, I was introduced to this fact with a sudden force. When I was 28, in the straitened course of a few hours, I lost my job; I lost my friends; I lost my colleagues; I lost my students; I lost my home; I lost my possessions; I lost my books; I lost a good deal of my self-respect and self-esteem. This was because I wrote and published (in the mild-mannered Christian Century no less) something that the powers that be — the government of Burundi, where I worked as an Anglican teacher — viewed as intolerable. I was arrested, interrogated, and put on a plane to New York in early January, stepping out into the snow wearing only the loose cotton short-sleeve shirt I had been wearing when I had been taken away 40 hours earlier.

I was not, however, one of the noble gear-strippers. My experience at age 28 was no doubt dramatically inconvenient in a personal way; but I barely suffered, and what I lost was, over the years, returned a hundred-fold in many respects. What the experience did do for me, however, was to open my eyes to those many who, all over the world, were and are not merely arrested and put on planes, but imprisoned, tortured, and, in many cases murdered — unknown writers, struggling journalists, bloggers (today), religious leaders, and even teachers and students, in Hong Kong, Myanmar, Uganda, China, Russia, Turkey (to name only a few) — because they were convinced that the truth, that human and perhaps even divine wisdom, is apprehended through persuasion rather than coercion. These have indeed “thrown their bodies” on the grinding apparatus of compulsion. Their witness deserves renown.

The American debates about teaching and academic freedom in our day, notated with policy details and legalese, may seem puny compared with the realities of such witness and the way it has over and over been crushed. Apples and oranges, we might say. Persuasion and coercion sound like major issues, but they have little traction in the irritated arguments over the vetting of syllabi, and the aggrieved counting up of what kind of people and views appear on a reading list and course proposal, or what tone of voice a teacher used in a lecture. Yet the realities of persuasion versus coercion should be seen as intrinsic to these debates; and the minor irritations should be recognized as legitimate warning signs of seismic moral disaster.

I have often wondered what my students at the little theological school where I taught in Burundi made of my expulsion. One of the charges against me, hurled in my face with a cold anger as I sat in the chair before my interrogator, was that I had encouraged a classroom practice that he called “critical questioning” (une méthode de questionnement critique). I have no idea if I ever used the phrase myself. Perhaps I did. One of my students, it turned out, was a spy for the internal security police, and he may well simply have parroted the pretensions of my young self-image. On some intuitive level I knew that to listen, to judge, to respond, and thus to engage in teaching and learning both, is at the root of the persuasive act, whereby a free conviction grows into delight (this is the suave of “per-suade”). If I learned to love teaching in Burundi, it was in this realm of often intricately beautiful human engagement. But one thing my students surely noted from all this was that just this engagement, what the interrogator called “critical questioning,” is liable to punishment; and thus, that persuasion is in fact weaker than coercion.

It is a lesson that, for all her other virtues, has not served the church in Burundi well; just as it is a lesson that has corrupted many other churches now and ever, including most (if not all) sides in the destructive struggle over sexual teaching in the Anglican Communion. Were the church to take the persuasive delight of critical questioning seriously, in the same way that a few fussy academics still do, however dwindling their numbers, it might learn a thing or two about the gospel itself. “Critical questioning,” persuasion’s root, after all, is not a thing; it has no content; it is neither Left nor Right. Rather, it points to how truth is in fact received, even the truth of God.

The ideals of academic freedom often seem, as I said, grossly inflated in the face of the horrendous oppressions that mark so much of human interaction, oppressions that often seem to demand decision: which side are you on? Tell me now! The importunity of the demand, however, marks the dissolution of questioning and judging altogether, and with it the very persuasive purpose that teaching and research depend upon. Students, like anybody of course, have questions they want answered. The questions themselves, however, like those who ask them, are myriad. And since the teacher can engage them only on the basis of a truth about which she or he is persuaded, and can do so genuinely only within the realm of persuasion, the field of truthful inquiry is one in which the demanded question has no place. The teacher learns, the teacher persuades; and as part of this process, the student asks, listens, and patiently engages the persuasive project. But most questions can never be answered, because questions and their answers turn out to be people, limited by their common lives, not endlessly permutated propositions or commands.

Indeed, there are no “questions in themselves,” waiting expectantly and imperiously to be answered. The inert artifacts of the world, including the set of all human experiences, are not questions, even when they are insistently or perhaps violently thrust before our eyes. They can only become questions for a living person, a person whose openness and attentiveness to these realities presumes a range of experiences and prior questions and responses within a vast network of living relationships. Questions are never simply given; they emerge within a life, and within lives shared. This, at least, Burundi taught me long ago: we only teach and learn as we live together and, in the case of Christian community, pray together, eat together, work together. Hence, questions cannot be orchestrated, manipulated, or demanded. If we bristle at such demands, even when made in the context of sterile academic oversight regarding curricular mandates, we are rightly bristling at the coercive eradication of true questions altogether.

It is the same with “critique.” Critique implies judgment, and thus presupposes a complex set of informed skills that are also ordered by a web of experience and relationship. Just as there are no questions simply given, because there are only those persons who are questioned as they actually live with others, there are no singular judgments or critiques that can be expected or required. Teachers can only pose questions to the degree they are in a living relationship with their students (hence, there are no real questions to be had on the internet, nor judgments offered); and teachers themselves can only critically engage questions asked of them according to the particularity of their lived encounters and conversations.

By definition, that means that every teacher’s engagement with critical questioning — for themselves in their learning and research, and with students — will be and must be unique and variable. To repeat: a teacher can teach only what he or she is persuaded of. Institutions hire according to their own best lights (if at best flickering). That is their legal right. But once hired, no one can demand that I make a particular judgment about anything; such a demand could only render the question itself a dead object, like a stone lying at the bottom of a ditch.

Critical questioning, then, is not a thing. It is a space. And because critical questioning is a space for living persons, for life itself in all its richness, complexity and burdens, it is a space to be protected, indeed jealously protected for the sake of life itself.

One might suppose this claim could stand in tension with the Church’s own mission of witness to the truth, somehow relativizing its clarity and imperative. Should not the Church discipline her teachers? Should not the Church monitor her messengers? And if the Church, why not other institutions of moral purpose, like schools and universities? But jealously guarding the space of critical questioning is not about relativizing the truth. It is about maintaining the space where the one truth that is God’s authorship and gift of life itself is permitted persuasive scope. This is the “broad place, where there is no straitness,” so that the ears of the afflicted might be “opened” (Job 36:15-16). Job’s friends, however righteous they may have seemed, were the prisoners of the dead question, their claims to moral demand finally empty sounds.

Here is where the Christian gospel comes into play, with all of its more specific virtues: humility, listening, deference to Scripture, or to authority and tradition. Humility requires freedom; listening requires invitation not command; deference requires the skills of making distinctions rather than carrying the burden of comprehensive principles. It is precisely in the service of these virtues and gifts, ones which open us to God, that the Church herself ought zealously to guard the space of critical inquiry, and guard it against all its enemies. For the enemies of the space of true critical inquiry are also enemies of the persuasive power of the divine word, which entices, takes hold of, and converts only those enabled, sometimes even encouraged, to respond.

One could think here in terms of nurturing and cherishing the “conditions of persuasion” that characterize the “divine eloquence” of which Augustine spoke. God persuades us by offering us the unimpeded fullness of the world’s realities, toward which he providentially draws our minds, hearts, and finally our wills so as finally to see him — the natural world, suffering, miracles, repentance, people, saints. What the English translation of the New Testament frequently renders as “persuasion” — “I am persuaded,” Paul might say of himself (Rom. 14:14), even as he speaks of “persuading” others (2 Cor. 5:11) — is a Greek word (peitho) that is fundamentally related to trust, even to friendship. The truth of Scripture and the creeds manifests itself, for all its certain efficacy, in this land of trust.

Yet if so, trust and thus truth are given where they are freely established, within the broad space in which God places us together as creatures of his world. In this space, God does his work as the Great Persuader. The gospels as a whole can be seen as one long account of the promise, failure, and transfiguration of critical questioning set in motion by John the Baptist. The story of the gospels, then, tells us that when the Church relies on the hard fury of demand, it is only because she has already ceded the space of trust. This is not an abstract or self-interested social theory. This is a divine reality.

A conservative Anglican like myself may well value order and orderliness. But that is not because such frameworks themselves betoken a conservative spirit, a linkage that would be a category mistake. Rather, frameworks of order guard a sacred space, not of binding but of freedom, where it is possible to teach and to listen, where non-conservatives, radicals and disaffected, can all listen and can teach as much as anyone, because the space of trust has been secured. A fond hope, perhaps. But I believe that only in such a secured space can we ever secure as well the moral goods that rightly motivate many (misplaced) contemporary demands to control academic discourse — goods that include the realities of human diversity and the social scaffolding that respects it. Outside of such a space, the goods themselves unravel.

So now what? The Free Speech Movement began as an attempt to reestablish a sense of persuasive space at the university. It quickly devolved, as we know, into forms of protest that finally led to that space’s further assault: disrupting classes, taking over areas of otherwise peaceable (if sometimes tensely energized) human interaction, attempting to drown out living voices viewed as in error, dismantling the structures of reflection and relationship between teacher and student. Today’s “cancel culture,” over 50 years later, even if sometimes mischaracterized, is nonetheless the morally abandoned offspring of this assault, now roaming in a realm where human beings themselves — gatherings of actual persons — seem like a nostalgic bit of institutional romance. So-called questions are pressed and so-called judgments are made through letter-writing campaigns, social media, boycotts, lawsuits, saturated bandwidths, stymied hirings, exits and denouncements. But the so-called is not the true. The proffered vision of our era is one where, in fact, there are no more true questions, no more true judgments, no more true teachers, no more spaces in which to live with others in search of the truth. Only demands, where everything is punishable. This is the antithesis of the gospel.

I am hopeful that the end of my teaching career will coincide with the end of this era, one whose own intellectual roots, and perhaps none too soon, must, in the gospel’s face, surely wither.

About The Author

Ephraim Radner is a priest in the Episcopal Church (Diocese of Colorado) and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Toronto. His doctorate from Yale University is in theology.

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David Duggan
1 month ago

While I am sorry for your personal experience in Burundi (which as anyone who knows the story of Paul Rusesabagina can tell is essentially a nest of vipers for sale to the highest bidder), the rest of your story is difficult to fathom to the point of unintelligibility. Fewer words and more meaning, please.

Ephraim Radner
1 month ago

David, Sorry this was too hard for you to follow. BTW, Burundi and Rwanda (where Rusesabagina is from) are two different countries.