You might not have woken up today and thought to yourself, “I wonder what’s going on in the Duke Divinity School.” Welp, too bad… Because I’m going to tell you. Here it is:
Drama–That’s what… Divinity School Drama.
So first I’m going to give you a short rundown of what happened, and then I’m going to tell you why I think it matters–even if you are one of the rare breed of persons who doesn’t normally care what happens within the walls of a prestigious Divinity School.
It started innocently enough… A Prof. named Anathea Portier-Young used a mass eMail to invite and encourage her colleagues to attend a 2-day training on Racial Equity. If you’ve ever worked in an office or in a college, you have probably attended “diversity trainings” like this before. Some are good; some are not. Some make you think; some make you think “I can’t believe we just spent four hours doing that.” Some feel vaguely like this scene from “The Office.”
Now granted–Different people feel different ways about trainings like this. Not everyone is excited to attend. Some of us might even groan or roll our eyes when hearing about trainings like these… But if your name is Paul J. Griffiths of Duke Divinity School, what you did was you wrote an eMail to the entire staff eviscerating the very concept of a Racial Equity Training in the sort of uniquely asshole-ish way that only a Doctor of Theology can muster. Here’s a segment of his eMail:
“I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.”
If you’re feeling like pulling out a dictionary, you’re not alone. Basically, he’s saying it’ll be an unoriginal waste of time to focus their time on a training combating racism… And if it gets any deeper than clichés, you will see these attempts at educating staff on racial equity for what they REALLY are: Thought Police trying to enforce communist ideals of “equality.” He goes on to say that what their REAL mission as theologians should be is to “think, read, write, and teach” about God (whom he–more grandiosely than could ever be needed–refers to as “The Triune Lord of Christian confession”).
Well, Elaine A. Heath, Ph.D., the Dean of Duke’s Divinity School, didn’t appreciate Dr. Griffiths’ use of the list serve to dress down one of his colleagues and crap on something the school views as important. So she told him about it. She used the words “racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry” in her descriptions of his actions. And–as we have all seen unfold of at least 100 Facebook threads–them’s fighting words. The hubbub goes on from there… with a defender of Mr. Griffiths writing in, another lengthy letter from Mr. Griffiths laying out his case for the oppressiveness of a culture which doesn’t allow dissenting opinions, and photos of a letter detailing discipline for his actions and for refusing to meet with the Dean… All the way to Dr. Griffiths’ announcement that he will be retiring early. For those of you as nerdy as I am who want to read the whole exchange, you can read it all RIGHT HERE, but be aware that the information there is presented in a VERY biased and political-right-leaning way. Also, be aware that the reason you are able to read these eMails is because Mr. Griffiths decided to make them public… So we don’t know about other correspondences which might have taken place which–for whatever reason–he didn’t feel like releasing to the public.
Why I Think It Matters:
You might be thinking to yourself, “What does an argument between theological eggheads have to do with me?” Well, this argument is playing out all over the country right now. It is at the heart of the debate between people who want to let Milo and Ann Coulter and Richard Spencer use the stages at college campuses to spread their hate, and people who feel pretty good about punching Nazis in the face. It is what’s behind the debate about whether “hate speech” is actually a thing, or whether “hate crimes” should be dealt with differently. It is an ideology of “Sticks & Stones (will break my bones, but words will never hurt me)” versus “Words have the ability to harm.” And it’s why some people see a concept like “political correctness” as a clear evil, and other people see it as the good of simply attempting to treat people with respect…
There are many questions behind these debates, but one of the main ones here is this: Are there some things which are objectively “wrong” or (in theological terms) “evil?” And more specifically to this situation–Is racism one of them?
Is sexism “wrong?” Is bigotry “wrong?” To me, it feels like the main divide in this country is over this very “base” question of “What is good?” And conversely, “What is evil?” And where these broad terms of “good” and “evil” fail us, are we at least inclined to know what is “better?” And what is “worse?” Is diversity “better” than homogeneity? Is inclusion “better” than exclusion? Is equality and equity “closer” to the kingdom of God than the opposite? How we answer these sorts of questions determines MUCH about where we position ourselves both politically AND religiously… Because how we answer these questions reveals what we believe about God. What we’ve been told and what we believe about God influences our ideology. It’s the Transitive Property of Theology: If God = Good, and God = Exclusive, then Exclusive = Good… and then who the hell do you think you are telling me that an inclusive workplace is “better” than one which isn’t?!?
So what we see in the reaction to all this drama at Duke Divinity School is a reaction to the idea that these issues have been settled. In most of academia, these questions HAVE been answered. Inclusion IS better than exclusion. Diversity IS better than homogeneity. Sensitivity and compassion for other people’s feelings IS better than insensitivity and indifference to the feelings of others. Racism, sexism, and bigotry ARE evil… It’s been settled. And for many years it has been out of fashion to question the “settledness” of this issue. Even QUESTIONING the settledness of this issue would get them shouted down… So they would stay quiet, looking for ways their families could avoid places which assumed/enforced the settledness of these questions. They would put their kids in private schools or home school them, because they looked at public schools as “indoctrinating” their settledness. They moved away from the cities. They started to dislike things that smell “intellectual.” They sent their kids to Bible colleges. They went to churches with clear and firm borders on who was “in” and who was “out,” and they voted for people who promised those same clear, firm national borders. But all along, they still felt like they weren’t allowed to even utter the WHY of their ideology. We have shamed them into not being able to admit that for them, it isn’t “settled.” And they have grown resentful of those who keep them from being able to speak it.
Now we live in two different countries, surrounding ourselves with people who have our same answer to the question, “What is good?” And this resent spike in racism and hate crimes has been encouraged by the unlikely ascension of a man who makes them suspect that their unsettledness is not as “out of fashion” as they once believed. So they vote for the same clear and firm borders–fearing the eroding boundaries that globalization brings–for their country that they need for their religion… They need to know who is in, who is out. Because if God is exclusive, and God is good, then exclusive MUST be good. And it spirals… The distance between us gets wider and wider. We talk past each other… Fear each other… Hate each other… Unaware that our inability to understand each other stems from the fact that we are holding different foundational ideas of something as basic as the concept of Goodness.
And so, back to Duke Divinity School, and why this matters. The question of “What is good?” is a theological question. It is–Even if you don’t believe in God. There are some seminaries and divinity schools who have settled on the goodness of exclusion… And–taken to its logical ends–the case can be made for the goodness of separation and segregation and even a rationale for racial purity. There are other seminaries and divinity schools which have settled on the goodness of inclusion… And–taken to its logical ends–the case can be made for a God who loves everyone equally, with no regard for borders, with no “in” or “out” to worry about… Here, OR in whatever the afterlife looks like.
I’m not sure if there is anything that can be done to change or influence a person’s sense of this foundational goodness… I don’t know if anything anyone writes or says or argues has any effect on someone else’s process. Maybe it’s just time. Or encountering people who are different than you. Maybe it’s education. It almost certainly ISN’T enforcing our “settledness” on others with a totalitarian control. Maybe there is no argument that can be made to affect anyone other than those people whose mind–through time, experience, and education–is already teetering on the balance between goodnesses. But one thing is for sure: Both of these things cannot be Good. And something tells me that the “movement” of this process generally goes in one direction. The movement of human consciousness is in the direction of understanding equality and equity and diversity and inclusion as Good. And even if we’re not certain enough to call it Good, we at least see evidence of it being Better.
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