Department ofReligion

In the Force Field of Intellectual Freedom

At the beginning of each semester, I talk with the students in my classes about the invisible boundary that surrounds the university, a boundary they cannot smell or taste or touch yet one they walk through every day as they enter a classroom or the library.

I suggest that they have entered a force field, as it were, that is hidden from ordinary sight yet sustains and directs much of what we are about in a university. Indeed, for hundreds of years, scholars have had to defend this force field with their intelligence and even with their lives.

Samuel Torvend

Torvend "Academics and their students often have been shunned, exiled, persecuted, and even put to death because they would not relinquish this singular privilege: calling into question or scrutinizing what everyone else around them might think “normal” or set in stone."

In protecting this rare treasure, academics and their students often have been shunned, exiled, persecuted, and even put to death because they would not relinquish this singular privilege: calling into question or scrutinizing what everyone else around them might think “normal” or set in stone. This privilege is nothing less than the search for truth or beauty without fear of being silenced or punished by one’s colleagues, government officials, religious leaders, or powerful business interests. In liberal arts universities, we call this rarest of treasures, this invisible force field that makes our work possible, intellectual or academic freedom.

Perhaps you have heard some wags refer to professors as people who live in “ivory towers,” blissfully cut off from the “real” world. Accepting such a skewed stereotype, these are the kind of people who insist that education is valuable only to the degree that students acquire “skills” to “make it” in the world, as if a college were simply a technical training school. Clearly, such people have not visited PLU. Here, “thoughtful inquiry” (that is, the cultivation of curious and questioning minds through deep and broad learning) is consistently linked to “service and care” (that is, advocacy for human and other life forms that are vulnerable or at risk on the planet). Thus, the free space in which unhindered intellectual exploration takes place empowers professors and students alike to ask a difficult question or think a new thought that might actually transform “the way things are” in the world of daily life.

Unsettling Inquiry 

Such probing or unsettling inquiry can provoke a society to imagine an alternative perspective beyond the “conventional” wisdom of the day. If you find this hard to accept, consider the Quaker women of New England who promoted both the abolition of slavery and women’s rights in the 19th century, or the Freudian and Jungian psychologists of the early 20th century who ventured into the previously unknown territory of the human psyche, or Martin Luther King, Jr., that brilliant and tragic prophet of the mid-20th century, who called Americans to imagine their nation marked by an inclusive yet difficult integration of diverse races and creeds. Each of these groups or persons met with initial suspicion if not terrible opposition simply because they questioned the status quo or fearlessly explored realms of thought that appeared dangerous to the intellectually timid.

It goes without saying that such bold questioning of the status quo rightfully takes place at a Lutheran university. After all, the founder of the Lutheran educational project began his public career by criticizing both the religious and social assumptions of his age. Indeed, he, too, met much opposition and the threat of exile or death because he refused to stop writing and speaking about what he had discovered in his research. Was he living in an “ivory tower”? Hardly. Was this professor of theology oblivious to the plight of ordinary people? Not for a second.

Subversive Literacy 

Of course the great irony is that while Martin Luther was hiding from imperial agents in the tower of a German castle, he wrote 10 works and furiously though steadfastly translated the New Testament into German, thus promoting widespread literacy among a previously illiterate population, a notion many of his peers considered odd if not downright subversive. “Why should ordinary people be able to read when their leaders can just as easily tell them what they need to know?” asked some of Luther’s critics. Wouldn’t the ability to read actually give the masses access to knowledge they didn’t really need?

Wouldn’t they begin to think for themselves or begin to think that they knew as much as the privileged elites of their day? Thus, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the educational, religious, and social revolution of the 16th century was cultivated among lawyers, historians, philosophers, and artists who labored in great beehive of the Renaissance university, that place where the very notion of academic freedom was hammered out amid much strife and controversy.

If anything, we know that to work in the force field of intellectual freedom is dangerous business. The commitment to serious study and research – what PLU names “thoughtful inquiry” – is not for the faint of heart or those who want everything to remain safely the same. Such work can afflict the comfortable, resist the impulse to conformity, empower the voiceless, enlarge the imagination, frighten the fundamentalist, and create entirely surprising ways of seeing and caring for humanity and this earth, our home.

Many of our students wear baseball caps to class. To paraphrase Annie Dillard, one of my favorite authors, I wonder if we should be wearing metaphorical crash helmets in the classroom, for the sleeping giant of a new or startling idea might awaken within us and haul us off to places and hopes we never imagined possible.

- Samuel Torvend, Associate Professor of European Religious History