Academia, it’s time for a schism

Oliver Traldi proposes that academia can solve its current polarisation by focussing on the epistemic justification of knowledge. I argue the schisms of Protestantism indicate this is likely to fail.

37 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

38 Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?

(John 18:37–38)

In 2016, Jonathan Haidt noted a new trend among universities. Their telos—their goal or fundamental value—had traditionally always been “truth”. According to Haidt, there had over the preceding 30 years emerged a new telos: social justice. But no man can serve two masters, and as such, Haidt argued that if universities deviated from their traditional telos, not only would truth suffer, but eventually—as academia’s knowledge of truly efficacious solutions to social-justice problems diminished—social justice would suffer too. Oliver Traldi recently published an excellent essay at Heterodox Academy buttressing Haidt: the telos of a university cannot merely be truth but rather knowledge—i.e. justified true belief. If the university is justifying its claims with reasons of social justice, then it is not justifying them with epistemically valid reasons, and as such it does not have knowledge. Vigorous and robust academic freedom is required to ensure that academia’s reasons for stating what it states are good reasons; otherwise, it merely has haphazard beliefs that will be true by coincidence at best.

Painting of Jan Hus in Council of Constance by Václav Brožík (1883). (Source: Wikimedia)

But we may wish to ask here: is it true that “social justice” is really an epistemically invalid reason to believe a claim? Indeed, how might we even reconcile differences in what we take to be epistemic authorities? If I may be permitted one snarky remark for this essay, it is that the secular, liberal ivory tower often forgets it is not the first ivory tower. There are, in fact, already parallel institutions of higher learning that starkly disagree with the secular university’s permitted sources of epistemic authority—namely, the seminaries and university of Christian churches.

It is flatly insufficient to claim these institutions do not believe they are seeking knowledge; it is flatly insufficient, too, to say that they are purely seeking especially religious knowledge. Both Catholic and Protestant universities generally have the full complement of non-religious faculties (see, for instance, the list of faculties at the Catholic University of America and at Baylor University respectively), and even seminaries often extend into usually secular disciplines (Fuller Theological Seminary, for instance, offers programs in psychology and cultural studies). These institutions believe they are seeking knowledge in the broad sense—justified, true beliefs about the world.

No, the division between these and secular institutions lies in what would justify the true beliefs for each—and therein, too, lies the crux of what would justify the limits of “academic freedom”. A brief overview, then, of the sources of epistemic authority for the major denominations of English-speaking Christianity:

  • Roman Catholicism accepts two sources of ultimate epistemic authority: the Christian Scriptures and the Tradition of the Catholic Church. This is not to say that science cannot provide epistemic justification for claims, merely that science operates at the level of “secondary causality” (i.e. causality as normally understood), and secondary causality depends on “primary causality” (i.e. God’s continually willing the universe into being) [1]. Science can therefore claim as it wishes—but only to the extent that it does not contradict the revelations of God.
  • Many Protestant denominations affirm sola scriptura, or “only scripture”—i.e. the only ultimate epistemic justification is scripture. For some Protestant denominations who read the entire Bible as entirely literal (as opposed to part-literal, part-poetic, etc.) and who believe this reading disavows the model of primary and secondary causality outlined above, sola scriptura yields doctrines like “young-Earth creationism” or the literal historicity of Adam and Eve.
  • Anglicanism, the deliberately milquetoast addition to the Christian flock, decided to “middle-road” the above two by saying that epistemic authority derives from scripture, tradition, and reason, and that all three must be present for a claim to be ultimately justified. It therefore generally affirms the findings of science and (unlike Catholicism) is generally happy to make inferences from science back to scripture and tradition, not merely the other way around.
  • Methodism, like Anglicanism, affirms scripture, tradition, and reason as sources of authority but adds the experience of the faithful (the famous “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”).

These differences in permissible ultimate epistemic authority also help us to understand how both religious and secular universities believe they are pursuing “academic freedom”, despite the insistence of the latter that the former are engaging in censorship. The telos of academic freedom in any institution, religious or otherwise, is to allow academics to pursue knowledge (see, for instance, Article 39 of the Catholic Church’s Sapienta Christiana for an affirmation thereof). But this necessarily entails that academics cannot pursue blatant falsehood—in particular, “falsehood” according to the epistemic authorities that the university has adopted.

In a secular institution, therefore, academic freedom would allow a geologist to broadly pursue their lines of research without hindrance, but it is seemingly no contravention of academic freedom if a university removed the geologist’s teaching authority for having taught flat-Earthism. Such a doctrine clearly contravenes truth and therefore cannot constitute knowledge. Accordingly, Catholic universities would not revoke an academic’s teaching authority for researching or teaching evolution (this is, after all, merely secondary causality). But, given the epistemic authorities affirmed by the Catholic church, Catholic universities would in full accordance with academic freedom revoke teaching authority for an academic who teaches that the inherent purpose of sexuality is not the creation of new life: knowledge cannot not be contrary to truth. A Biblical-literalist college would likewise in full accordance with academic freedom dismiss a professor who did not affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve: if a literal reading of Scripture is the only ultimate epistemic justification, then the professor could not have been disseminating knowledge.

The above is not intended to convince readers of the legitimacy of the epistemic authorities appealed to above (I do not imagine readers of this blog generally find revealed religion to be particularly compelling). It is merely to note that there is nothing inherent in the concept of academic freedom per se that enables one to condemn the above as violations of academic freedom, since under the epistemic authorities to which those denominations have appealed, the censorship does not inhibit the pursuit of knowledge. And if Traldi’s telos­-as-knowledge model cannot show that dismissing a professor for failing to affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve is a violation of academic freedom, it is unclear how he thinks it will resolve the debate between traditionalist and social-justice directions on secular-university campuses, since the steel-man of the social-justice side is that they wish to affirm social-justice considerations as a valid epistemic justification.

To this, I therefore say: academia, it is a contradiction in terms to have a rational debate about the legitimate sources of epistemic authority. You’ve had a good run, but the cleft is now too deep. Follow your predecessors in the Christian academy. It is time for a schism. Time and again, when Christianity has found itself with incommensurate sources of epistemic authority, we have threatened and executed schisms. Against the authority of Tradition, Lutheranism executed a schism. Against the treatment of Scripture as non-literal, Christian fundamentalism executed a schism. Against the increasingly liberal exegetical strategies of the Episcopal Church, dioceses and congregations continue to execute schisms. And now, 500 years after the Reformation, there are at least as many sources of epistemic authority as there are denominations, each with their own seminaries, each with their journals, each with their own unique truth that it’s their telos to pursue. In Christian academia, there is no real need for debates over telos—if the teloi differ, at worst one can always schism again.

This is, of course, a joke. The fragmentation of Christianity is lamentable. It is hard to think of a period in its history where Christianity is less unified than it is now; it is unclear what unites a liberal Methodist, a conservative Catholic, and a prosperity-gospel Pentecostal today other than paraphernalia, and perhaps some creeds on whose interpretation all three differ. The three could certainly have a conversation about the teloi of their movements, and about what would justify justified true belief, but they would find simply that they flatly disagree. The difference between Christianity and academia is not that it is actually more unified in its telos, but rather that it has not yet fully realised that it is splintered.

So, to Traldi, I propose an alternative solution: there should be no discussions of the university’s telos, and certainly not of the sources of epistemic authority. Learn from Christianity’s mistakes. Everyone should just shut up. If there is no actual common foundation of epistemic authority, then the most likely possible result of investigating the foundation of epistemic authority is schism. If the belief in the literal defeat of sin and death and the literal incarnation of God as man was not enough to bind Christianity fast through its investigations of epistemic foundation, it is not clear to me why the complete absence of any unifying characteristic would bind secular academia through its.

To return briefly to Haidt, his book The Righteous Mind ends with a curious remedy to political polarisation: more bipartisan BBQs [2]. If Congressmen’s spouses are friends, and their children play on the same basketball teams, and they joke about the horrible weather in DC together in their carpools, then perhaps the debates on the floor of Congress would not be so acrimonious. It is likely not possible for Congressmen to build bipartisan friendships on the basis of a genuine shared moral foundation. There is none. But that is no problem: humans are naturally sociable creatures, and friendships can be built on gossamer threads. Academia, traditionally understood, should be irrelevant, dusty, and full of cobwebs. In such an academy—shared telos or no—there should be plenty of gossamer.


[1] A very brief more lucid explanation by actual Catholics can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNZGxWctjzk

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), p.363.

Peterson’s “Darwinian truth” makes no sense for the New Testament

Peterson’s appeals to a mythological interpretation of the New Testament are fundamentally at odds with the historical evidence we have of how New Testament authors viewed what they were writing.

This essay is most likely of zero interest to Christians, but it may be of interest to atheists who have found Peterson’s mythological discussion of the New Testament interesting.

In justifying how different layers of truth (historical, metaphorical, archetypal, etc.) are imbued into a single great text, such as the Bible or the Mesopotamian mythos, Jordan Peterson is wont to appeal to the expanding “penumbra” of knowledge [1]: there is a core circle of things that we clearly understand, there is a huge ocean of things that we don’t understand at all, and then there is a penumbra of things between the circle of things we know and the ocean of things we don’t know that we are attempting (badly) to understand. In Peterson’s understanding, this penumbra is the realm of myth—we cannot consciously explicate (for instance) what the optimal response to uncertainty is, so we instantiate the optimal response in myth so that we can attempt to understand the myth, which is more comprehensible than the uncertainty itself.

Jordan Peterson speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Women's Leadership Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Hyatt Regency DFW Hotel in Dallas, Texas.
Photo: Gage Skidmore, here.

This essay is not intended as a criticism of this model. Certainly the model appears prima facie plausible for myth that began as oral tradition, and if we are willing to entertain some Jungian archetypes then it appears plausible even for narrative more generally. I merely want to point out that this model only makes sense when the author of a great text is intending to write a narrative, not when they are intending to convey a history of things that actually happened. There is obviously a great deal of interpretative work to be done in, for instance, a history of the First World War, but that interpretative work is constrained by the actual events that occurred: the interpretation is legitimate only to the extent that it admits Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination on 28 June 1914 and the armistice’s being signed on 11 November 1918.

The problem then, possibly for Peterson and certainly for many of his followers, is that the historical record (i.e. the record that we can obtain on the historical evidence alone without any special pleading to divine revelation) clearly depicts the New Testament’s authors as believing the events they describe­ to have actually happened—they did not appear to believe they were writing myth [2].

The New Testament can be roughly divided as follows:

  • To begin are the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which function essentially as histories of Jesus’ life, followed by Acts, which is essentially a history of the early Church. It’s generally believed that these were written somewhere between 30 and 80 years after Jesus’ death.
  • To end, we have the Book of Revelation, which is a prophetical book that most major denominations do not believe should be interpreted in a straightforwardly literal way and therefore doesn’t concern us here.
  • Between these are the epistles, which are actual letters that actual Christians wrote to actual other Christians or to be read aloud to actual Christian congregations. They are generally (as with most letters now) are intended to convey some information or exhortation to the recipient. The best historical evidence we have dates most of these as having been written earlier than the Gospels (starting from roughly 20 years after Jesus’ death).

To be clear, there is abundant purely historical evidence that most of these epistles were real letters written by real Christians to other real Christians, and not simply edited or cobbled together at a later date to reinforce an extant Christian mythology. For a start, Biblical scholars generally concede where sections were likely added in by later scribes (for instance, 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is generally believed to have been added later), and while there is scholarly division over whether some epistles were written by their purported author (e.g. whether the Epistle to the Colossians was written by Saint Paul), there is no such division over other epistles (e.g. whether the Epistle to the Romans was written by Saint Paul). Indeed, even where there is division about whether an epistle was written by its purported author, the alternative author is generally proposed to be a contemporary admirer of the purported author, not some clergyman several hundred years later. In other words, the epistles are likely a very good reflection of actual Christian beliefs in the time shortly after Jesus’ death. And if we take that seriously, then the idea that the referents of the letter are intended primarily as mythological rather than historical is… bizarre.

Take, for instance, Chapter 15 from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, which according to scholarly consensus was indisputably written by Saint Paul. Emphasis is mine; it’s worth reading in full:

1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. […]

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17 If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.

(1 Cor 15:1–20)

Note the underlined bits here. In the first, Paul is explicitly saying: “If you do not believe that the historical event of Christ’s resurrection happened, you can go and verify that it happened by speaking to those before whom Christ appeared after he was resurrected”. In the second, Paul is explicitly saying: “If you do not believe literally in the historical event of the resurrection—i.e. if you believe in a mythologised version instead—then your faith is in vain”. In the third, just in case he hadn’t already made it clear, Paul is explicitly saying: “But this historical event did happen, and will happen again when we Christians are resurrected”. Again, this was an actual letter that was written by an actual Christian to be read out before an actual Christian congregation that really existed. There is straightforwardly no way to interpret the above other than to say Paul is insisting on the utterly non-mythological historicity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

In other words, even if we thought for some reason that the more narrative gospels were fundamentally intended as mythological in nature (which, incidentally, we also have no real evidence for), we could not possibly believe that the epistles—which broadly precede the gospels—were intended as fundamentally mythological. I am not trying to get into whether the resurrection actually did happen here—and others elsewhere have made persuasive cases that early Christians could believe that the resurrection actually happened without its having happened. My point is solely to say that Peterson’s (and others’) insistence on looking at these first and foremost as mythologies is utterly anachronistic and entirely unsupported by the historical evidence we have about the epistles’ authorship and audience.

This isn’t to say it’s illegitimate to read the New Testament as mythological—it’s simply illegitimate to read it as mythological unless you’re a Christian. I, as a Christian, can believe that Scripture is divinely inspired and therefore operates at all levels simultaneously—historical, mythological, eschatological all at once. If a non-Christian, however, wants to read them as mythological, they have to form a case whereby the books of the New Testament were not intended as myths at the time of their authorship, were canonised by the early Church understood explicitly as historical and not as myths, and have been affirmed by Christians throughout the ages explicitly as historical and not as myths, while the whole time were actually just an exploration of the “penumbra of the unknown” in spite of a complete lack of evidence for this.

Peterson, to his credit, refuses to rule out the historical interpretation [3]—he simply says he’s first and foremost interested in the mythological lens. His argument, if on shaky foundations, is therefore not technically unsound. Other scholars of mythology would do well to follow his lead, or to simply affirm the New Testament as historically false instead of affirming it as myth.


[1] See, for instance, the first lecture of his Biblical series: https://youtu.be/f-wWBGo6a2w

[2] To be clear, I am not arguing for the truth claims of the New Testament in this essay. Independently, as a Christian, I do believe the New Testament is true, but this essay is only intended to show that the authors believed what they were writing to not be mythological in nature.

[3] See, for instance, his interview at Transliminal Media: https://youtu.be/YC1pvjyKYr4?t=5690

“Well, Christ’s spirit lives on. It’s had a massive effect across time. Well, is that an answer to the question, “did his body resurrect?” I don’t know. I don’t know. The accounts aren’t clear, for one thing. What the accounts mean isn’t clear. I don’t know what happens to a person if they bring themselves completely into alignment. I’ve had intimations of what that might mean. We don’t understand the world very well. We don’t understand how the world could be mastered, if it was mastered completely. We don’t know how an individual might be able to manage that. We don’t know what transformations that might make possible.” (transcript here: https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/transcripts/transliminal/)