Mind-Forged Manacles

Professor Rachel Fulton Brown’s February 16th Sightings piece was about freedom of speech, the place of Christianity in Western culture supposedly championed by Milo Yiannopoulos, and the seeming inability of students to make normative judgments

By William Schweiker|March 2, 2017

Professor Rachel Fulton Brown’s February 16th Sightings piece was about freedom of speech, the place of Christianity in Western culture supposedly championed by Milo Yiannopoulos, and the seeming inability of students to make normative judgments. While the whirl of the “Milo Moment” seems to have passed with his forced exit from Breitbart, Professor Brown’s concerns are as moment as ever.

I write as a colleague, not as an enemy; as a fellow defender of liberty; and as neither a liberal nor a conservative standard bearer. I thank Brown for the courage of her convictions even if, in good conscience, I must disagree with them. I also note that Sightings, whatever its faults, embodies the University of Chicago's commitment to freedom of expression. The current dispute illustrates how difficult it is to sustain that commitment.

Professor Brown argues that students today cannot question their fundamental commitments because of a loss of “religion” and “theology” in the university. Religion seems to be defined by her as “people’s deepest convictions: the proper relations between women and men, the definition of community, the role of beauty, access to truth.” Why that is religion is not clear, and most scholars of religion would find it woefully imprecise. Given her stipulated definition, Brown then claims that “culture’s wellspring is religion,” and, accordingly, to study religion merely as an observer (from the outside, as she puts it) lacks the insight of the participant (the insider) who must struggle with the religion, and, per her definition, one’s deepest convictions. People of faith are better armed to wrestle with ultimate questions, less manacled by ideology.

The disastrous shift away from theology, so defined, took place in the 19th century, seemingly at the fault of Protestants. The consequence is that students today are fed a load of ideologies, while the faculty who champion those ideas are in no position actually to question their convictions, to do “theology.” They are manacled by their ideas. That is why Milo scares them: because that religious wrestling, doing theology, is what he is after under the banner of freedom of speech. But, oddly, both Professor Brown and her liberal critics seem to agree on one thing: our cultural mess is due to Protestants and the Enlightenment. For conservatives the surge of modernity means a celebration of preference parading as freedom; for liberals it was the font of Western hegemony, religiously and culturally. This means, amazingly, that both sides disavow those who fought for freedom and human equality in the first place!

Brown’s unexamined abstractions such as “Christianity,” when there exist only Christianities, and “religion,” when there are only religions, conceal a lot of historical and sociological detail. It is not the case that “Christianity” is the root of “Western civilization,” or that the defense of liberty was the concern of the medieval Church (recall the Inquisition!), or that the freedom to question “Christian” values is a mainstay of most “theologies” or even obviously Christian. The roots of the freedom of speech and conscience, as well as human equality, are more complex. Let's not replace one simple reading of history—the bland secularization theory that still holds the liberal academy in thrall—with an equally trite myth of decline where we supposedly race into decadence with the waning of the moral muscle of the (Catholic) Church.  Scholarship and teaching demand that we articulate, analyze, interpret, and assess the full complexity of our lived reality.

Human histories are not mono-causal; modern societies are not simple homogenous wholes; the roots of our basic convictions—if we are honest—are manifold. This is certainly true of “Western,” “Christian” convictions. They flow out of ancient Israel, Greece, and Rome. They include productive and destructive engagements with Islam and the upheavals of the Reformations, the Enlightenments, and the rise of modern science. The formation of convictions includes the histories of slavery, religious wars, colonization, and hideous genocide. And, let’s not forget, our convictions are shaped by the unbelievable artistic, philosophical, religious(!), economic, and scientific creations that have enlightened the human mind and relieved human suffering. The problem with Milo’s talk—and, I fear, Professor Brown’s loving defense of it—is that it is too simple. It does not cause one to think, but only to react in ways all too easy. Recall Alfred North Whitehead’s saying: “seek simplicity and then distrust it!” Given the complexity of things human, one must deploy simple generalizations. But then—for goodness sake—mistrust them, lest they put the mind in bondage.

Professor Brown’s Sightings piece is right that to exclude the study of religion from education is to miss part of the human adventure and also that religious traditions bear within forms of critical reflection about basic human matters. The same could be said if you exclude economics, law, literature, history, etc. There is no queen of the sciences: neither theology, nor economics, nor philosophy (just to name some pretenders to the throne). If we are to rethink the university, it must be in an inclusive, multi-perspectival sense.

Just two concluding points must be made. First, if one wants free and critical discourse among people treated with equal respect, where students engage fundamental convictions, then the model of the classroom must be Socratic debate, not Sophistic advocacy. Liberals and conservatives too readily dispatch with Socrates in order to confess The Cause. The power differential in classrooms means that too often students will follow the leader. That is what enslaves minds. Here, too, religious studies and modern theology can help lead. Those in my guild have worked exceedingly hard to differentiate confessions of faith from the work of pedagogy.

Second, to my sister Christian scholar—although I am one of those Protestants!—I confess that I find the vulgar, demeaning, and self-promoting discourse of Milo and those like him, on the right and the left, unbefitting of a Christian or any responsible person. One should strive to speak the truth with respect—even if love can find expression in satire, laughter, and blunt disagreement. Arguments, not people, should be one’s target. Only in that way can the bonds of civility be healed. And to my colleagues in the university, we must put our minds to defending what is under attack: the insistence on human worth that knows no borders; the rule of just laws that alone can secure social life; the right of human beings to self-rule, and therefore to struggle against tyranny in its insidious forms. The tyranny that intellectuals must fight is what William Blake, a certain kind of Methodist, called “mind-forged manacles.” One can only hope that the dispute set afire by Professor Brown’s Sightings piece can steel our resolve to undertake that urgent task and so help liberate and enliven minds.


Author, William Schweiker, is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His scholarship and teaching engage theological and ethical questions attentive to global dynamics, comparative religious ethics, the history of ethics, and hermeneutical philosophy. A former Director of the Martin Marty Center, he currently serves as Director of the Enhancing Life Project, which explores an essential aspiration of human beings that moves persons and communities into the future.

Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe to receive Sightings in your inbox twice a week. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

William Schweiker

Columnist, William Schweiker (PhD’85), is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School.