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To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Defending the Indefensible at Holy Cross

Controversy continues to swirl around Professor Tat-Siong Benny Liew, the Class of 1956 Chair of New Testament Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Professor Liew came to national attention during Holy Week, when an enterprising Holy Cross senior, writing in the college’s alternative newspaper, the Fenwick Review, published extracts from one of Liew’s scholarly (sic) articles, in which the professor interpreted the Gospel of St. John as furtively suggesting that Jesus experienced his Passion as homoerotic incest. This bizarre, if not blasphemous, reading of the New Testament was of a piece with others of Professor Liew’s published essays, which include “Queering Closets and Perverting Desires: Cross-Examining John’s Engendering and Transgendering Word Across Different Worlds” and “The Gospel of Bare Life: Reading Death, Dream, and Desire through John’s Jesus.” Professor Liew, it seems, has a point of view. Some might even call it an obsession.

The Holy Cross administration has been at DefCon One since the Liew story broke, to the point of issuing “talking points” to be used by Holy Cross employees, fundraisers, and alumni questioned about the Liew Affair by concerned parents and HC alums. In the tradition of interlinear Biblical commentaries, here are some of those talking points, with comments following:

The article referenced . . . was an experimental piece written over a decade ago that was not intended for an undergraduate classroom. It represents a very small portion of Professor Liew’s scholarship.

Musicians compose “experimental pieces.” Playwrights write “experimental” dramas. What conceivable meaning does the phrase “experimental piece” have in reference to a scholarly publication?

It was intentionally provocative work, not a statement of belief, meant to foster discussion among a small group of Biblical scholars exploring marginalization. It was not meant to offend or insult, but to stimulate scholarly debate.

Scholarly works are written by men and women claiming expertise in a particular field, who publish in journals, available to all, in order to elicit comment and criticism. Do other Holy Cross scholars deliberately intend their scholarly writing to reach a small, self-selected audience that excludes the great unwashed, whose sense of propriety might be offended? Is the quality of scholarship among the Holy Cross faculty to be measured by the paucity of the audiences they seek for their scholarly work?

[Holy Cross President Father Philip] Burroughs has said, “I know Professor Liew to be a dedicated teacher and an engaged scholar, and he and his family are active members of a church community. Academic freedom, is one of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. Scholars in all disciplines are free to inquire, critique, comment, and push boundaries on widely accepted thought. However, I strongly disagree with the interpretation of John’s Gospel, as described in the Fenwick Review. And I find it especially problematic in this most sacred of all weeks in the liturgical calendar.”

The issue here is not Professor Liew’s amiability, and the reference to his family is totally gratuitous. The issue is whether the article in question, and the rest of Liew’s oeuvre, is serious scholarship or trashy ideological posturing — a degradation of authentic scholarship that ought to be “problematic” at any time of the year at a serious liberal-arts college or university. If a Holy Cross history professor were to deny that the Holocaust of European Jewry occurred, would that be “especially problematic” only during Yom Kippur and the High Holy Days?

Our identity as a Jesuit, Catholic institution informs and influences all that we do at the College of the Holy Cross. We teach our students to engage deeply, to think critically, and to examine subjects from a variety of perspectives, even when those perspectives challenge our beliefs.

The sequencing of “Jesuit” and “Catholic” is curious, and perhaps instructive, as is the politically correct fluff about “engagement,” but to get down to cases, does the college’s chemistry department challenge students to examine the periodic table through the mysteries of alchemy? Do the college’s astronomers and astrophysicists teach astrology? Do they promote the Ptolemaic conception of the geocentric universe to provoke critical thinking about Newton, Einstein, and Hawking? Does the “we” here include Professor Liew, and does the “all that we do” include his articles? If so, are we to take it that the Liew thesis of a gay, incestuous Jesus is to be considered part of the college’s application of its Jesuit and Catholic identity? And if not, why not?

The Holy Cross administration and public-affairs department has predictably taken shelter behind the presumably impregnable barricade of “academic freedom,” which rather wholly misses the point here. That point was made by the faculty adviser to the Fenwick Review, Holy Cross political scientist David Schaefer, who had the following to say to a local newspaper:

I’m Jewish, so as the saying goes, I don’t have a dog in this fight, except indirectly as a longtime faculty member concerned with the reputation of the college. Speaking as an outside, I can only make the analogy as a Jew: I would find it astounding [if] I were an alumnus of Yeshiva University and they had hired somebody to teach the things about Moses that this theologian says about Jesus. I found it astounding.

So should Holy Cross’s alumni donors. So should the parents whose sons and daughters will be visiting the Holy Cross campus in the next few weeks after receiving their acceptance notices. Both should be aware that the College of the Holy Cross was fully aware of Professor Liew’s work when he was hired to fill an endowed chair at this self-identified “Jesuit, Catholic” institution. The chaff being thrown up by the college administration and PR machine notwithstanding, the question is not whether Professor Liew has the right to publish nonsense. The question is why Holy Cross hired someone known to advocate nonsense. And the further question is why the administration of Holy Cross is defending that hire on the grounds that nonsense somehow conduces to critical thinking, engagement with society, and the religious and spiritual maturation of the young.

Frolics in the sandbox of postmodern queer theory and gender theory were not exactly what John Henry Newman had in mind in describing what a university ought to be. It might help those hiding behind the barricades of academic freedom at Holy Cross to remember that, if they hear from a sufficient number of alumni and parents prepared to say, “Enough of this foolishness is enough.”

— George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.

This article was originally published on National Review Online

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