The Niceness Cosmopolitan Creed

Last Monday, my department adopted a statement articulating its position on diversity*:
The Department of History at the University of Chicago is strongly committed to promoting diversity, inclusion, and equity among its faculty, students, and staff in the range and content of the courses that we teach, and in the pedagogical methods that we employ in our classrooms. We recognize that over the course of American and world history broad swaths of the population have been subjected to legal discrimination and systemic bias on the basis of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or disability status. Likewise, deep economic inequalities have persistently curtailed social opportunities for many. The individuals who constitute these communities have often found their intellectual contributions devalued to a degree that has attenuated human understanding, wisdom, and fellowship. 
We affirm that our collective intellectual endeavors are made more robust and credible when we incorporate different peoples and intellectual traditions into our learning, teaching, and scholarship. The field of history is replete with examples of how individuals, drawing on insights derived from their own life experiences, have made breakthroughs that changed the contours of their fields. Diversity in governance and in the classroom is equally important. In short, the more our department reflects the city we reside in, the United States as a nation, and the world, the more enriched it will be by a healthy breadth of perspectives and experiences. We acknowledge that recruiting faculty, students, and staff of varied life experience is only the first step toward achieving this goal; we also pledge to cultivate an environment in which all feel that they belong, that they are valued, and that they can teach, work, and learn free from exclusions and inequities that inhibit the comprehensive exchange of ideas.
I’ll bet you think I refused to vote in favor.

You would be wrong.

Oh, I had a few questions for our meeting. The original draft did not include the sentence about “deep economic inequalities,” which I thought we needed to acknowledge, although the term I wanted us to use was “class.” I was concerned that the list of categories of legal discrimination and systemic bias did not include political views, but my colleagues persuaded me that differences in political opinions were covered in the statement that they issued in response to the Open Letter about me. But otherwise I was fine.

Are you surprised? Why? It is as near perfect an articulation that one could craft of the ideals expressed some 1,984 years ago (give or take a year, depending on your dating system) when the Holy Spirit descended in a mighty wind upon the apostles of Jesus and filled them with the wisdom and ability to speak to the people gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks in their own tongues. As the evangelist described the moment:
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one hear them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how it is that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” – Acts of the Apostles 2:5-13
Christians have often been accused of being drunk when they claim that the Word of God became incarnate so as to save all who believed – that is, trusted in – him from their sins. But throughout the history of the Church, this has been the ideal: that all people should be brought into the community of the faithful by way of preaching, just as the apostles preached to the people of Jerusalem on that day in A.D. 33 (or thereabouts, depending on your calendar). So committed to this vision of community has the Church been that the Bible itself has been translated in full or in part into over 3,200 languages –  over 200 times the number of languages mentioned in Acts.

The Church has likewise been committed throughout its history to the work of preaching, making regular provisions even in the so-called Dark Ages for preachers to be trained so as to be able to speak to the laity in their own languages. And it has been committed since the twelfth century at the latest to making provision for educating even poor scholars for this role. Pope Innocent III said so, in canon 11 promulgated at the Lateran Council in 1215:
Since there are some who, on account of the lack of necessary means [a.k.a. “deep income inequalities”], are unable to acquire an education or to meet opportunities for perfecting themselves, the Third Lateran Council [1179] in a salutary decree provided that in every cathedral church a suitable benefice be assigned to a master who shall instruct gratis [a.k.a. not charging tuition] the clerics of that church and other poor students, by means of which benefice the material needs of the master might be relieved and to the students a way opened to knowledge. 
And, likewise, the Church has been committed to a vision in which all human beings, both women and men, are seen as made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), thus rational and capable of instruction. Heloise may have been exceptional in her brilliance, but before meeting Abelard she received the standard education in the early twelfth century for a woman of her class. There was nothing remarkable in her uncle hiring Abelard as her tutor, only the intensity of her and Abelard’s love. And, of course, when her uncle had Abelard castrated, Abelard took refuge in the Church.

Race, class, gender: these three have been uppermost in Christians’ minds since antiquity as the categories by which not to judge the humanity of another human being (cf. Galatians 3:28). Of course we as an educational institution, not to mention a department, should not exclude anyone from our community solely on the basis of their “race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or disability status.” To do so would be to go against God.

Now, to be sure, my departmental colleagues were not thinking in these terms when they drafted our statement, but, as I tried to point out in our discussion, they should be. At the very least, they should acknowledge that by making inclusion our primary identifier as a department we are making not a scientific or objective claim about the importance of the work that we do as historians, but a moral one. We are, in effect, returning to the standards by which medieval historians judged the utility of their work: not as objective, disinterested observers (the ideal according to which the American historical profession purported to judge itself at least through 1989, as our late colleague Peter Novick pointed out), but as moral philosophers providing examples of good and bad behavior.

In case you are wondering, I am fine with this alignment as scholars. In fact, again as I pointed out in our meeting, I have staked my entire scholarly career on the project of describing what it was like to be a medieval Christian from within. “Would you like to learn to pray like a medieval Christian?,” the blurb for my forthcoming book invites readers. “It’s not my brief,” one of the readers for my press concluded his or her critical assessment of my book, “to say what such a book [not the one I had written, but the one this reader thought I ought to write instead] should do.... But much of what RFB [I was not yet “the notorious RFB”!] wants to say is inappropriate for a book purporting to explain mediaeval devotion to academic historians, who simply won’t read it. If RFB were addressing her theological views to a sympathetic audience, rather than berating one she conceives as hostile [where ever could I have gotten that idea?], she could stop beating straw men and engage with interlocutors more to her liking.”

I wonder where I might find them?

I’m sure you’ve read all the dirt about Milo, maybe even about how my colleagues at large in medieval studies have been unconvinced by my efforts to signal how (like Milo) I am not a white supremacist. Just two days after my department adopted its statement, Josephine Livingstone (Ph.D. New York University, 2015) called me to task in the New Republic:
We moderns are no more free of our historical moment than they were. In recent months, white supremacists have publicly claimed the iconography of medieval Europe in an attempt to shore up their identification with a fictional, homogenous or “pure” white past. Some academics have been willing to indulge them. From within medieval studies itself, the University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown has become a notable supporter of Milo Yiannopoulis (she is cited in the Buzzfeed Breitbart investigation), and writes blog posts with titles like “Three Cheers for White Men.” She has also been a contributor to Breitbart. This solidarity between outright advocates of white supremacy and a conservative academic was already scandalous. But Professor Brown strained matters further when she publicly attacked the nontenured, woman of color scholar Dorothy Kim, encouraging her to “learn some fucking** western European Christian history” after Kim wrote about the field of medievalism’s complicity with white nationalism. 
As Donna Zuckerberg wrote, Brown’s response to Kim was formulated in the terms of a “fact check.” For her part, Brown pointed to blackness in the Song of Songs. Since medieval Europeans did not react badly to nonwhite people in this text from the Middle Ages, she claimed, Kim’s argument could not be right. But the argument totally misses the terms of Kim’s, which—much like Bernal’s intervention—called for a historiographical critique of the field’s relation to race, not a historical one. Kim’s question was not whether medieval peoples were racist, it was whether the study of them itself had perpetuated white supremacy. In the controversy that erupted over the fight between Brown and Kim in mainstream publications like Inside Higher Ed, that question was somewhat lost.
What was it I said in my blogpost? “How should you signal that you are not a white supremacist if you teach the ‘medieval western European Christian past’? Learn some f*cking medieval western European Christian history, including the history of our field.” My point being exactly the one that Livingstone says has been obscured. (And, by the by, I don’t “indulge” the white supremacists; that would be the MSM like Rolling Stone. I just say we scholars have been here before. Gotten medieval recently, anyone?)

How is it that my academic colleagues have gotten so vociferous of late about making sure that we all speak as one? You would almost think they were channeling Pope Innocent III. What was it he said in canon 1? Oh, yes: “There is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation.”

Back in February, I suggested to my academic colleagues that we in the academy are facing a religious crisis. Why does Milo scare students – and faculty even more? Because, I argued, he challenges their creed, particularly the creed defined by the articles of “multiculturalism; race, class, gender; and the purportedly secular ideals of socialism and Marxism.” As Nancy Frankenberry (Professor Emeritus of Religion at Dartmouth) put it in her response to my Sightings article, I was wrong. There is no such creed:
[Professor Fulton Brown] seems to think that an unholy trinity has tripped up this generation of students, but I see them as too sophisticated to be lost to “bad theology”: multiculturalism is simply their milieu, not their “religion”; race, class, and gender are their analytic categories, not their politically correct avoidance of critical thinking; and as for the “secular ideals of socialism and Marxism” that Brown oddly finds making inroads—last time I looked, capitalism was on a roll on most American college campuses.
I take her point about capitalism – it is true that we in the academy take too much for granted the role of the towns in sustaining us – but I still say what my colleagues in my department have just issued is a creed.*** I just did not articulate it properly back in February.

Here is another version, this one suggested by Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, writing in 2014. He is talking about what he calls the “the sacred project of American sociology,” explaining the tenets by which his own colleagues operate (he, too, labels “race, class, and gender” an “unholy trinity”), but never articulate lest they forfeit their credentials as “scientists.” In his words:
So deeply is this sacred project lodged in the soul of American sociology, and so obvious is its appeal, that ordinary sociologists find it impossible to make it the independent object of explicit observation and analysis. It is central to sociology’s orthodoxy and habitus, and so goes unnoticed. Second, publicly naming and overtly embracing this sacred and spiritual project would threaten the scientific authority and scholarly legtimacy of academic sociology on which the project itself depends for success. Keeping the sacred project misrecognized, implicit, and unexamined provides an escape hatch of “plausible deniability” that is politically necessary. 
And you wonder that my colleagues in academia are mad at me? Here is their creed, according to Smith (his italics, my bold):
American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures...  
It is not, for this project, enough simply to set people free from oppression and to treat them as equals. Everyone also deserves to be morally affirmed by everyone else in their society. Justice and equity are not sufficient: it is necessary to ensure the kind of social and moral approval, validation, appreciation, and approbation that people are believed to need to feel good about themselves. Unacceptable, therefore, is any form of real or symbolic lack of acceptance, exclusion, or moral judgment against another. Every identity and lifestyle must be not only tolerated but positively validated, affirmed, and included.****
How was it that the Apostle Paul put it?
For the body does not consist of one member but of many... If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the great honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. – 1 Corinthians 12:14, 19-26
My colleagues in my department, like Professor Smith’s colleagues in American sociology, like my colleagues at large in medieval studies are engaged in a sacred project to construct a community in which everyone belongs, no one is excluded, no member considered more or less worthy of honor than another, everyone is validated, accepted, and never judged. And yet, to do so, they are forced – just like Pope Innocent – to define that community in terms which exclude those who do not adhere to its sacred claims. I know what such a community is called. Do they?


*As I explained to the student reporter who interviewed me yesterday, this statement was the fruit of a year-long discussion in the department. It was not issued in direct response to anything I have said. It is only the statement in response to the Open Letter that was written in reference to me.
**I used an asterisk. Just saying.
***Thus the pun in the title to this post on the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed said by the Church.
****Smith explains the source of these tenets as stemming from “the modern liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist ‘tradition.’” A.k.a. the secular Church.

References

Christian Smith, The Sacred Project of American Sociology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 6-8, 11, 13-14, 22.

Image credits

The University of Chicago, Regenstein Library, Department of Special Collections, MS 347, fol. 83v: Mary and the apostles at Pentecost.

“Where Charity and Love Prevail,” Offertory hymn for Sunday, October 29, 2017, at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, Chicago, IL. In Worship-Fourth Edition. Hymn copyright 1960.

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