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Sewanee professor criticizes N.T. Wright’s honorary degree at School of Theology

Sewanee professor criticizes N.T. Wright’s honorary degree at School of Theology

Paul Holloway, Professor of New Testament at the University of the South’s School of Theology, published a letter in the Sewanee Purple complaining that the School of Theology should not have awarded N.T. Wright an honorary degree:

Some of the readers of this letter will know Wright as an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights and a vociferous critic of the Episcopal Church for its progressive stance. I find Wright’s position on these matters offensive and harmful. It is an affront to the School of Theology in general and to its LGBT community and its allies in particular.

But that is not my complaint here. My complaint is that Sewanee has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.

What do you think? Should Sewanee have recognized N.T. Wright with an honorary degree?

The Rev. Bryan Owen, blogging at Creedal Christian, disagrees with Holloway:

Setting aside the caustically contemptuous and intolerant tone of the letter, as well as its open hostility to Christian orthodoxy, here’s the gist of what Professor Holloway says: “N. T. Wright disagrees with my views on particular matters and he represents theological positions that contradict my own.  That offends and embarrasses me.  Therefore, Wright is not a real scholar and he doesn’t deserve an honorary degree.”

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in logic to see how silly this “argument” is.

Nor does it take a genius to see that if Professor Holloway’s letter makes the rounds among moderate-to-conservative lay and clergy graduates of The School of Theology, they just might decide to send their money to other institutions.  I’m aware of persons who have made just that decision before this letter was even written.  This letter will simply underscore that they made the right decision.  And there are others for whom Professor Holloway’s letter may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to financially supporting The School of Theology.  I doubt that’s the outcome the Sewanee administration had in mind when they issued the invitation for Bishop Wright to speak and receive an honorary degree!


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Rod Gillis

@ Paul Holloway, ” Scholarship is … trust that the specialist you are reading and who has presumably spent hours pouring over the primary evidence has played honest with that evidence, which among other things means that he or she did not stop when the evidence led in a direction he or she had determined in advance not to go. Erudition in the service of ideology is not scholarship, and those who follow such a path do not deserve to be recognized as such. ”

I took my I theological education in the 70s. The prominent theologians of that era were obviously formative. Examples: Bernard Lonergan wrote about the end of the normative classicist paradigm, functional specialties and the unrestricted desire to know. Yet Lonergan operated within a neo-Thomistic framework which could certainly qualify as confessional. Raymond Brown poured over texts with both a critical and passionate eye. He was faulted by voices on both the left and the right for failing to follow his critical exegesis to its logical conclusion. Yet, he advocated that his exegesis satisfied Catholic theology properly understood.

The question you raise about erudition in the service of ideology ( Isn’t that all confessional faith?) is an important but difficult one. What criterion do we use to distinguish between faith with integrity seeking to understand a set of texts and mere apologetic? Is a distinction possible?

susan moritz

The Comments section of this website forbids personal attacks and calls for respectful dialogue. Dr. Holloway’s letter of protest, as I understand it, was about academic standards. From the outset, critics here have distorted what he said and attacked him personally, even when they claimed not to know who he is.

It would be enough for a defender of NT Wright to cite his reputation and do that once. He’s very well known. Instead critics here insult Dr. Holloway and question his academic credentials and motives. He’s accused of “being unable to acknowledge the HUMANITY” of people he disagrees with. A feeble joke is made about his name. Someone else doesn’t like it that he makes an apt play on a Latin aphorism. Along the way Bishop Spong is personally attacked, and we’re told that Oprah and David Bowie have a greater claim to an honorary degree than the suffragan bishop of Los Angeles. (“What has she done to receive such an honor?” What indeed except perhaps minister to people who need her help and try to follow Christ.)

Dr. Holloway has answered his critics with a great deal more patience and respect than they’ve shown him. The questions he raises are important, unless theology really isn’t an academic discipline. Dr. Holloway and David Streever and some others here have tried to have a serious discussion. Contrary to Mr. Seitz, I feel that it’s the comments of Dr. Holloway’s critics here which are “cringe-worthy.”

David Streever

Thank you, Susan. I’ve tried to engage all of our readers on a respectful (or at least sincere) level; I think there are a lot of disingenuous comments on the internet already, and I fear that we get perhaps more than our fair share.

The commenting experience is something we’re paying attention to and working on. I think, on this story, we probably should have held back more of these comments; many of them are quite mean-spirited, and treat Dr. Holloway as if he were an anonymous, nebulous entity. Those attacks, despite the fact that he’s come in here to clarify and engage, strikes me as incredibly uncivil and inappropriate.

Nick Porter

David, just to be clear,I was never insulted by what you said to me. You distort my position, as I believe you can’t hold the same “discrimination” standards to things dealing with the church as with the state. There’s a difference and my views on both those are different.

David Streever

You told me my comment was “an insult”. I knew that you weren’t really insulted, but I was apologizing to be polite. The clarification isn’t needed, but thank you. Going forward, I’d appreciate it if you’d simply avoid being disingenuous. That way, we don’t need multiple clarifications and re-framing of your comments.

As I indicated previously, many of your recent comments have been moderated by several of us; please try to adhere to the comments policy completely. Our goal is to foster productive dialog; making snarky or snide comments does not encourage productive dialog.

Thank you!

Nick Porter

I’ve seen quite a few immature comments from people on the other side of certain issues. Please be fair and tell this to them as well. I mean, I would think that telling someone to “Talk to the KKK” would qualify as an insult right?

David Streever

No, comparing discrimination on the basis of sex to discrimination on the basis of race is not an insult; as I said at the time, I’m sorry that it offended you! It is precisely how I see sex-based discrimination; unfair, irrational, and something which will seem incredibly primitive to future generations.

That’s not meant to be an insult, nor do I understand how it is. I view discrimination based on sex as similar to discrimination based on race.

There aren’t ‘two sides’ on the issue of comment civility; one of the comments here compared Dr. Holloway to a crying infant. That’s just outright mockery, and it doesn’t matter what the person who wrote it thinks. We also delete comments from liberals who disagree with you when they are uncivil.

Nick Porter

In order to have real dialog,perspectives from all sides have to be allowed to share their thoughts, or else it’s just another case of “preaching to the choir”. Surrounding oneself with like-minded thinkers doesn’t eliminate the fact that there are other opinions out there that may be contrary to yours.

Nick Porter

David, I believe that’s just part of being a public figure and posting your thoughts on a public platform for all to see. I’m happy to see that he attempted to clarify his thoughts, but just because he decided to engage doesn’t mean that people were going to change their minds how they view his original letter. In order to have dialaug,

David Streever

Regardless of your personal views with regard civility, we have a rule here that comments should be civil and aimed at productive discussion. Mocking and infantilizing someone with whom you disagree does not conform to our rules, and in general, those comments will be deleted.

Letting bullies mock others and use infantilizing language is not a real dialogue, and banning bullying isn’t preventing people from having a conversation. Adults, particularly in the work place, have ‘real dialogue’ every day without employing outright mockery and insults.

Nick Porter

No one distorted anything Holloway said. His words speak for themselves. I stand by my words. Yes, considering what those people (including Bishop Wright) have done in their lives and careers and the impact they made on the world, the suffragan bishop of Los Angeles falls woefully short in comparison. If anything, I would think that by EDS awarding her that the honorary degree program has been diminished. By the way, you forgot this vile comment by someone who is defending Holloway, saying that Bishop Wright should meet with a terrorist hate group (KKK). I mean, that does qualify as a “disrespectful remark” by your standards right?

Susan Moritz

Mr. Porter: You say at the very opening of this thread, “Let’s be honest, his complaint is purely on the bases of Bishop Wright’s views on sexuality”
To be honest, that isn’t what his complaint is based on. He denies it. The actual words of his initial letter deny it.
Later you repeat this distortion when you paraphrase Holloway as saying: “I don’t agree with Bishop Wright on this hot button issue so he shouldn’t be honored.”
Mr. Seitz says: “I was simply countering comments that claimed NT Wright lacked credentials/was a hack.” Dr. Holloway did not claim that NTW lacked credentials, and he said NTW was an “apologist.” An apologist is not a hack.
David Streever has characterized uncivil and bullying posting very well. I’d add that excessive posting does not encourage a free flow of opinion but is itself a form of bullying.

Nick Porter

I disagree.

Bro David

Nick, +Mary is a graduate of EDS, she received her MDiv from EDS. I wasn’t aware that she had received an honorary degree from EDS, she doesn’t appear to wear it on her sleeve as some do. However, I think that if you look deeper, you will find that most Episcopal seminaries award their own alumni/ae honorary doctorates in ministry sometime after they are consecrated bishops. +Mary has served in a number of capacities in the church with distinction and isn’t worthy of the denigration she has been dragged into in this thread.

Frederick W. Schmidt

Oh, sniff, sniff, he shouldn’t be given an honorary doctorate, because I don’t agree with him. Because I ought to be getting an honorary degree myself — and more attention — and because I think everyone deserving of an honorary degree should agree with me.
Unbelievable….Were that the way that institutions conveyed honors, Jesus himself couldn’t be awarded an honorary degree.
I’m sorry…this article smacks of petty jealousy, an appalling lack of perspective, an absence of the magnanimous behavior that characterizes those who are genuinely secure in the work that they have done, and — come to that — a simple lack of class.
Have I participated in commencements where I would have suggested someone else for an honorary degree? Of course. Are there people whose work goes unrecognized by honorary degrees who should receive one? Yes.
But — agree with him or not — Tom Wright has earned the recognition by any objective standard and, unlike other recipients, he isn’t getting an honorary degree because he gave Sewanee a big donation. Good for the University of the South…embarrassed for their Professor of New Testament studies.

Cynthia Katsarelis

“Oh, sniff, sniff, he shouldn’t be given an honorary doctorate, because I don’t agree with him.”

It isn’t a matter of agreement, as if it’s about smaller or larger government. His believe does not accept me, my spouse, and my LGBT sisters and brothers as created equally in the Image of God, deserving of all the dignity of God’s Creation, and all our human and legal rights.

He doesn’t agree that I am a child of God and if his “view” prevails, I and my brothers and sisters suffer.

To call this about “agreement” is to absolutely lose one’s moral compass.

David Streever

Frederick: Perhaps you could post your comment with a modicum of respect and human tolerance towards Dr. Holloway, who has also commented here?

I would expect a mature, articulate, intelligent comment from a professor, and I’m uncertain why you opted instead to infantilize and castigate your peer in a mean-spirited personal attack. Perhaps this type of incendiary fire-bombing is best left to your private Facebook page, and not a public forum in the Episcopal community.

John Wirenius

I have to say I find myself in agreement with Dr. Seitz here, to the extent that the challenge to Wright’s scholarly output as lacking seriousness and rigor is, I think, unfair and untrue. Bishop Wright is someone I often disagree with, especially in his views on GLBT-related issues. I understand the pain and harm those views have caused, and can respect calls to deny an honorary degree on those grounds.

But–remember when the late Marcus Borg and Wright co-authored a book, “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions”? No name-calling, no denigration–two very different Christians disagreeing respectfully, affectionately, on important matters. It’s easy for me to say it–my marriage isn’t under discussion–by I think we need to find a way to disagree without denigration. To see our opponents in the round.

Cynthia Katsarelis

I’m not a scholar, I’m just married to one. I object to NT Wright and others who use “complementarity” to insult me as not created equally in the Image of God, to insult my relationship, a gift from God with 23 years of Grace supporting the gift, and insult God’s very Creation.

Talk about taking a personal bigotry and conveniently constructing a theology and academic argument around it.

The arrogance of saying that God made a mistake in creating me and my brothers and sisters is beyond words. The harm it causes is also well documented, suicide, depression, bullying, hate crimes, casting out LGBT teens from “religious families,” discrimination, the agonies go on and on.

England is 40 years behind the US in inclusion for women and LGBT people. England does not have an MLK who taught the people that injustice against one is an injustice against all. They don’t have the formation of the Letter from the Birmingham (Alabama) Jail that chastises moderates for wanting the vulnerable to continue to bear the burden of injustice for the comfort of the already comfortable.

Mr. Wright’s views are being strongly upheld by the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Perhaps he could meet with them while in the American South, they have something in common.

Whatever the merits of Mr. Wright’s other work, I would call the anti-gay bit a travesty of justice. Thanks, Sewanee, for lifting that up.

Nick Porter

So, because he happens to be a traditionalist on the issue of human sexuality, a position that most practicing (key word practicing) church going Christians hold, he should automatically be written off,despite being a world renowned theologian and bishop in the Anglican Communion which even those across denominations consider him one of the top minds in Christian thought? How sad. I’m glad those at the headship of Sewanee doesn’t have such a narrow-minded view.

Nick Porter

Cynthia, only God the Father has the “end-game” for us, and as I don’t have private access to the Book of Life, I have no idea. Like it or not, that really is the official view of the majority of Christendom. There might be fewer people that believe it, but that is still the view and I will hold fast to it regardless of what church canons, peer pressure, and yes, the world says. Because Christians are called to be in the world, not “of” the world.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Nick, it used to be narrowed minded to oppose slavery, anti semitism, and the burning of witches.

What exactly is your end game for me and my partner? Really? Are we supposed to just go commit Hari-kari so that you don’t have do “deal” with us? Or simply get the f*** out of YOUR church? Or come and beat ourselves on the chest for the sin of being Created in God’s Image, but different from the oh so moral majority that is doing such a fine job of creating a just and moral society? Are we to ignore God’s call to service to fulfill our Baptismal Covenant? Exactly what?

We are so dreadful and abhorrent that we are to be shunned? Then please, take down all the art, stop the music, ban the books, hide away all the work of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Lully, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Copland, Bernstein, for Christ’s sake ban Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein immediately! Fire your church musicians!

Honestly, what do you think God’s Creation looks like with exclusive leadership by white, straight, male supremacy? Is that the Kingdom? The New Jerusalem? The Promised Land?

Please don’t pretend to speak for the majority of Christendom. I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, the Greeks don’t take it too seriously anymore. Many of the Protestant churches are more progressive than TEC. So when you speak of “orthodox” or majority or practicing Christians, you are speaking of a couple of strains of religion that have hierarchical leadership, mostly regressive.

Sola Scriptura? Look at Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, and what is that bit about “the disciple whom Jesus loved?” While not conclusive, it should certainly give pause to the forces of hate in the name of God!

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