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Why We Can’t Have Nice Discussions

Theoretical chemist and Christian apologist Neil Shenvi is not good enough to debate black academic, says black pastor. Veritas Forum agrees (Neil Shenvi lecture)

The thinness of Progressive Twitter’s skin can be measured in microns. The strength of the spine of organizational leaders accused of bigotry by Progressive Twitter can only be measured in terms not of tensile strength, but of viscosity. That’s the conclusion I draw from a planned discussion that Veritas Forum, the thoughtful Christian organization devoted to talks and speeches on campuses, was planning to have about race and reconciliation, until its leaders freaked out and cancelled.

What was the problem? Well, here’s how the event was advertised:

 

According to a report in Christian Post:

The Veritas Forum, a nonprofit group that explores truth and life through various disciplines, including religion and science, apologized Monday and canceled a discussion on critical race theory after critics pointed out that one of their featured speakers was not a leading expert on race and Christianity.

Willie James Jennings, an associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School, and Neil Shenvi, a blogger with a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry, were set to discuss whether a secular worldview like critical race theory can address racism or if Christianity provides a unique response.

While Shenvi has discussed critical race theory on several panels and written a number of articles on the issue, he has no academic training in the subject matter. The event, which was set to take place virtually on March 4, describes both speakers as “leading experts on the topic of race and Christianity.”

Shenvi (website here) is an apologist who became a Christian while at Berkeley getting his PhD in theoretical chemistry. He’s an extremely well educated scientist who quit his academic career at Duke University after a cancer scare. He now homeschools his children. It is likely true that this chemist is not a “leading expert on the topic of race and Christianity,” depending on how you determine who are experts, and who are the leading ones. It was sales pitch hyperbole. But the idea that Shenvi, who is nonwhite, has anything useful to say about race and reconciliation is offensive to certain progressives on Twitter, who claimed this pairing was a racist insult to Prof. Jennings. A black pastor complained:

Shameful? The arrogance and pride of academic credentialism is what ought to shame Christian ministers. Let the people who come to hear these two men discuss decide who has something useful to offer. My thought would be that these two Christian men, both well educated men of color, could complement each other’s take. But then, I don’t sit around waiting to be offended. I presume good will unless given reason to think otherwise.

Well, Veritas Forum did what organizations always do when a woke person accuses them: it folded.

Prof. Jennings is a grown man. He agreed to join the forum to debate with Dr. Shenvi. Presumably he was fine with it. But not Kyle J. Howard, who is black. According to Howard’s biography, he has only an undergraduate seminary degree in Biblical Counseling. But he has some relevant hands-on pastoral experience regarding racial trauma and racial reconciliation. Should he not have been considered for this panel because he doesn’t have advanced degrees? Shenvi, however, does have advanced degrees, and he has lectured on the topic. How does Howard know what Shenvi does and does not know about the issue? Shenvi’s father is Indian, and it stands to reason that his brown-skinned children might face academic discrimination getting into universities because though they are not white, they will be required to pay a price, as other high-achieving students of Asian heritage are, for the sins of white Americans generations ago. Given that Critical Race Theory stands to affect his non-white/non-black family negatively, I would be quite interested to hear his thoughts, in fact.

Or is this really about Pastor Howard rejecting in advance Neil Shenvi’s criticism of Critical Race Theory, and invoking an allegation of racism to take Shenvi out?

Was Prof. Jennings’s dignity offended by the Shenvi pairing? What did he have to say about it?

I’m disappointed that Veritas cancelled, but maybe there were some local factors that made it impossible to continue. But they should not have apologized for anything other than exaggerating Shenvi’s credentials — hardly a crime.

This sounds to me like another example of class war fought through identity politics. This week, I was on a panel discussion about Dante with three academics. I had been invited on as a passionate, well-informed amateur. The academics treated me with respect and kindness, and we all complemented each other, I think, with our perspectives. Neither was offended that they were paired with someone who is not trained in literature at the academic level.

When academics of the Orthodox Left in the US tried to get my talk at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary cancelled, one of the strategies they used was wailing but he’s not even an academic! Well, they’ve got me there; I’m no St. Silouan the Athonite either, but by their snotty standard, one of the great modern saints of the Orthodox Church wouldn’t have been invited to give the lecture, because not only did he not have academic degrees, he could barely read. Anyway, a graduate of that seminary who watched my talk on Zoom told me later that so many of those past lectures were dry-as-dust academic affairs where you fought to stay awake. Whether or not you liked what I had to say, at least I was talking about the real world that these seminarians are actually going to live in, not the pristine, hermetically sealed environment of the academy, where one rarely finds opposition to one’s progressive beliefs, and where well-intentioned Christians collapse in the face of progressive indignancy.

Seriously, though, how are we supposed to have any kind of conversation about racial reconciliation when progressives go to pieces over penny-ante invented slights, and the kind of people who ought to be telling these sectarian shriekers to take a hike instead fall all over themselves to appease them?

Here is a lecture Dr. Shenvi gave about Critical Race Theory and Christianity. Watch it for just a few minutes. This is a topic the man has clearly thought about a lot.

 

UPDATE: A white, conservative Christian professor writes to say I got this wrong. It’s not about race, he says, but about status and Veritas’s brand. It wasn’t wokesters who put the heat on Veritas, but Christian college professors, including conservative ones, who believed that it was insulting to Prof. Jennings to pair him with a seemingly random person — this, when Veritas’s brand is built around how it holds the most important conversations with the best people.

Imagine, said my correspondent, if a bioethics research center put together a debate about the ethics of abortion, and got Robbie George on one side and a random feminist blogger on the other. It suggests a certain lack of seriousness verging on insulting.

My correspondent said he participates in an online forum of fellow conservative Christian college professors, and all of them were angry over this. “Academia is very status conscious and this felt to them like an insult to Jennings,” he writes to me.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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