“I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.”(Psalm 119:44-45)
Academic freedom is a frequent talking point in our times – it’s often seen as under threat, whether it’s the government waging a war against ‘woke’ culture, concerns over funding and (de)platforming, or the ever-increasing pressures of a consumer-oriented higher education industry. This conversation – where there is one, rather than just fearmongering and name-calling – is often characterised by fear and defensiveness. As Christians, I think we have some unique resources to draw on: if not to find immediate solutions or answers to the many problems in this area, then to approach them, as individuals, in ways which bring life rather than stoke fear.
The verse above, from Psalm 119, centres like most verses of that long psalm on God’s law. The speaker places obedience to the law at the centre of his life; he pours his energy into seeking it out, learning more of it. Because of this neverending search, he says, ‘I will walk about in freedom’. It’s worth dwelling here on what seems, to modern eyes, to be something of a paradox: binding yourself to the law is what leads to freedom.
There’s a lot that could be said about this principle. What strikes me in particular is the metaphor of movement and space – walking about, or in the more literal sense of this phrase rendered in the ESV, ‘walking in a wide place’. Walking as a metaphor for living is one of those buried figures of speech that we barely notice as such, it’s so common in the biblical languages (and others). By relying on the kinetic and spatial aspects of existence to say something about our ethical and spiritual life, the psalmist communicates a vivid sense of how limiting and shaping our own actions in obedience to God’s law actually opens up more space and more capacity than we would have had otherwise.
How does this relate to academic freedom and responsibility? If we conceptualise our freedom in more common ways, as a lack of constraint or the capacity to self-actualise or self-determine, then we will tend to think of it either as an absence – freedom from something – or a static condition or commodity, which can be encroached on or taken away. When we exercise academic freedom, thought of in these ways, it can end up overly self-focused and defensive.
The psalmist’s image of freedom is different, precisely because it comes out of a dynamic, kinetic interplay with the shaping laws of life which come from God. We need to know where our freedom enables us to go – how it gives us the space to walk in new ways, in wide spaces we wouldn’t know to look for if we just focused on ourselves. Thinking in this way can help us to reframe and escape the fear that comes from seeing others’ criticisms or differing priorities as threats.
Think about how this applies in your academic life: whether in the methodologies you choose to pursue your research, in the projects and commitments you say yes or no to, in how you pursue funding opportunities or present your career in job applications. If your life is shaped by God’s laws – the ways he’s ordained the world and our lives, with his lavish grace undergirding and animating them all – then into what wide places of freedom are you able to walk?