Schulz on Wokeness: A Philosophical Response to Objections

Noah Hahn

Bronx, NY

Philosophy students at Concordia University Wisconsin, at least when I attended from 2012-2016, were taught the importance of backing up assertions with carefully articulated and organized reasoning. The model figure here was Thomas Aquinas, a great doctor of the late medieval church. Because I love reasoned dialogue, I was excited to see that roughly two months after Dr. Gregory Schulz published his article “Woke Dysphoria at Concordia” in Christian News, the first objection to Schulz’s claims was published—in the form of an anonymous letter in the April 4 issue of Christian News. Now that two viewpoints have been presented, we can begin to consider which one has more merit. The objections, and the way the author argues for them, provide a useful opportunity to consider Schulz’s arguments in the fresh light of direct criticism.

The letter raises four distinct charges against Schulz: his article (1) discredits synodical leaders, (2) ignores context, (3) maligns CUWAA administrators, and (4) falsifies accreditation expectations. We may consider each of these claims one at a time.

Does Schulz (1) discredit synodical leaders? According to the letter, a November 2021 in-depth evaluation of CUWAA by synodical leaders “affirms Concordia’s culture” and “makes no mention of ‘woke dysphoria.’ Their conclusions fully affirm CUW’s mission and distinct Lutheran focus.” The letter includes quotations from the leaders’ exit report which praise the university’s purpose statement as describing laudable campus practices. The report also commends the development of a “bold five-year plan,” and refers positively to conversations with faculty members as being evidently committed to identification with the university mission. The overall impression is supposed to be that synodical leadership came to a positive conclusion about CUW’s Lutheran identity—and that by contradicting this conclusion, Schulz discredits the leadership.

Unfortunately, the quotations reproduced in the letter do not do a good job of establishing that conclusion. The author assumes that the synodical team should have been expected to catch every problem at the university in one evaluation. Universities are complex places, and it seems quite possible that the review committee simply did not notice the wokism which Schulz claims is present.

Consider an analogy from the business world. Corporate leadership may conduct a routine analysis of workplace culture at the branch level. Suppose that soon after such a routine evaluation, an employee complains about systemic harassment of employees at the branch by their supervisors. It would be in bad taste to accuse the complainant of “discrediting” corporate leadership in an unqualified sense. Any reasonable person would still take her seriously, even though a routine analysis had recently taken place. Far from wholesale discrediting, the employee is just suggesting that the leadership overlooked something in what was surely a useful enough investigation. Perhaps the leadership simply did not think to look for signs of harassment, or perhaps the harassment happened to come to light or to reach intolerable levels soon after the evaluation was completed. In the case of Concordia, perhaps synodical leadership did not think to ask wokeness-specific questions to the faculty. Or perhaps they did not happen to sit in on the classes where wokeness was being taught, or on a day when it was being taught. This seems like a completely reasonable possibility, but the objection from the anonymous letter does not consider it.

Does Schulz (2) ignore relevant context when it comes to CUW’s presidential prospectus? The letter argues that he does. First, it points us to the prospectus, which states that the next president “will be a person of deep faith, humble and devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ and God’s Word, winsome and fervent in their confession of the doctrine of the Lutheran Church. The president will possess extraordinary intellectual curiosity and theological acumen.” The prospectus also demands that the president be “faithful to the Holy Scriptures” and “faithful to the Lutheran Confessions.” The objection, if I read it correctly, is that Schulz conveniently ignores the Lutheran-friendly elements of the prospectus, choosing to focus on the woke language. The suggestion seems to be that things would not seem so bad if Schulz were willing to read the prospectus as a whole, rather than cherry-pick his least favorite parts—if he were, so to speak, willing to let scripture interpret scripture.

Unfortunately, the letter does not explain exactly why the good parts of the prospectus should “win out” or help us reinterpret the bad parts. This is what philosophers might call a hermeneutical oversight. From the point of view of Schulz’s article, the mere fact that the prospectus includes the pro-Lutheran language does not excuse or provide grounds for reinterpreting the woke language. Consider another analogy. Imagine that a conservative American political party chooses the swastika for an emblem; but when questioned about the perceived alignment with white supremacy, the party replies by pointing out that they also use the emblem of the cross. I imagine the critics would not find this a very impressive response. Consider another example. Although many women have accused President Trump of treating them badly, he has made claims like “nobody respects women more than I do.” Now imagine the former president’s supporters deflecting the accusations against him by pointing out that Trump claims to respect women. I doubt that reasonable people would be persuaded by this attempt at deflection.

These examples show that even if alarming language or symbolism is sometimes legitimately reinterpreted in light of conventional language, this is not always the case—and if the language or symbolism is corrupt enough, redemption can be next to impossible. In the Concordia case, Schulz’s claim in the “Woke Dysphoria” article is that woke language and biblical language are fundamentally incompatible, for the specific reason that the woke language is highly destructive of our ability to understand authoritative texts. If Schulz is right, then there can be no “friendly” reinterpretation of the woke language in the context of university policy—even if one surrounds it with Bible-affirming language. The letter simply assumes, without argument, that Schulz is wrong about this hermeneutical point. If Schulz is in fact wrong about this, it should be established by argumentation, not assumption.

The letter also claims that in place of context, Schulz focuses on himself, since he frequently cites his own work. It finds this problematic. However, focusing on one’s own work is not the same as focusing on oneself. As those who work in academia know, self-citation is a standard activity, especially if one works in a specialized field. It would be odd to accuse a radiation oncologist of citing her own work if she were one of the only researchers working on a new or innovative treatment—especially if the whole point of her citations were to open her research to criticism and discussion.

Does Schulz (3) malign CUWAA administrators? The letter argues that he does, including a long list of university activities which it claims Schulz has never observed: a leadership or strategic planning meeting, an administrative or academic council, a program approval or curriculum assessment meeting, a BoR meeting or a Foundation meeting. The claim here is that Schulz’s accusation of systemic wokeness is not based on any knowledge of the subject matter. In fact, the letter accuses him of principled bias against such knowledge: “direct observation is irrelevant to him because observation relates to science and science is useless. Professor Schulz is the self-anointed ‘privileged authority’ on Concordia’s culture, which means what he says must be true because, well, he says it’s true, and he has multiple self-citations to prove it.”

There are at least two problems with this criticism, besides the straw-man argument against self-citation. First, the letter claims detailed knowledge of Schulz’s professional life. Unless the author is a close co-worker, friend, or family member, it would be an overreach to assume Schulz has never witnessed any of these things—to say nothing of anonymously publishing that claim as true. Even if the author is right, it is still a comment made in bad taste, since Schulz has actually offered (in his open letters published prior to the “Woke Dysphoria” article) to meet with or debate the administrators who have witnessed these things. This is the kind of debate that excites philosophy students! Like Socrates, we believe in the power of honest debate to clear up disputed questions.

More significantly than any of this, however, is the fact that Schulz’s claims do not actually require the kind of knowledge or observation that the letter assumes! There are a great many situations in the world that are like this. Suppose a car owner complains to the dealership that his new vehicle churns out white smoke whenever he turns it on. It would be strange, to say the least, to accuse him on the grounds that he has never observed an assembly line in Detroit or a strategic meeting of car salesman. The “maligning” accusation (3) is, therefore, akin to the “discrediting” one (1) above—it only holds water if the accusation is false, or at least if the accuser has no good grounds for saying it is true. My suggestion is that the required knowledge for justifiably making Schulz’s claims is much more accessible than the letter admits.

Does Schulz (4) falsify university accreditation processes? Schulz does claim that “accrediting bodies are a major source of power driving the Woke-ness at our university. The university’s commitment to securing accreditation from HLC,” he says, in particular component 1C, “has likely led to the disquieting DIE changes in staffing, in scholarships, in programs, and in curricula.” Component 1C, he continues, stipulates that “The institution provides opportunities for civic engagement in a diverse, multicultural society and globally connected world, as appropriate within its mission and for the constituencies it serves.”

The letter objects to Schulz’s claim: “HLC does NOT have the power to dictate how we manifest its criteria into our mission and purpose.” The letter assures us that changes “have not been motivated or instigated by accreditation,” and that this is “indicated by the fact that the 2018 HLC Visit Review Feedback asks that we change nothing! We made our case or how we address our role in a multicultural society for the good of the Gospel and HLC required zero changes…zero actions for improvement.” If I am reading it correctly, the letter is suggesting that Schulz thinks recent changes at CUW may have been introduced because of pressure from the HLC itself. Against that, the letter points out that the HLC has exerted no such pressure.

There are problems with this response. Most fundamentally, it misses the points Schulz is making. To be sure, Schulz is criticizing a commitment to securing accreditation, but he does not say that this commitment was a recent development. The very fact that HLC asked nothing to be changed in 2018 would suggest that—the commitment in question, if it exists, was in place much earlier. The fact that the commitment finally became noticeable at the crucial point of the presidential search does not remove the possibility that a much earlier commitment to HLC standards led to many small changes that went unnoticed for a long time—not unlike the changes at our seminary which led to Seminex decades ago.

As we consider this possibility, we must keep in mind that it is not important whether or not CUW’s changes in staffing, scholarships, programs, and curricula were intentionally tailored to the fulfillment of certain accreditation criteria. Nor is it important to try to see into the hearts of individual administrators, about whom we should always assume the best until proven otherwise. Only God knows the heart. The point at issue is whether CUW’s posture as an institution, independently of any individual action plans or attitudes, is oriented toward certain secular standards and articulated in terms of their vocabulary—or whether, on the other hand, its orientation is articulated in the spirit of the language of the Bible and the Confessions, treating them as genuine authorities, not just as speed bumps or curbs. Schulz has been arguing that the secular orientation, unfortunately, is the case. According to him, this has shown up in many ways at CUW, like white smoke from a new car. Whether or not Schulz is right, the point is only that one cannot object to these claims on the grounds that Schulz lacks the relevant experience.

In fact, the way the letter tries to appease Lutherans who oppose wokeness is a great example of the very kind of thought that Schulz is at pains to argue against. Consider the language of the letter: “we argue that we meet Core Component 1C by ‘Living Uncommon’ and by seeking to help students lead lives of purpose for the betterment of community and self. We address our role in a multicultural society by developing our students as globally minded citizen-mentors who transform lives, influence communities, and value their neighbors near and far through Christ-like service and leadership.” The author also mentions that Concordia’s graduates “seek fairness and respect for all and find value in aligning action with belief and knowledge with faith. We highlight the fact that Concordia’s role in a multicultural society is to guide students toward fulfillment of professional and personal callings for the betterment of society, not just for the greater good, but for the good of the Gospel!”

Notice the tacit acceptance, in accordance with HLC, that the allegedly “multicultural” status of society is somehow relevant to the university. Notice also the ambiguously qualified endorsement of being “globally minded.” Most especially, notice the vague language of “aligning action with belief and knowledge with faith.” What is missing is an outline of which faith such university action and knowledge is to be aligned with, as well as an explanation of why this answer matters (or doesn’t). The language of “alignment” suggests that faith is one thing and knowledge is another, and that knowledge comes from somewhere distinct from faith, being thereafter adjusted to meet its standards as a driver adjusts to a sidewalk curb. There is no articulated sense that knowledge and faith have the same source, growing together from the ground up. Compare the language of the anonymous letter’s quotations with the academic vision and vocabulary outlined in, for instance, Schulz’s 2005 “Two Principles” article, published in Logia.

I have tried to show that none of the four objections to Schulz’s argument are well argued. Consider now how the letter sums up its objection more generally: it accuses Schulz of making “vague insinuations and sweeping generalizations,” as well as “omitting information, presenting half-truths, and making unsubstantiated statements targeting the very university to which he is divinely called, the university to which he aspires to be president.” It also accuses Schulz of railing against woke ideology, “an ideology that turns humans against each other, yet when he clicked the ‘submit article’ button he did just that, he turned people against each other.” These personal criticisms of Schulz himself deserve a bit of additional consideration.

The allegation that Schulz is turning people against one another is curious, since that is precisely what Jesus Himself did during his earthly ministry (and does today where His word is preached). Besides, Schulz does not criticize woke ideology on the grounds that it turns human beings against each other, but on the grounds that it is intrinsically opposed to sacrosanct texts—so Schulz is not caught in personal incoherence after all. Clearly, it would seem that he has no qualms about causing conflict or strife if the disputed territory is bound by the word of God. It may be worth mentioning that it is a classic tactic of schismatics to cause division and then lay the blame for division at the feet of those who merely point it out for criticism. This seems to have been a common tactic during the Seminex years.

The mention of the divine call is also curious, since “targeting” or criticizing one’s institution is, from my own lay perspective, precisely the duty to which the divine call binds a man. A good law-and-gospel preacher will “target” his congregation every week! Schulz is not called to criticize the University of Wisconsin—though he may do so as an academic—but he is called to criticize Concordia, at least in theological matters of sin and repentance, which is after all the chief point of the Office of the Ministry (John 20, AC V). The use of the term “self-anointed,” even ironically, is misplaced, since Schulz has in fact been anointed for this role as a spiritual authority by God via the Church.

Finally, there is the matter of Schulz’s alleged aspirations to the presidency and dissatisfaction with not being selected. This again is a claim made in bad taste, since Schulz has explicitly and publicly stated, a month before the publication of the April 4 letter, that he has no such aspirations! Similarly misguided is the claim that “up to the point of his non-selection he was a willing participant, accepting the nomination, hoping to be interviewed, and ready to step into the presidency.” This suggests that Schulz is no longer a willing participant in the search, when in fact he is as eligible as any other nominee. His argument has been that his name was preemptively removed from the list of nominees in an inappropriate manner. This makes it hard to see why we should take the “uncooperative once unselected” objection seriously—at least until someone can argue, against Schulz’s reasoning, that this removal was in fact appropriate.

Perhaps the author means that Schulz was a happy or cooperative participant up until his non-selection. That certainly seems like a possibility. But consider Schulz’s stated reason for such unhappiness: it was not his own removal, but rather the fact that the committee (on his view, anyway) had an inadequate sense of the qualifications required for the next president of CUW. The fact that Schulz is one of several nominees who happen to meet those standards does not show that those standards are somehow wrong. Suppose Mr. X has just had a heart attack. The office manager calls for someone to perform CPR, clarifying that he does not actually care whether the volunteer knows CPR. It would be silly to object to a volunteer who indignantly objects—“the person to help should be someone who knows CPR!”—even if that volunteer is one of the few people present who knows CPR. We would be able to sympathize with this person, and we would probably take him at his word if he said that he had no aspirations to be the one to help. We would believe him that he is chiefly concerned only that someone with his qualifications be chosen. Why not extend the same courtesy to Dr. Schulz?

I will close with one last concern. I have corresponded on social media and via email with those who are sympathetic with Schulz’s concern about Lutheran identity, but who are unimpressed with the quality of his writing in the “Woke Dysphoria” article. They would like to see a more detailed, less “screed-like” philosophical exposition by Schulz of what exactly the alleged institutional wokeness and woke terminology looks like at CUW. I, for one, would like to see such a thing. I would also like to see the air cleared somehow—perhaps an old-fashioned academic debate, of the kind that Schulz has offered to have.

As we consider these possibilities as a church, however, let us consider that perhaps Schulz has a good reason for not writing a more sanguine or in-depth follow-up article. Perhaps, from his point of view, that would concede ground to those who think his initial article in Christian News was inadequate. His whole argument has been that the woke language in the presidential prospectus, together with the removal of all the ordained pastors from consideration, perhaps alongside certain programmatic changes at CUW, is enough evidence for his point. As for the concepts “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “equity,” subjecting them to more academic critique might, from his point of view, concede ground to those who argue that these terms are somewhat arcane, amorphous, ambiguous, or not accessible to the common person. Again, Schulz’s claim is that this is not the case—and that the terms, as they are used in the university or political context, are straightforwardly anti-biblical. If that is the case, then even the ordinary person should be able to tell as much. Treating the subject in a dusty academic way would perhaps give credence to the view that we were excusably ignorant of something which actually demands repentance.

Of course, this is only one read of the situation—and all the same, I still hope for more conversation and debate on the matter. While I love both my alma mater and my former professor, I love the truth more—and, to paraphrase Aristotle, piety teaches us to love the Truth even more than we love our friends.

Noah Hahn is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Fordham University, where he teaches courses in ethics and the philosophy of human nature. He received his MA from Fordham in 2020 and his BA from CUW in 2016, where Dr. Schulz supervised his senior thesis on apologetics and Lutheran Orthodoxy.