Safe Spaces and Dangerous Ideas

politics1So here we are, right smack in the middle of the freak show. Or, as most people call it, ‘election season.’ This is where we do our collective best to demonize the political candidate of the opposing team, taking the worst parts of each nominee and reducing the person (yes, they are people) to one, incontrovertible truth.

Hillary is a liar.
Donald is a racist.

In fact, America is so good at this ‘reducing of the other person’ that it no longer applies to just individuals, but entire groups. If you vote Republican, you are _____, ______, and _____. No exceptions. If you are a Democrat, you are ______, ______, and ______. No exceptions. You may see what I see. Our political discourse reads less like a nuanced discussion on platform topics and more like a comment thread on a typical YouTube video.

Perhaps ironically, a reverse (or reactionary) movement continues to rise throughout American universities. Undergraduates are demanding ‘safe spaces.’ In theory, these are places where students retreat from any threat of perceived intolerance, bigotry, and/or discrimination. For those young men and women who find themselves under attack for their gender identity or sexual orientation, these areas allow for like-minded people to come together without fear of condemnation. While I’m not the kind of person to go out of my way to threaten another person’s views on gender, race, or politics, I find it puzzling that the university is where this movement has really taken root. Consider Yale and Brown as example cases.

How far we have fallen. Universities used to be the place where students were exposed to a central truth for the first time: People don’t think like you do and it’s important that you confront these other worldviews in all of their force. Yet, in today’s institutions for higher learning, the inmates are in charge of the asylum, proclaiming with vitriol, ‘It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is about creating a home here!’ Where this mandate finds justification in the history of educational institutions is not particularly clear…because it’s not there.

Victor Hugo once wrote, ‘Invading armies can be resisted, invading ideas cannot be.’ Ideas are perhaps the most dangerous of all things. Once the seed of an idea enters the mind, it begins to send roots downward into your soul and upward to your tongue. You begin to see things differently; you speak differently; you act differently. No doubt this is why tyrannies across all of history have utterly feared ideas; at their nature, an idea topples one system of reality for another. If you want absolute power, you’re first move is: 1) to conquer all of Australia and load up on the +2 armies, as all Risk-geeks know, and 2) remove the people’s ability to gather publicly and develop a free press. Ideas obliterate.

Now consider the impact of that. A person’s worldview is absolutely all-encompassing, yet an idea can take a wrecking ball to the entire structure. Frameworks, by their very nature, are constructed to alleviate fear … the fear of the unknown. Humans naturally categorize and systematize as a way to mitigate this dread. Sharks are just a little less scary when we think of them as a big fish. Terrorism is a little less scary if we think of the perpetrators as ‘disaffected poor youth.’ Frameworks provide answers in a vast ocean of questions and that is why we need them.

It’s also why the disassembling of frameworks scares the snot out of us. If an idea overturns a long-held assumption—something a person knew to be true—he/she is forced to confront the staggering truth that the world they thought they knew is somehow false. If anything causes a person to want a safe space, it is from an idea that literally deconstructs all that they know. Worlds must be rebuilt.politics2

  • A young adult woman finds out that her Dad had been unfaithful to her mother for years, suddenly calling all her childhood experiences of a ‘happy family’ into question.
  • A college-graduate is convinced, after many a sleepless night, that a man named Jesus actually resurrected from the dead. He must now grapple with the most profound of worldview shifts, moving from atheism to belief in an Almighty God.

These are just two examples.

The Church is not an innocent bystander. Church institutions have blurred the line between faithfully preserving the truthful witness of Scripture by denouncing heresy and the violent shut-down of any idea that challenges her long-held traditions.

The Church was certainly part of the problem, particularly during the Enlightenment when major scientific gains began to offer a new narrative for those disenchanted with the Church. But, I earnestly believe, the Church is also a part of the solution.

Immanuel Kant wrote a famous essay about the definition and nature of the Enlightenment. He wrote:

‘This enlightenment requires nothing but freedom–and the most innocent of all that may be called “freedom”: freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: “Do not argue!” The officer says: “Do not argue–drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue–pay!” The pastor: “Do not argue–believe!” Only one ruler in the world says: “Argue as much as you please, but obey!” We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.

On one hand, I’m sympathetic to Kant’s deepest desire—that a man might actually be able to encounter the truth on his own, without threat of Big Brother looking over his shoulder (in his day, this undoubtedly meant the Christian Church). All ideas should be open to public testing, where the freedom to ask, debate, even provoke, should be protected as a core principle of a liberal society. On the other hand, I find it terribly irresponsible to assume that a person can discern deep truths about God without engaging in a community of responsible believers. The nature of this engagement must be done in humility, respect, and a deep commitment to the reality that all Christians are under authority. Scripture does not afford us the right to have opinions about God. We can, however, speak boldly with one another about issues of biblical texts and theology—offering fresh insights about a God who continually surprises us, then testing these insights against the biblical witness.

Theological ideas are every bit as dangerous as a political or philosophical idea, if not more so. Usually those who put forth a unique understanding of God weren’t trying to be heretics—nor were they fully aware of the collateral damage that would erupt once their ideas were introduced to the world. But restricting the conversation and flow of ideas in whatever field leads to totalitarianism; it leads to the death of beautiful, mysterious orthodoxy; it ultimately kills the soul of man.

A Christian need not fear the challenge of ideas. He should not retreat inside the sanctuary as a way to avoid the Big Bad Wolf of secularism or Darwinism or whatever-ism. The Church may have been a place where people cried, ‘Sanctuary!’ but it was never a safe space to begin with … the Church holds to the most absolutely dangerous and upsetting idea that ever existed: That God became man and dwelt among us.


© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. Well said. In the beginning of our Introduction to Theological Thought class you earned a lot of my respect by urging us to “get our noses bloody.” These students across the country are denying themselves the chance to step into the ring which will only hurt them more post-graduation when the ring turns into a battlefield and the fists turn into bullets. I don’t thank my parents enough for throwing me in the ring at a young age. The lessons you learn when you get knocked down help you stand your ground when you get back up. One thing my parents did not do, however, was introduce me to God. Lately I have been finding myself in quite a similar situation to the college-graduate: an idea can force you to change your entire view of the world. As for my fellow students, I am not sure they need a safe space: most I have communicated with speak as if they have been in a safe space their whole life and do not have much to talk about. It’s doubtful the students of universities such as Brown understand how disrespectful they are being by forgetting that a little over fifty years ago “blacks” were not allowed in “white” schools. I, less than I should, try to find the positive side of every situation but there are no positive outcomes to resisting exposure.

    • Joel Oesch

      September 21, 2016 at 2:51 pm

      Good thoughts, Chase. It’s an interesting observation that most students feel like they’ve been safe too long with ‘nothing to talk about.’ I see it in the classroom when students are constantly looking to find what I want to hear and not their own original thoughts (even if they are rough or unfinished) on the matter. It’s hard work to stand on your own two feet.

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