Academic Ethos

The Westar Fellows are a community of academics committed to engaging in collaborative, cumulative scholarship on questions about religion that matter in society.

Since 1985, more than 250 Fellows have participated in the Jesus Seminar and other Westar projects. At various stages of the projects, different Fellows have been involved in the research and deliberations.

Westar Fellows are critical scholars. Critical scholars make empirical judgements based on evidence—evidence open to confirmation by independent, neutral observers. Evidence acts as the controlling factor in historical judgments. Westar does not put dogmatic considerations first and does not insist that the factual evidence confirm theological premises.

The Jesus Seminar began in 1985 with conventional academic protocols borrowed from the professional societies. Very soon, however, the Seminar developed its own ethos in which a fundamental modification of academic habits emerged. The Jesus Seminar ceased being a debating society arguing about ideas and became a new kind of academic community that reports to the public.

Westar Fellows observe an ethos in which new scholars are welcomed to the table. Veteran scholars help new scholars join the conversation, and new scholars are encouraged to adopt basic Westar protocols of collegiality. The bonds formed between and among scholars is an essential ingredient of the Westar ethos.

Our Ethos

The following is a sketch of the essential ethos and protocols that inform the work of Westar Seminars.

Literacy that matters

Westar is dedicated to religious literacy—biblical, historical, and theological—along with other ancillary literacies. Literacy is essential, but it has to be literacy that matters, literacy that makes a difference. Learning merely to reinforce old dogmas or confirm one’s biases will not suffice. The knowledge we hope to produce should open up new ways of thinking about the past and living into the future.

A common conversation

Genuine literacy is linked to a common conversation, a focused conversation. A common conversation requires a common subject and a common method or strategy to explore the subject. Unfocussed conversations deplete the energy of critical work and lack a specific goal. Westar seminars have sufficiently defined goals to make progressive conversations possible. Westar seminars place emphasis on outcomes to academic conversations.

Honesty is foundational

Honesty is the foundational value that permeates the collective behavior of the Fellows. Westar promotes an atmosphere of ruthless honesty about outcomes and reasons for outcomes. The first step in Westar’s history was to promote a rigorous honesty in academic exchanges. Then, Westar scholars had to learn to be candid with the broader public and speak to the public in clear, jargon-free, terms.

Conversation is cumulative

The conversation that is characteristic of the Westar community is cumulative: it builds on itself as it moves along from one stage to another. For a conversation to be cumulative, sustained participation is a necessary ingredient.

When the Jesus Seminar started, Fellows were permitted to vote whether or not they had read the papers or attended meetings. This practice defeated the spirit of collaborative and cumulative dialogue. It was soon discontinued. Sustained participation in conversations is essential to Westar academic quality and course of study.

Operate out of a consensus

The Westar community operates on a consensus model. Consensus is used to achieve tangible results. It suppresses the academic temptation to engage an endless parade of unresolved problems. Westar seminars  attempt to draw some conclusions, no matter how provisional. The seminars usually establish their conclusions through secret ballot. Members do not have to agree with one another or the results, but the ballot is used to express the state of a consensus reached to the broader public and academy.

The consensus model also expresses the knowledge that Westar scholars hold in common rather than trafficking in differences of opinion and belief. While Westar scholars continue to challenge every hypothesis and are not obliged to agree with one another, obscurantism for its own sake is not a value. Westar cultivates difference of opinion within a common conversation.

Westar scholars agreed never to curtail debate, but to strive for the resolution, even if only provisional, of fundamental issues. Holding these poles together is a central challenge in the life of Westar scholarship.

Radically inclusive

The Westar community is radically inclusive. Conversations aim to include everybody potentially interested. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged realistically that communities inevitably are self-selective. Sometimes scholars leave the conversation. Westar accepts potential division as a fact of community dynamics.

The seminars meet at a ‘round table.’ Fellows as specialists are equidistant from the center. All non-scholar (Associate and Praxis) members are welcomed and supported. The voice of non-specialists is limited but essential to discipline the jargon of scholars. If the public does not understand what Westar scholars speak about, the scholars have failed the mission of the institute.

Establish the facts

The seminars also meet around a ‘square table.’ The table is square in the sense that we attempt to establish the ‘facts,’ which denote what we agree to be the case, on the basis of the evidence available.

Westar scholars resolve not to limit the evidence to previously determined sources or facts. The undertaking of Westar seminars is to collect the data afresh, to reclassify, and to reinterpret. Westar does not recognize canonical privilege. Westar does not attempt to salvage or defend orthodoxy. Westar scholars are committed to discovering the ‘facts’ and to follow wherever they lead. Though “facts” are always interpretive, Westar tries to honor the distinction between opinions and evidence based reasons.

Public accountability

The Westar seminars have agreed to report their findings to a broad, literate public. Public reporting expresses Westar’s dedication to religious literacy. Public accountability requires scholars to write in a common language.