The Westar Institute began in 1985 as a conventional academic society. Over time Westar developed its own ethos and mode of operation that reflects its dedication to scholarship in front of the public.
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 promoting religious literacy – biblical, historical, and theological – along with other ancillary literacies. Literacy is essential, but it must be literacy that matters, literacy that makes a difference. Learning merely to reinforce old dogmas or confirm one’s biases will not suffice. Westar scholarship is about opening new ways to think about the past and live into the future.
A Common Conversation
Westar scholars are committed to a common, focused conversation. A common conversation requires a shared subject and a commitment to reaching a specific goal. The goal must be sufficiently well defined to make a conclusion possible. The responsibility of Westar seminars is to report their conclusions to the public.
Honesty is Foundational
Honesty is the foundational value that permeates the collective behavior of Westar scholars. Scholars are asked to be fair minded, respectful, and honest. A subject of study cannot proceed to new insights if there is a lack of openness about a scholar’s bias or about problems one genuinely perceives. Such honesty also marks written and oral reports to the public.
Conversation is Cumulative
Scholarship in the Westar community is cumulative. It considers the conclusions of one discussion as it moves to new discussions or stages of work. For conversations to be cumulative, Westar asks its scholars for a sustained commitment to seminar projects. Sustained participation makes an essential difference to the quality and course of scholarly deliberations.
Operate Out of a Consensus
The Westar community operates out of a consensus. The reason for consensus is to achieve tangible results rather than indulge an endless parade of unresolved problems. Westar seminars always attempt to come to some conclusions, no matter how provisional. Scholars normally establish conclusions through a secret ballot vote. Individual scholars do not have to agree with the majority. The vote intends to represent a fair reading of the consensus achieved in presentations and discussions.
The Westar community attempts to be radically inclusive. Nevertheless, due to communities inevitably being self-selective, this ideal is hard to achieve. Seminars meet at a ‘round table.’ All scholars as specialists are equidistant from the center. Seminars also meet around a ‘square table.’ The table is square in the sense that the point is to expose the “facts”: those foundational elements in a study that scholars find to be virtually unquestionable on the basis of available evidence.
The procedure of traditional seminars is to read a paper and to have some time for questions. That is not what Westar does. Seminar papers are prepared and distributed to scholars in advance. Highlights of the paper are reviewed over a period of ten to twenty minutes. It is assumed that participating scholars have already read the paper. Most of the seminar time is dedicated to discussion and debate. A vote is often held, in relation to a paper, to express the consensus achieved over the discussion topic.
Westar is neither controlled by nor beholden to any ecclesiastical authority or the priorities of other academic institutions.
The Westar seminars have agreed to report their processes and conclusions to the broad, literate public. Reporting is a part of Westar’s dedication to literacy. It is the way scholars discipline themselves to speak and write a common language.
Prepared by Robert W. Funk, May 26, 2004.
Revised by Lane C. McGaughy and Char Matejovsky, June 30, 2006
Revised and condensed by David Galston, March 1, 2019