The Ravi Zacharias scandal we’ve been talking about here over the last several days at The Essential Church has taken a new turn: after much anticipation, Ravi Zacharias’s RZIM ministry team released a statement in response to his presumed credential inflation (claiming he’s a “Dr.” when he doesn’t have a PhD; not being honest about his ten “honorary doctoral degrees,” etc.) and sexual allegations. Dr. John Stackhouse, a man of great academic credentials, said in a Christianity Today interview that he himself approached two people that were a known part of Ravi Zacharias’s RZIM ministry team and told them about Ravi’s credential inflation some years ago. The response he received was nothing. No one wanted to discuss Ravi’s credential inflation then. Stackhouse has written recently on this topic, and a Patheos writer has manhandled Zacharias’s claims in an editorial that I think everyone should read on this matter (see December 4th Patheos link at the very end of this post).
And, in my view, this is a large part of why Ravi has crept up in the news in this regard: when Stackhouse approached those he knew in the ministry, they should’ve done their part to approach Zacharias. They did not — and now, everyone knows what Ravi did. There was a time to deal with it quietly, but Ravi and his team resisted the correction. Now it’s public, and the ramifications will be harder to swallow now that Zacharias is 71 years old.
This brings me to my point today. In light of Zacharias’s credential inflation, it is my belief that honorary doctorates should go the way of the CD player, VHS, the cassette tape, tape recorders, and the old Atari game consoles. What way is that, you ask? Out of existence.
What is an Honorary Doctorate?
What is an Honorary Doctorate? An Honorary Doctorate is a degree given to someone who’s made great contributions in a given field, or had outstanding achievement in a major societal field or issue in a set period of time in history. Many honorary doctorates are given to those who’ve achieved much in the fields of science, politics, etc., and these doctorates are given at secular universities, academic institutions where religion is taboo and discussed more as an academic subject than a heartfelt conviction where the Bible is the spiritual authority and Jesus speaks in the Word.
At bible colleges and seminaries, however, doctorate degrees, whether they be Doctor of Ministry (DMin), Doctor of Theology (ThD), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctor of Religious Studies (DRS), or some other theological or philosophical degree, are all given based on earned credits obtained through signing up and attending courses of study. Few honorary doctorates are given at seminaries that I know of, though Divinity schools give them out at their own discretion. Ravi has been a proud recipient of honorary doctorates at places such as Liberty University and other Christian institutions, so Christian schools also dole them out from time to time depending on the person in question.
And yet, secular universities give doctorates for earned classes and credit on the one hand, but then turn around and give honorary doctorates to famous celebrities in exchange for money, donations, and press exposure. Someone could give Kim Kardashian a doctorate for her “contributions” in social media explosion, but I don’t think we’d take it that seriously. And if she walked around calling herself “Doctor” or “Dr.,” we’d easily see through it in as little as five seconds.
Honorary Doctorates Create Loopholes
Honorary Doctorates are designed to “honor” particular individuals (hence the name), but sadly, they dishonor university students who not only must pay money, but also labor in exams and coursework, to get the degree that is just thrown at a celebrity for a few hundred thousand dollars, for example. The celebrity doesn’t have to labor for it; he or she merely gets it because they’ve written so many books, been on so many TV shows and campuses around the world, and so on.
And that’s why Ravi Zacharias has ten honorary doctorates to his name. But those ten honorary doctorates have also allowed him to inflate his credentials on book covers and introductions when speaking at campuses. Those ten honorary doctorates have allowed him to claim he’s a “Dr.” when he has nothing more than a Bachelor of Theology (BTh) degree from Ontario Bible College (now Tyndale) and a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS). The MDiv is no lightweight credential, but someone, in the current “murky” state of honorary doctorates, can claim the title “Dr.” and convince people he or she has more education than their course transcripts allow.
The Honorary Doctorate has been used to create loopholes that anyone can pass through if they’re lucky enough to be famous and make lots of money. One of the more recent honorary doctorates for Ravi Zacharias has come from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, who gave Ravi an honorary degree and told him that “all the rights, powers, privileges, and responsibilities pertaining thereunto” are his with the conferring of the degree. Except, the problem is that the degree was not granted based on academic merit. So what rights, powers, privileges, and responsibilities does he have with the honorary degree Liberty gave him? We don’t know, but I have a feeling that ethical responsibilities come with the honorary doctorate — and Ravi’s credential inflation is an ethical breach by which Liberty should retract its honorary doctorate.
Honorary Doctorates Could Remain, with Some Stipulations
Some would hate to see honorary doctorates go, but if they don’t leave in the near future, I’d like to see some stipulations with them. First, they should be given with set honorary titles that aren’t used in the academy for earned doctorates. For example, the Doctor of Divinity (DD) is often used as an honorary title, nothing more. If that’s so, then the DD should become the standard title for honorary doctorates at Divinity schools so that a person who’s awarded the doctorate can’t use it to get unfair scholarly treatment reserved for the meritorious among us.
As for the use of doctoral titles, I think universities should create a “Doctor of Celebrities” (DC) title for celebrities who are famous and get conferred (seminaries and Christian colleges should create a “Doctor of Servants” degree, or DoS, for renown Christians making an impact in the culture). That way, a person would have to report the DC or DoS degree on their credentials — and many folks would know that it’s merely honorary, nothing academic, meritorious, or earned.
Honorary Doctorates Should Go The Way of the Dinosaur
Some would disagree with the position above, as do I. I think that the “honorary doctorates” treatment is long played out and does more harm than good. There are many individuals who’ll never distinguish between honorary and meritorious doctorates, and they’re assuming their audience (those that buy their books, hear their lectures, etc.) believes that a doctorate is a doctorate is a doctorate (that is, all doctorates are equal). Thus, honorary doctorates need to go the way of the dinosaur and get scrapped completely.
I think that in place of honorary doctorates, universities should give honorary medals, for instance, or a bronze scroll, etc., in its place. Again, these would be honorable awards but they wouldn’t blur the lines between honorary and earned. There is honor in academic achievement, and I think we should preserve that typical honor in academic achievement for those who do the hard work. Getting crowned as a celebrity status isn’t quite the same. That’s not to say that celebrities don’t do hard work, but acting in one TV episode and getting $500,000 for doing so isn’t the same as studying day in and out, taking exams, conducting experiments, reading, writing research papers, and so on.
Ravi Zacharias has been able to get away with calling himself “Dr.,” as has his team, because he’s received so many honorary doctorates. And yet, with the looks of it, he could’ve very well called himself doctor before receiving the first honorary doctorate. We don’t know; what we do know, however, is that, if the honorary doctorate had died before his ministry took off, Ravi may very well have never gotten the lies and falsehoods off the ground.
He’s lectured at Oxford through merely renting office space and dressed it up as though he lectures there as an official employee (when you drop Richard Dawkins’ name alongside yours in an interview with Kirk Cameron, the assumption is that you, like Dawkins, teach in an official position at Oxford). Zacharias is showing the world that he’ll do anything to boost his resume, to enhance his image — even if it means landing in the untrue.
Ravi Zacharias has a responsibility to report the truth and live out the truth because his whole RZIM ministry and apologetics work stand on the truth (without truth, it all falls), but shouldn’t the church and society help promote truth as well? To demand it of Ravi Zacharias and neglect it ourselves makes us no better than the man who’s lied his way to the top while carrying a “ministry of truth” on his shoulders.
Visit the following links below for more information on the Ravi Zacharias scandal: