Monday, January 2, 2012

Theology and the Academy.

This past weekend I had the chance to spend New Years with one of my closest friends and her husband. As three academics, we spent most of the time talking about the academy and our respective goals, current research interests, and all of that. It was a relief to be with those who are not only the closest of friends, but who also understand my life so well.

Both of my friends are studying literature (broadly speaking). They love what they do. It is refreshing to find any academic who studies what they do because they simply love the subject matter. The conversation takes a different tone, and you actually learn from these sorts of academics.

We eventually got to the part in the conversation where we starting lamenting the state of the academy. Everything is about playing the game -- getting to the next phase, getting the recommendation, trying to prove you aren't a fraud (and spiraling into paranoia every few weeks that you know absolutely nothing about nothing and the fact that you even made it this far is some crazy stroke of luck that will never be explained!), trying to figure out what you want to write about for the next five years, hopefully finding enough adjunct positions to avoid living in a box with a change cup, and then hoping that someday, after all this toil, you might actually have the chance of getting tenure. Maybe by the time you are 45? This becomes all the more complicated to whatever extent when you are a woman -- when is the best time to get married? Have children? Thinking about this entire game for too long is enough to send you straight to your couch and drown in netflix instant streaming for a few hours to avoid the torturous thought of it all.

There came a point in the conversation where my friend disappointingly admitted that you just have to jump through all the hoops to get to where you want to be. I immediately wondered what this means specifically for theology. If I understand anything about my discipline correctly, it is that the object of theology's inquiry is God. As Christian theology, our discipline is particularly informed by Jesus Christ. He is the God-man who came to be one of us, and was murdered for our redemption and liberation, and conquered death through His resurrection. As a Christian and one who is interested in studying theology, my goal is to faithfully order my speech, thoughts, and actions after this Gospel of Jesus Christ.

With all of that said, what does that mean for why anyone studies theology and hopes to someday become a theologian? Do the rules and procedures change when the object of inquiry is God? What are we doing here if they don't? What does it mean that the object of inquiry is one that summons us to obedience, faithfulness, and worship? When the object is actually our Lord? My questions are not rooted in some desire to be pious. Please don't misunderstand me here. However, if the individual doesn't have an existential commitment to the object of theology, what is the point? And if one does have such an existential commitment to the object of theology, can one really find benefit (or purpose?) in ordering their speech, thoughts, and words after the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the academy specifically? Is the academy the best way to become a theologian? Is there a better way? Is it sheer romantic naivete to think one can study theology in the academy because they simply want to be a faithful witness to the Gospel?

I guess I've come to the conclusion that these questions really aren't to be shunned. If this whole theological enterprise has any meaning, I must ask these questions. And I need help in answering them.


Adam said...

I am not a theologian, I am a full time nanny with a couple of masters degrees. But I am fairly convinced that the only place you cannot do theology is apart from the church. You can do theology in the context of the academy, in the context of full time Christian work, in the context of the business world and in many other contexts. But theology that does not have a relationship to the church (and by this I mean both the church universal and an individual local body of some sort) is theology that is detached from its purpose.

Whether you need to do theology in the academy is a whole other issue. The church as a whole need theologians in the academy to do the hard work that cannot be done apart from that full time intellectual investment. But it is not the only place that the church needs theologians. Solid theologians that work out practical theology in the context of local church ministry, or in the context of a social justice ministry or in the home raising children are just as important (but probably less recognized.)

(Sorry to sound like a Dear Abby response, but the older I get the more I am convinced that the publicity that comes from being out front is far less important that actually following what we are suposed to be doing. Which then sounds like an overly Sunday School Jesus-y answer. So I guess I will just stop before I turn into a cliche.)

mw said...

Current of thought:

You: "As a Christian and one who is interested in studying theology, my goal is to faithfully order my speech, thoughts, and actions after this Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Paul: "Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus..."

Rowan Williams: "Christian identity is to belong in a place that Jesus defines for us. By living in that place, we come in some degree to share his identity, to bear his name and to be in the same relationships he has with God and with the world.... To be a Christian is not to lay claim to absolute knowledge, but to lay claim to the perspective that will transform our most deeply rooted hurts and fears and so change the world at the most important level. It is a perspective that depends on being where Jesus is, under his authority, sharing the ’breath’of his life, seeing what he sees - God as Abba, Father, a God completely committed to the people in whose life he seeks to reproduce his own life."

The academy cannot be the *best* way to become a theologian because there's never only one way that any of us become theologians. That puts way too much pressure on the academy, and perhaps gives it too much power in our personal formation -- whatever 'the academy' might be. The academy can only be an aspect of, a vantage point on how we envision ourselves in faithfulness to God.

But the academy can and does provide resources, opportunities, relationships, study space, writing time (and perhaps one day a salary!) that might enable us to articulate the implications of living in Christ's position, of laying claim to perspectives that transform our most deeply rooted hurts and fears and so change our world--and ourselves--at a most important level. And, in line with Adam's main point, a theology developed from Christ's position will be a theology that seeks the church's nurture and vibrancy as well as sends the members of Christ's body out into the world in peace, with strength and courage for love and service -- whether we share Christ's breath in the academy or elsewhere.

Thanks for the study break. And thanks for thinking aloud here, and sharing your thoughts with various and sundry of us.
all best,
(hm, I don't think I evaded becoming the cliche as well as Adam did. Ah well.)

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David Baruch said...

The local church should be the place that our theology degrees strive to serve. We jump through hoops and go through the academic bs in hope that as we serve him who is the object of our faith the church will be edified in some way. So for me this takes a huge load of stress off! If one door closes (a rejected phd app for example) there is allways another Yes in Christ that has multiple windows and opportunities in the local church. The real problem here is not where you can serve, either in the academy or church, (it should make no difference to you only in that God has closed and opened certain doors), the real problem is putting food on the table and a roof over your head as a servent in a consumeristic western culture.

David Baruch said...

Okay so I just read your blog post above. And I realized that my answer is missing a definition of Church. "when two or more are gathered in my name I am there with them". It's that broad, with all it's problems the church is a broad broken vessel, and if orthodoxy is by its nature eschatological then this should not surprise us in the slightest. It is just a matter of being as faithful to the object of faith as possible in our given time and place and in that listening to the spirit who blows where he will to mysteriously bring us to a local church and context to experience his grace and mercy as we serve others and our in turn served by our creator.

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