Does academic theology matter?

November 28th, 2011 § 1

*Note: This was originally posted on Dr. Leong’s personal blog at davidleong.info. Watch for more guest posts from SPS Faculty and students, soon!

Henry Suzzallo, after whom the famous UW library is named, said that universities should be “cathedrals of learning.” Anyone who has visited the graduate reading room (I studied–and napped–there on occasion as an undergrad) should note the silent sanctity of knowledge in that place. The cathedral-college metaphor also evokes the distinctly theological origins of most institutions of higher education in the U.S., from the Ivy League on down.

Suzzallo Library

But the more I become solidly entrenched in the institution of academia, particularly theological academia, as a Christian and aspiring scholar, the more I sense a deep-seated skepticism growing within me about the endeavors of the Christian academy. I returned from AAR about a week ago, and while I am still processing some of the stimulating conversations and ideas that were presented there, I am also struck (perpetually, it seems) with the glaring discontinuity between the academy and the “real world.”
I think it is fairly obvious to most academics that we live in a world of ideas, and that a commitment to cultivating the “life of the mind” is an important, meaningful pursuit. Philosophical and epistemological abstraction is par for the course–at times a necessary evil, and often just a necessity of the task itself. Religious scholarship on the whole does not find itself at odds with this reality because it is most often done in service to the academy first, and secondarily to the world in which the academy finds itself. This seems like a reasonable arrangement in our complex world, and certainly worthwhile as a career choice.

But it’s the Christian part of my scholarship that creates a problem. This religious identifier is not merely a descriptor or modifier of my place in the academy; I don’t do “Christian research” (although, in one sense, I guess I do). Rather, my Christian identity is the foundational hermeneutic through which I see the academy, and on that basis, I find the telos of the academy highly problematic.

You could put it this way:

One of the major weaknesses of the current academic approach to theology is a failure to deal critically enough with its own assumptions.  In particular, the methods, agenda, and purpose of theology have all remained largely unquestioned by the community of professionals, as if there was as tacit agreement that the price of admittance to the guild of scholars was a commitment not to break ranks…it has not faced the challenge that the context in which it is done, a context which abstracts intellectual work from the whole of life and the theoretical from the practical, actually distorts the task… the rightness of theological reflection cannot be measured ultimately by its conformity to criteria laid down by a professional elite, but by its ability to inspire women and men to costly Christian discipleship in implementing the biblical message of grace and liberation in Jesus Christ (Harvey 1989:22).

This old, cliched dichotomy between “theory” and “praxis” is only worn out because it is so true. We academics like to believe in an intellectual trickle-down world, and Christian higher education has largely gone along with that philosophy with a sprinkling of religiosity and morality on top. And maybe that’s just the imperfect, institutionalized world that we live in. But I’m not completely convinced that this is the case.

There are whispers and glimpses of compelling alternatives that I catch when I am really paying attention (which honestly isn’t all that often). But the cacophony and relentless pace of the academy largely drowns out that attentiveness to what could be the Holy Spirit. Or perhaps I am too naive in my idealism, and those radical aspirations will be replaced with a mildly critical realism down the road. We will see. Until then, questions like this continue to haunt me: Is Christian scholarship accountable to the poor? God, I hope so.

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