Theologizing Alone: Loneliness and Self-Promotion in Academic Theology

This post is for those who are wondering if PhD work is for them. It may be, but it is really important to look before you leap. The first item is an informal conversation with two of my fellow students under Kevin Vanhoozer, Paul Maxwell and Derek Rishmawy, about competitiveness among seminary students. The second is a reflection essay on the same topic that I wrote on the heels of an excellent conference in Houston for The Transdisciplinary Group.

 

Theology as Gift

Peter Leithart delivered an excellent talk last week in Houston titled “Gifts for Gift Makers,” where he likened the theologian to an artist who gives from what he has received through the participation in the liturgical life of the church. Theology on this view is a creative act of poesis, but one that is dependent on the gifts of God. Leithart encapsulated the theologians reception of these gifts with three words: hear, sing, and eat.

The talk was (for me) the culmination of a fantastic conference laying out a vision for trans-disciplinary scholarship. The conference was promoting a view of all disciplines as oriented toward the knowledge, service, and worship of God. I was greatly moved by a number of the talks, and encouraged to pursue my vocation along this narrow and untraveled path.

But Leithart’s talk also unintentionally introduced a very painful problem for me. It may be appropriate and natural to move from the eucharist to vocation, except that one of the most important aspects of the eucharist is its communal nature, while the theological vocation seems to be a individual sport. I say it “seems to be” descriptively, not prescriptively. It’s perhaps no good complaining at this stage in the game, but an academic vocation has its particular challenges. I have described PhD work as burning the candle at both ends to do something no one wants you to do. But considering vocation as gift gives special poignancy to the situation. I am giving a gift that (seemingly) no one wanted to receive in the first place.

What do I mean by the claim that it “seems to be an individual sport?” There are a constellation of problems that lead to the feeling of giving academic gifts to no one in particular, the feeling of isolation.

The Church and the Theologian

First, there exists an uneasy relationship between the church and the theologian. If a central part of the theologian’s task is to develop theology, then it is worth asking whether anyone else in the church thinks that theology needs to be developed. On the whole, they do not. Theology does not seem to be integral to the church’s own conception of what it is doing. In some segments of evangelicalism, biblical theology is valued, but theology as “biblical reasoning” (Webster) about God and all areas of life, is only theoretically necessary.

The church seems content to get on with the business of “doing ministry”, while the academy is grudgingly allowed to study in exchange for accrediting its ministers. Indeed, some churches seem to have come to see accrediting process itself as arresting to the business of doing church, preferring instead to raise up leaders from the inside. Moreover, the “resident theologian” is still exceedingly rare in the local church.

PhD as a Ticket to Prestige

Second, the allure of getting a PhD creates a complex problem. More people seem to be getting PhDs, and not always for great reasons. Academia has a certain prestige. Intelligence is one of the ways that we rank ourselves against each other. The more highly educated you are, the more intelligent you seem to be. Young people can see this as a ticket to respect (it’s not). This has led to a culture among evangelicals that the serious and important leaders do a PhD. The desire for a PhD can thus be seen as a desire to be important. Who knows you might become the next so-and-so? A PhD can’t hurt, can it? The fashionableness of a PhD produces suspicion about motivation, an intuition that all PhDs are simply out for prestige

The Flooded Market

Third, the combination of the uneasy relationship between the theologian and the church and the fashionableness of a PhD produces a real crisis of a flooded market. This flooded market is owing partly to a more general rise in the water level of education in all fields and partly to the decline of Christianity in Western civilization. In any field, jobless people often go back to school, to bolster up qualifications for another run at it. Young people are told that the masters degree is the new bachelors. Funded by increasing student debt, the industry of higher education is selling hope. Again, it can only help to get more education.

But in addition, jobs in Christian academia are even more scarce. The job market just hasn’t recovered since 2008. Every student has some idea about this coming in, but it is only on the back end that it becomes tangible. It is easy to assure yourself with the thought that the school is training PhDs, so there must be a demand. They let me in, and with funding!

But, there is no necessary relation between a school’s desire to train you, and a subsequent desire for your services. It is easy to climb the mountain of a PhD to find another peak waiting for you—the search for a job either in Christian academia or in an alternate career. Needless to say, it is not a stable time, psychologically speaking, to think about what else you could do in the world. Congratulations, you should never have done this.

Gift Giving and Self-Promotion

All of this leads to the culmination of isolation and my claim: academic ministry feels so little like a gift we give to the church because to survive in it seems to require self-promotion. To be fundamentally oriented toward self-promotion runs psychologically contrary to the proper orientation of gift giving in the context of the church (Rom. 12:3-8, 10; Phil. 2:4; Eph. 4:16; 1 Cor. 12:7). The more panic induces us to promote ourselves, the less we feel we are serving anyone but ourselves.

Because of the scant opportunities, academic ministry often rewards those who are best connected and most vocal at the expense of the pure form. Some of us feel that we are in academia because there was nothing else for us to do. In a world of action and progress, we are “overthinkers.” We are blessed (read: cursed) with the ability to see the problems, but also to envision some way forward.

The pure form is sometimes driven by a desire to help the church with these real problems. It may be motivated by questions and resources that the Christian tradition may offer to answer them. There are some of us who earnestly want to help and have been driven from the very beginning by a clear vision of how our academic labor might be able to. But without a receiver for our gifts, what options do theologians have but resigned frustration or increasing our volume?

So, on behalf of the pure form, I step very cautiously into the liturgical community and ask, what would you have us to do with our gifts?

Oh, Triune God who knows me
You have promised a place for me
That I may be where you are

You have granted me the way, the truth, life
You promised not to leave me orphaned
Your blood, Oh Christ, names you helper

And you have given another helper
Oh, Spirit, be with me, wait with me
Let me know your love
So, against silence I may love

Quotable: Serene Jones

“The question that drives these essays was formulated in those early days of reading trauma theory, and it has remained with me throughout the ten years it took to finish this book. It is simple in form but complex in content: How do people, whose hearts and minds have been wounded by violence, come to feel and know the redeeming power of God’s graceAt the heart of this question sits a vexing problem: When people are traumatized, a kind of cognitive/psychic overwhelming breakdown can occur. When this happens, it becomes difficult for victims to experience the healing power of God’s grace because their internal capacities (where one knows and feels) have been broken. It is hard to know God when your knowing faculties have been disabled. It is hard to feel divine love when your capacity to feel anything at all has been shut down. Addressing this vexing challenge is the core aim of the book.”

Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured Word (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), ix.

Two 17th Century Theologians on the Passions

Petrus van Mastricht, A Treatise on Regeneration (p. 25)

Nor is the spiritual life in regeneration bestowed only upon the superior faculties of the soul, the understanding and will, but also upon the inferior or sensitive faculties: the affections, senses, and even the members of the body. Hence the apostle expressly ascribes sanctification not only to the spirit–by which he seems to understand the spiritual faculties, such as agree to spirits only, as the understanding and will–but also to the soul (psuche, properly the animal soul, form which we are called psuchickoi, natural or sensual, as it is rendered), which denotes the inferior faculties such as are common to brutes.

Samuel Willard, Sermon CXX, Compleat Body of Divinity

1. THAT there are two sorts of Actions performed by the Will, viz. Elicite and Imperate; the former immediately by it self, and the latter by the affections. The Elicite acts of the Will are in choosing or rejecting the Object before it. This act is performed inwardly by it, and belongs to the sovereignty of the Will in man, by vertue whereof he is a free Agent. Hence such a precept is given us, Amos 5.15. Hate the evil, and love the good. And that is given as a sign of a persons being capable of acting as a man, Isai. 7.16. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and chuse the good. 

The Imperate acts of the will are those by which it puts its Elections in execution, and pursues them to effeect; in which it nextly makes use of the Affections, by which it manageth the whole man. Whether the Affections belong to the Will in man, and are only the various motions of it, or whether they be distinct faculties in him, and are seated in his inferior powers, I dispute not. It is certain that they are the instruments by which the Will performs its Imperate actions, and in the which it is either carried to or from the object.” 454-55 : Quest XXXI, Assembly’s Catechism

A Methodological “Confession”

Bless us, Father, for we have sinned. It has been 1600 years since Augustine’s Confessions, but we have forgotten that the true test for interpretive virtue is love for you and love for our neighbor. In our zeal to bring about unity we have neglected patience and the cultivation of interpretive virtues. We have instead placed our hopes in methodology and the power of unaided Reason. Mistakenly, we thought that your gift of reason needed not your guiding voice; we have thought that the hermeneutics of suspicion can reveal our sins and that the power of politics can correct them. We avail ourselves to the mercy and grace that is available through your Word, who is the apex, the τελος, and the interpretive key of your revelatory activity in the world. We submit ourselves to Him, and entreat you to work through your Spirit to confront us with your Word, so that we might stand subservient to Him, and not to Lord over Him as though He needed our methods. Help us to be circumspect and patient in the carrying out of our service as ministers of reconciliation.

Enjambment and the Provisionality of Suffering (?)

Here is another example of why I love studying Hebrew poetry. F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp points out that enjambment (love how that b is jammed in there) expresses meaning in Lamentations through giving “provisional” meaning in the first line of a couplet only to have this “half” meaning counteracted by the second. Here’s an example from Lamentations 2:22. We read:

2014-12-12 03.56.31 pm“He summoned as if a festival day”

And the couplet finishes:

2014-12-12 03.56.59 pm

“my terrors on every side”

[Dobbs-Allsopp points out that this provisional expectation and resulting surprise is destroyed, for instance, by the NRSV’s translation: “You invited my enemies from all around / as if for a day of festival.”]

What I find interesting about this particular form of expression is how it reflects the purpose of Lamentations. Lamentations is most basically the expression of shock at brutally overturned expectations of blessing. Yes, the author admits that the sin has precipitated the suffering, but the tonal emphasis of the book is on the suffering. For example, the poet says, “For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater / than the punishment of Sodom” (ESV). As an expression of shock, this use of enjambment exactly parallels the experience of the poet, an expectation of festival overturned by terrors on every side.

But to generalize even a bit more, this is also the universal experience of suffering. We all have a sort of imaginative construal of how things are and how things will be that is dramatically overturned when we encounter suffering. This is why suffering creates such profound mental pain. It involves a temporary split in the imaginative construal of the world. The characteristic orientation of the soul to find meaning in God’s purposes crashes against the present orientation of the soul, the overwhelming and bracing reality of evil. This fixation on present evil overthrows this characteristic sense of meaningfulness. (e.g. Coulehan, 2009)

But this raises the question of whether even this present suffering might be yet overturned by another couplet of experience? Perhaps I have only a “half” meaning at this moment? What if there still exists a possibility of meaningfulness being restored?

Still, while this possibility might exist, we must recognize that lingering in the shock of reversal is exactly what Lamentations enables us to do. Lamentations gives us words to voice this divided soul. On one level it validates our construal; it tells us that all is not right and that we are justified in feeling that the world is chaos, or even feeling that God is our enemy. In this sense, it is just the ordinary case of dealing with the sometimes dreadful particulars human life as we have no other alternative but to take them, in time, moment by moment. I can only taste human experience in the present tense with the full poignancy of the recent past. There is no future experience for humans, only future imaginative projection.

This moment by moment limitation of humanness is precisely what Augustine was complaining about in his Confessions. His thirst for the eternal was at least partially the thirst for seeing everything “as it is”, to experience the eternal, past, present, and future at once. So for the Christian the dramatic grief of suffering is not culpable, as if we just needed to think differently to begin with. Grief is just the response of the human soul coming to terms with particular evil in particular time. And the degree to which we finally judge this particular evil in particular time as irreconcilable with a meaningful whole is the degree to which we tend to deny the existence of meaning, or God himself. Voltaire was a good example of one did this.

Lamentations, however leads us not to this sort of despair, but ultimately to a prayer mingled with a question. “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us Why do you forget us forever … why do you forsake us for so many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old–unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.”

This question of rejection, of the loss of all meaningful resolution remains for us all, will the final couplet of things to come alter the provisional meaning of our present experience?

“Remember, O Lord”

_______________

Jack Coulehan, “Compassionate Solidarity: Suffering, Poetry, and Medicine,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn 2009), 585-603.

Quotable: Warfield, on Jesus Rage

“Why did the sight of the wailing Mary and her companions enrage Jesus? Certainly not because of the extreme violence of its expression; and even more certainly not because it argued unbelief—unwillingness to submit to God’s providential ordering or distrust of Jesus’ power to save. He himself wept, if with less violence yet in true sympathy with the grief of which he was witness. The intensity of his exasperation, moreover, would be disproportionate to such a cause; and the importance attached to it in the account bids us seek its ground in something less incidental to the main drift of the narrative. It is mentioned twice [Jn. 11:33, 38], and is obviously emphasized as an indispensable element in the development of the story, on which, in its due place and degree, the less of the incident hangs.  The spectacle of the distress of Mary and her companions enraged Jesus because it brought poignantly home to his consciousness the evil of death, its unnaturalness, its ‘violent tyranny’ as Calvin (on verse 38) phrases it. In Mary’s grief, he ‘contemplates’—still to adopt Calvin’s words (on verse 33),—‘the general misery of the whole human race’ and burns with rage against the oppressor of men. In extinguishable fury seizes upon him; his whole being is discomposed and perturbed; and his heart, if not his lips, cries out,—

‘For the innumerable dead
Is my soul disquieted.’
                       -John Hutchison”

B.B. Warfield, “On the Emotional Life of our Lord,” Biblical and Theological Studies, 60-61.

Quotable: Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, “the mind changed”

This is one of those paragraphs that states clearly a growing poorly defined awareness I have had I as have read philosophical and theological sources that there is a seismic shift in the nature of the mind and reason, which most theologians pass over in speaking of the nature or authority of reason. This change is massive, and ought to alter the conversation about the authority of reason in theology.

“During the period from Descartes to Rousseau, the mind changed. Its domain was redefined; its activities were redescribed; and its various powers were redistributed. Once a part of cosmic Nous, its various functions delimited by its embodied condition, the individual mind now becomes a field of forces with desires impinging on one another, their forces resolved according to their strengths and directions.”

Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, “From Passions to Emotions and Sentiments,” Philosophy 57 (1982), 159.