The Academy and the Poor (Part 1 of 3)

About a week ago, Dan asked folks to consider the merit of their academic endeavors in light of the plight of the world’s poor. He argues, quite rightly, that:

I believe that, confronted as we are with the massive brokenness of the world, and the suffering of our neighbours, our academic endeavours must be shaped by certain commitments. We are not free to pursue every little rabbit-trail that we find captivating.

And so Dan asks us: “When confronted with “the Poor” of today, how do you justify your academic endeavors?” 

I wrote this before starting to read Dan’s own efforts to answer the question posed, not least because his answer is likely to be more thorough and insightful than my own. I have five responses, which I will post in three segments. 

1. The strange place of theology within the academy is both a boon and a burden of responsibility in pushing to reconcile the activities of study and teaching with the realities of poverty. Many theologians profess to work for the church even as they are employed by a university (and other academics sometimes wish that they actually did). Theological writing and teaching is always, from my perspective, done in service of the church’s preaching and prayer. Good theology is an aid to preaching the gospel with clarity and an effort to pray more truly. My own modest academic goals are entirely circumscribed within the life of the church-the church whose life is bound to the poor (even and especially when that is forgotten). If I didn’t think that academics could genuinely be an act of service on that order, I hope that I’d have the integrity to start bending nails for a living.   

So if academic theology cannot be done as an act of service, one rendered unto “the Poor,” then I do not want any part of it. No doubt there are countless academics gratified by the satisfaction they find in being able to introduce themselves as some sort of scholar. No doubt there are many who enter the academy with the intention of crafting for themselves a lasting name through a brilliant career of research and publication. I cannot totally disavow every trace of such motives in myself, though I confess them before God and others. But there is still more substance to the academy than mere pretense-abusus non tolit usum-the abuse does not negate the use.

2. Second, taking up academic work is no more a barrier to working for and with the poor than earning one’s living by, for instance, selling shoes. The choices made as an academic can insulate someone from the plight of the unfortunate and broken, or they can bring someone into closer proximity. While academic study does require hours (and hours) of solitary reading, thinking, and writing; when that work is placed within the context of a whole life, it is not inherently alienating-one’s companions are still a matter of choice. Both as a student and as a teacher, one can hide behind a pile of work and find oneself “too busy” to do anything for others-but there is nothing necessary or inevitable about this. In speaking of academics and poverty, we are not talking about oil and water.

2 Replies to “The Academy and the Poor (Part 1 of 3)”

  1. Eric,
    I had intended to respond the other day to your first post on this topic but am glad I had a chance to wait a bit, for you touched on a couple of things I had planned on saying. My first reaction was, “Yawn. Aren’t there better questions to be asking?” Perhaps I misread the post as part of the old “What’s more important – doctrine or practice?” debate, a topic on which I have long since achieved peace. This came from my own soul-searching about the amount of time I spend pursuing scholarship (albeit as a pastor). As I’m sure you would agree, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and bad theology leads to horrible practice. My own life testifies to this all too well. Anyway, you say that from your perspective, theological writing and teaching is always done in service of the church’s preaching and prayer. If so, why is there such a fragmentation of disciplines, such as we see happening in the world of medicine? That can be frustrating to folks like me who have to preach the word week in and week out. I am heartened to hear of cross-disciplinary programs like Duke Divinity School’s ThD. but that seems to be the exception to the rule. Second, and related, why is it that the gap ever widens between the laity and the academy. I think that many parishoners look at folks like me and you and would sympathize with Bob Dylan who sang (in mocking a former lover, albeit) “I can’t even touch the books you’ve read.” While I can appreciate the nuances of PhD. level peer reviewed scholarship, the mental gymnastics (perhaps anguish?) I find myself going through in order to communicate responsibly with my congregation can be tiring and many times I just throw in the towel. Would that I had the rhetorical skills of Clive Staples, eh? Third, I think a more interesting question would be “What is it about the academy that makes us susceptible to idolatry and pride? For it is not our learning that separates us from the poor but rather the status, privileges, false ideas, etc that we accord ourselves because of it that is what truly separates the haves and have-nots, however they be categorized?

    Having read Dan’s post, I can’t say that I agree with his popularized interpretation of Matthew 25, which of course makes me sound like an asshole.

    In my own life, I have long admired New Testament scholar Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary. He and his wife Fran attend Scum and serve in many capacities. The way they have ordered their finances and their time puts most Christians to shame. They are both highly intelligent, well-respected people who are able to balance service to the academy and the poor. So, if you’re looking for a mentor….

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for your generous response!

    Hear, hear! More theology, more practice! I’m with you on the dead-ness of the questions that try to pick one over the other. But to me, the heart of Dan’s question is a bit more ethically “pointy,” at least for a person thinking about trying to teach for a living. If I take him right, he’s asking whether academic pursuits are something of a luxury necessarily enjoyed at the expense of others. If so, then perhaps we ought to cancel the party and start working for NGO’s.

    Your first two questions/frustrations have to do with the gap between academics and, respectively, the ministry and the laity. I can say that I lament both gaps and I’m not entirely sure how to close them. I suspect that the atmosphere is a lot better in some churches than others, and I’d be interested in putting together some of the factors that make a difference. Having people like Prof. Blomberg and his wife in the church must certainly do a lot to bolster respect for scholars and scholarship.

    So how does academic theology grow wheels and get traction in actual churches? The best indication is probably not whether pastors and parishoners are using words like “inspissated” in day to day discourse. I see the connection more in terms of academics providing exegesis, history, analysis and argument that 1) helps the congregation understand, and proclaim its own faith; 2) helps it identify, understand, and counter the biggest challenges to its faith; 3) helps the congregation to develop practices (both worship and service) that reinforce that faith. That still sounds vague, but I don’t have a better way to describe the trickle-down (infusion?) of thoughts through the community.

    I guess that I don’t know of any way around the mental gymnastics of trying to express the best understanding we’ve got in terms that everyone can understand. It’s a hard task no doubt. It might eventually get easier if we are able to make some of those ideas sound enticing enough that other people start wading into some of the same books. I’m currently inspired by a woman who is teaching a summer course at her church on Augustine’s Confessions (follow the “Per Caritatem” link on the right)—I’d love to repeat something like that in our church.

    Your third comment is more to the point of Dan’s post, and I’m trying to wrestle with exactly how suspicious we ought to be of the “social capital” gained with a Ph.d. and a position at a college or university. You or I have a lot of respect for people who do well in those endeavors, but a lot of other people are immediately suspicious of anything that smells of scholarship, so with many people, it actually doesn’t buy you very much.

    For it is not our learning that separates us from the poor but rather the status, privileges, false ideas, etc that we accord ourselves.

    That seems exactly right to me. So the challenge becomes engaging in “academic endeavors” without accumulating academic pretense. It means refusing to use one’s knowledge as a means of leverage over others. Whatever power does reside in knowledge (and there is a good deal) must be turned immediately to service—which means passing it off to others in a form that they can understand and apply it. Where knowledge becomes a badge of status, a marker of intelligence that separates the knower from the “ignorant,” then chances are good that the knowledge has become a lie—like manna that is kept overnight and rots. All that means a commitment to structuring one’s life so that there are a myriad relationships that cross all those boundaries.

    Oh… too long… I’m sorry! I’m a bit tired and my filter is off… I hope there’s some sense in there…


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