The Academy and the Poor (Part 3 of 3)

(Back to Part 2

5. In the end, I still dislike framing the question in terms of justification, as if there is a right path (presumably paved with gold) to be found. Are the activities of reading, writing, and teaching just in the face of the world’s poor? I am tempted to answer simply and quickly, “no.” Nothing can be justified in the face of five year-olds dying of malnutrition and diarrhea or young girls violently robbed of virginity by uncles and cousins. To be blunt, the whole situation is shitty and we are all implicated. We all, academics included, need to hang our heads in shame—and redouble our efforts to eradicate such blatant evils. But how are we to go about dealing with these problems? Obviously, we should not isolate ourselves from the world’s horrors (frequenting only “the nice parts of town”), and when we are in position to act directly (by providing food or intervening on behalf of the vulnerable), we ought to do it. But we also need to see more clearly the tangled network of problems (cultural, social, economic, political, spiritual, ecological) that make these horrors more likely to occur, and take steps to counter them. And we all need to see it, at least in part, which is why we need skilled teachers in many disciplines. The analysis, conversation, and collaborative action that this requires is a larger and (unfortunately) much slower project.

And even beyond the quest to overcome specific problems with exact solutions, academic inquiry is no worse-off in a quest to justify its own continued existence than is, say, painting, playing the cello, attending an opera, or debating the merits of some piece of legislation. One of Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison has been haunting my thoughts for months, “The only thing I am really clear about in the whole problem is that a ‘culture’ that breaks down in the face of danger is no culture. Culture must be able to face danger and death….By finding forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror?” The gist of Bonhoeffer’s statement (assuming I understand it), is that any activity that cannot be carried with us into the hardest and most broken parts of the world is not worth bringing along at all. Culture, in this sense, cannot be diversions that ignore suffering (like the Buchenwald zoo) or the dissipated merriment of cynics resigned to a dark “fate” (fiddling while the Titanic sinks). But, it is possible, I dare say necessary, to put expression to profound moments of beauty, rage, fear, and reverence even where taking the time to do so seems, at first glance, superfluous. What else might the first seeds of redemption (a “re-deeming,” a new birth of meaning) in the present look like? It is impossible for any of us to hold shattered lives together in a seamless narrative of “meaning,” but giving some fragments of meaning space to expand—whether howling lament or salvaged scraps of laughter-is perhaps to find God’s Spirit at work already. I do not want to be a part of any theology that floats by the slums on a luxury cruise-liner, or tours them on an air-conditioned bus. Rather, I want to find theology “in the face of danger and death,” to search out “forgiveness in judgment, and joy in terror.” Anything less is no theology at all.

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

  1. Eric,
    it occurred to me the other day that I have heard the term activist/theologian quite frequently these days, many times with the “/” removed. Names that come to mind are Brian Walsh, Sylvia Keesmat, Ched Myers, perhaps Brian McLaren (although I’m not sure that he counts himself a theologian). I wonder if this is to assuage any guilt that comes from “merely” being a theologian or if it is to communicate to the public that theology has a direct impact on us as we pursue God’s justice. Who knows? Have you noticed this trend? Is it just plain trendy?
    No need for deep reflection here unless you feel like it – this is just something that I’ve noticed and I wanted to know if you have noticed it as well.

  2. It is as if the word “theologian” connotates passivity so it must be counterbalanced to justify itself to the spirit of our day. Perhaps we will see such an influx of activist theologians that the general public will say, “I wish those folks would just get back to their damn books!” 😉

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