Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fears, Careers, and Ideological Openness

I plan to spend my life in the academic field. Thus, far I have attended rather conservative theological institutions, though of significantly differing core doctrinal commitments. However, recently in pondering the future, I have arrived at one conclusion: I have to get myself out of the theological vein I am in and into the artery of religious academics for several reasons (one of which I will share in this post): 1. I don't like the feel of confessional institutions. This first realization is one that came to me slowly. In my own theological journey, I (much like the general history of Christianity) have largely been reactionary in my development, at least up until this point. Admittedly, my story, of heroin addiction for the entirety of my adolescence and teenage years leading into my twenties, is rather out of the ordinary. Moreover, as I've stated previously at first I was enticed by the "American Jesus" that is the one touted by Kenneth Copeland and his band of cronies who teach prosperity and other absurd and completely antithetical notions to the real meaning and message of Jesus. When the scales fell from my eyes, the horror of what I had learned and believed precipitated my own violent reaction against such theological constructs--(and yet another ideology I would come to abandon)--reformed, covenant theology. Here I was courted by such thinkers as Gary North (Christian Reconstruction), Kenneth Gentry (Postmillennial, Partial Preterism, and Theonomy [not in a Tillich sense!]), Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and John Frame. Here I rested for several years, I call these my "heresy-hunter" days---where the primary role of the Christian theologian, in my understanding, was to defend orthodoxy (e.g. calvinism, etc.). Moreover, this was the age of the "fear-factor." Where ideas that pressed against the veil of "orthodoxy" were to be guarded against and feared. Thus, in reflecting on these two periods, they were both eras characterized by ideology driven by fear of some form or another. First, fear of academic theology (ala the "Word of Faith" crew) because we all know scholarly study of the Scripture causes people to lose their faith. Second, fear of heresy where certain ideas outside of the norm were taboo and therefore to be guarded against. In this latter mode, which seems to be the dominate mode still in evangelicalism (as it is eclipsed by the postmodern, poststructuralist, postchristian shift) ideas outside the norm are dangerous. Fortunately, I entered another era. One in which I could re-envision Jesus, religion, and theology. The primary paradigm shift came through listening and then reading N. T. Wright. I bet I've listened to his "Jesus and the Kingdom" four part series (free on 7 or 8 times each. Then I read his three massive volumes (New Testament and the People of God; Jesus and the Victory of God; The Resurrection of the Son of God) in a matter of two months, devouring every page. I don't think my own transformation was the result of Wright per se, rather I think it was my own Sitz im Leben coupled with challenging new ideas about Jesus, historiography, the historical trajectories within NT scholarship, and Jesus studies that cracked open my mind, something I am deeply grateful for. Also, contemporaneous with (maybe before/and definitely a little after) I have had crises of faith. I did get married (maybe a cause of crisis) and had a baby (also possible cause for alarm!), but in the moments of desperation, god-forsakenness, and genuine spiritual seeking, I found one theologian to rest in, one academic who I could turn to read---Jurgen Moltmann. Without Crucified God I think I might have left the faith all together [Parenthetically, I actually got the chance to shake his hand and tell him that at SPS this year]. I needed to find again the God whom I knew, but had lost in prosperity faith and orthodoxy defense. In light of where I've been and who I am, I no longer find it desirable to operate (in a future career context) in an environment which confines itself to a narrow, creedal ideology. One of my primary concerns is that, if all staff (e.g. professors) affirm the same creedal positions and believe the same things, then students are not truly challenged. Indeed, such an environment does not seem conducive to biblical studies in general. For what if study leads to other conclusions? What if, in fact, the creed is so narrow and explicit that virtually no one (on staff) affirms it in the way it is written, they all have a nuanced sense in which they understand various facets of it in order to be able to sign it? Finally, these creedal strictures create an ethos of "us vs. them" and one in which individuals who think for themselves (unless they have tenure) have to "watch what they say" on issues that after wrestling with the data no longer fit the creed. I realize there are normative responses to the issues I have suggested, but I am working through them from my own perspective as rationale for why I don't think in my future academic career I would want to work at a creedal institution, not necessarily because I don't believe in various things that might be creedalized, but that in terms of academics I don't think such fosters free-thinking scholarship.

Let me explain my thinking further. This is, I think, something I could not have come to without my former and present academic experience, for which I am grateful. I'm not bitter (although I have several biting criticisms for my institution[s]), but I think most people, after several years in an institution, become keenly aware of its shortcomings. So what now?

My rationale is that I need to and must broaden my horizons in doctoral education at an institution conducive to my goals. Those goals consist of finding a vocational opportunity in an academic institution that is ideologically free, to read the text in new ways, to construct new theories, to test new hypotheses, all without fear of reprisal or retribution. I have witnessed in my undergraduate experience a conservative institution malign and severely devastate the lives of one of its professors (and his wife and children's lives) all because he taught students to take Jesus' teaching seriously and to practice social justice; they didn't mind his teaching until he called the administration on unethical business practices (even though he went to them privately for a period of almost two years, before making the discussion more public). I saw them publically lie, threaten students, and quietly try to sweep him under the rug. I realize academics is very political, but thinking, teaching, and writing freely is a necessity for me and my future development. I don't ever want to be run out of town, job, and school because I teach students, however controversially, to think---is not that the heart of education?

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