How Can Christian Academia be Christian?
I want today to explore further the question Lance raised earlier this week—“What is the task of [academic] theology in the Church?” The relationship between Christianity and academia is a strange one. Most of Western academia has its roots within the Church. Much of it is also hostile to the Church, and a lot of Western Christianity’s most vibrant sectors are marked by a streak of anti-intellectualism. It should be no surprise, writing as I do for a site devoted to theology and philosophy and possessing a masters degree, that I vehemently disagree both with Christian anti-intellectualism and with its counterpart that thinks there’s something inherently intellectually suspect about Christianity. At the same time, I do believe there is a real tension, and it’s something that the Christian academy needs to think hard about addressing.
The tension does not lie along the spectrum of intellectual vs. anti-intellectual, but stands instead between academia’s tendency towards elitism and Christian theology’s inherent populism. Lance hinted at this tension in his post. As he pointed out, academic theology is quite capable of going off and adding layers of complex nuance to theology completely divorced from the general life of the Church. The basic reason for this is that the vast majority of Christians are not elite academics. Moreover, they shouldn’t be. Christianity is at its roots a faith for the average person, not those at the top. It is our founder who declared “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16), and who brought his message first to the people—specifically to the people on the margins of a nation that was itself at the margins of an empire. This doesn’t mean I believe that the Church has no place in the centers of power (I’m no Mennonite), but I do believe that if the Church is to be true to her calling she must always be directed towards those not in power.
Academia tends towards the opposite. There is often an instinctive opposition in it towards anything low or popular. Academia seems almost inevitably to tend towards the multiplication of complexity and jargon that keeps out anyone not inducted into the field. Some of this is necessary, as complex intellectual ideas are easier to talk about with specialized terms, and I truly believe in the good of complex intellectual pursuits. Yet, the Christian academy, if it is truly to serve the Church, must go beyond this to reach the average parishioner.
This is obviously a complex task, but a big step in the right direction would be learning to translate important complex ideas in a way that is accessible to those outside of the academy. This is something that someone like C.S. Lewis accomplished admirably in his day, and it’s a big part of why he’s still a household name. There are plenty of scholars both Christian and otherwise who make names for themselves writing books for the people, but they tend to be an exception to the general rule, and I don’t think books in and of themselves are enough. Rather, all Christian academics need to find ways to put their learning to the benefit of their local churches.
Yet, this task is challenging. Translation is not simple—it’s far too easy to dumb down or otherwise condescend. Translation is a skill. Much of our training in higher education, in turn, cultivates the opposite skill in us. We learn to think and talk as academics. This is important if Christian academia is to be relevant in the world of higher education. At the same time, if the Christian academy is going to serve the Church, I believe that it needs to begin actively cultivating in its scholars and students alike a capacity to think about and speak about their ideas to the person in the pew.
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