On Bringing pentecost to Pentecostalism and Diving Deep in Philosophy

***This is an interview between Helen De Cruz and J. Aaron Simmons. It was originally posted in March 2016 at Prosblogion. It is number 19 in a series of such posts in which philosophers reflect on their religious practices. For the rest of the series, see the Prosblogion.

Helen De Cruz (HDC): Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?

J. Aaron Simmons (JAS): Currently, I am an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. I have been at Furman for five years and prior to coming here I held positions at Hendrix College, The University of the South (Sewanee), and Vanderbilt University.

Most of my work is in philosophy of religion and occurs in light of phenomenology and existentialism. That said, I have also done work in political philosophy, environmental philosophy, and the history of philosophy (especially focusing on the thought of Søren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas, and the “new phenomenology” of Michel Henry, Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Jean-Luc Marion).

In general, there are two questions that keep me up at night and continue to cause me to get up every morning and keep working. The first is “What are the possibilities for and the fate of determinate religious belief and identity in postmodernism?” The second is “How might philosophers stop calling for the overcoming of the so-called analytic/continental divide and simply do constructive work that no longer reinforces the divide?” Ultimately, these two questions dovetail together in my thinking and writing.

I have been advocating the notion of “mashup philosophy of religion” for some time now and the basic idea is that philosophers of religion should draw on whatever resources that are relevant to the questions being asked—regardless of which tradition in which those resources reside: continental, analytic, process, feminist, pragmatic, etc. So, when I think about determinate religious belief in postmodernism, I often appeal to work by thinkers such as Linda Zagzebski, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston, but also to thinkers such as Derrida, Marion, and Kierkegaard. All of these thinkers take seriously the notion of identity in relation to communities of discourse and the way that experience is always already interpreted therein. The fact that they use different philosophical styles and technical vocabularies should not preclude our being able to consider them all interlocutors in the task of philosophically thinking well about what is called “religion.” As one further point here, I think that philosophers of religion also need to draw more effectively and substantively on work in religious studies or the “academic study of religion” (especially in the area of critical theory of religion). Though philosophy of religion has been effectively engaging theology and the cognitive sciences in recent years, similar engagement with religious studies is less prominent. As just two possible benefits of such engagement, I think that cross-cultural appreciation and an interest in embodied practice are two specific aspects that religious studies can productively bring to bear on the sometimes “insular,” “narrow,” and “cognitivist” tendencies of contemporary philosophy of religion (whether analytic or continental) (I am borrowing terminology here from Kevin Schilbrack’s Philosophy and the Study of Religions [Wiley-Blackwell, 2014]).

The positive view I give to the question of determinate religious belief/identity in postmodernism is something that I term “postmodern kataphaticism.” The basic idea of postmodern kataphaticism is built on the belief that postmodernism is best understood as an epistemic thesis about the status of inquiry and the hermeneutic limits that attend to such inquiry. As such, there is no specific metaphysical or ontological or theological commitments required by postmodernism, but instead merely a realization that we necessarily relate to whatever views we affirm from within our embodied, socio-historical, and finite perspectives. So, specifically, postmodern kataphaticism allows for someone to affirm metaphysical realism while also being epistemically anti-realist. In other words, perhaps reality is rightly understood as a mind-independent state of affairs, and maybe we do/can have knowledge of the way reality is, but even if both of those claims are right, I don’t think we can know that we have such knowledge and so all affirmation in this regard is rightly attended by existential risk. The limits to our inquiry need not, however, restrict the possibilities for religious belief—only the way that such belief is held. Postmodern kataphaticism acknowledges that we might be determinately Christian, Jewish, atheist, or whatever, and also that the postmodern frame in which such identities are affirmed and performed calls us to humility, hospitality, and honesty in our dealings with ourselves, members of our community, and people who are not.

As for my religious affiliation, I identify as a pentecostal Christian. I use the lowercase ‘p’ in pentecostal, here, following James K.A. Smith’s idea of “big tent pentecostalism” whereby being pentecostal is less about a particular denominational affiliation or a specific conception of glossolalia, etc., and more about the way in which pneumatology is the frame in which my theology gets worked out. That said, I grew up in the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) and I still identify as part of that denominational tradition. My grandfather, Ernie T. Hitte, was a pastor in the Church of God, and my parents have both spent their careers as faculty at Lee University (which is a Church of God institution). So, because of my denominational context, I would also count as a capital-P Pentecostal, I guess, though I find that less helpful and less compelling as a way of understanding pentecostalism more generally.

HDC: Could you give a sense of what the practices of (P)pentecostal Christians involve, or specifically what a service looks like (what do people do and what it signifies) for those who unfamiliar with this tradition?  

JAS: So, I often teach a course entitled “God and Justice” and I once tried to use Pentecostalism as an example for a point I was making and I showed different videos of services and it turned out that I was at a loss for how to make it seem even slightly less strange to folks who had not grown up in the tradition. That said, I am not sure I will do much better this time in response to your question, but I will try.

Ok, well, first, I think that pentecostalism (lower-case p) is primarily a matter of cultivating what Amos Yong terms the “pneumatalogical imagination” and what James K.A. Smith refers to as living in light of a “spirited reality.” The point is that pentecostalism is more a matter of an existential pneumatalogical orientation in which one’s theology and one’s subjectivity both play forth, than it is a matter of affirming specific propositions about initial evidence of spirit indwelling, etc. Thinking well about what propositions should be affirmed is certainly important, but I take it that pentecostalism allows for imagination to be an access point into rationality. In this way, and I have argued this in a recent paper, Kierkegaard’s notion of faith occurring “by virtue of the absurd” is perhaps properly thought of as a kind of pentecostal expression. I don’t mean to endorse irrationality, but merely the importance of understanding that embodied faithfulness is irreducible to reason-giving (and I think we can give good reasons to think this!). When understood accordingly, pentecostalism (although historically primarily rooted in the 1906 Azuza Street Revival) maintains the idea of divine excess that is, in many ways, the hallmark of medieval mysticism, while resisting the asceticism that so often accompanied such medieval expressions. Indeed, part of what gets lost in many contemporary Pentecostal (capital-P) communities is a grasp of the radically progressive social orientation of the early 20th century revivals. All one needs to do is pay attention to the fact that such revivals were led by African-Americans (e.g., William Seymour) and by women (e.g., Aimee Semple McPherson) to realize the frequent problems of largely segregated denominations and rampant patriarchy throughout so much of contemporary Pentecostalism. In the “spirit” of Kierkegaard, perhaps what is needed is for someone to bring pentecost to Pentecostalism (I think that Yong and Smith have made good strides in this direction).

Second, I don’t think that there is any “one thing” that is definitive of Pentecostal worship services. A lot depends on the specific denomination and the specific geographical region in which a particular congregation is located, etc. For example, I am part of the Church of God, but the Church of God in Tennessee and Florida might have a quite different feel, as it were, than the Church of God in Minnesota or Oregon. Moreover, a Church of the Foursquare Gospel with 100 members will likely present itself very differently than the Assemblies of God church with 5,000 members just down the road. So, I won’t try to give an account that would hold up from the perspective of a sociologist of religion, but instead I will simply appeal to my own experience of growing up in rather large congregations within the Church of God in the American South.

Services in my tradition tend to be characterized by energetic worship and usually this worship is inaugurated by fairly extended periods of musical praise (featuring a wide variety of instruments and vocalists). When I was growing up, it was usual to see a large choir in robes, but that has generally shifted to a small praise team in skinny jeans and graphic t-shirts. I am not sure whether this change is good or bad, but it does allow for a more laid back atmosphere in the service, which I figure can be beneficial since Christians tend to take themselves way too seriously, which tends to reflect a situation in which God is not taken seriously enough. Yet, it can be the case that such informality leads to its own sort of self-righteousness in that the “sexy” church feels superior to the “old-fashioned” church next door. As for me, I kind of like the idea of “old time religion” but it is important to encourage being comfortable in church in order that we can then be disrupted and troubled by God. If church is already uncomfortable, then we probably won’t stick around long enough to be challenged by glory. Of course, it is probably for that reason that I often long for a more liturgical component so that the depth of holiness and what C.S. Lewis terms the “weight of glory” is not missed due to being distracted by the video production team, etc.

Anyway, the point is that the Pentecostal churches in which I was raised are not places where falling asleep was much of a temptation. I grew up playing the drums in church and so participating in the musical aspect of the service is very much the way that I learned to worship God. To this day, I find the music often to be more important to me than the preaching (since I figure that I am blessed to get to reflect on faith and theology in my own daily activities as a philosopher of religion (though I would make a hard distinction between being a theologian and being a philosopher), the need for hearing the pastor is less crucial to me on most Sundays than hearing the congregation come together in singing, dancing, and yeah, sometimes even running, shaking, and speaking in tongues). I will get to tongues in a minute (even though it is not really central to my own conception of pentecostalism), but let me try to say something about the reason that I find the musical dimension of worship to be so important for pentecostal identity. Since Pentecostalism is not a tradition characterized by high liturgical practice, the way in which Christian faith gets embodied is more ubiquitous. Let me provide an analogy. I am quite a metal-head when it comes to music (though I also listen to a bunch of conscious hip-hop) and I struggle to listen to music as merely background noise. I like music that calls for an active response—a physical and full-throated response. This is why (though I am getting too old now, my wife says I have always been too old, sigh), I like the idea of moshing. When at a metal concert, the point is not simply to appreciate the music being performed by the band, but to participate in the music by creating the atmosphere in which the music makes sense. I think that the same thing applies to pentecostal worship services. I am not there simply to listen to some other folks sing a little bit prior to moving into the next part of the service (usually transitioning by the request from a pastor to “greet someone next to you”). Rather, the music is like the ancient call of the shofar that brings the people of God together in one place, and in one spirit.

The fact that people in my churches jump and dance, or whatever (I have seen some crazy stuff!), simply illustrates that there is no embodied hiddenness from the divine. Here we are, together, singing and praising God. The model, of course, is the Upper Room in the book of Acts. There is no one right way to be “here,” but instead the point is to be fully present—whatever that looks like to you. For me, when I am playing the drums, I am very animated. But, when I am simply in the congregation, I am very reserved. This is the way things are for me. It is how I find myself participating. The point is that in worship I am physically implicated. As the hip-hop artist KRS-One rightly says, “you can’t observe a hop, you gotta hop up and do it.” I don’t know what it means simply to observe worship, I only know what it means to find myself worshiping. And in finding myself in this way, I also lose myself and my self-awareness such that being worried about what others will think simply becomes irrelevant. As such, pentecostal services are defined by embodied participation, but also by freedom—freedom of expression, freedom from egoism, and freedom to lose one’s inhibitions. The phenomenologist Jean-Louis Chrétien says that prayer is wounding because it calls us beyond ourselves toward the Other. I think that worship does something similar. It is in worship that I am fully, and physically, oriented toward the divine. Accordingly, I am glad that philosophers such as Michelle Panchuck are beginning to take worship seriously as a philosophical topic. Importantly, though, for pentecostals, the God that we worship is not some abstract principle, but a fully personal God who is named as “with us.”

Well, I guess that I now need to say something about speaking in tongues. Sigh. I sigh here simply because I think that the costs are (too) high when the pneumatalogical imagination gets reduced to glossolalia. Yet, I affirm the reality of speaking in tongues and so it is certainly an aspect of my pneumatalogical imagination. If Heidegger is right to say that “language is the house of being,” then speaking in a heavenly language, as it were, might provide a kind of “escape” that Heidegger and Levinas never could have considered. That said, I have never spoken in tongues myself. So, I can’t give a first-personal account of it, but I can give a first-personal account of existing in light of its reality. The weird part, I guess, is that it is simply normal to me. I get that this will sound simply bizarre to many readers—and this is understandable considering that so much hype and worked-up flair can be associated with the phenomenon (just a quick search for “speaking in tongues” on YouTube will demonstrate this quite readily). There are a lot of dangers that can be associated with the “signs and wonders” that far too often become the “point,” as it were, of Pentecostalism, and it is for that reason (among others) that I continue to stress the lower-case p as more reflective of where I find myself. I will resist engaging in a theological defense of the phenomenon and instead simply provide what I consider to be a compelling phenomenological question.

If God is personal in the ways that many Christians claim and the divine life is actively and relationally engaged with the world, then it makes sense that that relation would itself be personal in ways that are physical for us—indeed, I don’t know how it is possible for human beings to make sense of personality except in physical terms (here I am influenced by the work of cognitive linguistics, and let me recommend the forthcoming book by John Sanders, Theology in the Flesh, that explores the theological implications of conceptual metaphor theory). If this is plausible, then it seems entirely reasonable to me that the divine presence would be excessive of the capacities of our physicality. In this sense, why would we be surprised by the physical manifestations of divine overflow? It is as if our bodies can’t contain it. But, come on, the Bible says that Moses glowed after simply seeing the shadow of God, so if the Holy Spirit is personally active in the world, why would it be strange to see bodies unable to handle it? The weight of glory might be a bit too heavy for natural language.

Again, don’t hear this as a philosophical argument or theological defense for the actuality of glossolalia, but simply as a phenomenological question that, I hope, will at least interrupt the ability to dismiss speaking in tongues outright. Just like prayer and worship, glossolalia should put us in question. Sometimes when we think we have the answers, we can’t even ask good questions. It is in this respect that I once wrote that I think of God according to the following disjunction: Either God is trouble or God is nothing. By this I mean that either God is more than merely our conception (‘God’ is not God), and as such God should trouble us when we stop worrying that our very faith amounts to idolatry, or God is nothing in the sense that our own conception is fine on its own and so God gets ushered out the back of our churches because ‘God’ has taken all the seats.

HDC: Could you say how the worship you describe, e.g., playing music, dance, plays a role in your work as a philosopher? As you say “I find the music often to be more important to me than the preaching (since I figure that I am blessed to get to reflect on faith and theology in my own daily activities as a philosopher of religion).” How is this reflection influenced by the practices you describe?

JAS: You mean in ways other than making this interview possible? Ha! Well, let me back into this question a bit by saying that I think it is a good idea not to make the boundary between philosophy and theology too porous. Elsewhere I have argued at length (probably too much length, sigh) that philosophy and theology are best understood in terms of different disciplinary centers defined in relation to different epistemic standards. Put all too briefly, the idea is that philosophy should be guided by a commitment to arguments that only admit of immediate evidence that is, in principle though probably not in practice, available to all other members of the disciplinary community. So, I am generally resistant to the idea of “Christian philosophy” if that simply means starting with confessional evidence and assumptions that are unavailable to non-Christians. Theology, alternatively, can and should take as immediate evidence that which operates within a revelational or ecclesial community (rather than a philosophical one, etc.).

My view on this is motivated by my belief that philosophy and theology must be mutually engaged, but this is most likely to happen in productive ways, I think, when both discourses and communities are distinct enough to allow for genuine dialogue. Of course, a philosopher can write from confessional starting-points, but doing so requires us to rethink the status of the work as perhaps better viewed as philosophical theology, rather than philosophy proper. Again, my hope is that this allows philosophers to take theology seriously as a critical resource, and vice-versa, rather than philosophers not having to take theology seriously because they are already theologians (but usually without the disciplinary training to claim such an identity in an academic setting). Ironically, this cuts the other direction too. Part of what worries me about much of “Continental philosophy of religion,” for example, is that it is often a discourse that occurs outside of philosophy departments and by scholars without specifically philosophical training. In order for all of us to learn from each other, it is important that we not allow our disciplinary centers to be too easily interchangeable.

So, with that as something of a meta-philosophical framework, let me turn to the way that my own religious practices relate to my work as a philosopher. When it comes to evidential assumptions, they don’t (well, at least I hope that they don’t). In other words, I avoid starting from my Christian identity and then moving forward in philosophical thinking (not because it is a bad thing to do, but simply because I don’t think it is the best way to understand philosophy in its current context). However, I have no doubt that my Christianity affects what questions I am especially interested in asking. In fact, once after giving a job-talk on the idea of kenosis as deployed in Derrida’s political philosophy I was told by one of the faculty at that institution: “you must be a Christian because no one else would write on this topic.” I entirely disagree with that specific assessment (and think that there are easy counter-examples that could be offered), but the general sentiment is probably not entirely misguided. For example, I have done a lot of work trying to defend the possibilities for determinate religious belief and identity in the context of deconstructive postmodernism. The arguments that I offer do not require any specific affirmation of determinate religious truth, but it is certainly plausible to suggest that my interest in offering such arguments arises, in some sense, out of my own religious identity. Nonetheless, I try very carefully to distinguish between philosophical considerations of questions that are relevant to religion, on the one hand, and philosophically framed considerations that are, themselves, religious, on the other hand. In my work as an academic philosopher, I am more interested in the former than the latter. As a Christian, however, I am interested in both.

And yet (isn’t there always an ‘and yet’ for things in which we find our very subjectivity at stake?), I do think that my particular affinity for the work of Kierkegaard is linked to the fact that when I first read him I thought “Wow, he understands Christianity like I do.” Moreover, my own focus on phenomenology is not entirely disconnected from my pentecostal orientation toward the lived dimension of existence, rather than merely a speculative reflection on existence. In this direction, I have written some essays that explicitly consider pentecostalism, but usually as a thought-experiment or a specific case study with which I have some familiarity (rather than an acceptable starting point for philosophy reflection itself). In fact, and I have never thought of this before, I wonder if my own “mashup” commitment to finding ways to reconceive the differences between analytic and Continental philosophy is related in some way to my frustration with always finding myself “between” discourses: too Christian for most postmodernists, but too postmodern for most Christians; too academic for the church, but too churchy for the academy; too analytic for Continentalists, but too Continental for analytics; too liberal for my Southern neighbors, but too Southern for my liberal friends, etc. Perhaps if I had been raised in a different religious tradition, this struggle wouldn’t be quite so prominent in my own religious life such that it would become a question for my professional work. I am not sure about this, but it seems possible.

Even if my religious identity is not a direct impact on my writing, I do think that my pentecostalism plays out more obviously in the way that I teach and speak. Philosophy should be done with energy. Just like pentecostal worship, philosophy is something that you can’t merely “observe,” but instead have to “get up and do.” Levinas says somewhere that you have to believe “with your whole body.” That seems right to me and so I guess that I would say that my pentecostal identity shows up in my philosophical work less as an assumed propositional content and more as an embodied way of life. Go all in. Dive deep.

HDC: As a final question, harkening back to where you said that contemporary philosophy of religion (continental and analytic) is sometimes insular, narrow, and cognitivist, and your remarks just now about philosophy being something that can be done in an embodied way of life, is there anything you can recommend about how philosophers of religion can achieve this? How do we avoid insularity, and get up and do philosophy? 

JAS: The tendencies toward such insularity, narrowness, and cognitivism are fostered, I think, by the ease with which basic conceptions and terms are taken for granted within the discourse of philosophy of religion. There are two worries worth mentioning here. First, and less importantly, if you pick up the vast majority of philosophy of religion textbooks, it often seems like philosophy of religion is an exclusively “analytic” discourse. Second, and more importantly, it can quickly appear that it is obvious what “God,” “religion,” and “faith” all mean—namely, theism, Christianity, and assent to propositions that affirm the truth of theism. With these two worries in place, minimally finding ways to draw more effectively on the different philosophical approaches to thinking about religion would be a step in the right direction—hence my notion of “mashup philosophy of religion.” But, this is only a first step. It seems to me that, as I said before, finding ways to engage with the global and critical import of the academic study of religion in ways that allow our basic concepts to be contested, rather than given, would be the crucial second step toward allowing the philosophy of religion to be something that opens onto the possible truth found in embodied religious existence, rather than simply being a speculative discourse about the propositional truth of theism. As a pentecostal, but also as a phenomenologist, I think that both truths are worthy of philosophical investigation.

For my part, phenomenology proves very helpful for inviting such points of contact without, thereby, moving from philosophy to theology—which again is something I worry about for the sake of good philosophy and good theology. Yet, “phenomenology,” itself, quickly becomes a problematic term when one starts talking to scholars in critical theory of religion, for example, because of the lingering influence of such “phenomenologists of religion” as Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, and Gerard van der Leeuw. For many in religious studies, it seems that to do phenomenology is to start from the assumptions of a sui generis religious essence as described in various ways by Eliade, Otto, and van der Leeuw. Yet, these thinkers are rarely mentioned in contemporary philosophy of religion occurring in light of “new” phenomenology. Indeed, often one might find that the very critical theorist of religion who is dismissing “phenomenology” does so while drawing on the deconstructive phenomenology of Derrida and referencing the phenomenological ethics of Levinas, etc., but without noting that there are two different “traditions” operative here that both move under the name “phenomenology.” So, in order to overcome disciplinary insularity, it is crucial that philosophers be willing to be humble about the terms and traditions that can so frequently be taken for granted when speaking only with others in one’s community. The point is to see if questions that get ignored or quickly answered within a particular disciplinary (or even sub-disciplinary) community might press again as questions if one starts with different assumptions.

Fundamental concepts like “God,” “religion,” and “faith,” should be viewed as importantly contested sites of historical decisions that occur within discourse, rather than immediately being understood as reflections of philosophical Truth (capital-T) by which discourse can then be guided. The point, though, is to see such engagement as valuable not due to a commitment to diversity for its own sake, but due to a commitment to truth-seeking itself. When something gets taken as obvious, it is no longer questioned. As Heidegger and David Foster Wallace both note so well, it is difficult to be open to reality as being “more than it seems” if we already think that we have it figured out. That said, I recognize that few philosophers of religion would say that they have reality all figured out, and many good analyses of the role of mystery in religion have demonstrated this fact. Yet, often our assumptions betray unacknowledged historical decisions about what might be legitimately considered otherwise.

Look, I am a Christian (or at least, in the Kierkegaardian sense, I am trying to become one), but I think I understand Christianity better when I see how Christianity is understood by those who do not identify as such. The same is true as a philosopher: as I seek truth, I should be maximally interested in how truth might be understood otherwise if different starting points were in play, and if different notions of evidence were operative, etc. This does not mean that philosophers should be theologians, or sociologists, or historians, or critical theorists of religion, but it does mean that work in the philosophy of religion should be aware of the fact that theism, Christianity, and propositional assent are reflective of a very specific approach to the notion of God, religion, and faith. This approach might be true, it might be good, and it might be the best way forward, but its truth, its goodness, and its utility are not obvious and philosophers would do well to open themselves more explicitly to this fact.

Ultimately, then, in order to “get up and do philosophy,” the first thing to do is to get up! Analytic philosophers and Continental philosophers should read each other. Philosophers of religion should see religious studies as a crucial resource while realizing that scientific conceptions of evidence are not the only ones available. In other words, lived experience and embodiment should change the way that we make sense of what we do today as philosophers, even if it doesn’t necessarily change what has historically counted as philosophy (hence my earlier point about the importance of disciplinary centers). My hope is that by attending to this historical aspect of all philosophical inquiry, we philosophers can become more responsive to the lived communities for whom the idea of “religion” is much more than a philosophical concept, and more responsible to the other conversation partners who are also interested in being similarly attentive, but from different disciplinary perspectives.

Philosophy of religion does not need to become something other than philosophy; it just needs to be more careful about thinking through what “religion” can mean, in order to be better at doing whatever “philosophy” does mean (at least for us, here and now).

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Seven Things I Wish All Pastors Knew About Academics

ampersand***This post originally appeared as an invited contribution to www.seminariumblog.org

In the spring of 2015 I gave an invited talk at Villanova University on Christianity and postmodernism. In that talk, I took as a springboard for my reflections the fact that I had recently been encouraged (by my pastor) to leave the non-denominational evangelical church where my family and I had been attending for nearly two years. A video of that talk is available on my personal blog and so I won’t rehash that account or my argument regarding postmodern Christian existence that attends to it. Instead, here, I want to offer an informal series of thoughts regarding what I wish pastors knew about academics as they relate to academics who are part of the congregations that they serve.

Christian Identity and the Academy

I do not mean for this essay to be exhaustive and I do not intend for it to be universally applicable. On the one hand, I will largely have in mind pastors in generally evangelical Christian contexts, and on the other hand, I will largely be thinking of academics who find their research to intersect with and raise questions for their Christian identity. Of course there are pastors operating in traditions for whom these thoughts will seem trivial and unnecessary and there are academics whose areas of research simply will not likely raise the sorts of concerns underlying my reflections here.

That said, even if the following reflects no one else’s experience, it does reflect my own and, if the response to my Villanova talk is any indication, I am not the only one hoping that more pastors would incorporate the following realizations into their ministry.

Seven Realizations about the Academics Among You

I believe that if more pastors knew these seven things about academics, then fewer academics would feel isolated from their own ecclesial communities.

(1) Academics, as academics, are not pastors—and we are not trying to be. The ecclesial authority that rests on a pastor is not the same authority that rests on a professor. Though there are likely to be many areas in which the practices of each are similar (study, reflection, writing, speaking, teaching, etc.), the mantle of responsibility and authority is not the same in each case. Just because academics are good at some things does not make us good at everything.

Often confusion and mistrust result from the suspicion that academics are threatening to the office of the pastor. This is unfortunate and rarely grounded in reality. Academics should be threatening to sloppy thinking, falsehood, unjustified assertions, and resistance to critique, but these are all things that pastors should seek to avoid as well. Indeed, if pastors saw academics as resources in the way that they see coaches, business owners, and civic leaders, then the life of the mind and the life of faith might be more commonly integrated in churches.

(2) Academics generally understand that disagreement does not imply disunity. A frequently heard claim in Christian communities is that unity is of central importance to the life of the church. Although this claim is biblically based and probably well motivated in most cases, it is important to get clear on what is meant by “unity.” Unity could variously refer to geographical location, ministerial impact, teaching content, theological doctrine, social mission, liturgical style, denominational tradition, etc. In all cases, the context is usually what determines the referent and application of the term. So, in the context of a church that has multi-sites, the emphasis is likely to be on being “unified” in relation to a specific ministerial impact (hence the need for video-links so that the same pastor can be at several places at once, etc.). Or, in the context of a denomination that has recently split over theological issues, “unity” is likely to get developed in relation to theological doctrine. Further, in the context of a denomination that might be global, the importance of unity in relation to teaching content and liturgical style might be what holds the diverse local congregations together as “one” church.

Other examples could no doubt be offered, but the point is that it is not obvious what “unity” means without having the difficult conversations that attend to it. That said, because many pastors are worried that such difficult conversations will lead to “disunity,” appeals to “unity” can often serve as a way of shutting down those voices in a community who might genuinely be interested in thinking more carefully about what the community says about itself. Welcoming critical engagement is what allows for the specific notion of “unity” to be definitive of a specific community in a way that is not merely about self-protective insularity. Indeed, one of the gifts that academics might contribute to their Christian communities is precisely the ability to help facilitate such engagement in productive ways.

(3) Appeals to “non-negotiables” are often problematic for academics due to a general comfort with ambiguity. There is extremely little that an academic understands to be “non-negotiable” in the sense of it being “obviously true.” Instead, when things are said to be off the discursive table, as it were, this usually indicates a reinforcement of historical particularity, which is itself a contingent product of a long history of negotiation (for status, identity, power, and influence). This is not to say that academics are opposed to “objective truth,” but simply that objective truth is held as such by individuals who find themselves in situations that demand interpretive awareness, historical understanding, and epistemic humility.

That said, when an academic asks questions about things that are presented as “non- negotiable,” this does not necessarily mean that she rejects the truth of the claim being considered, but probably that she is interested in getting clear not only on what is being claimed, but why it is being claimed in this particular way. Accordingly, most academics admit that multiple interpretations of the same thing are possible and that is ok. That said, there are times when academic expertise is precisely what allows for deciding well between the relevant interpretive options. Given that academics are comfortable with ambiguity, the repeated biblical insistence that we only “seek through a glass darkly” might open spaces for viewing the engagement with academics as a valuable resource for living in light of the continued mystery that attends Christian truth.

(4) Asking critical questions is a primary way in which academics build relationships. Whatever else academics are, they are readers. Yet, reading is not merely the acquisition of information, but the building of relationships with a diverse set of views, thinkers, texts, and ideas. These relationships are then the fabric out of which an academic weaves her own professional identity, the resources out of which she constructs her own authorship, and the discourse that enables the development of her own voice. In other words, reading is radically relational. Being able to read well while resisting the temptation to be swayed by everything that one reads is crucial if one is not simply going to be an observer of a conversation, but a participant in that conversation. Accordingly, asking critical questions is a sign of taking something seriously and, hence, of wanting further engagement with it. Too often pastors assume that asking such questions is a sign of arrogance or unbelief. Notice, though, that in the first case, the arrogance would seem to rest more at the feet of the one who finds questions to be threatening (“Who are you to question me?”), and in the second case, knowledge would be something so fragile that it can’t recognize its own limits (hence self- criticism would be replaced with self-protection). Importantly, academics are likely to take seriously the biblical passages in which God encourages us to “come reason together” (Isaiah 41:1), and Jesus praises the person who admits that he doesn’t have it all figured out (Mark 9:24).

In the final three realizations, I want to focus on the experience and identity of academics in Christian communities. Many of the things that I wish pastors knew about academics speak to the way in which academics might be perceived as threatening to the leadership and power of pastors. Although I am attempting to show that such a notion is misguided, I admit that there is one way in which academics are threatening.

We are maximally likely to be able to see through rhetorical emptiness and weak arguments, on the one hand, and ask questions that are not easily dismissed, on the other hand. For those pastors who are more interested in being in charge of their community than they are in seeking God in spirit in truth, then they are right to be wary of academics. Yet, this is precisely why I hope that more academics continue to be active in the life of their local churches.

Ok, so now for the last three things I wish pastors knew:

(5) Academics have “gifts” too. Within many churches, one often hears suggestions that all members of the congregation should find ways to use their “gifts” to serve the local church (and more broadly, the kingdom of God). The use of such language is not arbitrary and draws on a variety of biblical inspiration (1 Peter 4:10; Romans 12:6). However, frequently those “gifts” are narrowly circumscribed in ways that exclude academic talents. Despite the fact that each spring many churches celebrate those young women and men who have graduated from high school or college that year, academic training is often seen as something unconnected from the life of the local church.

This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. For example, consider that in nearly every sermon some degree of historical and hermeneutic awareness is required regarding the biblical text. It seems odd that a pastor would not reach out to an academic trained in New Testament studies, say, to ensure that the historical claims are accurate. Similarly, although there might be a variety of interpretive options available for a particular biblical passage, philosophers are well trained at thinking through the implications of specific claims. Accordingly, having academic interlocutors should strengthen the sophistication and accuracy of one’s pastoral ministry. Pastors should find ways to allow academics to use their specific gifts rather than suggesting that we need to find ways to develop other gifts that are perceived as more “obviously” related to church life (which usually just means that they are not perceived as threatening to the status and authority of the pastor).

(6) Like most people, academics don’t like being stereotyped. Christians often protest against the stereotypical ways in which they are presented in popular culture. Similarly, academics don’t like being stereotyped by Christians as simply being liberal atheists who are dangerous to the spiritual life of those who would be swayed by our influence. In the first place, many academics are not liberal either socially or theologically. But, it is true that many are liberal in one or both of these senses. That said, it is entirely possible to be a liberal (socially) and still be quite theologically orthodox (in relation to a specific tradition). Moreover, it is entirely possible to be a liberal in both senses while also rejecting problematic notions of relativism (which is a term often used to dismiss a wide swath of views).

Importantly, even though academics are generally comfortable with ambiguity and recognize that there are often multiple plausible interpretations of the same thing, this does not mean that they think that just “anything goes.” Rarely is this extreme version of relativism held by any academic (regardless of their religious identity). Additionally, rarely (if ever) does an academic understand her task to be the eradication of religious belief and identity. The stereotypical presentation of academics as intentionally desiring to erode religious faith and “traditional” morality is usually a construction generated by Christians themselves out of fear of what they don’t understand. In this regard, the recent film God is NOT dead! stands as a particularly illuminative example of how academics (in this case philosophers—sigh) can be presented as dangerous and threatening rather than as resources in the Christian task of truth seeking. The fact that many youth leaders took their youth groups to see this movie is deeply troubling since those young people are likely to find themselves in college in the near future. Instead of developing young people who are committed to excellence in the life of the mind and in the life of faith, such films and such stereotypes foster suspicion about serious inquiry and reinforce the notion that standing for God will likely mean standing against one’s professors.

Contrary to such problematic stereotypes, many pastors might be illuminated and surprised by both the depth of faith and also the capacity to motivate reflection that the academics in their midst possess. Accordingly, pastors should be held accountable for failing their congregants if they cultivate suspicions rather than finding ways to motivate reflection in a complicated world. (As a side note, I have extended the offer to numerous pastors to speak with their youth groups after they watched this film in order to present to them a different notion of philosophy as a vibrant resource for Christian life. I have yet to be taken up on this offer – but let me repeat it to any pastors currently reading this post.)

(7) Many academics realize that the life of the mind and the life of faith are not at odds. Despite some academic voices suggesting that serious inquiry requires an abandonment of faith commitments, many reject such a suggestion. Examples in my own faith tradition of Christians doing amazing work in a variety of academic fields can easily be provided. More important than simply showing the possibility of Christian academics, however, is demonstrating the necessity of the life of the mind to the life of faith. Here, both academics and pastors bear responsibility in this task. Encouraging academics to use their specific “gifts” in the context of the local church helps to overcome not only the problematic stereotypes of academics so often found in Christian communities, but it also presents pastors as not intimidated by thinking with academics.

When pastors not only teach about Christian truth, but attempt to put it in practice in a life characterized by humility, generosity, and hospitality, they invite those under their ministry to go and do likewise. Alternatively, when pastors minimize the influence of academic voices because the pastors are problematically worried about dissention, disunity, and distortion of the truth, then it can quickly look as if careful critical thinking is dangerous to Christian life. Pastors should exemplify the importance of thinking well as a Christian and this is something that is more likely to occur when academics are partners in the task.

The Burden of Responsibility

Importantly, the burden of responsibility to cultivate productive relationships between pastors and academics does not rest solely on pastors. Academics also bear responsibility in making such relationships more likely in local churches. Though this might make for a good topic of its own for a future post, let me simply gesture toward three things that I think specifically Christian academics can do toward this goal.

First, Christian academics need to stop making the academy itself look hostile to Christians. Even if there is some warrant for such a claim (in some specific cases), it is crucial not to overgeneralize this hostility such that it ends up fostering the very stereotypical perception of academics within the churches that serves to minimize academics in the life of those communities.

Second, Christian academics need to be very careful not to overstate their own areas of expertise such that holding a Ph.D. in one discipline therefore qualifies the person to be an expert in all things related to Christian existence and church practice. Humility is crucial for developing appropriate confidence and academics often fail to display such virtues.

Finally, as a way in which humility should pay out in daily life, Christian academics should be better at receiving criticism and questions from non-academics. Questions should not only run in one direction and academics can do much better at fostering a culture of critical inquiry within their churches, rather than simply positioning themselves as the fount of knowledge that is available for the church.

Dialogue can be shut down in a variety of ways, but underlying all of them is a failure to listen well to others. I have been trying to give reasons why pastors should do a better job of listening to academics, but academics can also do a better job of listening to pastors. We are in this together and the church needs all of us. I hope that this might motivate the sort of thinking that will invite the continued engagement between communities of faith, their leaders, and the academics among them in ways that cultivate trust, rather than the suspicion that leads to exclusion.

 

Pastors + Academics: Life as Crucible and Classroom

Skull_Crucible

My first priest used to call the academy the “cheap seats.” Before your head explodes, know that he is also a life-long academic, a published historian tenured first at Southern Cal, then at the University of Denver and Wheaton College. Now, in his late 70’s, he teaches at a seminary while also serving his parish.

I’m incredibly thankful for academics. Some of the fondest days of my life not in the labor & delivery room were spent in the classroom. I read academic books almost exclusively. Some of my best friends and favorite parishioners have been academics. But what my pastor (and professor) meant was that academics can often view the church from a safe distance in the realm of ideas, assuming new and/or better ideas are fundamental to getting the work of the church done – or done right. Academics, by nature, stand on the stump of analysis and criticism, but that’s not the problem. The problem is when that is all they do. Academics are certainly helpful, but their resources are inadequate to the larger balance of what it means for the Church to care for souls. And to be helpful, their posture toward the Church should reflect that reality.

Being pastors puts us in the position of shepherding, after all, in an almost unmanageable diversity of experiences and knowledge (unless the pastor is so unfortunate as to lead a congregation that fosters a veneer of “having it all together” and, alas, is so content in being unbothered him/herself as to leave the prosthetic culture unchallenged). 

In my experience, most people without the stunting luxury of said veneer do not interact with Christianity based on its plausibility, but on its practical implications for their lives. Does it buoy them when they feel they are drowning in difficulty? Does it keep them humble and generous in their successes? Does it encourage them to make their words and their world better? Does it comfort them when they are burying their youngest child after a tree has inexplicably fallen on him in the back yard? (Yes, it happened.)  When it’s all said and done, will it “work?”

In over a decade of ministry, I have not seen new and better ideas, even the most profound theological ones, have near the impact that massive crises or even mild challenges produce, especially when they’ve been accompanied by a witness of the goodness and sovereignty of God at work beyond all explanation. I have rarely seen my words, rooted in solid ideas, have the impact of just being there at 2am when a teenager’s cutting has become life-threatening. Most people simply don’t live in the world of ideas most of the time. They live in the world of what works. Good marriage. Contentment at a less than ideal job. Wisdom with resources, in parenting and through conflict. Peace.

So many people are not in “the classroom of life.” They are in the crucible of life. 

And this is where academics can often create difficulty for pastors. The vocations are just so far apart because of context (classroom), duration (until graduation) and the aforementioned distance. The academic crisis is often one of knowing, not enduring. The pulpit is not simply a lectern. It’s a beacon, ideally, of hope. More than that, the altar, from which the body and blood of Christ are distributed, speaks a far better word than any of us. That should humble both pastors and academics enough to imagine how we can live, teach and care in concert with the mystery of the Eucharist and the ability of our liturgies to shape more than our ideology. To shape our souls beyond what we can qualify.   

Called to ministry, I wanted to study exegesis. The good Dr. and Father suggested I add some spiritual formation to my academic track. I’m glad he did and that I did. My right eyelashes fell out my first year of ministry because of the stress. 

Occasionally, in a hard moment, my mind returns to what lingers there from a particular course entitled History and Theology of the Care of Souls. I have buried first-born, still-born babies. I have cried out to God in search of comfortable words for the funeral of my best friend’s wife. I have sat with the mentally ill and had nothing but tears and prayer as my resources. The list goes on. But prayerfully peering into that history of caring for hurting people, and its biblical basis, helps me greatly. So, I’m thankful for my academic priest. 

The primary gift any academic can offer a pastor is help wrapped in humility. Because help, in the end, is the life’s work of a pastor. That’s our calling. Sometimes it feels like an impossible task. The medievals called it the “cure of souls,” but there is no curing the soul this side of Christ’s return. There is only caring for it. And if academics and pastors can link arms to care amid the diversity of crises, in the crucible of life so many of us hope to somehow escape, then I believe we can converse with great fruitfulness. 

I love ideas and want more of them. I love well-written theses. People need them and people need to teach and write them, because they can point us to what’s good, beautiful and true. They can help us sort through what isn’t. And in the context of the church, humility around such things will locate us all in our primary, shared vocation as a priesthood of all believers. 

What has been your experience, as a pastor or academic, in partnering (or attempting to partner) in the care of souls in the church context? What have been the challenges? 

Topics of Interest?

As this blog and the conversation that it hopes to foster gets going, we would like to reach out to our readers for suggestions of topics that you would like to see considered. If you have any ideas please tell us your ideas in the comments.  Also, help us spread the word about this new project by linking to it on your social media feed.

On Inaugural Events

On behalf of Seth Cain and I, it is our great pleasure to launch this new blog that hopes to be a space for engagement between academics and pastors. All too often the Academy and the Church are viewed as such separate spheres that fostering engagement between them can be difficult. The priorities, the emphases, and the orientations of each are certainly distinct and, for many, perhaps even at odds. This blog aims to offer the possibility for the life of the mind and the life of faith to intersect in ways that allow both academics and pastors to maintain their specific identities while being encouraged and challenged by each other. Since the larger conversation about such issues is at least centuries old, we do not see this blog as doing something new, but merely continuing a very old conversation in a new way. But even if the best questions have already been asked, it is still possible that the answers can continue to be sought.  Importantly, though it is likely that many contributors to this blog will identify as Christian, it is not required that they do so. Indeed, often the most important opportunities to rethink one’s own identity are provided by those who identify otherwise. As Jacques Derrida often notes, events spur us onward, but figuring out toward what it is that we move will likely remain somewhat of a mystery. Into that mystery, then, we invite you, for it is where we already find ourselves as friends, conversation partners, and ultimately just a philosopher and a pastor walking and talking together.