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.

 

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