Monday, August 24, 2009
Saintly & Diabolical Academics
Today is my first day back in school. I feel excited and strange and very hopeful. This is the beginning of a last apprenticeship in my work as a pastor. I told Phaedra I want to post on my study carrel a photograph of my people back in Austin . I want to remind myself daily on whose behalf I study. I study for them. I study so that I will be a more far-sighted, well-trained shepherd of the church; hopefully also, as Saint Augustine reminded me this morning, a man of prayer. More humble? More compassionate? I hope so.
Speaking of prayer, I dug a one-page letter out of the vault. There in the catacombs of my grey filing cabinet I found a letter from Eugene Peterson. He wrote it on what looks like an old school typewriter. The letter is address to "Becker/Carr/Taylor." In the spring of 1997 (or was it '98?), Scot Becker, Gavin Carr and I wished to do an independent study together. The three of us shared twin interests at the time: the academic life and spiritual theology.
We were curious what would happened if we turned the canons (cannons?) of spiritual theology on the institution in which we sought our degrees. Regent College was a wonderful place to study. The faculty exhibited the kind of "love of learning and desire for God" which Jean Leclercq, a monk of the Clairvaux Abbey in Luxemburg, famously described in his book by that title. But Regent still functioned as a western academic institution. This means that it existed in a very specific pedagogical tradition and that it abided by the rules of the association for higher education and accreditation. Good and well, but in what ways might these systems actually undermine our personal and spiritual formation, maybe even our intellectual formation?
We observed that the "form" in which we undertook our studies of God often fought against the "content" of our studies--New Testament, christology, pastoral theology, church history and so on. Or to take a real example from a student who preceded me at Regent, What does it mean when you get a C in a class on prayer? That you're a poor prayerer? That you didn't understand the life of prayer or the ways Christians have prayed through the centuries? Is a western academic institution the place where you learn about prayer--and in what way are we using the word "about"?
So, we thought, why not take a class--that did not exist on the course catalog--to investigate the situation. Eugene agreed to accredit our study and off we went.
Here is a copy of the letter he wrote to us at the end of the semester. As I begin a new season of study, I find myself both encouraged and sobered by his comments. Some of it is pretty funny too.
"Good work, all of you. I enjoyed the conversations and now the paper. Not definitive work--how could it be?--but honest and intellectually playful work.
Some notes: your playful treatment of 'convent' was good--that threw the word conventional into a new context.
Your reference to nazism and apartheid provoked the thought that ideas that arise out of situations (Germany and S. Africa, with their racial conditions, Jewish and black), develop into dogmas (idealogies) abstracted from the local conditions, and then are reapplied to the conditions with inhuman results. The sequence seems to me to be repeated in much of what you are talking of.
The "sapiens" story was clever and heuristic both. The imagination and intellect are in nice harmony throughout what you have been doing.
But what do you do when you are part of a system that is diabolical? Boycott it? Subvert it? Do the best you can to survive privately through the process? I'm thinking primarily of the PhD process which seems to me to be truly diabolical--knowledge acquired with no rootage in the prayerful, the local and the personal, and at such a strenuous level that virtually no one has any enjoyment/play in the process.
Will there come a time when all the saint-intellectuals refuse to continue in higher education becuse they love learning and God too much? Has the time already arrived when the school is no longer a congenial or safe or holy place to cultivate the life of the mind?
Some writers we did not talk about that you might pursue as you continue your conversations: novelist Robertson Davies, he knows his way around both the diabolical and saintly ways of the mind--Rebel Angels for a start; LeClercq, Love of Learning and the Desire for God; Illich and Postman; Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos.
I liked the reference to Capon's Supper. That is a wonderful analogy between cooking and writing an academic paper. You guys did it in your weekly conversations--had intellectual fun in your intellectual work. And maybe this becomes a model to nurture at the edges of the academy. I'm ready to join.
(Or, how about this: you get an A, a B, and a C for this work--you work it out among yourselves who gets which grade which reflects the most humility.)"