Academia and Me

Krista Dalton recently wrote a great piece about how some Christian culture sees academia as the Bogeyman, using the upcoming film God Is Dead as an example. Krista says this, which sums it up well:

As a phd student, as a young scholar, as a person driven by questions from the moment I first opened my eyes as a child, this fear of me, this projection of me as the bogeyman, baffles and pains me. I am not trying to destroy your faith by making you think about history, context, and theory. I am not an enemy because I desire intellectual exercises in addition to my spiritual practice. Yet this film makes it seem that the college professor lurks on the edge of chaos, ushering in all manner of evil with the words “God is Dead.” In effect, the college professor is the Christian bogeyman.

I thought it would be a prompt for me writing about my own approach to “academics” within my faith journey. It isn’t the most dramatic, but it did shift.

Growing Up

I grew up in a liberal denomination (theologically, ethically, politically) but in a much more evangelical and conservative (theologically and ethically, not necessarily politically) pastoral charge, a dynamic that is pretty common in the United Church of Canada. We weren’t told to beware of academia, for the most part, but we weren’t really encouraged to ask questions either. If the Bible said that Paul wrote the letters to Timothy, then clearly it did. Defending that wasn’t central – at least it didn’t come across as central to my teenage mind – but it was assumed.

I specifically recall a series using Lee Strobel’s Case for a Creator. I saw and still see it as a good thing in that it does encourage those questions, even though in hindsight I am not a fan of a lot of Strobel’s arguments. I recall somewhere in that book how he argues that evolution is contradictory to Christian faith, although he does give a brief interview with an evolutionary theist. In any case, the series at the church came across simply as “silly atheists think they have good arguments but really they are pretty weak.” In other words, go ahead and ask questions, but there would probably be a problem if you concluded a different answer to those questions.

The Canadian Baptist church I attended throughout my undergrad was more encouraging of questioning (I was also older and now an academic, so there’s that). The apologetics discussions were much better. There was probably more room for disagreement, at least on the peripheral issues like the aforementioned evolution and biblical authorship. Meanwhile I attended a few different campus groups and encountered a wide range of openness to academic questioning certain assumptions. The most conservative of the groups I attended probably would have gotten upset if I suggested that just because Timothy says it was written by Paul doesn’t mean that it actually was, but probably would have been quite ok with accepting evolution (a lot of scientifically-minded people went there). The others were generally ok with asking pretty much any question, academic or otherwise.

Choosing a Seminary

In my fourth year of undergrad, I decided I was going to continue schooling through seminary. I applied to 5 schools and visited the 3 that were in Ontario, 2 of which were proudly evangelical. The first, which was my leading contender before I visited, had a vibe that I really couldn’t appreciate: very insular and while not necessarily anti-academic, the class I sat in on seemed very surface level in content and much more oriented toward building a strong community amongst the students than in wrestling with tough questions. Building a strong community is not an inherently bad thing, but after 4 years of living in Kingston, attending a secular school, I didn’t think I could do the Christian bubble.

The second was much stronger in their academics, but what felt to me like evangelical snobbery still set me off. In particular I remember talking to one of the profs – in general a very friendly man – at the lunch. I said that I was largely down to either them or Queen’s. He started panicking, with quite genuine concern, about how I would constantly be battling to defend my faith at a more liberal school. I heard similar from a few well-meaning friends, usually friends who were already worried about my increasing tendency to challenge what I had just been told is obviously correct, including what was essentially a 2-on-1 intervention dinner.

Combined with a much better bursary which would limit adding to the 3 years of debt I already had, I chose Queen’s. I had been in a state of asking questions for too long to go somewhere that felt like those questions – or at least coming to different answers – wouldn’t be welcome.

Now, I should be clear: theological liberals can be just as big of snobs as theological conservatives. I saw it in my Queen’s classmates sometimes, although not really in the profs; there were even quite a few scenarios where it seemed that the profs provided the more conservative arguments just to make the students think about it without dismissing it. Snobbery and problems engaging those who think differently is definitely not just a conservative thing.

Getting Life from an Idol

Although my life is not nearly as dramatic as many, particularly those in the United States, it does still show this uneasy and sometimes outright antagonistic relationship between the church and academia. Don’t be fooled: this is (usually) nothing short of idolatry. It is an attempt at finding life in being right (liberal or conservative): in having your theology sorted out, your science sorted out, your history sorted out, your politics sorted out. It’s particularly been a problem within the modern era where we are discouraged to admit that we all have biases, but it is an idolatry that is present in some of Jesus’ opponents in Scripture as well. The spirit of academia at its best, that willingness to question and consider other views, can serve as a check against this idolatry, even as a way of maintaining the Protestant motto of Semper Reformanda!

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.