Indulging in Moral Irresponsibility

Recently, Pete Enns, a scholar of the Old Testament, wandered over to the annual gathering of the American Academy of Religion. This is the largest society of scholars whose work focuses on, you guessed it, religion.  That term is defined expansively (as it should be) to include the study of many known and lesser known religions.  Even I’m a member of the American Academy of Religion, though they probably don’t know it.

Enns returned a little disillusioned. In a recent blog post he wrote:

Folks, there are TOO MANY people out there with earned doctorates in Bible and Theology. There will never be enough jobs to accommodate the numbers. Schools are cutting or downsizing programs, but the PhD conveyor belt keeps moving along at a steady clip as if everything is just peachy.

One problem in all this that needs to be addressed with some urgency is the moral irresponsibility of academic institutions who blissfully offer degrees in fields for which there are no jobs.

I didn’t attend AAR this past year for various reasons, the biggest being I have too much work to and couldn’t get away to Boston for the week.  If that sounds like a bit of a brag from this graduate of Fuller Seminary’s PhD program, it’s not. Just the state of my current professional life that has a lot more course prep than the average.

Here’s what Enns concluded:

  1. Schools should be honest about how many of their PhD graduates have full time teaching positions.
  2. Schools should be honest about the job market for incoming students.
  3. Evangelical schools should not have PhD programs. That should be left to places like Harvard, or Cambridge, or even, the heavens defend us, Yale.
  4. Students who are fine with 3 should realize they’ll be competing for jobs with graduates from elite institutions, and those elite institutions look better in school catalogs.
  5. Schools should tell students to have a plan B and make that their plan A, and really to go ahead and forget plan A altogether because you won’t be hired in respectable academia. He suggests some plan B ideas: teach overseas (because apparently foreign places will take anyone); go into the pastorate (but don’t think you’ll be living the philosopher-king ideal–too much busyness for that–and the people don’t want your fancy book-learning).

I can offer a hearty yes to all of these, except #3 and maybe #4. Though I was dismayed to find more than a few on twitter saying yes to all of these, especially #3.  Mostly, I suspect, because they have degrees from places like Harvard or Cambridge, so want the jobs they have been told they deserve, even at Evangelical institutions. That is how the world is supposed to work.

And I also have to say that talking to job hunters at AAR is a bit like going to a singles bar and hearing people complain there’s no good relationships out there.

Even still, I’m inclined to agree him based on my own experiences in PhD studies and postdoctoral employment insecurities.  The last time I was at AAR, I was one of those battered job hunters, eager for a job or even just to be recognized as a human. “See, I have a name badge, and the nice attendant who checked me in gave me a tote bag.” I was very used to being looked through that week, present but not a real person.  It was a very discarnating experience.

I sent out a lot of applications, I got one interview, for the job I was temporarily filling, and was doing quite well at.  I didn’t get to the final rounds of interviews, even though I couldn’t be doing anything better. My teaching was well-reviewed, I had good publications, and so on.  Why didn’t I get the job? I wasn’t told outright, but my strong impressions match what Enns talks about.

It worked out fine, actually, as I got a call  about six months later asking me if I wanted to teach for Fuller. Which makes me, currently, one of those rare recent PhD graduates with a full time position.  It’s not a tenure track job, though, and that puts me in a nebulous category of success and an even more nebulous category of job security. My contract ends in June, and as of now I don’t have a job as of July 2018.

Hopefully that will change, and I have hope, but it makes it so I’m not looking at this discussion from the perspective of the mountaintop.  I’m on the ropes, and I’m not sure how well my rope is secured to the rock face.  But at 200 feet up, either direction is a challenge for my emotional serenity.

Every so often, like yesterday and last week Wednesday, I wake up at 3:43 in the morning with a slight panic about how irresponsible I’ve been. I have a PhD in Theology from an Evangelical seminary, with a minor in Church History, and a lack of other documented talents otherwise.

That I sometimes walk by those application carrels at Target and think about sitting down at one says how much I agree with Enns’s arguments.

But I’m a contrarian by nature and spent a life indulging in irresponsible behavior (at least in a professional sense), so there’s this certain amount of defensiveness that rises up in response. After waking up at 3:47 this morning again with that slight panic and concurrent resistant hope, I realized why I can agree with Enns about the state of PhD employment while still fundamentally disagreeing with his points, especially point #3.

That last part shows why I am sticking with academia for now. Who else would put up with such a sentence?

Anyway, while I don’t encourage anyone to go into academia, and heartily encourage those in academia to leave it, thus opening up cushy tenure-track positions for those of us who don’t listen to that first bit of advice, here’s why I disagree with Enns. It comes down to two significant crises, which while shockingly entrenched aren’t actually insurmountable.  Note, these are really only relevant for those of us who are somehow committed to #3. Anyone else is welcomed to keeping reading, if only for anthropological insights about that weird species called Evangelicals.

Here are the crises:

  1. Crisis of academia
  2. Crisis of imagination

1. The crisis of academia has two issues with it. Well, really there’s all sorts of issues if you are keeping up with academia outside the realms of multibillion dollar endowments, but two that are particularly important for PhD students and programs at Evangelical schools.

The first aspect is there’s a conflating of the “academic” with “intellectual.” Working in contemporary expressions of academia is not the only expression of intellectual life, and, more importantly, such contemporary expressions of academia do not define what it means to be intellectual.

Note, that academia does not want people to realize this.

The reality is that academia is a system, a self-sustaining system that is primarily about self-sustaining.  It is only, I’d argue, secondarily interested in actually promoting objective knowledge for its own sake. Academia seeks power and influence and security in itself, so offers people power and influence and security within itself in order to perpetuate.

There’s a lot of good effects from this, but the core issue is that “academic” and “intellectual” are not equivalent terms with equivalent goals. Sometimes, (read this next phrase in a conspiratorial whisper) it is even the case they have contrary goals.

This connects with the second aspect of the academic crisis: there’s a strong interest in ceding control of academic theology to secular institutions, which do not have intellectual theology’s best interests in mind.  If schools want to rise in academic stature in accordance with the academic perception perpetuated by academic powers, then it makes sense to go only with those who have degrees from reputation enhancing schools.

This, of course, will keep the rankings always the same, as Harvard and Cambridge, or even, the heavens defend us, Yale, will always dominate. This is why, of course, they like the system as it is!

But, being by nature more revolutionary, I’m not sure the divine right of ivy is itself a bearer of intellectual priority.  So schools have to ask themselves whether their goal is to participate in perpetuating such a system or if their goals lie elsewhere. Should secular institutions define what it means to study Christian theology?

For many in academia, the trouble with Evangelical institutions is a bit like King Edward’s trouble with Scotland, they’re full of Evangelicals. Academia does not want Evangelical schools to succeed and so it’s odd that schools still seek validation from those who want to encourage their dissolution.

Is Christian theology best served, intellectually, by having a narrow range of perspectives contributing to its development? Is there a benefit to having Christian theology developed and taught by those with a driving commitment to its thriving rather than its diminishment? A degree from a reputation enhancing school may not in fact provide the best actual education for the intellectual contribution to Christianity.

This certainly isn’t to say that there are no Evangelicals graduating from academically premier schools, more to say that such schools are not themselves in the business of helping Evangelicalism become stronger or more intellectual.  Most institutions, and the people in them, would be entirely happy to have Evangelical schools close for all sorts of reasons that aren’t related to intellectual rigor.

To let these schools, and their assumption of academic priority, define what theology is and how it should be taught seems a fundamental betrayal of our own calling as Christians and as a church.

Theology isn’t just a set of topics to consider, a field isolated to its own discussions, and following a pattern in which little read articles based on little attended presentations define intellectual achievement.  It is a living experience that resonates throughout our lives and our cultures, coming to terms with all that is in ways that give shape to our hopes and guidance in our concerns.

At least that is what theology meant for most of the last two thousand years, before it was co-opted by an academy that sought to defang its radical social impulses and protect itself from its critiques. Christian theology historically developed in the context of rigorous Christian devotion and passionate Christian practice, which gave added impulse to intellectual depth and study.

This is not dismissing the importance of intellectual rigor to say we need training institutions committed to the living faith of Christ, it’s encouraging it.

For instance, my research interests were in the intersection of systematic theology and missional ecclesiology, focusing on Moltmann’s theology with a strong pneumatological priority. I think this provides a significant amount of guidance for the future of church life, which has been affirmed by both students and publications. Fuller Seminary made this research possible in a way that I’m not sure could have happened elsewhere.

Studying with Moltmann himself may have been better, but he was long retired by the time I started and as he did contribute a recommendation for my PhD application, he encouraged my irresponsibility. He never suggested instead applying to either Harvard or Cambridge, oddly enough.

“Have courage,” he wrote in a letter confirming his recommendation.  I didn’t realize how much courage it would take to keep pressing on.

I may not be able to get a job at Harvard or Duke because of my institutional pedigree, but I’m still confident I have an intellectual contribution to make that is important for both the church and the academy, one that’s unique precisely because of my particular training.

We need variety of PhD graduates to keep intellectual perspectives lively! We can’t trust, nor should we, a few institutions to say they’ll be fair in carrying the weight of free intellectual inquiry. People from similar places all sound a lot alike, after all, and that leads to intellectual inbreeding.

2.  The crisis of imagination.

By assuming that academic is equivalent with intellectual and ceding academic control of theology to the secular academy, the church has let itself be fundamentally co-opted in its expression of its own beliefs.  This goes two directions.

One, the anti-intellectual direction that led conservative institutions and conservative churches to reject academic standards, to embrace a kind of sanctified ignorance.

The other is the anti-spiritual direction that led other institutions away from living faith toward an idealized anthropology, a bizarro-gnosticism that glorifies the physical and denies the Spiritual a space of existence.

This all resulted in a narrow imagination for advanced learning: that the only reason for a PhD in Bible and Theology is to teach in academic institutions that are defined by the academic system.

  This is the fundamental crisis Enns is getting at, as there are not enough jobs in the diminishing religion departments of these institutions, and thus it is morally irresponsible for many institutions to give these degrees and professionally irresponsible for anyone to get one of these degrees.

Yes, but I’m not willing to say that this is how things should be or must be.  In ceding control of academic theology to a particular system and then letting this system define who is able to succeed in such a system, we are perpetuating the continuing decline of Western spirituality.

Maybe we should stop doing this.

Maybe the trouble is that we’ve been indulging in moral irresponsibility for far too long already.

Maybe, rather than seeing advanced theological education as a problem, and encouraging less people to take it up, we should see it as a cause worth celebrating.

Women and men all over the world want to be trained to the utmost in understanding the Bible and theology. Women and men all over the world see their calling as teaching others, as providing counsel and insight in particular contexts. Women and men all over the world are called in service to the church–which may include participation in the academy as part of their vocation. They are called to the Body of Christ, not as extroverted social networkers or cheerleaders, but as educated tutors of the faith who work in undergraduate institutions, seminaries, graduate schools, and someday (I suggest) even training centers for advanced teaching oriented to maturing Christians.

Maybe rather than seeing them as a problem to be solved, making them feel depressed about the contrary nature of their calling and their prospects, and this a calling to be repressed, we should imagine possibilities beyond the realm of academic limitations. Maybe we should find ways to embrace intellectual flourishing that aren’t dependent on secular institutional bureaucracies or academic professional societies for validation.

Maybe the failure of having too many PhDs in Bible and theology is a problem that creates an opportunity for a new age in Christian intellectual life. Rather than say, “No more!” to people interested in advanced learning, we develop structures that deepen of our faith, coordinate with our practices, that give all Christians access to advanced training.

Maybe, just maybe, we should encourage women and men to pursue their calling and to be a better kind of church that makes space for such learning to find a wonderful productivity. Maybe rather than fighting over scraps and emphasizing restrictions, we could see there’s a wider world of potential.

Which isn’t really even about abandoning academia even, it’s about making sure that if we embrace intellectual rigor we don’t let ourselves be limited by negating gatekeepers who want to control the intellectual boundaries.  A Christian theology that develops within its own goals of deepening and thriving will provide a lasting testimony of intellectual contribution to the world.

I think this is the way of hope and gives me a lot of excitement about my own role and calling in and around academia.

Of course, I might be wrong about all this, about the crises and possibilities, and about my own academic future. At which point there really is only one question I’m left with: Do you want fries with that?

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