Tuesday, September 22, 2015

In the Service of the Church

A few years ago I was meeting with the Council of Episcopal Seminary Deans, and we were taking turns "sharing" what had been happening in our various schools.  One dean spoke about the several new faculty he had recruited in the past year--each of them fresh out of a PhD program or post-doctoral fellowship in a prestigious university.

A while later we were discussing the challenges we were experiencing in our seminaries, particularly around the question of how well we were forming men and women for ministry in the Church.  And this same dean commented, "All my faculty want to do is advance their academic careers.  I just can't seem to get my faculty to understand that, in a seminary, our academics are to be in the service of the Church."

I interjected, "Think about what you were just saying a few minutes ago about where you recruited your faculty!  Faculty who have been brought up in that kind of academic environment have no concept of their academics being in the service of the Church."

At Trinity School for Ministry, where I was blessed to serve the larger part of my academic career, we saw our task as forming Christian leaders for mission with a commitment to discipleship of the whole person as essential preparation for ministry.  Trinity faculty were engaged in publishing written works that made a contribution to the academic world and the reading public.  But we never engaged in the "publish or perish" mentality that characterizes the pursuit of tenure in other academic institutions.  In fact, we never had tenure at Trinity.  Our commitment was that if we ever ceased to serve the mission of the School, we didn't belong there.

Some seminary faculty see the notion that their academics are to be in the service of the Church as some sort of threat, as though it risks compromising their academic integrity.  But if God is ultimate truth, how can there be a conflict between the pursuit of academic enlightenment and spiritual truth?  Are not both pursuits parallel (and sometimes even intertwining) paths to the same destination?   

Now, after more than thirty years in academia, I find myself in the rectorship of a parish.  (I jokingly say sometimes that I am engaged in an experiment to see if all that stuff I taught for 30 years actually works!)  But I am reminded of a colleague who left seminary teaching a few years ago (a remarkable professor who had set students on fire with a love for the Scriptures!) to take the pastorate of a church; and another colleague spoke of his departure somewhat dismissively, as if to say, "Well, he was not really a serious academic anyway."  And I wonder, now that I am a pastor, would that colleague say the same thing about me?

I have heard the same kind of dismissive remarks ("not really a serious academic") made toward John Piper who has dared to challenge N.T. Wright's contributions to the "New Perspective on Paul."  Piper, though also an academic, has been primarily known as a pastor for more than thirty years (in which he has influenced thousands of people and hundreds of fellow clergy).  Wright has, for most of the same time, been primarily an academic, (though he was, by all accounts, an outstanding chief pastor as Bishop of Durham).

Does the fact that one person is primarily an academic give him superior access to truth?  On the one hand, lengthy study may well result in greater insight.  On the other hand, the pressure to "publish or perish" or even the desire to publish to achieve a greater academic reputation can result in insights that are more speculative than true in any real sense.

Cynics tend to recognize that, if one is looking for something to publish in academic circles, a sure method is to take something around which there has been a scholarly consensus for years (or decades, or centuries) and publish a thesis which draws on all the available material (often mixed with a good deal of speculation and imagination) to challenge the prevailing consensus.  Can it be that the pressure of having something novel to publish, in a subtle and insidious way, colors a scholar's pursuit of truth?  (I am not alleging this to be the case with Tom Wright, but merely raising the question with regard to academia in general.)

What I know for certain is that, not only in academia but also on a popular level, published works that are reassertions or restatements of orthodoxy aren't nearly as successful as works that challenge the status quo, even to the point of heresy.  I am not for a minute suggesting that we blindly follow orthodoxy or that we need to suspend our search for the truth, wherever that may lead us; because, if all truth is God's truth, we have nothing to fear.  But I am suggesting that the allure of worldly acclaim has a way of influencing what we view as wise and, therefore, true.  (Cf. 1 Corinthians, chapters 1-3.) 

In evangelical and orthodox Anglo-Catholic institutions, there is less pressure to publish and more emphasis on the fact that we are forming clergy and lay-leaders.  We are, in a very real sense, producing the Church of the future.  In place of articles and books, we run into the products of our work all the time--human volumes on whose minds and hearts we have impressed the truth of the ages.  And they, in turn, impress that truth upon others, save souls, promote growth, and build churches.  Scholars of all kinds, those who teach and those who publish, each do their part in equipping the saints for the work of ministry.  And if we are to do that in a way that stands the test of eternity, we must always do it with a submission that recognizes we are doing it in the service of our Lord and his Church.

1 comment:

Undergroundpewster said...

There are those who are paid to think and those who think in order to be paid. I place C.S. Lewis in the former category. I place the Jesus Seminar in the latter.