Should We Let This Prisoner Out of the Academic Dungeon?

Hope_in_a_Prison_of_Despair

Hope in a Prison of Despair, Evelyn De Morgan [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Just what prisoner are we talking about, you might ask. I would suggest this is no ordinary burglar, extortionist, or murderer. Nor are we talking about your ordinary academic criminals–the plagiarizer, the reactionary, the transgressor who forgets trigger warnings. Rather, we are speaking of one who once occupied an eminent place in the order of the academy. Some would contend that this one gave a kind of order or coherence to the academy. So much so that this one was spoken of as Queen of the Sciences. Her name was Theology and she has fallen from the pinnacle of the university to the dungeon. Many don’t even wish to acknowledge her existence.

The image of theology in the dungeon is one I am borrowing from Restoring the Soul of the University by Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream. The authors explore the fragmented character of modern universities and college, referred to by Clark Kerr as the “multiversity,” and contend that this is a consequence of the dethroning of theology from her place as Queen of the Sciences. With this dethroning, they claim the university has lost the unifying story of God at the center that connects the various disciplines as elements of a common story. Their project is a modest one, to bring theology out of the dungeon and make her at least a conversation partner with other scholars in the Christian higher education context. No ambition proposals to “reclaim the nation’s universities for God!” here.

I find myself wondering if the theologians have come to like the dungeon, and perhaps have even ceased to see it as one. They have their own students, publishers for their books, journals for their articles, canons of scholarship, and academic conferences to celebrate and give structure to it all. There are subdisciplines within the theological guild, and conversations in a particular jargon only the initiated readily grasp–perhaps.

I’ve spent my career working in collegiate ministry in public university settings. From many conversations, my sense is that while most don’t want theology to be a Queen, there is an openness to theology as a conversation partner–particularly if that can be a real dialogue. Might those concerned with the interpretation of biblical texts have much to share and much to learn from those whose work is interpreting other kinds of texts, whether historical or literary. Might those who really have looked at the origin stories of scripture with a careful scholarly eye be the best to engage with those considering scientific studies of origins? Might those in health care benefit greatly from the wisdom those working with issues of formation have about seasons of life–how might we both live and die well?

I think the great fear in academia would be some form of asserting authority or re-asserting control. I think this is a needless fear. What is the danger in mutual inquiry and learning? What is the danger in humble listening to and instructing one another? Might there be “lost learnings” on both sides from which all might profit? And if there are fears about this happening in the public setting (although I’ve found this possible even here), why not start with schools affiliated with theological seminaries?

Universities arose out of cathedral schools and the idea that there was a fundamental unity underlying all knowledge arose from the belief that all knowledge had a common source and origin in a Creator God. Not all will agree with this today by any means. But is the idea one that should be confined to an intellectual dungeon? Should there not be a chance to see whether the prisoner in the dungeon has a cogent and coherent story to tell? And if the prisoner is given the chance, will s/he emerge ready both to listen and to speak?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s