Should We Let This Prisoner Out of the Academic Dungeon?


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?

Identity Theft

No, I’m not talking about getting your credit card or personal information hijacked or your email hacked. That is a pain, and sometimes a costly one.

Rather, I’m thinking about identity as something more fundamental having to do with who at our core we understand ourselves to be. It seems to me that one of the challenges of our wired world and the multiple situations we find ourselves in is the loss of a sense of self in the myriad of identities we maintain and it may even be that we come to believe that our identity is this ever shifting, situational “something” that lacks any conscious rootedness.

Some of the challenge may be the pace of life. We may so frantically move from this online conversation to that phone call, to this family crisis, to that work project, to this entertainment experience, that we rarely attend to our inner world. Sometimes this frantic pace can be an effective strategy of muting that voice. And we often mistakenly seek to find a sense of self, a sense of identity in these things–work, family and all–and then are at a loss when these are taken away.

In a way, this leads to a possible definition of identity–what is it that cannot be taken away or be defined by situational factors, and are these generated by oneself or external to ourselves. And where can we go to find an identity that cannot be stolen?

This topic of identity came up at breakfast today at the conference I am attending as we discussed the pressures on students and faculty we work with on university campuses and the challenge of living an integrated life that has a sense of wholeness rather than the fragmented lives we often live.

As people of faith, we talked about our relationship with God as the reference point for our identity that makes sense of our inner worlds, our relationships, our work, and our life in the physical world. But I would be interested in how others who follow this blog think about this. Is it ultimate wisdom or a cop out to look to God for a sense of identity that cannot be stolen? How do you answer that challenging question of “who are you?”