Friday, May 27, 2016

Stand in the rain

The following is the first installment of a seminarian’s observations after completing his second year at Princeton. He will remain anonymous, but he is a god-brother of mine of the next generation, whom I got to know when he was attending the Antiochian church I belong to. We struck it off immediately as souls that have sojourned very similar paths, and I find his spiritual perception and personal theology a close match to mine. He has taken the step that I was unable to take when I was his age, because I was already committed to raising my family, and which in hindsight, was very wise for me not to take. This is what he has to say about the academic culture at Princeton. For those who know and understand the massive difference between Right and Left social and political views, it will be obvious which this seminary speaks for. I wonder if it is much the same in other institutions supposedly established to train people for service in the Church.

Last year’s disappointment with academic culture and institutionalism only deepened this year. Of course, there are the pressures to perform, but it is not merely pressure that aggravates me. Challenges are opportunities and I tend to rise to the occasion under pressure. The problem for me here is that the drive to perform shapes students in a way that is deleterious to personal discipleship and the church broadly.

Regardless of intent, the main product of this institution is—not to put too fine a point on it—egotism; both individual and corporate. They want you to focus on making yourself something that others will see, or doing some work others will see—making an impression so that both the institution and you can look great. The science of theology somehow justifies this attitude because God is not primarily interested in transforming people's hearts, but in ‘the bottom line,’ which is basically making the world a better place by making it safe and comfortable for the marginalized, i.e., making the world politically correct.

Now I am in support of advocating for the voiceless, and I am under no pretense that Orthodox, or Catholic, or evangelicals’ motives in ministry are without alloy; they certainly are not. And we certainly can do more to support the lowly and take a stand against injustice. But in the teaching proffered here, the category of ‘the heart’ is conspicuously absent.

‘Evil’ is a matter of ‘systems’ and ‘corporate ideologies,’ not personal attitudes or private actions. It is only measured in social terms (people feeling excluded or judged). Hence, making someone else uncomfortable or guilty is seen as evil. Of course, this is radically inconsistent, depending on each person's racial, sexual, or gender ‘identity,’ let alone biology.

My point is not so much the inconsistency, but the byproduct of this, which is that egotism has no check. It has no check for the sinner, the sinned against, or the advocates of either. Outcomes are gained in purely worldly ways. The way to overcome the powers of evil is by greater power, not humility and weakness.

Modeling Christ means helping the weak, not by becoming weak, but by gaining influence and strength in order to overpower strong. They are deadlocked in a battle against institutionalized injustice while reinforcing institutionalized pride—cutting out the bad fruit while watering and fertilizing the bad tree.

Perhaps this assessment is the work of my own pride. ‘Seeing through’ things can lend itself to smugness and vanity. Like I said before, we are mixed. I suppose awareness is one step toward recovery and perhaps you can keep me in prayer on this point. I’ve learned from the psalmists to be honest, however, even if I’m wrong. I cannot be corrected if I am not honest about how I see the world.

So I must continue.

As might be expected, this institution offers the student a ticket to success. If I take it, if I just play the game, I could have a place among the elite; I could be a mover and shaker; I could make a real difference—or so they would have me believe.

Is the cost of discipleship merely the cost of higher education? Is it merely the same as everyone else who is trying to get to the top?

Although riding this train might place me among the wise, I can’t help but think I would also be among those who are eventually shamed by the foolish.

Has Christian history not been repeated cycles of this?

From the Jesus movement in the first century overcoming Rome, to Pentecostalism overcoming the global south, the weak defeat the strong, the uneducated confound the scholars, the poor bless the rich. If such is the case, should I not choose to be a fool?

Perhaps some can enter the system and overturn it, but I am not among them. I am not an academic. Academics are ‘experts,’ meaning those who are known to have gained a certain level of objectivity in their particular, narrow discipline. This ‘objectivity’ is only gained through a certain detachment from the object of study, which for theology is God. That is the crux of the issue for me. I am not convinced that alienation from God is the way to go about knowing Him ‘objectively.’

It seems rather silly to think that one only knows about rain by observing it from indoors, or that
standing in the rain colors ones objectivity any more than staying indoors. Since all things are bound together in Christ, I would argue that it is only through engagement—not detachment—that we can truly know God or anything else.

You have to stand in the rain to know it.

The reigning epistemology in the west seems more ‘endarkened’ than enlightened. It also explains (for me) why the academic culture is the way it is. Since knowledge is obtained primarily through detached examination, and not a gift received through seeking fellowship with the Creator, it smothers love, and becomes a fertile seedbed for pride. I know because I figured it out, because I worked hard for it. Anthropo-centrism rules the day.

Of course, nobody here is saying to pull the plug on God. It is surreptitious. That’s also what makes it so insidious—God talk still goes on all the while. Knowing God and theorizing about God become synonymous. As long as we give God a few nods while remaining historically conscious and responsible, and say that our work is in service to the church, we must be glorifying Him.

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