“The Ugly Broad Ditch” – the Church and the Academy

I sometimes find myself sympathizing with the German critique Gotthold Lessing.  Lessing struggled to bridge the gap between the events in scripture that were “miraculous” and the events that were “historically verifiable.”  While I do not share his sentiment about the inability to verify the miraculous, I do find myself approaching a similar insurmountable ditch between the church and the academy.

(**In an attempt to narrow my severely broad terms, when I use the word “church” I am referring to my particular context which is largely Protestant/Evangelical.  Additionally, when I use the word “academy” I’m mainly referring to Religious Studies departments at a university.)

Both the church and the academy are guilty of widening this ditch.   On the one hand the church seems to have a general fear of treating Christianity as an academic discipline.  While this is not true of the church as a whole, the majority tend to view scripture as one book with one genre that already came to us leather bound.  We are unwilling to learn the original languages, church history, or even some basic information about our own canons (Many of my students don’t really know where the books of the Bible are, much less the information they actually contain).  This has proven not only to be spiritually irresponsible, but flat out dangerous.  The Bible has historically been used by the church to justify all kinds of evils from slavery to genocide. This is why the work of theology (thinking about God) is never done and is a vital role of the church who bears witness to him.

The Academy has also contributed to this ever-widening ditch.  It has largely been through the works of Stanley Hauerwas and wonderful professors (Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Hatchett to name a few) that I have been let in on a secret.  The last hold out for modernity, foundationalism, and logical positivism is in today’s university.  The criteria for truth and morality has to be universal and objective, which automatically makes theological convictions secondary.  To believe in a specific god or hold to a certain community’s traditions will disqualify you from the conversation since your opinion is clearly biased.  The evidence for this is in the way we teach our students how to read the Bible.  We give them an objective method (usually historical-grammatical) so that anyone can read and understand the text before them.  It is of secondary importance if they actually adhere to the Christian tradition or believe the story the Bible tells.  I am not trying to say that if you aren’t a Christian you can’t read the Bible, but I think it is misguided to believe that objectivity/readability is possible if simply given the proper method.

So how can we bridge the gap? What is the way forward?

Here are some of my thoughts though brief and insufficient.

1. Accept your bias. I think those who adhere to a Christian or any other type of tradition must not be afraid of taking a confessional stance in a university setting. To say that it is possible to be completely objective will only serve to blind us from our very real biases.

2. Dialogue.  We need to start getting in the habit of working for productive conversation between the church and the academy.  This does not mean hold a debate or fire across at each other through the bloggosphere.  I am talking about true, meaningful, dialogue.  Perhaps as iron sharpens iron we can both be changed and molded, though it may be quite uncomfortable for both parties.

What do you think?  How can we help lessen the gap between church and the academy?


7 thoughts on ““The Ugly Broad Ditch” – the Church and the Academy

  1. Some thoughts: In part, we need to be honest when a critical reading of the Bible shakes our assumption about the text. If our interpretation needs to change then change it should. On the other hand, we must acknowledge Chesterton’s ‘democracy of the dead’ and never forget that Scripture is read as a conduit of the Spirit for the Church in different times and places by the people of God as an authoritative guide for us. This second part cannot be shared with those who don’t acknowledge the Bible as Scripture anymore than we might share the meaningfulness of the US Constitution with Canadians or the French for whom this document is neither authoritative nor formative.


    1. Thanks for the comment! I wholeheartedly agree with you on both counts. I’m still working through how to be confessional without being sectarian, but I know that the attempt to make my faith objective and verifiable is not the way to do it.


  2. When reading the scriptures one should always remember the statement/warning attributed to Paul re how the letter or the word always kills the Living Spirit.
    We also live in a completely different kind of mind-scape to people who lived prior to the European Renaissance. Back then people inhabited a world created by the right-brain, a world in which the open-ended pysche was primary. A world which was essentially full of magic. A world in which the Goddess or the Feminine Principle was still very much alive. Remember too that hardly anyone knew how to read back then.
    After the Renaissance the anti-magical anti-pyschic left-brained mind came to dominate and create the individual and collective mind-scape. The world create in the image of scientism AND the left-brained literary WORD.
    We now live in a world which magic and free psychic association with the open-ended World Process has been completely eliminated. A world in which there are very heavy taboos against anybody becoming too “mystical”. A patriarchal which is inherently hostile to the Goddess or the Feminine Principle.
    One very interesting book which discusses how this came about is The Alphabet Versus the Goddess – The Conflict Between Word & Image by Leonard Shlain.


    1. Thanks for the comment! I wholeheartedly agree that we are heavily influenced by Enlightenment thought. It is characterized by a suspicion of the supernatural and rather oppressive to women. I have found that reading the early church’s interpretation of scripture has been a great help for me leaving behind my Enlightenment baggage.


    1. Thanks for the comment! Three of us are teachers so there should be a steady stream of posts especially during these next few months =) (the advantage of having a summer)


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