Monday, September 25, 2006

The Academy as Service

This weekend I went to a fantastic conference funded by the Lilly Foundation. Although I was somewhat apprehensive initially about attending, I could not have been more pleased. The conference, largely, served to provide the attendees with information about graduate school. Although seminary is not completely concordant with process undertaken for typical graduate studies, the conference nonetheless was incredibly informational and beneficial.

One of the central topics of the conferences was vocation and calling: both what they mean and how we ought to pursue them. Dr. Patrick Byrne (of Boston College), in agreement with the theologian Bernard Lonergan, asserted that our first vocation is that of being human. Our "vocations" (father, husband, doctor, plumber, etc.) are subsets and participate in the fulfillment of our primary vocation to be human.

Dr. Byrne suggested three criteria that ought to be evaluated in discerning vocation:

1) Joy: what brings me joy (not necessarily what makes me happy, but what elicits true joy)?
2) Talent: what am I gifted and talented doing?
3) Service: does this serve the needs of others? Is this a service to humankind?

Perhaps the most difficult criteria to evaluate is the third; does what I'm gifted at and what I love truly serve others? In what ways does it do so? Dr. Byrne said this was the most difficult aspect for him to discern in his own life experience. As we dialogued together I began to realize how significant this specific aspect of his presentation was to my own life and that of the students present at the conference. Considering the conference was concerned with Christian higher education, the question Dr. Byrne posed was in what way academics are a service to others.

As we deliberated we saw the necessity for distinguishing between the various needs humans have. One of the graduate students, who attends Northwestern University, insightfully commented that we tend to elevate the basic human needs as the sole human needs. Food, shelter, clothing, etc. are undeniably basic human needs that must be met. When we ask whether something serves humanity, typically we are thinking along these lines. Yet, as this graduate student pointed out, the needs of humanity are multi-faceted and much more broad than just basic needs. While poverty is by all means a monumental human dilemma, bad philosophy can be incredibly destructive as well. Similarly, bad theology can wreak havoc upon one's relationship with God and others. Political perversity breeds consequences throughout an entire polity. The academy recognizes the multiplicity of human needs and exists to fulfill those needs through the efforts of its scholarship and research.

I would not be so naive as to declare that those in the academy always operate under this construct. But I believe it is an important qualification for those of us who sense academics to be our vocational fit. I grow weary of the still prevalent notion among many evangelicals that intellectualism is neither profitable nor necessary. "How can you consign yourself to the ivory tower when people are dying on the streets?" Or so the argument often will go. But this operates under the assumption that the only needs that ought to be addressed are the ones most readily apparent. Certainly we should be concerned with those needs; we must be. It is a part of Christian charity that all of us are called to serve the basic needs of such people. But it is not everyone's vocation to serve such needs. Some vocationally find their talent and joy best manifested in such a role; others do not.

Similarly some may say that to confine oneself to academics is to become too specialized. Yet, truthfully, all service is narrow and only relevant to a particular group. Knee replacements are a valuable service, but only to those who actually need them. Cancer treatment is necessary, but only for those who suffer from such a disease. In similar fashion, academics are necessary, but may only be relevant to a particular need of a particular people. That doesn't make them any less valuable, simply they are part of the solution to the vast fabric of human need. The destruction of people intellectually can at times be more pandemic than their physical destruction (ex. heresy can steal the Gospel of its power to heal the sin sick soul, potentially leaving a person with eternal damnation). At times we too quickly look to the immediate needs present in our world without realizing the long-range debilitation accompanied by some intellectual errors.

So before you condemn those who seek to serve the needs of the world by purusing knowledge and scholarly endeavors simply because they "aren't in the trenches," recognize those in such positions truly are in the trenches; they simply are serving in a different capacity. The academy is not a place removed from the very real needs of this world; rather, it is a place of service, whether that service is properly acknowledged or not.


Tommy said...

Hi Ben: I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. I was raised an Independent Fundamental Baptist and within the past two years I have broken the chains of legalism (thanks to a Critical Thinking class) and thus my spiritual journey has exploded. My family and I attend a United Methodist Church in Indianapolis that holds to the teachings of John Wesley.

Since I’m 35 and have a family, in addition to finances; attending college and studying theology isn’t really an option at the moment. Plus I’m perfectly happy in my career; I just love studying the bible. So I would appreciate it if you could recommend some reading material for a beginner starting to really dig into theology.

Being a Baptist all my life, I felt lied too, in regard to Church history and on many points of theology. I was taught and believed that the Baptist could trace their roots to the apostles, but what limited study I have done reveals a much different story of church history.

I felt I was being called into the Catholic faith and I contemplated taking a RCIA class, but it was causing some issues between my wife and I. She was willing to follow me away from the Baptist church, but not into Catholicism and my parents, well their concerned now that I’m lost…I’ve also studied a little about Greek Orthodoxy, which appeals to me. I just think liturgy and having Holy Communion be the center of worship is what it’s all about.

May God bless you on your journey through school!


PS. Sorry this had nothing to do with your post, didn't know how else to contact you.

Ben Robinson said...


Thanks for the post. Great to know you've been following along. I'd be happy to provide you with whatever help I can. If you give me your e-mail address I'll send you an e-mail and we can correspond.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben,