Monday, March 26, 2012

On Cultivating Virtues in the Academy: Christian Formation and Being "Critical"

See previous entries in this series: Introduction; On (Not) Being a Good Reader; On Daily Prayer; On Practicing Sabbath; On Time Spent on the Internet.

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If you have had the experience of attending a lecture (or the always invigorating "paper") in the academy, you probably know well the numbing rhythm to which the audience's "critical" responses tend to conform. Summarizing their logic, there seem to be two underlying types of reply offered:

"Behold: the invincible reason(s) why your argument/paper/position is not perfect."
"Behold: the invincible reason(s) why your argument/paper/position is not my own project."

The parallelism is telling. More importantly, at least for Christians engaged in theological discourse, this critical echo chamber has to be fundamentally disastrous, both as an intellectual stance and as a self-involving formative practice. Within the academy, how can theologians be faithful when they engage one another merely as instances of ever-reliable failure, when fellow disciples' hard work becomes nothing but fodder for public deconstruction or a screen for personal projection? And within the wider world, much less the church, how can the mission of God or the call of Christ be served faithfully by a totalizing perspective whose line of sight sees only shortcomings, imperfections, mishaps, mistakes, and wrong turns -- rather than strength in weakness, light in darkness, beauty in brokenness, grace in insufficiency?

My experience with Christians formed in this way -- including myself -- is that "critical" invariably morphs into a shorthand, an unwelcome cipher for ingrained ingratitude, inexhaustible exasperation, unrepentant grumpiness, perpetual dissatisfaction; in short, for ceaseless, self-justified complaining. And this from well-educated middle-class Christians in America. The world, other people, the church, popular culture, art -- whatever's under discussion, you can be sure it's falling short, falling flat, failing, evincing some systemic problem. All is a blank canvas for making connections between this and that example of the terrible awful horribleness of whatever species of -ism is in fashion at the moment.

There can be no doubt that a fallen world requires unsentimental eyes trained to see injustice and wrongdoing. But this sort of thing is little more than immature silliness that doesn't know how to smile, and thinks itself noble in the process. If the most basic posture of Christian life is gratitude, illumined by faith that even the worst in this life is not untouched by God's grace, then this kind of "critical" living simply needs to go. And unceremoniously at that.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post Brad. I have felt the same. One of the things that I see is that we tend to study sciences under the name of Theology and that is not good. Theology understood as the study of God based on the critical study of biblical texts becomes this process of disenchantment you seem to be talking about. I don´t think Jesus did this. He proposed a better way to be enchanted.
    If we could keep in mind that a scientific analysis of the Bible is not doing Theology but science, maybe we could regard Theology as art and offer Christians and the world a new word that keeps our world enchanted in keeping with the knowledge given to us by sciences.