“So, what is the appeal for someone like you to come to this thing?”, she asked me with a look both appalled and shocked.
“Someone like me,” of course, being a minister. A person who spends her days not devising lectures, syllabi and essay rubrics, or (perhaps more to the point) researching, writing, submitting, revising and resubmitting papers to academic journals, and praying for a book deal (or two or three) and dreaming of days of tenure.
“This thing,” of course, being the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Chicago. A meeting of somewhere around 12,000 (maybe more?) academics who study all things religion or biblical or even tangentially related to either. The gathering consists primarily of professors and graduate students in fields of religion, theology, Bible, religious history, culture, and so on.
The assumption built into my inquisitor’s question is that if you don’t have a Ph.D., if you aren’t affiliated with an institution of higher education, you really have no place at an academic conference or meeting. It was a dichotomy I felt before I arrived in Chicago for the meeting, and it’s a division I have felt from both sides of my “affiliations”. I have two sets of letters in front of my name: “Rev.” and “Dr.” and I find people generally are only willing to accept one (at a time).
Back to the question posed Sunday night. I didn’t know quite how to respond. I was pretty sure I had also explained that I had finished my Ph.D. a year ago when I stated that I am now a minister in Kansas. What I wanted to say, mirroring the same appall and shock is, “Why wouldn’t I want to come?”
What I don’t understand is why I have to defend my presence. What is the appeal for someone like me to come to this thing? Nevermind that six months ago I was grading papers and recording grades for the college courses I taught. Nevermind that more than a year ago I defended my dissertation and graduated with my Ph.D. Nevermind that I do and will always carry the title Dr. in front of my name (becoming a pastor does not rob me of that). Nevermind that the whole pursuit of getting a Ph.D. is prompting, cultivating, and fueling the desire to be a lifelong scholar. Nevermind that the whole dichotomy pisses me off to begin with. The thing is, I shouldn’t have to defend my presence at all.
There is this clear assumption that pastors have no interest in or (even more egregious) no place in academic conversations. The other side is just as bad. The vast majority of academics don’t see any correlation to the ground-level church world in what they’re doing, and often church folks – clergy, leadership, laity – dismiss academics as ‘mere’ intellectual exercise. I have had to explain and defend my education to church search committees and fellow ministers (my current placement is not one of them). And I have had to explain my ordination and calling to serve the church to fellow academics.
On a personal level this is, obviously, alienating. On a bigger level, my only response to the woman’s question remains this: I come to academic conferences, yes, because I’m an academic, but even more because people are still asking the question. I value intellectual ideas, questions, and conversations, and I believe with my whole being that those things matter to the church. They have to, or they don’t matter at all. This article goes into all this in more depth than I really need to; here’s what I found most helpful:
The church needs substantive theology – yes, theology. Real historical, theological, philosophical reflection must be taken seriously in church sanctuaries, basements, fellowship halls – and especially beyond the walls. There is no such thing as being too well read regarding the Scriptures and the history of our best and worst behaviors.
I want to – and would be remiss not to – acknowledge that I am, in general, surrounded by friends and colleagues both in the church and the academy that appreciate, support, and share the intersection in which I, and others, live. I feel fortunate to serve a church that eagerly supported my attendance and presentation at AAR. I feel equally fortunate to have friends and former professors in the academy who share my deep love and care for the church.
I hope that the conversation continues and the grey area gets deeper, richer, so that the divide is no longer the norm in these circles.