Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters

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Isn’t this just another academic squabble full of sound and fury but signifying not very much?  The recent controversy at Duke Divinity School regarding a faculty training, (the details of which were helpfully outlined by Colleen Flaherty in Inside Higher Ed), could be seen as just one more piece of evidence that the Great Divide is roiling even progressive-friendly environments like mainline seminaries.  But this matters because one of the things worth defending about the journey that theology went through in the late 20th century is the hard-won acknowledgment that context matters.

What happened at Duke?  One way to look at it is that a well-meaning effort to increase awareness of historical and institutional racism through a two-day faculty conference was seen by a disgruntled conservative professor, Paul Griffiths, as one more liberal harangue that distracted from the real work of teaching theology.  “I exhort you not to attend this training,” Griffiths said in a ‘reply all’ e-mail to the faculty. “Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty.”

Griffiths, who had been having other issues with the administration, especially the new dean, Elaine Heath, went on to say, “Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. … Our mission is to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste.”

This matters because one of the things worth defending about the journey that theology went through in the late 20th century is the hard-won acknowledgment that context matters.

There are any number of things that could be said about this incident.  I’ll stipulate the following: I have been to far too many bromide-laden conferences and heavy-handed training sessions that result, despite intentions, in hardened barriers and confirmed prejudices.  We are heavily defended against things that challenge our worldview, and this is true across the spectrum.

I have also been in magnificent sessions, in seminary and mandatory trainings after that, in which my understanding has grown, my behavior has changed, and the course of my ministry has been altered.  Some of that was through my openness to the material, but I credit more the education and skill of the presenters and facilitators.

So, looking at this, admittedly from the outside and with no warrant besides what I read in the papers (intertubes, whatever), Prof. Griffiths’ dismissal of an optional training seems too easy.

Having said that, I also feel that Dean Heath’s reply went a little beyond the pale, implying that Prof. Griffith’s email violated an understanding that to “express racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.”  Is that what he did?

Again, I am operating on the basis of emails we probably shouldn’t be privy to and without the whole story.  But I note that exchanges between people with lots of words at their disposal can get extravagant very quickly.

Exchanges between people with lots of words at their disposal can get extravagant very quickly.

But this is not about an email spat.  It’s about reducing theology to “reading, writing, and teaching about the triune Lord” as if that is an exercise that takes place in a vacuum.   We are always in a conversation with our tradition.  Scripture and the witness of the saints questions us and puts us to the test.  And the lived experience of the pilgrim people of God brings its own questions to scripture.

To pretend that we are not incarnated persons in service of a God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ is like putting on blinders.  We need eyes to see and our eyes are compromised by the sin of racism and by the other distortions that come from being human beings in unjust human societies.

To pretend that we are not incarnated persons in service of a God who was incarnate in Jesus Christ is like putting on blinders.

Twentieth century theology produced two great movements that reoriented us to this reality.  Karl Barth and some of his disciples reclaimed a Christ-centered theology and the language of the church, which had become distorted by two centuries worth of efforts to make it reconcile with the Enlightenment.  And liberation theologies reclaimed the beating heart of a passionate God who takes human existence, context, and the suffering of the cosmos seriously.

Twentieth-first century theology doesn’t belong to either of those movements.  They have their own limitations and blinders.  But we need both impulses to move forward – a commitment to living in the language of the faith and in the incarnate body of Christ in the world.

I have high hopes for Duke and our other theological institutions.  They matter.  For theology and for the church.

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One thought on “Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts on my Alma Mater | Flemish Bond

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