Fear of the “Academic Theologian”: Deconstructing the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

I want to deconstruct some words former Moderator, Norman Hamilton, said at the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s (PCI) General Assembly last week. This is not meant with malice, it is not a personal attack. I intend to use these words to provide an analysis of a wider trend (if not malaise) identifiable within the Presybo-gelical culture in Northern Ireland (NI), more broadly.

Hamilton’s words are set in the context of a genuinely pressing social, economic, and political situation we find ourselves facing in NI. We have before our eyes the growth of an economic underclass, teetering on the verge of the poverty line. This is serious. This is real. PCI has a responsibility to match its reality and seriousness with proper reflection in all directions it takes us – through the political, economic, and theological.

It is upon this last word and the field of study it references – theology – that I want to spend time on. Hamilton, in his address to a resolution on Wednesday morning, would speak of mobilising various parts of the church to combat this issue the economic and political underclasses are facing. In particular he spoke of,

Our theologians across the church bringing the Biblical perspectives on these issues, not as academic theologians writing papers but as Christian men and women with deep Godly insights.

Now, as we presently proceed to the deconstruction, I openly concede that the intended meaning, if not the face value sentiment of these words, is relatively innocuous. Surely it is a compliment to describe “our theologians” as those with “deep Godly insights” bringing “Biblical perspectives?” It speaks to their first priority and passion, God, no? Perhaps it is and does. I wouldn’t know – I’m not an academic theologian.

Yet, my interest in these words is not in the intended meaning – it’s in the a meaning they might betray; in the slippage that could be occurring; in the ethos I sense throughout the denomination (and evangelical Christianity more generally), suspicious of “academic theologians writing papers,” that I suspect it may be participating in.

So, what else might be getting (not) said here? What are the implications of what is (not) meant?

First, I want to sketch out the lines of a binary I sense in these words: that of the “academic” and the “Christian.”

Why is that what is often referred to as the academic “ivory tower” gets spoken of and lumped into a distinction that views it as a priori negative? Why is the academic theologian in some way placed over against the Christian man or woman?

Culturally, the Christianity with which PCI finds itself identified – from the lay, to the clerical, to the lecture room – exists in a peculiar relationship to the academic. It is viewed as a good insofar as it is safe, not disturbing the foundations of the individual Christians’ piety, insofar as it doesn’t question the accepted doctrinal fundamentals of the churches and their denomination. It is an antagonistic stance, scared of “secular ideas” and their import into theological trajectories; full of cutting edge books written by those objective Christian pastors that are sure to see their books flood Christian bookstores and their unadventurous shelves so they can refute anything not pious or “Biblical” enough – please now, remember they’re objective.

The point of the academic in this culture (and I speak from experience in it) isn’t chiefly to educate in the purest of senses, as much as it is to guide toward predetermined conclusions, that if challenged would see someone before a review board.

In this sense, what the binary, (that might be) implicit in the statement above, is (or could be) pointing to is the domestication of “our theologians.” They write with pious passion acceptable to the shibboleth makers and doctrinal borderline monitors, who in their turn set and review “the Biblical perspectives.” (One doesn’t have to search hard into the history of Evangelical culture to find those who find themselves on the losing side of these matters.) If deemed not up to scratch, too disagreeable, one receives the moniker “academic theologian writing papers” of questionable Christian character. If agreeable and thus praiseworthy enough, theologians are warmly embraced into the fold.

This leads me to a second thought. The implication that might (not) be intended when it is said “our theologians,” writing not as “academic theologians” but as “Christian men and women,” bring “the Biblical perspectives” – and this isn’t just “Biblical perspectives,” but “the” Biblical perspectives.

This (non-)implication chiefly bears form in the question, what relationship might (not) be at work here between “the Biblical perspectives” and the not-academic-but-Christian theologian?

At this point I’m reminded of the distinction philosopher Slavoj Zizek elucidates in regards the Pauline neither/nor distinction (neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free etc.). Zizek observes that there is, it would seem, for those in Christ, only Christians and the enemies of Christianity.

Is it possible for an academic theologian writing a paper to have to deep and Godly insights? Or do those insights come about only if they are a Christian man or woman? And is a person recognised as a Christian man or woman who has such Godly insights because they bring Biblical perspectives? Or do predetermined Biblical perspectives set the terms of that which Christian men and women can bring to warrant the title? Might, in fact, this same hypothesised “Biblical perspective” be that which sets the terms of what gets denigrated as “academic” and praised as “Christian?”

Is what we have here the (un)intentional participation in boundary line thinking? Do we have here an unwitting but not especially disagreeable (for many in the Assembly) example of thinking that speaks of the Christians (men and women judged to have Godly insights) and the enemies of Christianity (academic theologians who write papers and so eminently less likely to be counted among the pious)?

Now, I repeat, this is not an attack on Hamilton’s character. While I am sure he carefully prepared his words, I don’t imagine he intended to convey what I have been drawing out – he did not say anything like what I have been explicating. This was an effort in deconstruction, of discerning the slippages, of blurring the lines, between what was said and what was (not) meant in what was said.

Hamilton, like all of us in our own way, participates in a culture that forms his thought as much as he might form it. This is the slippage I detect. That in the cracks and binaries and antagonisms that disturb and exude from these words, we see something reflective of this denomination and individuals within it.

What I believe is demonstrated here is, at bottom, a deep suspicion of “the academic” and the challenge the academic can offer up – that is, legitimate disagreement over and with what constitutes “Biblical” thinking and PCI’s doctrinal checklist. The moniker “the academic” is utilized in this culture as an attempt to delegitimise and belittle one who thinks differently; it is a manifestation of how PCI struggles with diversity and seeks homogeneity. Considering the endless proliferation and creation of centralised resource packages made to toe the party line, advice that aims to cultivate monochromatic pious identities, and education at all levels that so often refuses to or doesn’t know of the history and diversity of Christian orthodoxy, can one really be surprised that the critical thinker who differs must be eschewed and simultaneously mythologised (esoteric, irresponsible, free thinker) and demythologised (doesn’t think from the Biblical perspective).

At this point, let us remember, being wise to context, Hamilton spoke in reference to those in NI who have been politically and economically disenfranchised and marginalised to and beyond the poverty line. This is serious, and I am being serious. Theology is as important as ever in this environment; theological thought must be as free as it can be to think in novel and deeply critical ways. What we need, more than ever, is the academic theologian. Not as a “Christian man or woman” with insights accommodating to predetermined criteria and checklists; but as those properly shaking all our categories, as those our awakening new imaginative leaps, as those challenging the centre of religio-political and -economic resonance that have us teetering on the verge of actual catastrophe.

Renown anthropologist and social theorist, David Harvey, has written that,

The production of ‘the urban,’ where most the world’s burgeoning population now lives, has become over time more closely intertwined with capital accumulation, to the point where it is hard to disentangle one from the other. Even in the shanty towns of self-built housing, the corrugated iron, the packing boxes and the tarpaulins were first produced as commodities. (The Enigma of Capital, 147)

Elsewhere, Harvey states the contradiction inherent in the more humanitarian moments of the capitalist economic project itself: “the very means by which you are supposed to eliminate poverty are the very means which create poverty.”

These two basic socio-economic observations, along with a lot of theological and philosophical critique, help lead me to the conclusion that PCI does not have the intellectual capacity to take seriously the times in which we find ourselves. It is the very existence of this NI urban underclass that judges anything we contribute – academic paper or political action. They impel us to properly responsible reflection on all that we do. And as one considers the prevailing theological currents within PCI and their political, economic, and social quietism and ambivalence (what percentage of people at the Assembly have actually been mobilised to respond to this crisis?), we see a denomination so terribly implicated in the neo-liberal-come-capitalist “resonance machine” – in many ways providing the neo-conservative values and consciousness (emphasising piety, strict moral guidelines, going on and on about the “traditional family) as an ideological supplement to an economic project that in its self-revolutionising and ever-expanding nature breaks and relativises all such values.

This is what, in a generalised but by no means absurd sense, the widely accepted theological currents in PCI actually contribute: stasis, quietism, and a conservative ideology that supports neo-liberal economic policy (“Greed is good”). This is what “our theologians” – who aren’t “academic theologians” – contribute. This “issue” – of a marginalised underclass of “nobodies” – Hamilton proposes we become conscious of, is something we are wholly implicated and entirely complicit in creating and maintaining. This urban class exists because PCI, in membership and structure, participates in and benefits from the capitalist enterprise – and the most significant point is, thanks to neo-liberal ideology, we are okay with it.

To repeat what David Harvey has said, bearing in mind Hamilton’s call to assist our economically marginalised neighbours, in regards of our theological thought, you can’t eliminate poverty by the same means by which you create it! That is to say, if your theology is part of the problem, (to paraphrase from Die Hard) quit being part of the fucking problem!

What we need more than ever are “academic theologians.” Not theologians domesticated by doctrinal shibboleths and checklists, and assumed into a church structure that predetermines what it shall find acceptable. Not good “Christian men and women” – they will no doubt appear as heretics, as they challenge our positionality and presuppositions in relationship to the world. For if it is within these structures we have to move – structures closed to proper analysis and critique – we shall find ourselves in the tragic position of upholding what mean to challenge, in the name of God.

We need our academic theologians to shock us with our own “Biblical perspectives” and the political and economic environments those hermeneutical categories uphold and ratify. We need them to provide us with new categories, new readings, new inter-disciplinary insights that refuse to satisfy pious imaginations but that help awaken thoughts of a new reality we can assist in the creation of, as political subjects; who go to work creating a new political-economic assemblage that perpetually seeks the realisation of justice and, within the terms of a certain theological imagination, is ever challenged by the recollection of a kin-dom that came and is still to come. For the point is not to, in Hamilton’s actual words, “show that we care,” while we make a list of what “we cannot fix” – this is fatalism that exemplifies the ambivalence and supplementation I just spoke of – the point is to say “fuck you” to the powers; the point is to side fully with the poor and oppressed; the point is to join with whoever we can, anywhere, to think beyond Capitalism – which is destroying us – in the name of creating and looking toward a social order that is actually new.