Saturday, July 05, 2008

Of scholarship and sloth

I am not a scholar, but I went to the Christian scholars conference anyway.

"The Christian Faith, Life of the Mind, and the Public Square," theme for 2008 Christian Scholars Conference hosted by David Lipscomb University, started with a discussion of Richard T. Hughes's premise in How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind. Asserting that Christians can be engaged in a vital “life of the mind,” if they learn to think theologically and beyond the particulcarities of their own traditions, Hughes and his panel grappled with the idea of understanding our own “finitude” while exploring truth.

Senator Bill Frist spoke on his faith and politics.

Among the luminaries presenting were Christian progressives, Shaun Casey, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and Jim Wallis, the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine.

I enjoyed hearing a presentations by Candice Ortbals-Wiser from Pepperdine and Angela Bratton, Augusta State University on gender issues. It was fun seeing James Wiser too!

Hearing the progressives almost prompted a Michelle Obamaesque remark from me, like—for the first time in my adult life I am proud to be a Campbellite. I am glad I refrained. What I was clearly thinking about was that I’m proud of how Church of Christ people engaged in political discussion at the conference.

I have been very blessed in many of my experiences in the movement; yet, it has not been too much fun to be a political progressive at church since I have been a grown up.

Christopher Dowdy, PhD student in Christians Ethics at Southern Methodist University, and my firstborn child, was on a panel with Dr. Fred Aquino, his mentor from ACU, and Mark Wieber, his dear friend and PhD student in Theology at SMU. The trio presented papers on "regulative epistomology." Chris's presentation involved unpacking the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr.

I listened hard with my layperson's ear and heard that not only does it matter how we justify our beliefs, it matters what we are and what we do in response to those beliefs.

When it comes to politics, justice requires risking action with unforeseen, possibly unwanted consequences. One must approach situations with concurrent courage and humility. Courage, Neibuhr asserts, is firmness, confidence in belief, which in excess can become pride. Its counterpart, humility, a willingness to change for good reason, in excess may become sloth.

Chris spoke of Martin Luther King, Jr. in illustrating a risk taker combining both courage and humility.

I pondered King's fearless resistance to segregation, poverty, and to the Vietnam war.

This lead me to some self-inventory.

An unabashed young liberal, I often ventured my beliefs. By the mid-1970s I had been asked more than once how I could possibly be a Christian and be for the Equal Rights Amendment, be pro-labor union, be a Democrat, or vote for Jimmy Carter. By the nineties, it seemed to me important not to be called a Democrat, thanks primarily to the climate in which the Republican Party was the righteous party and Democrats were, in Anne Coulter’s words, Godless.

I made it a practice to refrain from discussing politics in most social settings, especially with fellow church members. As a high school teacher of politics, I taught that political parties were about winning elections in order to govern. I taught with certainty that no political party represented Christ. I did not espouse my own views or votes on many subjects, though was sure I could make cogent arguments for my positions.

I always held out the possibility that I could be wrong.

In particular, I did not speak my objections in the run up to the war in Iraq. In this case, I was afraid of the criticism I would receive from the Christians who associated the Republicans and Bush with Christianity. In retrospect, it seems shocking that opposing war would be called partisan and sad that I did not take a stand on my view or at least give clear voice to the view of scores of Christian leaders who spoke out against the invasion of Iraq as an unjustified war.

I justified myself because I was a teacher and could argue that teachers should be objective, but really, I was so afraid I might be wrong, I did not even own a strong argument.

The Christian Scholars Conference and my self-inventory left me with two conclusions.

I am not a scholar.

I may actually be a sloth.

I justify reticence on speaking out about issues as a kind of Niebuhrian humility---a tipping of my hat to my own "finitude"-- when in reality, it is sometimes fear. I may be wrong; the others may be right, I say to myself--so why discuss differences?

I used to tell my students that is possible for a whole community of religious people to be wrong about a social issue.

Sometimes there should be a debate.

Engaging requires courage and humility.

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