I’ve lived and worked within academic circles for most of my adult life, studying in various universities, teaching within university circles, and having university professors as close friends and colleagues. What’s that world like? What kind of folks inhabit academic circles?
Perhaps my experience is atypical because most of the scholars under whom I studied and most of the theologians and other scholars who have been my colleagues became professors and university lecturers in function of ministry, as a vocation, rather than as a career. Thus, instead of struggling with faith and church, they were driven to become academics in function of their faith and church commitments. In some ways, professors in theology schools and schools of ministry aren’t typical of academic circles.
But an academic is an academic and graduate and post-graduate studies, whatever the motivation for doing them, have some of the same effect on people. And so I suspect that the circles I have been part of, in the end, are more typical than atypical. And what is typical?
Academics, scholars, and university professors, like any segment of society, are a complex mix: in university circles you will find some of the most humble, gracious, faith-filled, and genuinely good people you will ever meet; just as you will also find some of the most arrogant, self-absorbed, amoral, and cynical people in the world. The academic world looks like the rest of the world.
Given that truth, I have long been haunted by a saying of Jesus that the deep secrets of life, often times, and of faith are hidden from the learned and the clever and revealed instead to children, to those of a less-complex mind. I don’t doubt the truth of this; I wonder why.
Why? Clearly intelligence and learning are good things. Intelligence is the gift from God that sets us apart from animals and access to learning is a precious right given us by God. Indeed, ignorance and lack of education are things every healthy society and every healthy individual strive to overcome. Scripture praises both wisdom and intelligence and the health of any church is partly predicated on having a vigorous intellectual stream within it. Every time in history that the church has let popular piety, however sincere, trump sound theology it has paid a high price. The Reformation arose out of just that and one of the first things that the Council of Trent mandated for Roman Catholics was that its priests be better trained intellectually.
Intelligence and learning are good things. God did not give us intelligence and then ask us not to use it. Naiveté is not a virtue and should never be confused with innocence. So why is being “intelligent and clever” something that can work against our understanding of the deeper secrets within life and faith?
The fault is not with intelligence and learning, both good things in themselves, but in what they can inadvertently do to us. Intelligence and learning often have the unintended effect of undermining what’s childlike in us, that is, the very strength that they bring into our lives can allow us to unconsciously claim a superiority and have us believe that, given our intelligence, we have both the need and the right to isolate ourselves from others in ways that the natural neediness of children does not permit them to do. Children are not self-sufficient even though they fiercely want to be. They need others and they know it. Consequently they more naturally reach out and take someone’s hand. They don’t have the luxury of self-sufficiency.
When we are the “learned and the clever” we can more easily forget that we need others, and consequently don’t as naturally reach for another’s hand as does a child. It’s easier for us to isolate ourselves. When we are less aware of our contingency we more easily lose sight of the things to which God and life are inviting us. The very strength that intelligence and learning bring into our lives can instill in us a false sense of self-sufficiency that can make us want to separate ourselves in unhealthy ways from others and understand ourselves as superior in some way. And superiority never enters a room alone, but always brings along a number of her children: arrogance, disdain, boredom, cynicism. All of these are occupational hazards for the “learned and the clever” and none of these helps unlock any of life’s deep secrets.
But we must be careful not to misread the lesson. Faith doesn't ask us not to stretch our minds. Neither ignorance nor naiveté serve faith. Faith not only doesn’t fear the hard questions it invites us to ask them. The depths of infinity are never threatened by finite intelligence. And so it’s never a bad thing to become learned and sophisticated; it’s only a bad thing is we remain there. The task is to become post-sophisticated, that is, to remain full of intelligence and learning even as we put on again the mindset of a child.