The Church and the Academy

There are things you can say in the academy that you can’t say in church.  I heard that a lot during my stay in seminary.  If I was you, I would be insulted.  Are we to believe that all the gifted and open minds in church go to seminary where they learn a secret “gnosis” and participate in the deeper faith, while all the simpletons who can’t handle the truth opt for secular careers and fill pews on Sunday to receive a beginner’s version of the gospel? Such condescension has no place in the Lord’s church.  Never-the-less the feeling persists among certain academics—there are things you learn here that you must not talk about there.

Now there are reasons learned people believe this.  The academy says all kinds of shocking things.  Even the milder insights that topple naïve misconceptions about the faith enrage some who are all too eager to defend something, anything, in the name of Christianity.

Did you know that Jesus’ last name isn’t ‘Christ’?  Blasphemy!

Did you know that the book of Revelation has no ‘s’ on the end of it?  Heretic!

Did you know that the King James Version of the bible is far less accurate a translation then those translations completed in this past century? Sacrilege!

Of course there are more startling surprises; the ones I was warned against.

Did you know that some of the Paul’s letters are so different in vocabulary, style, and even theology that many suggest they were written by disciples of Paul and not the apostle himself (writing in a venerable person’s name was a common practice)?

Did you know that many New Testament authors anticipate the immediate second coming of Christ—even within their own lifetimes—and many New Testament writings suggest this to be true?

Did you know that there are divergent, even competing theologies, within the pages of the Bible?

Did you know that religious concepts are borrowed by the Israelites from their surrounding neighbors?  Such revelations give even the most level headed of us reason for concern.

There are things you say in the academy that you don’t say in church.  Paul knew this, which is why when he proclaimed the new gospel in the synagogues of Thessalonica and Beroea and was pursued by angry pew sitters he headed straight for Athens to take a breather.  Athens was different.  Athens wasn’t the church or the synagogue, Athens was the academy.  In the academy you could say what you couldn’t say in the synagogues and churches.  And Athens wasn’t just any academy, Athens was Ivy League.

There are eight Ivy League schools—Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.  The Ivy League is an NCAA athletic conference, so all the schools are in close proximity here in the north east.  New York is the only state with two Ivy League schools.  We live in Ivy League country.  We live in Athens.  Here is where you run to take a breather when the angry pew sitters come after you.  Here is where you can say what you can’t say other places.

The Ivy League schools are incredibly impressive institutions.  Seven of the eight are older than the American Revolution, the exception being Cornell which was founded in 1865.  They have huge endowments that fund them—Harvard’s is an astonishing 27.4 billion dollars (the largest of any educational institution in the world).  They are non-sectarian (open to all ideas and affiliations), yet they all have founding roots in religious groups.  Their mottos read like a church litany: “In God we hope” (Brown); “In Thy light shall we see the light” (Columbia); “The voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Dartmouth); “Truth” (Harvard); “Under God’s power she flourishes” (Princeton); “Laws without morals are useless” (University of Pennsylvania); “Light and truth” (Yale).  At first glance it would be easy to say to these institutions, as did Paul to the Athenians, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (Acts 17:22).

But of course this is not the case. The academy is often the birth place of skepticism and a cemetery for the gods.  This is even true for seminary—where many of my most cherished idols suffered mortal wounds.  I say ‘idols’ because all of us have created our altars and statues—we have all taken the incomprehensible mystery of the omnipotent God and tried to stuff it inside a convenient fragile idol in order to manage it and give it neat and tidy name.

Do you know what the idols look like that we stuff God inside of?  Here’s one—the inerrant Bible.  Here’s another—the fellowship of the Churches of Christ.  Here are yet others—a certain interpretive method, a set of political beliefs, health and wealth.  We marry the omnipotent God to the fragile idol, and we believe that if the idol crumbles, God falls to pieces as well.  We become God’s defender, warding off attackers, building up walls of protection, all in an effort to insure our God stays alive and well.  All the while we hear the echo of the apostle Paul quoting a pagan poet in the streets of Athens, reminding us that it is in God that we live and move and have our being, not the other way around.

We make God weak.  And we take that God, tethered to our idol, and we present that God to the world.  And we win none, because the world needs more than our idol can provide.  The idol cannot hope to contain the mystery, but we believe it does.  And we run people out of town who think otherwise.  We chase them right to Athens.  Those of us with critical minds, who resist easy answers, and neat taxonomies, get chased off to the Ivy League.  Meanwhile the church becomes suspicious of too much ‘book learning.’  And in order to protect our idol a dangerous anti-intellectualism enters the sanctuary.  And we decry reason, one of God’s greatest gifts to the crown of his creation.  We shout out along with angry Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the church?”  That is what churches do—which is why there are some things you can say in the academy which you can’t say in church.

It is an irony that the Ivy League is more comfortable with the mystery of the faith then the church often is.  The academy resists the urge to tether the omnipotent God to a fragile idol.  That is why the gospel enters the academy as well as the church; that is why the gospel can be found in the Ivy League.  That is why our pulpit has seen the graduates of Yale divinity school, Harvard Divinity School, and Princeton theological seminary.  The academy stretches the church—it gives a breather to the persecuted prophet, it destroys inadequate and fragile idols to make way for the omnipotent God.

This is not to say that the academy is rightful home of the gospel.  The Ivy League does not own the gospel.  Athens is not Jerusalem.  Paul knew this as he walked the idol clad streets which were the home of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, the city widely regarded as the cradle of western civilization and the birthplace of democracy.  Paul knew this, for while the academy celebrates the unattainable mystery, it too is prone to erect an insufficient altar for worship.  The academy pays homage at the altar to the ‘unknown God.’  This is the altar that Paul saw when he walked the streets of Athens distressed at all he found there.

People who have come through the academy, and who have spent time at the foot of this altar, are inclined to a sense of social elitism and intellectual snobbery.  There is a penchant to treat all religious claims with suspicion.  There is a bias in favor of the empirical.  There is scoffing.  What can anyone know of the gods?  In their derision they greet the church with condescension in their hearts.  I have felt this contempt, have you?

Paul preaches one message in Athens.  He holds one thing up in the face of their mockery.  He says it over and over again in the seventeenth chapter of Acts—in the synagogues, in the marketplaces, and in front of the Aeropagus.  The Aeropagus was the high court of appeal.  We don’t know why Paul was brought there, but it seems fitting.  Paul’s one message has come to the high court of appeal, in the greatest Ivy League city in the history of humankind.  Jerusalem has come to Athens with a message.  What will Jerusalem say to the city that knows it all?  What claim will Jerusalem make to the greatest thinkers in the world?  Jerusalem will say, “The unknown God is the God  that makes everything dead alive again.”  It is an absurd message—how can Athens believe this?  It is empirically bankrupt.  Everyone knows that what is dead is dead.  Yes Paul said it on every corner of that august city.  He preached it unabashedly.  He declared the resurrection without any hesitancy, with Jesus Christ as his bedrock proof.

We have come to expect a great disturbance or a large number of converts from Paul’s preaching.  But in Athens we are greeted with a mild, lukewarm response. In the Ivy League there is great resistance to the idea that the dead can be made alive again.  This is Ivy League territory you know—I wonder, can we believe it?  In Athens some scoff; others are willing to hear Paul speak again; a few convert. Why such a minimal reaction? Perhaps it is because the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, the Ivy League, wanted to engage God only as a concept, only as a mystery, a metaphysical mind Olympics, and not as the God-man who lays a claim upon our lives—who lived and breathed, and died, and lived again.

For many the resurrection did not pass the intellectual plausibility test.  And there is the crucial point: Paul discovered that while there are some things you can say in the academy that you can’t say in the church, there are other things you can say in the church that you can’t say in the academy.

Personally, as one nurtured in the church, and educated in the academy, I don’t think Tertullian was right.  I think the Athens needs Jerusalem, and Jerusalem needs Athens.  For Jerusalem will chase away her prophets, and they will seek a hiding place in the meandering streets of Athenian higher learning, and Athens will lose faith that the dead can be made alive again, and they will need the hope of the new Jerusalem to show them the way.

I am glad that Paul went to Athens.  I am glad that Paul spent time in the church.  For our God is a mystery, and you cannot know him, except in the life of the resurrected one, which we proclaim, not in ignorance, but hungry for the truth.  As the academy calls us to respect the mystery, may the church encourage it to embrace a faith.  As the academy presses us to not define God in so rigid a way, may the church point tirelessly to the resurrected Jesus, as the self revelation of God to the world.  May we avoid the false dichotomy that posits faith and reason as mortal enemies, and may we say in the church what we say in the academy, and say in the academy what we say in the church.  I’ll let the local Ivy League (Columbia) have the final word, “In Thy light may we see the light.”  Amen.

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