In the fall of 2013 the St. Olaf Christian Activities Network organized a panel of faculty to address the topic “Faith in an Academic Setting”. A St. Olaf alum, religion major, and visiting instructor offered these remarks.
Faith in an Academic Setting
Jacob J. Erickson, Fall 2014
Asking someone about faith can be a dangerous exercise because, for one thing, they might actually tell you something (whether you actually wanted to hear a response or not). And, for another, we human animals are messy, complex, beautiful, terribly weird, filled with stories that ebb and flow like time and water and music and flesh. Even in the midst of this gigantic ark we call Christianity, there are a lot of creatures and faces and beliefs and possibilities. (Just look around, think of your friends, acquaintances, the world: you don’t—I guarantee you—don’t understand your faith or religion or atheism in the same way as the person sitting next to you). Faith is messy. Academia is messy. Life is messy. But it can be a really, really beautiful mess.
As a student, I fell in love with the academic study of religion. I really mean in love: passionately, deeply, madly. I was stunned reading biblical exegesis and theological treatises in college and grad school, reading incredible feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson and Womanist theologians and biblical scholars like Renita Weems. It was Renita Weems’ book Battered Love, in fact, that convinced me to be a religion major. Add to that reading list all the old guys like Athanasius and Luther and Tillich and the mystics and Kierkegaard (at St. Olaf, of course). Each one of these opened up a freedom of thought that I had never really delved into prior to college. Namely, I found that this strange and mysterious heart of faith could be so amazingly entangled with my mind, my intellect. It felt like my brain was catching up to my heart. One sees how quickly that faith isn’t just a confession or practice of one way of doing things. It felt like St. Anselm’s definition of theology: faith seeking understanding. It felt like faith calling to critical reflection. It felt like Augustine’s own questioning: “What do I love when I love my God?” That’s the strange question, for me, I ask myself every day, and most likely will ask myself every day for the rest of my life. Again: life can be a really, really beautiful mess of mystery.
So, to get personal, when someone asks me about my faith, I often have this dizzy experience—one that some of you may have as well—of not knowing exactly where in my own story to begin or even which story to tell about who I am. I suppose it depends who I’m talking with. But, for you, I’ve come to a couple thoughts in this particular moment that generally ring true for me in the living relationship of my faith and my academic work:
1. I personally don’t think faith is something that’s timeless. Faith is alive, “living faith,” in a process of becoming. Faith in process means that stories we tell are ever undergoing change. Your four years here are set within the context of a larger life and planet. Our understanding of the Bible at this moment in history isn’t the same what “the early church thought” or “what the Reformation thought,” etc. If faith is alive, it can’t be. We’re new people in new situations with new understandings and questions of what it means to be human and hold different cultural understandings of family, history, science, life, and human dignity.
2. I’m convinced that the vocation of my faith and my vocation as a theologian come together as a practice of serious imagination. Theology is most alive when it’s a kind of theopoetics—a well-thought out imagining of the words and images we use for divinity, our relationships with our traditions, our personal histories, our deep relationships with one another that is this earth. Theology is a serious and creative imagining—stories that get loose and build and unbuild worlds as another theologian, Laurel Schneider, says.[i] I’ve come to believe that religious truth is more likely to be found in fiction than anywhere else, and that’s especially true for me when it comes to encountering the Bible. (A quick example: Moses’ encounter with the burning bush is the best metaphor I have for how I understand my own sense of wonder in the universe. Do I believe it historically happened? No. In my own passion for that text, do I believe it says something real of how I experience and creatively engage truth? Absolutely.) I think the academic study of religion lured me to think about the ways we talk about our experiences with faith and the ways we seriously examine the stories we tell about our faith. Such stories fill rooms with a kind of vibrancy and power that can be used for incredible good in one breath and heart-wrenching evil in another. To seriously imagine faith is to recognize how quickly one can turn into another.
3. Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, I think my faith and my academic study occur together most strongly as acts of loving interrogation. Theology offered me the language to ask questions I had always wanted to ask but didn’t know how about meaning and injustice and the fragility and resilience of human relationships. I believe my job as a person of faith is to be a theologian of the cross, as Luther said: to not look away from suffering in the world–especially suffering caused by stories told and symbols thrown by Christians, by Christian theologies, by harmful Christian imaginations–and to interrogate and to seek the creative transformation of those worldviews in love. Ask yourself: Does this theology commit harm against people of other religions? Does it perpetuate white privilege and racism? Does it commit intellectual or material violence towards queer, gay, lesbian, and trans folks? Does its portrayal of a male God scapegoat women? Does it sanction violence and hatred in any form? These are questions I have to and get to ask out of love. From the my academic study, I get to honor the very Christian calling that I demand my own traditions be better in their own calling, in what they says they are.
4. Finally, I utterly believe that my teaching and my writing are fundamental, fragile acts of hope. I write on environmental ethics, on climate change, on theology. And there are days when the climate science and the history of Christian violence towards the earth and loss of fellow creatures breaks my heart, and the imagination can quickly spiral into an overwhelming despair. (The Western Black Rhino was officially declared extinct recently. I, and you, will never get to see one). And that’s when my theological work, my academic work, becomes one of the deepest boons to my own sense of faith, as mysterious as I find it to myself. Because writing, the very act, the very practice of writing a sentence that reimagines what faith means on a warming planet, is an expression that that sentence, that idea, that story told in that way, might matter for the very life and imagination of myself or someone else. Theology, for me, gives me permission to fall neither into utter despair nor utter denial of very real violence. I get to take things seriously and imagine something else is possible. Without a vision, the people [and the planet, I would add] perish, Proverbs says. Hope is an incredibly ordinary thing.
I fell in love with the intersection of faith and academic life because I’m a messy person with multiple identities made up of multiple relationships, because theology is the calling of my lived faith, and because, at any given time, either occasionally restores my hope in what the other can be.
[i] See Schneider’s Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity (New York: Routledge, 2008).