|Image from whatsgabbycooking.com|
The academy tends to do some things better than the church, in my opinion, and some of these are the ability to listen and speak with humility, to embrace different voices and learn from them, and to welcome critique instead of bristling defensively against it. At the conference in Media, I had the opportunity both to present a paper and to offer a critical response to a panel of three presenters. It is good to be at both ends of this dynamic. It is good to be in the vulnerable position of a presenter who is offering their ideas for consideration by a learned community. I always get a bit nervous before I give a paper because I know I am exposing part of myself to people who may disagree with me, who may find my ideas simple or faulty, or who may deem my words mostly irrelevant. On the other hand, I find it equally difficult to be the responder, the critical voice asking tough questions, pointing out inconsistencies, or suggesting that ideas need to be reworked and reconsidered. It feels a bit awkward, to be honest, but in the true spirit of learning, most people at these events graciously accept critique, especially when the words are spoken out of kindness and humility. Academics generally realise that critique is necessary to make one's work better.
One of the highlights of the conference was a talk given by Stanley Hauerwas (Duke University), one of the USA's most influential contemporary theologians. His critique of the systems we find ourselves working and living within was sobering. He constantly drew our attention to the distinction between the values of the kingdom of God and the values of our current culture (including church culture) and urged us, with strong language, not to confuse the two. Our Western society is addicted to using violence, aggression, and wealth as ways of changing the world, and yet, these were not Jesus' methods. In other ways, Hauerwas suggested, we have become adherents of tolerance, producing people who say: "I believe Jesus is Lord, but that's just my personal opinion." Above all, he urged us to tell the truth: to each other and to ourselves. This means unearthing the deceit and duplicity present in our narratives and beliefs which underlie everything from our political views to our private prayers. Tough to do, but necessary work if we are to be people who humbly follow Jesus with integrity.
Other thought-provoking nuggets from Hauerwas:
- (On the religious right): They have no joy. And if there's no joy to it, it won't last.
- (On how we can engage with other faiths): Are we interesting enough that people of other faiths want to talk to us?
- (On the question: Are we responsible for decisions we make when we don't know what we are doing?) If we are not responsible, this makes marriage and having children unintelligible. Who of us knew what we were doing when we said our marriage vows or when we had a child? When you have children, you never get the ones you want. It takes grace to accept the situations that God gives us.
- Only God exists. We do not. The question is not does God exist but do we?
- We tend to believe that we have no story except the story we chose when we had no story. This is supposedly freedom. But our story starts in God, not in ourselves (paraphrase).
And that's a taste of what it was like to be at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference this year. I wish you could also have sampled the tiny pretzels and the homemade salted caramels, but maybe next time.