Christian Thought in the Academy

I’m on a bit of a roll at the moment – I wrote this piece and last week’s piece in one sitting. It’s what happens when I really get into an idea – I rotate between writing, Spelunky, and drinking tea until I’m all finished up. Good for productivity, probably not good for work-life balance. Anyway! Last week I talked about how it’s possible to have conversations with religious people even when they’re just talking about their religious beliefs. This week, I wanted to point out a really important element for people who want to have those conversations: you need to actually know something about Christianity in the first place. 

There’s three main thoughts motivating this piece, and I’ll lay them out so you know where I’m coming from. Firstly, there’s the piece I wrote last week. I’ve been thinking about how people within my liberal circles can do better at engaging with conservative Christians, and then it kinda struck me – my friends don’t really engage with Christianity in any sort of meaningful way. Well, I mean, except for the actual Christians. And the ex-Christians. But for people who weren’t brought up in that culture, yeah, not really much of a thing.

And this isn’t me having a whinge about the fact, right. It’s not a cry for help. I like my friends and I’m not trying to call them out (oh shit please don’t read this and hate me omgggg). But if I think more widely about my experience at university, say, I don’t think I’ve ever had a paper that seriously engaged with Christian thought. Well, I mean, aside from the theology papers, but they don’t count – the point is that across four years of English Literature classes, none of my lecturers have taught aspects of Christian thought or seriously engaged with Christian belief, beyond those few texts that appropriate Christian imagery and narratives to build their worlds (fucking Vintner’s Luck). And even then it’s all pretty superficial. There’s some angels and shit, but ehh.

The second orienting thought has to do with ContraPoints. In one of her early videos, before she began her transition, she talks about why she left academia. She makes one fascinating point about a political philosophy seminar. The professor introduced Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and according to ContraPoints, “none of us were able to mount any kind of plausible argument against Nozick – not because Nozick is correct, but because we as a group had no experience arguing with anything that far to the right.” The point resonated with me in an unexpected way. A few weeks earlier, I’d been at a seminar with all my English grad student buddies, and we were talking about, uh, ecology and literature or something. People were talking about philosophical frameworks for decentering the human, and I mentioned that medieval theology had heaps of intellectual resources for that sort of thing. Everyone sort of stared at me blankly, and then the professor leading the seminar said “Well, you’d remove the religious context, right?” I agreed, because sure, I guess, if you don’t need it you can still hijack the idea, and then everyone sat around awkwardly a bit more and said nothing. I’m not certain, but it seems today like a parallel: the people in that room just didn’t have any experience discussing elements of Christian thought. It’s not something we were taught about within the English department, and subsequently they just didn’t really know how to talk about it.

Of course, there’s probably a few other explanations for that encounter though, right? Maybe it was just an awkward seminar. We have those sometimes. Maybe it was like a conversational dead end, where one person makes a point but there’s not really any room to develop a discussion out of it. These all seem like quite reasonable (and less dramatic) explanations. And sure, it’s not really a point that I can prove – you had to be there to be able to interpret the moment, and it’s possible that some of the other people present might have different interpretations. But for me, it demonstrated a general point that I do think is broadly true. The only grad students I know who can hold a conversation about Christianity are the people raised in the culture. Nobody else is really familiar enough with the issues and lines of thought. It’s not something they’ve been exposed to during their studies.

And to me, it’s a little odd that we haven’t been exposed to it more. Again, we kinda touch on it here and there in classes (fucking Vintner’s Luck), but it’s usually quite superficial. It’s not like the content would be irrelevant either. I’ve had classes where we talk about metaphysics and literature, and there’s such a thing as Christian metaphysics. I’ve had classes on ethics and literature – there’s Christian ethics too. There’s Christian interventions in critical theory, aesthetics, politics, gender studies – fucking Kierkegaard is the father of existentialism, and fuck me if that isn’t one of the biggest trends for undergrad English Lit students who think they’re edgy. Even fucking – I am just whinging now – when I was in honours, we looked at Nietzsche in the work of Janet Frame, and when someone mentioned the whole God is dead thing, one of the other students turned to me and went ‘Yeah James, how about that?’ And I just remember thinking, to be honest, you’ve never picked up a single book on Christian thought in your life. You know literally zero things about the intellectual history of Christianity. That was actually where I first started reading Aquinas – I wrote an essay on Aquinas’s ideas of human subjectivity and the limits of language in his thought, and how those ideas were expressed in Frame’s books. But I remember really resenting the comment, because he clearly thought he was edgy, but at the same time he didn’t actually know anything about Christian thought, and he didn’t really care to know either.

I am whinging there, like I say. Obviously that’s not the attitude that everybody has. Nevertheless, the basic point is that within my four years of undergrad classes, Christian thought has never come up in any significant way. These kinds of dismissive attitudes towards Christian thought are cultivated within that gap in our wider education. It’s one of the things that really annoys me about, say, Christopher Hitchens. He attacks Christianity for its awful attitudes to women, which – well, fair enough, I spend most of my time attacking Christianity too. But my problem is that Hitchens doesn’t give any attention to how Christian thinkers might have grappled with that issue. Christian feminist thought exists. There’s a wider intellectual tradition that’s just not getting a hearing. And at least in my experience, many of the people in my liberal circles don’t know anything about it either.

A final note. I talked with some of my grad student buddies about this post, and by and large my English Lit friends didn’t really have any experience with Christian thought – as I suspected. But curiously, my fiance has a major in Art History, and apparently you can’t lift a finger in Art History without being bombarded by Christian thought from all directions. Cheers, Michelangelo! So my point might be quite limited to a certain set of disciplines. At the very least, it’s limited to my experiences (obviously). But even then, when I brought the topic up with my fiance, her first response was ‘Well, studying theology is really only something conservative weirdos do.’ She also saw a distinction in the demographic, even if she had to throw shade to bring it up.

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