We looked last week at the practical contribution academic theology frequently doesn’t make to the church. This week, we’ll take a look at a thing that all too often happens instead.
Here’s a game people run. It’s not a game academics run, so much as a game that other movers and shakers run using academics. But a healthy level of skepticism for academics is necessary if you’re going to stay immune to this one.
It goes like this: select the sin of your choice and induce some academics to ‘re-examine’ the tradition on the point, to ‘establish dialog’ around ‘these sensitive subjects,’ and so on. You might be able to do this on the cheap if you pick the right people, but spreading some money around really helps: fund some conferences and a few postgraduate fellowships, and you’ll find no shortage of academics excited to dive in. That research and academic writing produces a smattering of of journal articles and a few books arguing that, you know, perhaps we’ve been a bit hasty in condemning <whatever sin you’d like to justify>. Let’s call those articles and books Round 1.
Now of course there will be pushback, and that’s fine. You use that pushback around Round 1 to describe the issue as ‘controversial’ and ‘hotly debated.’ At this point, you are already winning. Your sin of choice used to be universally condemned, obviously beyond the pale, and now it’s “controversial,” perhaps even “debatable.” After all, here we are, debating it. See how that works?
But it gets better. Let the controversy rage for a little, then fund Round 2 of books and articles. You will call your Round 2 publications “the latest scholarship on this issue,” which you contrast to the obviously older (and therefore dangerously retrograde) positions of your detractors. The Round 1 works are now referred to as “Dr. Arnold’s groundbreaking article” or “the classic re-examination by Dr. Quisling.”
And then when people challenge you, and dare to point out the obvious big-E-on-the-eye-chart point (“It’s wrong!”), you sigh, and say — with great longsuffering, and a little sadness — that they’re plainly mired in old bigotries, and definitely not keeping up with the current best thinking on this issue. Then patiently explain that (while we realize an unfortunate few are lagging behind), we’re going to follow the scholarly consensus nonetheless, and trust that they will catch up in due time. Your bought-and-paid-for scholars and the cavalcade of transgressive idiots that are following in their train will definitely not yet constitute a consensus, but that doesn’t matter. You just claim consensus anyway, and move forward.
You can run this same playbook to justify everything from Marxism to race hatred to pedophilia — which is the next frontier — and it works the same way every time. With enough grant money, you can buy yourself a gaggle of academic whores willing to go all the way with the position of your choice. In this way you manufacture for your view something that the world is pleased to call ‘respectability.’ Execute the play well enough, and your scholarly opponents will not be able to treat your project with the contempt it deserves without getting drummed out of the scholarly guild themselves: after all, are there not peer-reviewed papers, conferences, respected scholars on your side? The mores of the scholarly community require that we take such things seriously.
Jesus never took such literally damned nonsense seriously, and neither should we.