Theology matters. I’ve invested a lot in this belief, and I’m committed to the process of working out its implications for the long haul. And yet I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have frequent and serious doubts about whether or not my particular vocation is actually ensuring that theology does indeed matter for the most pressing issues of our day. Take, for example, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal–the Cambodian court that is currently attempting to prosecute those responsible for the infamous Killing Fields genocide of 1975-1979. How does “theology”–particularly as expressed in my neck of the woods, academia–matter in the face of such tragedy?
This excellent documentary–“Enemies of the People”–aired tonight on PBS, and in addition to the chilling footage of Nuon Chea (a.k.a. “Brother Number Two”) it was also a reminder to me of why I chose missiology as my area of study (but that’s a different post for another day). More importantly, glimpsing the horror of the Killing Fields forces me to ask myself: does Christian theology matter in a world of Pol Pots and blood-soaked mass graves?
My initial answer is a reflexive “of course it does,” and yet for my own part in the necessity of lived theology (i.e., praxis), lately I’ve been feeling a lot like a trickle-down theologian. The metaphor is loose, but I think the principle is generally true for academic theologians. Like all institutional compromises (which are for the most part unavoidable from what I can gather), we theologians in the academy play a complex game of competing commitments. We need to teach, research, and lecture well; publish, get tenure, keep tenure, and earn promotions; mentor and advise students; serve on endless committees; and generally feed the beast that is higher education (so that our families can, in turn, also be fed). The costs (financial and otherwise) along the way, for all parties involved, are numerous.
But as a Christian academic, there is also the “higher purpose” in it all–aren’t we doing this for the Church and the world (oh, I am evangelical after all, see!)? Isn’t my scholarship–somewhere way down the line–intended to make the world into a place where we won’t needlessly slaughter our fellow human beings in the majority world, or stand idly by while such atrocities confront us daily? Yes, the world is big and complex and we all have our part to play–I get that. But I also wonder if my comfortable insulation from the real world (facilitated so conveniently by academia’s pull) is justifiable when so little theology actually trickles down to the people for whom it should matter the most.
This isn’t just my cynicism speaking; it’s been well known for some time now that the gap between theological higher education and the church–tower to pew–is obvious and expansive. Plainly speaking, much of academic theology just doesn’t trickle down to the masses. Somewhere along the way, it seems to get lost in translation. Now I don’t want to discount the many ways that theological academia tacitly shapes the “real” world; surely it does. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel a bit suspicious of the (it seems to me) distorted proportionality. In other words, the praxis that comes out at the bottom isn’t often representative of the ideology that goes in at the top.
‘Cause money don’t trickle down to workers who toil, you see
Blood trickles down from the wound to the soil
The longer I spend in academia, the more I recognize the need to invest in more “bottom-up” theology. That actually sounds quite biblical and Christocentric, doesn’t it?