Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Our Backsides are Showing

I don’t know whether to feel encouraged or discouraged.  Maybe a little of both.

Because of my work (and my interest), I regularly read the Chronicle of Higher Education online.  I try to keep up on news and trends “in the industry,” but I also like to see what the bloggers are blogging.

The bloggers on the site are mostly well-known scholars in their academic disciplines.  They write about current concerns and cutting-edge issues.  Like blogging is supposed to do, they stimulate debate and provoke comments.

Blogging is thus about stating opinions.  It’s like the op-ed page of the newspaper.  It ought to pithy and provocative.  By design, then, it’s looser and more free-wheeling than the usual scholarly writing.  I rather like the moxey of many of the writers, even the swashbucklers.  I enjoy the alliteration, the catchy turn of phrase, the well-played irony, the playfulness, the wit.  I enjoy the pointed give-and-take that goes with the territory and I respect people who enter the fray with a little swagger.

Alas, academics are often no better than “normal people” at having a fair and open argument.  I know this is no big surprise, but it is discouraging, nonetheless.  That’s because argument is a big part of what academics are supposed to do.  Because we are engaged in helping students become well-educated, we ought to engage in pointed back-and forth.  We are supposed to demonstrate both courage and skill in analyzing arguments (exposing silly or spurious ones and showing why others are strong).  We (and students) must have the guts to stick our necks out and evaluate.  Which means more than just stating an opinion.  It means not making nice.  So it can get a little brutal at times.

Still, we also should have the moral restraint and the self-awareness to recognize our own biases and maintain an openness to people who disagree with us.  We should not attribute bad motive or benighted obstinance to other people, even if we suspect that they are.  I might be paranoid, but even paranoids can make good arguments.

The Chronicle blog that I read today and some of the comments that follow largely fail on this scale.  Some of the comments got nasty and personal.  As I said, no big surprise.  Academics are people, after all, and we all can get carried away and say things we later wish we would either not have said or said differently.  In this sense, it’s encouraging to realize that academics are just people.  With the trappings of academe, we can forget this simple truth.

But, on the other hand, it’s very discouraging.  The sneering, snarky, back-and-forth fails to hold true to what academics say they are about.  This failure is the academic hypocrisy akin to the preacher (I get a double whammy here: I’m both an academic and a preacher) who manifests the maddening “do as I say, not as I do” inconsistency.  There are plenty of examples – because it’s become like a favorite parlor game – of preachers to take aim at, pointing out the moral failings of those who presume to be moral guides.  Our pop culture loves to expose the inconsistencies of vocal (sometimes obnoxious) well-known Christian leaders.

Maybe even more discouraging is that few people in popular culture ever notice this bad behavior, because what academics say, write and do happens behind closed doors, out of the public light.  Which is to say, it’s pretty much irrelevant.

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August 8, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture | , , | Leave a comment

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Perhaps I too easily take to heart the coffee cup “de-motivator” I have about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  As a delinquent blogger, this saying makes me laugh.  But it also makes me hesitate.

That’s not the only reason I’ve been silent on this blog.  When I don’t know my own mind on some topic about which I feel deep importance, I hunker down for awhile, feeling that I have nothing to say.  This is the case with a topic that has become high profile on college campuses – the interest in spirituality.

Many people who work with college students (especially on the Student Affairs side) know about the extensive research from the Higher Education Research at UCLA (to name only one source) on this subject.  Even though students fiercely protect their prerogatives, they are not the free-thinking skeptics people often associate with higher education.  In fact, they are very interested in questions that we have come to associate with spirituality or faith.  If you pay attention to the literature that has become mainstream, however, students are not all that interested in getting boxed in by “organized religion.”

It’s no wonder.  We’ve been teaching young people to think this way about religion and spirituality for at least a generation.  No time for a long foray into history, but consider: thirty years ago Paul Vitz did a study of the references to religion in elementary school social science textbooks.  He concluded that, given how these references were handled, students would easily conclude that religious practice is either something that “primitive” people do in other parts of the world or (for this country, especially) it is something people did in the past.  Here, insert the Puritans.  You know how they fare in popular sentiment.

Add in the public-private constitutional divide long-established in our society.  Religion is “private,” something that people are free to do with their associates without government interference.  But religious faith must stay in the private realm, which allows it to deal with personal values of all sorts, but does not allow people to be part of public debates (even though religion is always very much in the news).  There are important questions involved, here, but the big thing is that we don’t want anyone “imposing” some brand of religion on us.  The result has been that another vision has been “imposed.”  And it’s not a neutral one.

So, in a thousand subtle ways we have taught kids – long before they get to college – that religion is not all that important except for personal values and, furthermore, it may actually be rather dangerous (especially conservative evangelical versions of Christianity).  Churches have gone along with this process.  Here I refer to the “moralistic therapeutic deism” discerned by Christian Smith and others among teenagers and emerging adults.  Religion is for the purpose of helping people be nice and feel good about themselves.

Yet people hunger for transcendence, for contact with the Lifeforce or whatever word you’d like to use if you want to avoid using God.  If religion is more or less ruled out of bounds, what do you have left?  Spirituality.  And it will inevitably look and sound like how people talk in the literature.  Spirituality is about contact with the transcendent, and authenticity, and compassion, and expansiveness and…

I’m not surprised that the social scientists asking college students what they think about spirituality and religion are discovering the “spiritual not religious” response.  We pretty much taught them to think this way.

August 1, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment