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ON CHRISTIANITY AND CALL-GIRLS


By
Irving Hexham
© 1996
Department of Religious Studies
University of Calgary

Both Gary Sipmson, the local Director of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Dr. Dat Nyugen, of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, have asked me to write a few words about being a Christian academic. No doubt they wanted me to say something like "Jesus is my personal saviour..." But, to be honest I would rather say that Christianity is the greatest intellectual adventure of all.

No doubt this statement will surprise some people and shock others. Agnostics will be surprised because Christians are supposed to be intellectual ostriches. Many Christian students will be shocked because they enjoy being ostriches.

 

The truth of the matter is that for me to be a Christian is to belong to a great cultural tradition with a rich intellectual heritage. And the Christian tradition is in constant dialogue with other traditions and cultures. Christianity is not, and never was, an easy escape from intellectual life or practical concerns. Goethe's Faust can lament:

 

Haven't I studied Philosophy, Law, Medicine, and unfortunately Theology. And don't I remain a poor fool no wiser than when I began...(355-357. My translation)

But, this is not the experience of Christians through the ages. Rather, like Socrates they agree that self knowledge is the beginning of all knowledge. Or, as Calvin put it:

 

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (Institutes I.I.I).

Yet self-knowledge is the very thing which many avoid in both the modern university and contemporary church.

 

The university has become a multiversity where navigating the information highway is rapidly replacing the acquisition of wisdom. Instead of seeking truth academics have become call-girls running after the latest social fad in the hope of securing big grants or escaping from the stress of research and teaching into vast make-work projects known as administration.

Instead of adopting effective management practices universities are bedeviled with colonial style administrations which encourage empire building and political games. Years ago Arthur Koestler recognized this trend in his novel The Call-Girls (1972). Academics in his view are no better than call-girls who sell themselves to the highest bidder.

Yet, lest anyone take this amiss it needs to be remembered that complaining about universities and university organization is nothing new. Robbie Burns diagnosed the same trends that we see today in his acidic poem "The Dean of Faculty," where he takes aim at both a corrupt academy and indolent church:

 

But Scot to Scot ne'er met so hot,
Or were more in fury seen, Sir,
Than 'twixt Hal and Bob for the famous job,
Who should be the Faculty's Dean Sir.

This Hal for genius, wit and lore,
Among the first was numbered;

...

Yet simple Bob the victory got,
And wan his heart's desire,
Which shews that heaven can boil the pot,
Tho' the devil piss in the fire.

...

So their worships of the Faculty,
Quite sick of merit's rudeness
Chose one who should ow it all, d'ye see,
To their gratis grace and goodness

...

With your honours, as with a certain king,
In your servants this is striking,
The more incapacity they bring,
The more they're to your liking.

It may be thought by some that Burns is too profane to take seriously. So let's look again at John Bunyan who shared the disdain of Burns towards both academia and established religion. Thus, in The Holy War it is the educated "young fellows" Mr. Tradition, Mr. Human-wisdom, and Mr Man's-invention who desert their Lord because:

they did not so much live by religion as by the fate of fortune.

Naturally, after their treachery they were promoted by their new lord.

Similarly, in The Pilgrim's Progress the town of Vanity, whence is held a great Fair, is home to Lords Turn-About, Time-server and Fair-speech, as well as Mr. Smooth-man and Facing-both-ways. Here, as By-ends explains people:

 

differ in Religion from the stricter sort, yet but in two small points: First, We never strive against Wind and Tide. Secondly, We are always most zealous when Religion goes in his Silver Slippers; we love much to walk with him in the street, if the Sun shines and the People applaud him.

All of this is rooted in the teachings of the schoolmaster Mr. Gripe-man from the town of Love-gain who instructs men in:

 

the Art of Getting, either by violence, cozenane, flattery, lying, or by putting on a guise of Religion...

Thus it is a small step from Koestler's call-girls to Bunyan's Mr. Worldly-wiseman. And in this ethos Christian academics and students must live.

Today, however, few churches can be accused of idolizing culture and learning. Far more common is the realization that many churches are built on a bedrock of cultural poverty and ignorance. Fleeing the alienation of contemporary society far too many people find refuge in the simplistic anti-gospel of Jesusism.

 

Following Schleiermacher, the father of theological liberalism, many evangelical and fundamentalist churches replace belief in the ontological Trinity with a subjective "commitment to Christ." Yet such Christian commitment invites psychological criticism and the dismissal of experiential religion in terms articulated by Feuerbach and Freud.

Just as the multiversity does not represent the ideal university, neither do such churches approach the ideal of Christian witness. In our situation universities and churches are mirror images of each other through their failure to provide cultural leadership in a time of disillusionment.

 

When was the last time a professor was allowed to tell students that an essay lacked wisdom or that they ought to forget their grades and think about an issue? When is the last time the pastor of a church followed Martin Luther's example in telling someone who was feeling depressed that they ought to drink more wine, eat, and make merry? (Luther Letters of Spiritual Council, London, SCM, 1965:85-95)

 

The University of Wittenberg changed the course of civilization. Martin Luther changed the direction of western culture. What are we going to change? For far too many people today, as in Bunyan's time, the only change they want to effect is in their annual salary and control over others.

 

To be a Christian academic means asking hard questions about oneself and one's abilities. It means mastering a discipline, becoming a good teacher, and producing the first class scholarship in obedience with God's commandments.

According to Jesus the first commandment is:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.(Mark 12:30)

Similarly, the first duty of the Christian student is to be an excellent student. To fail in this, because one is too busy "witnessing" to devote sufficient time to study, is to break the first commandment. Unfortunately, too few students have read enough of the New Testament to know that rather than encouraging their anti-intellectualism it condemns it. Far too many students see Christianity as a means of escape rather than an adventure to be lived.

Of course to take scholarship seriously means that one's reading cannot be limited to safe "Christian books." Rather texts like Walter Kaufmann's Critique of Religion and Philosophy and Tom Paine's The Age of Reason must be embraced alongside historic and contemporary classics. Knowing one's chosen field or even mastering the material in a single course does not mean agreeing with everything one reads. But, it does mean interacting with required readings and developing one's own critique.

 

What does it mean to be a Christian academic? It means recognizing that education is a gift of God and that we have a responsibility to serve God in our calling as students. Why am I an academic? I am an academic because it is an unavoidable Christian calling. Why am I a Christian? I am a Christian because for me Jesus is: the way, the truth, and the life. (John 14:6) and as Thomas a Kempis said:

Without the way,
there is no going,
Without the truth,
there is no knowing,
And without the life,
there is no living.