Academic at Heart

Photograph of stained glass window in St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts by John Workman

The ivory tower: it’s a trope with a long history, but today, it generally refers to an isolated academic, so enamored with their scholarly pursuits that they cannot relate to the rest of the world, or communicate effectively with the lay person. Before it came into usage as an insult, however, it had a religious meaning, as an epithet for Mary – and I have to wonder if the public perception of theologians over the centuries had something to do with why the meaning changed.

I’ve been an academic at heart since I was a little kid. I remember first learning, in early elementary school, about the concept of “college”, and deciding that the best thing would be to grow until age 20 and then stop aging for a decade, because 4 years would surely not be long enough to take all the classes I wanted to take. Once I got to college (where I did, unsurprisingly, take longer than 4 years to graduate), I found a particular love for the study of theology. Studying my faith tradition from an academic perspective made my understanding of Catholicism deeper – and my faith deeper, too.

The main portion of my project is the writing of a children’s book about the Beatitudes, the seed of which was planted in a wonderful seminary course I audited a few years ago. And of course, as an academic at heart, I started with research, reading and note-taking on Charles Talbert’s Reading the Sermon on the Mount. Reading it, I was struck anew with a thought that has recurred again and again throughout my journey as a student: how different our Church would be if the people in the pews got to hear this!

Theology is like an iceberg: most of us only see the tip, but the fullness of what is there is far more vast. (And to extend a bit: let’s say the full history of theological thought is an Ice Age glacier, and the untold wealth of ideas that have been lost due to the dismissing and silencing of generations of women and people of color are the ice that has melted into the sea, irretrievable, so that the glacier’s full magnitude can never be seen.) And what would an iceberg metaphor be without mention of the Titanic? Like the Titanic, wounded on that which it could not see, the Body of Christ is wounded by the oversimplification of theology.

While I was working my way through Talbert’s book, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education issued a document, Male and Female He Created Them. It purports to offer guidance to Catholic educators and institutions about how to engage in conversations around gender identity. It was a Pride-month gut-punch for many, myself included, to see a Vatican office doubling down on transphobia. Predictably, it relied on the same “natural law” arguments as most recent Church documents on gender.

Talbert’s book begins its section about moral judgement with a overview of several ways Christian theologians make arguments about what is moral and what is not. He talks about three types of judgement criteria, all of which are used in the Bible (and are not mutually exclusive): consequences of action (who would be helped? who would be hurt?), deontological (what is your duty? what do the rules say?), and perfectionist (is this true to your values? are you being the best person you can be?). Natural law – which views Scripture as corroboration of morals that can be discerned rationally – is simply one type of deontological argument.

In other words, the argument the Church makes against affirming trans identity is using only one of many accepted forms of moral decision-making. (There is much to debate in the substance of their argument, too, but for the sake of clarity, I’ll leave that for another day). Why is that? I speculate that it might be because some of the other forms of argument would lead to a different outcome; one that would require – gasp – change. What would the moral choice be when we look at the consequences of affirming or denying trans identities? The statistics are pretty clear on that: trans youth whose identities are affirmed by their family and community have massively better mental health. And if, like me, you’ve ever witnessed a loved one transition, you wouldn’t need statistics to tell you that. What would the moral choice be when we look at the perfectionist argument – that the moral choice is the one which involves being yourself?

The average person in the pews, who doesn’t read Talbert voluntarily, who is not an academic theology nerd, most likely will never hear about any of this. They’ll hear what makes it into news articles or the parish bulletin; they’ll hear just the tip of the iceberg. Why? Perhaps for the same reason that women and people of color had to fight for the right to an education: knowledge is power.

It’s no wonder “ivory towers” are not looked upon kindly.

I read another excellent book recently: Librarian on the Roof! by M.G. King. It’s the true story of a Texas librarian who camped out on the library roof to demand funding for the children’s wing, refusing to come down until the funding was secured, even during a tornado. That’s the kind of academic-at-heart I aspire to be.

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