Luke’s Bullshit Reflections on being a Student…Or, Introducing our New Series on Pedagogy and Theology

On Commodizing thought (even though we are all “Marxists”…)   Image

The word “performance” is quite appropriate to the world of academia. Such a world exists often to perpetuate itself in its cloistered conferences, panels and endless need to produce for consumption publications in order to justify continued funding for whatever department in whatever school of a university one finds oneself. In such a context, it is difficult to avoid seeing the commodization of thought which Horkheimer and Adorno seek to combat in their work Dialectic of Enlightenment. This production and consumption logic permeates even discourse that seeks to ground itself in whatever reinvigorated neo-Marxist theory is “sexy”, making what once was of true utopian significance another “it” to which one may come to identify and perpetuate. Thought as commodity and we, the academics, have not an idea of what we are as that entity which enquires nor what exactly it means to enquire or what we even are enquiring about. Rather, we perform and construct programmes for others to consume, conceptually, but more narcissistically, in the construction of a picture of the academic.

This is the person defined as that bourgeois individual who seeks not the betterment of humanity as their impetus for study, but some trifling selfishness hidden behind an excuse of blunt “curiosity” or because they find that they have a knack for writing. There is no revolutionary potential in this person, this person who most assuredly wishes to write and speak and publish about freedom and emancipation with no courage to affect the change their poetic prose suggest. This is a dangerous person, insofar as this academic squelches the fiery passion what enquiry can be, namely, a rigorous pursuit of truth as that which empowers and frees individuals from the oppression of delusionary ideals and material oppression.

The question posed to someone studying in the humanities “why does this matter?” cannot be written off as rooted in simple ignorance. To so relegate the realist concern for what and why this or that discourse is to continue in an oppressive programme of hegemonic domination of thought by this constructed picture of the academic. Someone is always deciding, deciding what thought matters and what thought can be dismissed. The power to decide is associated with the picture the academic projects of her/himself. This becomes the real truth insofar as the projected individual or group of individuals makes the ultimate decision through their perceived credibility, whether or not their followers really understand the conceptual frameworks being advanced.

Theology

            As I reflect upon my own situatedness in academia I am taken with the idea that for my own discipline to survive we must continually be revisiting what it means to be self-reflexive about who, what and why we are. I am specifically situated as a postgraduate student working at the intersections of theology, philosophy and literature. The previous paragraphs of this brief post reflect the fact of my own wrestling with the reflexive task insofar as I have in mind specific interactions born of this place within academia. In particular, it seems that theology can formulate no clear direction for itself as a discourse among discourses in the academy. This is certainly a broad statement but I want to continue in my assertion if only to spark conversation here and in the following weeks posts.

Theology students are given a variety of reasons with regard to the “why” question of their education. However, two poles seem to suspend the spectrum of theological education. On the one instance, the student is fed resources proper to whichever denomination lays claim to their academic soul. On the other, students are given a myriad of theoretical resources, usually in the realm of sociological and continental theory, and then told to not only understand these resources, without rigorous historical training in philosophy, but also told to apply them somehow to theology (which usually nets the very underwhelming sort of writing I myself exemplify in my first post about Badiou and theology…fuck my life).

In the former, theology appears to justify itself by appeal to an internal logic. The bible or the creed or whatever authoritative idol provides the definition for the who, what and why of discourse. Other modes of enquiry must simply learn that theology dictates their own functionality and, by way of some sort of genealogical analysis of history in which the theological becomes secularised, their very existence. This is what some might call a textbook version of fideism, as it cannot but recourse to itself for its justification. In the latter instance students are not given any clear vision for why they are using the various theoretical resources and the end result appears just as fideistic. They are given a common sense of political involvement and social concern appropriate to the Democratic National Convention and told that the god of Christianity not only exists but exists in something that looks very much like this pseudo-activist. This is true even when they say god is not this sort of liberal-democratic citizen given his apocalyptic transcendence or whatever.

In reality, theirs is a hoped for god who resembles very much the bourgeois academic described above. Theirs is a god both radically other yet still somehow immanent enough to warrant the bastardised usage of theory that has nothing to do with their theological disposition. In short, students associate with trends and construct their own projects in line with the motivations mentioned above. Some jettison belief but insist that they do not by speaking of Christian atheism or radical theology. Others dig into the apocalyptic, utilizing it as a trump card similar to those who appeal to the internal validity of theology’s “logic” as authority.  The apocalyptic in this sense functions for the student as a means to avoid realist concerns and becomes a means by which the theologian seeks psychological comfort. This is understandable, albeit regrettable, since who would want to admit that the “academic” life they have been leading is really a fantastical projection?

            Given this state of affairs, and it is ‘given’ insofar as I am the one giving this as the state of affairs out of my own perspective, the state of theology as a discourse in the university seems to be one of confusion. If theology cannot dialogue with other disciplines without either subsuming them or abusing them, if theology cannot account for itself in a way that is intelligible to the thinking person who seeks to understand from the outside of this particular language game (to say nothing of how delusional we are if we really think that relativizing language by abusing Wittgenstein and Gadamer in this way is legitimate), then “why does this matter”?

The Humanities

             “I am. We are. That is enough. Now we have to start.” Ernst Bloch’s refrain, penned in his work The Spirit of Utopia, I take to give us the beginnings for how to begin to reflect upon what/who we are as enquirers, what/who we enquire about and the initial why for our continued participation in the educational process. The humanities can only be justified if we retrieve its namesake, if we again and again come back to the human. Regardless of the overarching metaphysical trappings we may gravitate toward, our ontical existence gives us our starting point and it is here that we can discover our camaraderie as fellow sentient beings living with one another. In this sense, the self-reflexive task for the academic in theology is both deeply phenomenological and deeply social.

Thus, the reason for the current rant/introduction to a new series of posts here on FoT. In the following weeks Sean, Joel and I will be exploring the nature of pedagogical theory as this relate to the humanities in general and to theology in particular. My hope is that this will inspire some real conversation on the blog about what the fuck we are all doing in our respective places in academia. Furthermore, I am hoping that our conclusions, differing, as I am sure they will be, will point toward a basic responsibility to society. Academia must account for why it matters and we as students and future professors must be so in order to affect difference in society, even if this turns out to be a futile and tragic process. 

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23 thoughts on “Luke’s Bullshit Reflections on being a Student…Or, Introducing our New Series on Pedagogy and Theology

  1. What a great aphorism, Lucas. My only entanglement, is with the heedless humanities who esteem their own theory of nonsense to be something of preponderance. . I would also like to field the concept of theory on Martians.. I mean, who wouldn’t think a Martian could be sexy as shit.

  2. Lucas,

    Aren’t you making some unsubstantiated claims here? Or at least, you don’t seem to be defining your terms. First off, you seem to write as though there are only two ways in which theology is being talk, both of which are fideistic. I think you need to substantiate these claims. First, I’d need you to prove to me that these are the two primary ways theology is being done. Then, I’d need proof that they’re fideistic, with a definition of fideism.

    Also, your critique of theology is full of value-judgements. For instance, whatever a theologians source of authority in the first version of theology, is automatically called an idol. But by what standard do you refer to Bibles or creeds as idols? For that matter, what is an idol? Normally, an idol is an inanimate, man-made object, that is worshiped in place of the true deity. However, you don’t seem to be leaving room for a deity that could, or has, revealed itself in a certain way (say through a holy writ or creed or tradition, etc.). Even more so, you seem to act as if a student is bound entirely to their denominational (or religious since I would assume this would apply to more than simply Christianity) background in terms of sources. You know, however, that this is not the case. You’ve met Presbyterians who read Roman Catholic sources, a non-denomational Christian who reads the Fathers, Eastern Orthodox scholars, and Roman Catholic scholars, amongst others, even a former Charismatic who reads Catholic and other sources. I’m not saying that what you describe doesn’t happen, but it seems to me inappropriate to act as if it were the norm, even from your personal experience.

    This, and the posts to follow, could be excellent critiques of aspects of how theology is taught and understood, but you’re going to need to define your terms and show your work. Perhaps I’m just another fideist, but I remain currently, unconvinced.

    Yours,
    David

    • David,

      Thank you for your response. As I am only just having my morning coffee and you are entering the stage of the afternoon in which pipes and real ale are involved this exchange has the potential for some clashing attitudes.

      First I think I should be clear my approach in this particular post is very much informed by a few different pictures of the person as one who inquires. Here I have in mind particular readings of Heidegger, Bloch, Dussel and Meillassoux, where I see Dussel adding a needed expansion to Heidegger’s analysis regarding the phenomena of inquiry that occurs by the specific entity, the person, who inquires, with Meillassoux forming my concern for realist thought and Bloch illustrating an alternate way contingency may be socially and politically construed toward ideas of hope and responsibility.

      The importance of the brute fact of existence, not as a general concept of Being but as an immediacy that confronts us, for beginning to reflexively think our own selves as inquirers and the importance of this for theological education cannot be understated. As such, my point of origin, from which I make any of the general claims above, is very much rooted in the immediacy of my situatedness with particular groups and individuals. I take this situatedness to be primarily authoritative insofar as it is the reality in which I am capable of making any sort of critical judgment. From this point of origin I seek to draw out what I see as overarching tendencies in the actual process of education, tendencies that I believe are present regardless of the particularities one wishes to appeal.

      So with regard to your first point, the seemingly reductionistic reading of theological education I present, I am getting at the ways in which specific content functions. There are of course a myriad of theological programmes which are taught in different institutions and I think you are possibly right in noting how my recourse to denominational affiliation may be too reductionistic for the reality of the situation. Let me offer two responses though and lets see what you think.

      First, my primary goal was not to necessarily refer to this or that denomination but rather a particular approach to teaching that occurs with confessional commitment in itself. So whether it is the Presbyterian, Baptist or Roman Catholic, the confessional academic is trained to locate their project in some master signifier whether it is in the Bible, “the tradition” or in some other thing that is specifically internal to the discourse they are attempting to explicate. This is fideistic insofar as it is not made evident universally to other participant beings that this tradition or that scripture or whatever is authoritative outside reference to the claim that it just is. There are of course variances in how these signifiers are balanced depending on who is talking but the function seems to be the same. What I want to state however, is that I am not opposed to using such concepts. My concern lies in the using of them without a continuous process of critical reflection upon what I am, what I am doing and why I am doing it when I inquire. This to me is a necessary preliminary analysis that has to be undertaken again and again whenever we seek to advance something that is not immediately given to our existential locale. It is on this basis that I refer to such master signifiers as idolatrous insofar as I fear that the functionality of these concepts, without a rigorous self-understanding, obscures rather than reveals.

  3. “Regardless of the overarching metaphysical trappings we may gravitate toward, our ontical existence gives us our starting point and it is here that we can discover our camaraderie as fellow sentient beings living with one another. ”

    So, how far off would I be if I read this as: Luke’s slightly-more-social-because-we-don’t-want-to-hear-the-same-old-crappy-critique-of-the-cogito Cartesian renaissance? Well, to your credit, your BS is probably better than what goes on at AAR. As far as I can tell, you pretty much destroyed the latter in your seventh paragraph.

    As someone who is way too lazy and pretentious (but also right) to think Badiou, Zizek and co. are anything but garbage, I share your frustration but often think about this question in terms of what it would look like if nobody did philosophy/theology, etc. A sort of reverse categorical imperative, if you will. The answer, I think, is a world not only with evangelical megachurches and Starbucks liberals, but a world without the necessary corrective of *beautiful* things like Sein und Zeit, Flannery O’Connor, the Timaeus, etc. To me, beauty has to be where we begin here. I mean, sure, the world usually sucks even with these things, but without them… dude. I think your main problem is that your leftism makes you too democratic–beauty isn’t democratic. Jay-Z’s best is still crap compared to Beethoven, even if the latter enjoys every privileged status in the world.

  4. Sorry, Luke, I don’t want to try and undermine the direction of your approach from the outset. Interested to see where you go from here.

  5. Pingback: Criticism I: On Navigating Between the Tension of Mechanism and Personhood | fluxofthought

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