Academic Respectability vs. Academic Responsibility

In recent weeks, I’ve had the pleasure to revisit D. A. Carson and J. D. Woodbridge’s interesting little book, Letters Along the Way: A Novel of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993). The book contains the correspondence between fictional TEDS professor Paul Woodson and equally fictional former student Timothy Journeyman. The letters are a sort of running commentary on Evangelical life and thought over a decade and a half or so, reflecting the  distinguished authors’ keen insights on all manner of events and issues. Of course, not even Evangelicals may be expected to agree with all of the views reflected in the book; the divide grows wider when the reader has different confessional commitments. Still, the book is engaging and even stimulating, and I recommend it to all interested readers without hesitation.

In light of my recent post on a related subject, I wish to share with you a few lines from a letter dated August 1, 1984, whose chief subject is academic respectabilitya holy grail seemingly ever out of the reach of believing scholars, and consequently one of their more greatly desired panaceas. Carson and Woodbridge write:

“At the risk of sounding pedantic (though realizing I sometimes come across that way), I doubt very much that evangelicals are wise to pursue academic respectability. What we need is academic responsibility. There is a world of difference.

“Elevating academic respectability to the level of controlling desideratum is an invitation to theological and spiritual compromise. I do not find Jesus angling to become a member of the Sanhedrin in order to gain a more public voice; I do not find Paul pursuing academic respectability in the categories of his day, for then he could not have written the kinds of things he did about rhetoric (e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:1ff.). Academic responsibility is something else. This means that we pursue integrity in debate, that we eschew harangues, that we seek to give an answer to everyone for the hope that is in us, that we persuade people with the truth. Academic respectability, in my vocabulary, has too much self-interest in it for me to trust it; academic responsibility, on the other hand, calls me to discipline and work” (page 174).

And:

“If God were to call you to a life of scholarship, then pursue academic responsibility with your whole heartnot as a new god, but as an offering to God. It may well then be that your work will influence your times and make a difference in the intellectual climate. At very least you will then serve the interests of some younger scholars coming along behind, who will model themselves after you and learn the way of discipleship as scholars. Pursue academic responsibility, and trust God to work out the details of who hears you and what influence you have. Responsible scholarship has far more potential for discovering and buttressing truth and for winning people’s minds than mere respectability anyway. If instead you take the lower road and pursue mere academic respectability, you may gain more plaudits from the world, but it is far more doubtful that you will have the approbation of Heaven. Once in a while there have been scholars who have gained both; it is doubtful if they have ever done so by pursuing respectability” (page 176).

Over the years I have met a number of budding young scholars, many of them exceptionally gifted, who have all been quite anxious to earn the respect of their guild. But, as Carson and Woodbridge suggest, this is a treacherous path riddled with alluring traps. It often happens that the laudable desire to produce quality work that will genuinely contribute to the advancement of scholarship turns into a wild goose chase to attain mere approval and recognition from others: first teachers, then dissertation advisors and committees, then potential employers and publishers, and so on. The unfortunate thing is that this relentless pursuit of recognition ends up becoming an end in itself, and ultimately distracts these gifted individuals from the scholarly work they had originally set out to accomplish. Surely I am not the only one who has seen brilliant people thus turned into cretinous hacks.

But this is not the only way in which young believing scholars can be effectively derailed by the vain pursuit of academic respectability. It may be that they are quite busy doing their homework, keeping up with all the recent literature and specialized journals, and turning out their finest work. But if their real purpose in doing these things is to earn the approval of their colleagues, they are really only setting themselves up for failure. Consider the tragic example of the late great Evangelical biblical scholar, George Eldon Ladd, whose work on the Kingdom of God has decisively influenced generations of students, myself included. A Harvard Ph.D. and an immensely learned scholar, Ladd’s world was literally shattered by Norman Perrin’s 3-page review of his 1964 book Jesus and Kingdom (later published in a revised edition as The Presence of the Future). His inability to earn the respect of the broader non-Evangelical scholarly guild plunged Ladd into a severe depression from which he never fully recovered. His overwhelming need to prove his academic worth led to broken family relations and a severe problem with alcoholism that undoubtedly contributed to the stroke that put him in a nursing home for the last two years of his life. (The story of George Eldon Ladd, with all of its admirable highs and sorrowful lows, has been told in a recent book by John D’Elia, A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America [New York: Oxford University Press, 2008].) Perhaps Ladd’s example is extreme, but the pathology (both spiritual and psychological) that we see at work in it is the same that operates in the young scholar whose core moving force is the pursuit of academic respectability.

Of course, as Carson and Woodbridge suggest, such a pursuit not only reeks of tedious self-involvement, but is ultimately idolatrous. Certain segments of our faith communities understand this very well, and as a result reject all scholarly pursuits as a temptation to be avoided. While one may understand and even sympathize with their concerns, retreating is not an acceptable response. The real answer to our conundrum is to doggedly set on the higher path of academic honesty and responsibility and never look back. True, eschewing the comfortable back scratching and ego stroking of academic respectability in favor of the relentless pursuit of academic responsibility will probably not earn you the Rylands Professorship of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at Manchester, like it did F. F. Bruce, or two consecutive Sterling Professorships at Yale, like it did Jaroslav PelikanI’m afraid that others have only done it at great personal cost. Still, if it does, well and good; but take care that your ultimate goal is not to earn the approbation of mere humans with a lifespan as restricted as yours, but to earn the approbation of Heaven.

(Those interested in reading the entire letter quoted above will find it in pages 173-8 of Letters Along the Way. Also, note that the entire book is available as a free PDF here.)

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13 responses to “Academic Respectability vs. Academic Responsibility

  1. Pingback: academic respectability « Cryptotheology

  2. Than ks for the post. I have often referred to the quote that you noted from Letters Along the Way. I think that every seminarian should read this book. But you have also done a fine job of elaborating on the idea.

  3. Excellent! Couldn’t agree more! But what does it say about me that the part that stood out most was your reference to “cretinous hacks”?!! :-P

  4. Pingback: Week in Review: 07.16.10 | Near Emmaus

  5. Absolutely, Esteban, and amen to what everyone’s said so far.

    The catch-22, though, is that the whole reason we all write *so that* we can influence others. In service-mindedness, of course, but still we want influence.

    So, then, to be faithful to what you’ve just outlined, we must inevitably be content with less influence than we’d like. I’ve not yet been presented with much opportunity for (temptation to) compromise. The lust for *more* influence is what faces me daily.

    Not to one-up a wonderful post; just sharing where it took me today. Thanks again.

  6. Nick> It says that you must have met some of them!

    Bill> You’re quite right that lust for influence is vitally connected to the other problems I described above, but by bringing it up you’re not one-upping anything, but rather highlighting something already present in the post (cf. the second quotation from Letters, especially this line, which I think is key: “Pursue academic responsibility, and trust God to work out the details of who hears you and what influence you have”). I thought about writing an additional paragraph about it, but then I decided the the post was long enough! Thanks, then, for calling attention to it.

    Kevin> Perrin’s review appeared in Interpretation 19 no. 2 (April 1965):228-231. I think that, in spite of the astonishingly wide scope of his reading and his focused Evangelical interaction with the best “liberal” scholarship of his day, Ladd unwittingly placed himself in the middle of a crossfire that he did not intend to even come close to. By entitling his book “Jesus and the Kingdom” he attracted the wrong kind of attention to this book — for instance, that of people like Perrin and the colleagues he cites in the introduction to his review, who were working on the theme of the Kingdom in the Gospels in terms of form- and tradition-criticism with a view to contributing to the so-called “second quest” for the historical Jesus. This is a world removed from Ladd, who was, in effect, writing a biblical theology of the Kingdom as a contribution to what he (rightly) regarded as the eschatological substructure of New Testament theology. The title of his book might have been approximated that of Perrin’s, and they might have covered much of the same material, but the two books were vast universes apart. Perrin couldn’t understand that and criticized the book on criteria totally alien to it; Ladd could never understand that Perrin was not really scoffing his academic bearings, but mocking something he could not grasp. Shame on him, indeed.

  7. Pingback: Week in Review: 07.23.10 | Near Emmaus

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