Ivory Tower With Muddy Footprints


I teach at two seminaries, and soon I will probably be teaching with another school soon. This puts me firmly in the world of the “Ivory Tower”— institutions that are seen within the broader church culture as out of touch with the ‘real world’ and church life. On the other hand, I teach in the more practical fields in academia— Christian Missions and Pastoral Care. Additionally, I have been involved in both missions ministry and pastoral care ministry. It is true, however, as I get older, more and more of my practical work is within the school setting— teaching, mentoring, and supervising.

There is value to the Ivory Tower— in its proper context.

But not all feel that way. In Evangelism, the story of the fishermen is often used to look down on the the ‘armchair experts.’ People write about fishing… go to ‘fishing conferences’… act as fishing consultants—- however, they don’t actually go fishing. With this story… the members of the ivory tower are seen as out of touch intellectualizers. Can this happen? Of course.

I started reading an article this week that was talking about the differences between the more conservative views of the common members of a certain denomination versus the ummm… less conservative views of the academicians of his denomination (it is far too much of a stretch to suggest that the term ‘liberal’ applied to anyone in his denomination). It seemed pretty clear that the writer was unhappy that the professors and theological writers in his denomination were “out of touch” with the broader church.

I think that is a bit of an error, however.

First… Multiple perspectives are needed for dialogue. And dialogue is how we learn. We don’t tend to learn in an “echo chamber.” The value is in dialogue. In other words, we don’t need a Magisterium of out of touch dogmatists telling the churches what is true and what is false. We also don’t need a ‘Primitive Church’ in which specialists are denied a role in the church body.

Everyone benefits from challenges. We get inundated by perspectives from all different sources. Some of these perspectives become popular. Popular doesn’t necessarily mean true. It is popular in some denominations to connect salvation to the Sinner’s Prayer. Others may link it to Baptism, or to Confirmation, or to church membership. All of these perspectives have problems regardless of how ingrained they may be in the church. We gain from have our untested beliefs…. well… tested.

Dialogue is valuable between the local churches and the seminary. A few years ago the issue came up as to whether the term “bishop” could be used by Baptist churches in the Philippines. Of course, my initial response was a resounding “NO!!!” The Baptist tradition sees itself as tying its Ecclesiology to the first century church. The term that became “bishop” was not a special office above other church leaders in the early church. But of course, one can’t stop there. One must remember that we cannot ignore 2000 years of the church. The church exists in 4 dimensions. The input of the Universal Church should not be ignored. As such, the term ‘bishop’ has developed as a separate role in hierarchal churches and we cannot act as if that hasn’t happened. (Two millennia of church history is the reason that I don’t call missionaries “apostles.” The term ‘apostle’ has changed so much over two millennia so that we simply cannot use the term as it was used in the first century AD without confusion.) Additionally, we have to take seriously the context. In the Philippines the term ‘bishop’ is shaped by the Roman Catholic church. And some government rules are structured around that understanding. It actually causes some problems in interacting with the government as a denomination if we don’t have someone with the title of bishop, even if doing so is in some ways a ‘useful fiction.’ On the other hand, there has become a cottage industry of having organizations that basically grant the title of ‘bishop’ to those seeking status above their denominational peers is a separate concern. Further, some (all?) in our denomination who seek that title are probably doing so for prestige—very much an worthy goal. (Of course I can’t say that my motives for seeking a doctorate were fully above reproach.) Anyway, we gain by many voices— academic, ministerial, clerical, laity— that may be needed to consider what is best with godly wisdom.

Second, ALL Christians are theologians on some level. Recently listened to a presentation by Philippine theologian, Dr. Honorina Lacquian. She quoted Stanley Grenz as far as five classes of theologians. They are:

—Folk

—Lay

—Ministerial

—Professional

—Academic

(Grenz “Who Needs Theology”)

Lacquian stated, and I think that in this she was agreeing with Grenz, the goal is to move people away from the ends. We want less “Folk Theologians”— those who pick up different thoughts and ideas piecemeal from all sorts of sources with limited reflection and rigor. Additionally, we need less of the “Academic Theologians.” These are the types that don’t leave the Ivory Tower much… but reflect on theology disconnected from most of the church.

I think there is a place for the Ivory Towers of Religious Academia. However, the Ivory Towers should be full of muddy footprints. The inhabitants of the structures of academia should enter practical ministry and the public domain and interact with the church and its people at all levels. Additionally, Lay Theologians and Ministerial Theologians should be welcomed into these same structures to learn, challenge, and dialogue.

Muddy shoes in the ivory tower is not a sign of impurity or of the mundane or banal. Rather, they demonstrate a vibrancy that comes from interaction with the bigger world.

Years ago I visited a friend’s house. He was a banker and his house, though not palatial, certainly was impressive. The inside of the house was all white walls and white marble. It impressed, but was also rather cold. Then we went into the living room. There was a green throw rug in the center of this ivory-colored room. Bright colored toys were strewn about. In the center of the rug sat his 2-year old son playing with the mom. My friend apologized for the mess. He needn’t have done this. It was the most beautiful room in the house.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s