The Academy and the Poor (Part 1 of 3)

by Eric Daryl Meyer

About a week ago, Dan asked folks to consider the merit of their academic endeavors in light of the plight of the world’s poor. He argues, quite rightly, that:

I believe that, confronted as we are with the massive brokenness of the world, and the suffering of our neighbours, our academic endeavours must be shaped by certain commitments. We are not free to pursue every little rabbit-trail that we find captivating.

And so Dan asks us: “When confronted with “the Poor” of today, how do you justify your academic endeavors?” 

I wrote this before starting to read Dan’s own efforts to answer the question posed, not least because his answer is likely to be more thorough and insightful than my own. I have five responses, which I will post in three segments. 

1. The strange place of theology within the academy is both a boon and a burden of responsibility in pushing to reconcile the activities of study and teaching with the realities of poverty. Many theologians profess to work for the church even as they are employed by a university (and other academics sometimes wish that they actually did). Theological writing and teaching is always, from my perspective, done in service of the church’s preaching and prayer. Good theology is an aid to preaching the gospel with clarity and an effort to pray more truly. My own modest academic goals are entirely circumscribed within the life of the church-the church whose life is bound to the poor (even and especially when that is forgotten). If I didn’t think that academics could genuinely be an act of service on that order, I hope that I’d have the integrity to start bending nails for a living.   

So if academic theology cannot be done as an act of service, one rendered unto “the Poor,” then I do not want any part of it. No doubt there are countless academics gratified by the satisfaction they find in being able to introduce themselves as some sort of scholar. No doubt there are many who enter the academy with the intention of crafting for themselves a lasting name through a brilliant career of research and publication. I cannot totally disavow every trace of such motives in myself, though I confess them before God and others. But there is still more substance to the academy than mere pretense-abusus non tolit usum-the abuse does not negate the use.

2. Second, taking up academic work is no more a barrier to working for and with the poor than earning one’s living by, for instance, selling shoes. The choices made as an academic can insulate someone from the plight of the unfortunate and broken, or they can bring someone into closer proximity. While academic study does require hours (and hours) of solitary reading, thinking, and writing; when that work is placed within the context of a whole life, it is not inherently alienating-one’s companions are still a matter of choice. Both as a student and as a teacher, one can hide behind a pile of work and find oneself “too busy” to do anything for others-but there is nothing necessary or inevitable about this. In speaking of academics and poverty, we are not talking about oil and water.