One of the central ideas of my family while I was growing up was the idea that we should never make fun of anything Christian or something that reflects Christianity. As ancient Michael W. Smith and Stephen Curtis Chapman songs played for the one thousandth time on the radio, we would be corrected for anything but a respectful singalong. This idea continued into other areas of religion, the importance of never being critical or making light of anything that had anything to do with God or Jesus. This intense acceptance of most things spiritual resonated with many other themes of religious life growing up. Many topics were off-limits and inappropriate to speak of, unless you had a radical pastor who dared to mention sex or pornography.
In the Southern Baptist Church in which I was raised, God was more prescribed than personal. We were a community with a specific set of beliefs about how the world works, how it was created, and what happens when this life ends. This narrative and order was the backbone of church life as it is for many church communities. The beauty in a structure like this is the way it provides the community with a source for an identity. Even in writing this paragraph my mind fills with the countless Sunday school teachers and front door greeters who taught me how to love, show grace, and be selfless. The troubling part happens when someone in that community begins to ask questions, or even disagree with the narrative we are telling, the story which explains our existence, purpose, and final destination. When you have a community that believes its truth claim is absolute, their whole identity and life story is staked in each piece of the puzzle fitting just like it always has. Changing the story or even thinking of it differently has the same effect on faith as pulling out the bottom pieces of a Jenga tower.
To question God or make light of anything possibly inspired by Him was seen as being unsatisfied or unhappy with the free gift of salvation God had given us, the most crucial part of the narrative. While jokes and unholy concepts were silenced, questions were met with the aphorisms “believe more” and “pray harder.” That was the way I handled religious questions until I was twenty-two. If it was beyond my understanding, or required me to do further reading, then I would simply “trust God” that other, smarter, people who had gone before me had figured out all the complicated issues of interpretation. If none of this made sense, then why would all these people think it was true? While I like to think I was an inquisitive child, always looking for the tough answers, in reality I rarely rocked the boat. Why would I need to ask questions when everyone around me that loves me agrees with this story they have told me? The version of Christianity I had been given was a privilege, and I was to simply be happy with the product. In this way, church was made a “safe” place.
The role of an academic is about as far away from my religious upbringing as you can get. In academia, no idea is safe from criticism and critique. In fact, you should learn to expect it. While I have only been in graduate school for two months, I am already learning the freedom of religious studies. Here, words and claims you and others make are held accountable through an examination from all perspectives. Sometimes this means that near and dearly held beliefs crumble, but it can also be a rich breeding ground for new ones. In studying the Hebrew Bible, you are faced with many realities and contradictions in the text. With the presence of two largely different creation narratives, and countless comparative texts from other ancient Near Eastern communities, God as creator and inspirer of the bible is thrown into question. Academia pushes me to ask for a better truth within the same formative stories. Why would this community describe God in this way? Why place two different stories of cosmology and causality next to each other? What would a new concept of God as creator do to my own religious identity?
To me, this is a more radical version of a “safe” place. While the ban on any critique encourages building up walls and protecting a singular understanding, academia makes questions part of the process and critique a valuable resource for thinking about and understanding God and our world better. As globalization increasingly brings us closer to the “other” in our lives we will need to be able to openly and honestly discuss religious ideas in our own communities. I believe academia will be continually useful in helping religious people understand themselves and deal with the ever-changing world around them, and to do so in a meaningful way. By being able to bring both ideas and questions, academia allows for the process of deconstruction and reconstruction that was not encouraged within my religious upbringing. This academic process isn’t to make light of God, but rather to take faith more seriously than we ever have. Our stories can still inform our identity and create meaning and truth, but in order for that to happen these stories need to be re-interpreted, and questions need to be declassified.
Academia has always scared me because of my own inability to explain my faith. What I have learned is that everyone is struggling to do the same thing, no matter how many classes they have taken or what professors they’ve studied with. Nobody has it all figured out, but academia provides the space and accountability to take the process seriously. I don’t recommend every person of faith obtain a masters degree (I will need a job at some point), but I don’t think it would hurt for the two worlds to collide more often than they do, for each have much to offer the other.