Form: 20-minute Symposia-style Presentation for the Seattle School community and alumni
Presented: Fall 2015
Welcome. Thank you for being here.
My name is Lauren. I am a 2014 graduate of the theology and culture program here at the Seattle School. I am currently an assistant instructor of theology, and I consider myself an intellectual.
I’d like to begin this talk with a story.
A year after I graduated from the Seattle School with my MATC degree, and eight months into my first year as an assistant instructor, I attended my first academic conference as an educator and presenter. However, the excitement I felt before the conference—this elation that, finally, I’m a real intellectual!—was met with a similar degree of disdain afterwards. I sat through two days of presentations, a dozen lectures, and came away feeling as though I had left the city and entered (of course) an ivory tower that stood alone with no connection to the outside world. Almost every presentation I heard relied on insider’s language, relied on the presumption that this book or this idea matters just because it does. In the weeks following the conference, I began wondering what I had gotten myself into, pursuing the life of the intellectual.
This is what I thought it was to be an intellectual. What I was actually experiencing at the conference were professionals, people who specialized in a certain field, who had an abundance of knowledge, in often one very small area of study, and who spoke a language only their colleagues understood.
I felt so much dissonance after leaving that conference, because I was not trained to be this kind of professional. I was trained to embody my knowledge, to be in a kind of relationship with it. In the language of this institution, I was trained to be a thought leader, a provocateur of change.
Let’s back up a bit.
Like I said, I am a graduate of the MATC program, the two-year interdisciplinary degree offered at the Seattle School. The program focuses on intersections between theology and wherever that theology hits the ground. It is not a purely theoretical, ideas-focused degree. In its interdisciplinarity, it is inherently praxis-oriented; it assumes that what you bring to the program as an individual—as an artist, an activist, a coffee enthusiast, a writer—all of that matters as much as what you believe in the abstract.
As a graduate of this program, and like graduates of the other two degree programs at the Seattle School, I was taught that who I am in my particularity matters, and it affects how I do theology.
For my lecture in Theology I next week, I will be taking my students through this graph of how I believe we do theology—we move from theory to praxis and then from praxis to theory. This is what I have been implicitly taught throughout my entire time at the school.
Theory is great insofar as it informs how we live in our world. (And how we live in the world, of course, affects how we form our theory.) As an intellectual, theory and praxis ought to be tightly connected, otherwise a person might slip into that kind of ivory tower pompousness I experienced at the conference. As an intellectual, I do not want to be someone who only fills her head with information—with theory—but one who takes knowledge, filters it through my personhood, then brings it out into the world.
I found language for this kind of intellectual through the writing of Edward Said, a Palestinian-American writer and critic. His book Representations of the Intellectual is a series of essays that expounds on his definition of the intellectual.
Said helped me synthesize my experience as an MATC student as well as my experience as an educator, both in the school and outside of its walls. He gave me language, and hope, to see that to be an intellectual does not mean forgoing the personal work I have done at this school. But in fact, having graduated from the Seattle School may have prepared me even more to step into this role.
Said is careful to define intellectual not as the professional I experienced at my conference, but as someone who embodies knowledge, who is oriented toward her subject and public in love, and who prophetically speaks out against the injustices of her world.
He writes with great detail in the first chapter of his book: “… the intellectual is an individual with a specific public role in society that cannot be reduced simply to being a faceless professional, a competent member of a class just going about her/his business. … [T]he intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, a philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.” p. 11
I want to spend the next 12 minutes unpacking this.
As I said earlier, the intellectual I met at the conference could be better defined as a professional, someone who specializes in an area of study. Said pits the professional against the amateur, someone who does what she does out of love—love for the subject and love for the audience for whom her subject addresses.
At the Seattle School we’ve described this loving relationship with one’s subject as “covenantal epistemology,” a term coined by philosopher and friend of the school Esther Lightcap Meek. She writes that the orientation we have toward our knowledge projects—that is, our scholarship, our jobs, our craft—is significant. We can orient ourselves toward knowledge gain, where we think of knowledge as something we gather and store, or we can orient ourselves toward knowledge relationship.
So on one hand, we can think like the professional who wants to gather as much knowledge as she can, to be the most brilliant in her field, to do what it takes to get a promotion, get tenure, get published, to get her Friday paycheck. A professional belongs to her organization and is a servant to its whims.
Or we can think like the amateur. The amateur is one who forms a covenantal relationship with her knowledge project, who does what she does out of love. Meek talks about loving-to-know, that is, love being at the core of what you do as an intellectual.
Said would not disagree but places this idea—amateurism—at the center of the intellectual’s responsibility to her public. Amateurism, he defines, is “the desire to be moved not by profit or reward but by love for and unquenchable interest in the larger picture, in making connections across lines and barriers, in refusing to be tied down to a specialty, in caring for ideas and values despite the restrictions of a professional.” p.76
I hope you hear the invitation to interdisciplinarity in Said’s language. I think to be an intellectual in Said’s sense, you have to be willing to move outside the comfort of a discipline you know well, to enter into more ambiguous arenas. To join in conversations with those outside of your field. I think, for example, the scholarship of some of our MATC grads around theology, art, and trauma is some of the most important work of the academy.
So first, out of love the intellectual does her work—but what is her work? As Said says, it’s “publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma.” Again, in categories we’re familiar with in this building, the intellectual is the prophet.
The role of the prophet is to “incite, arouse, provoke, and intensify” the desire for what could be. Another way of saying this: the work of the prophet is in the realm of hope.
When we talk about the intellectual as prophet, it should be clear that the kind of hope the intellectual holds is not mere optimism; it isn’t fantasy. Dan Allender talks of hope arising out of disillusionment. When you are no longer fooled by the world, you are driven to do something about it. You enter into the role of the prophet, where you call out, you raise those embarrassing questions.
This role is not a particularly comfortable one, as you can imagine. Said talks about the intellectual as the exile who never feels she belongs to a homeland. He says the intellectual always stands between “loneliness and alignment”—sometimes standing on her own, speaking against the status quo. Other times she finds herself aligning with an organization or group.
I think, too, the intellectual stands between loneliness and community. Said would agree that it’s impossible to completely divorce yourself from your own culture or society because you are a product of it. But you can situate yourself so far from your community that you are no longer representing your message to or for your public. Remember the professional?
Allender talks of the stranger, the one who closes herself off from her community in this way. The stranger is the one who sees reality as it is, but is not pushed to hope; she does not stand between loneliness and community, but remains lonely and powerless. As a result, she becomes indifferent to her message and dissociates from her public.
This is the biggest problem I think the intellectual faces: warding off the kind of hope-lessness, or better put, cynicism, that dissociates the intellectual from her public.
In my own intellectual work, the question I try to ask of all my research is, “unto what?” Where does this work get me? What significance does it have beyond my own selfish interests? I think these are the questions the intellectual, unlike the professional, must always ask.
I’m asking them here, too. Why does the intellectual and her work matter to us?
It matters because her message is always on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. And while this is noble in itself, Said is insistent that this is not done in the abstract. That is, the intellectual’s audience and the people she’s speaking for is never a disembodied group, a faceless mass, but real people.
And there’s a real danger when the audience an intellectual is representing is abstracted (and an even greater danger when the task itself is disembodied and the intellectual is serving a political or ideological aim).
Said writes, “… the intellectual represents emancipation and enlightenment, but never as abstractions or as bloodless and distant gods to be served. The intellectual’s representations—what he or she represents and how those ideas are represented to an audience—are always tied to and ought to remain an organic part of an ongoing experience in society: of the poor, the disadvantaged, the voiceless, the unrepresented, the powerless. These are equally concrete and ongoing; they cannot survive being transfigured and then frozen into creeds, religious declarations, professional methods.” p.113
It may be clear now that the portrait Said draws is of a strictly secular intellectual—and I want to get back to that and challenge it in a minute. But first I want to help illustrate the danger of abstracting the intellectual’s public and aim.
A few weeks ago my friend Phil told me about the bees he keeps and how one day recently, soon before he was ready to harvest honey, he learned that all his bees had abandoned their hive, taking with them their honey. After hearing this story, I told Phil how bizarre it sounded to me, kind of freaky, like an episode of the Twilight Zone. What had happened? After a few minutes of silence, finally it made sense to me: “It’s like their refugees,” I said to Phil. They’ve abandoned their homes for safety. Phil corrected: “They’re refu-bees.”
In that moment, I felt so sad for these bees and wanted to grieve their abandoned hive. And then it hit me how much easier it has been for me to connect with the loss of these bees and their home than it has for me to connect with the real, human refugees escaping Syria in droves. This is, I think, where Said’s fear of “abstractions and orthodoxies” lies—you get caught up in the weight of the problem, maybe, or the politics, or the metaphor that you forget that these are people, individuals who need representation.
As I prepared for this presentation, I was challenged by a friend to consider Said’s own story as he wrestled with this concept of an intellectual. Said chose to define the intellectual as strictly secular—Said who, as a Palestinian, has no doubt experienced the turmoil of religiosity in the world. “As for abstractions or orthodoxies,” Said writes, “the trouble with them is that they are patrons who need placating and stroking all the time.”
The fear Said expresses of a “religious” intellectual is one who has lost sight of the world around her and has pandered to the gods. And yet, the faith of the Christian is not abstract. Our God is not a disembodied abstraction but an embodied other. When we speak for the powerless in the world, we speak to and for Christ.
This, I think, brings us back to where I began this presentation: who I am matters greatly to how I do my work as an intellectual. It’s in my own particularity that I, as Said wrote, “represent, embody, articulate a message, view, attitude, philosophy or opinion” to a real public on behalf of the embodied other.
In this presentation, I tried to connect how the Seattle School trains its students, particularly those in the MATC program, to be intellectuals. These intellectuals embody their knowledge, knowing that who they are as people affects how they articulate their ideas. They are oriented toward their knowledge projects with love. They fulfill the role of the prophet, who, in hope, speaks on behalf of the underrepresented. And the underrepresented, the marginalized, they’re not faceless masses, but embodied persons.
This was the kind of work I was trained to do as a Seattle School MATC. It’s the kind of work my peers and I desire to do. We were trained to be thought leaders, provocateurs of change—intellectuals.