Monday, January 18, 2010

Rowan Williams' Orthodox & Catholic coup

I confess a little reverse snobbery when I read Ochlo's take on Abp Rowan Williams' recent pat-on-the-head from Orthodox and Catholic institutions, but he puts an empathetic finger on my bitterness towards academic theology and its rotten fruit. So much Catholic theology and spirituality over the centuries has been concocted in ivory towers, not in monastic cells, choir stalls, or inner prayer closets. This is the real problem with the Jesuits and the "education" orders (and Orthodox seminaries insufficiently wary of Western "ideas of the university." As a young convert and divinity school chump, I was fed a fulsome diet of Jesuit(ical) boasting over their unique release from the requirement to communally pray the Divine Office as a liberating thing. At the time, I went along: oh yes, what beautiful clothes you emperors wear!
when I was in the world of academic antiquarian bookselling I had the misfortune of dealing with a considerable number of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox seminaries and came to have a very low view of such institutions - so often intellectually inbred, a magnet for spiritual and intellectual hubris, a hodge-podge of second and third rate social science, history, and philosophy which truly believes itself to be cutting edge and struts itself with an adolescently false confidence, a playground of egos (once you add the religious factor to the already megalomania inducing mechanisms of academia you are doomed). Generally speaking, the best seminary profs I have known have been those most forthright about their regular disdain of seminaries and seminary life. What I dislike the most regarding seminaries is the faux humility which so often abounds at such institutions and which is inculcated in so many of their students - obvious that the profs and the students are proud of what is going on there, but then such speak of seminary affairs in that slightly hushed toned slowly paced "pious" voice which always gives God the glory, etc., etc, even as it is utterly clear that they can barely restrain their glee at being in a position which (they think) commands respect in both the Church and the world (on the last count they are decidedly wrong, but the myth continues, because, you know, any given seminarian could be the next Reinhold Niebuhr public intellectual, or at least that much is intuited, not realizing that Niebuhr's place has been taken by Rick Warren, and that in Niebuhr's day most Americans wanted American pastors to be smarter than they were, but today most Americans want American pastors to be just slightly dumber than they are, and mildly funny, and with an extremely comfortable personality and preferably a hot wife - in other words, pastors are to be politicians within the niche of a religious political ordo). Thus the students coming out of seminaries can be roughly divided into two camps (which corresponds to sem profs as well): the best come out of seminary with a healthy degree of cynicism about seminaries, and the worst come out of seminary proud of their seminary experience, and thinking that it actually means something in the real world, and even more fanciful, thinking that it is academically respectable in the real academic world.
What amazes me is that for all the Apostolic and Patristic prophylactics of the Orthodox, their institutions remain vulnerable to the follies of secularist, modernist, elitist think. Wiser Orthodox souls are not amazed by this at all, of course, but it is a good reminder to romanticizing chumps like me that adherence to the Apostles and Fathers is still only a means to purity of heart and mind.