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Lawful and Beneficial: An Exploration of Faith and Academic Freedom

As we begin a new semester, and a new school year, after the summer we have had as a country, I am thinking about academic freedom. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes twice that “all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial” (6:12 and 10:23). Paul was likely responding to a saying in the community at Corinth with the “all things are lawful” part.

There are, as with many Greek words, different ways to translate the second half: is he saying that not all things are edifying? profitable? expedient? helpful? I choose to translate it “beneficial” because I think that covers pretty much all those other options. All things are allowable, but not all things are beneficial. As a seminary professor and Christian, I think of this as a good way to consider the topic of academic freedom.

The academy (including Christian college, seminary, or secular state institutions), is a place where ideas should flow freely. Mistakes should be made, and even encouraged, so that everyone in the community (professors and students alike) can learn and grow. I often assign readings that I agree with wholeheartedly — readings that have challenged my thinking and broadened my perspective. I also assign readings that I don’t agree with, because they are important to have as part of the conversation in the class.

My students can expect to be challenged in their thinking in my courses. Read more

Vulnerable

A word
about vulnerability:
This morning, I revisited my first love–
ballet class.
I haven’t danced in years.
I have lacked the courage to step
into dance studio space
for a while now,
because
I’m overweight,
and society says:
Shame on you.
I’m out of shape,
and the dance world says:
Shame on you.
I am carrying many burdens right now
emotionally and physically.
Society says:
Keep that to yourself.
So I did what I used to tell my students to do.
I took it to the studio
and

danced

it

out.

I lacked strength,
endurance,
balance.
I struggled to learn and remember combinations.
I lagged behind everyone else in the class
and made a lot of mistakes.
I was dancing alongside Juilliard graduates.
People could say
I made a fool of myself.

But I held my own.

Alongside some of the best dancers in the world.
And when I thanked the teacher afterward,
she said,
“You looked really beautiful.
You really must have danced pretty seriously before.”
I don’t know
what made the nourishment of dance
finally outweigh the starvation
of fear,
shame,
and insecurity.
But it was helpful to be reminded
that vulnerability
is a risk
worth taking.

The Crown and the Collar

The Imperial State Crown of the United Kingdom

The Imperial State Crown

“Elizabeth Mountbatten has been replaced by Elizabeth Regina, and the two Elizabeths will often be in conflict,” Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) tells the new sovereign in a remarkably un-comforting letter of condolence, “But the fact is, the Crown must win. The Crown must always win.”

“The Crown,” Netflix’ big-budget series examining the life and reign of Elizabeth the Second (Claire Foy), is a lavish production. The choice of title is significant: it’s a work about Elizabeth as she grows into – or kicks against – the weight of “the Crown.” For me, the series comes most alive in the moments where Elizabeth is struggling to work out how to be herself, and what that self is becoming, under the influence of her new role. There’s a striking moment in episode five, as Elizabeth prepares for her delayed coronation, where she tries the crown on for the first time, and looks at herself in the mirror. Foy’s expression reminded me strongly of my own, the first time I tried a clerical collar on. The director’s shot choices keep us conscious of the fact that Elizabeth is a slight young woman – wearing the crown, keeping the orb and sceptre steady during her coronation, is a physical effort for her, and that too may resonate for clergywomen serving churches with a tradition of vesting. At least Elizabeth doesn’t have to contend with a chasuble that’s long enough to trip her!

The central conflict, between one’s integrity as an individual, and the demands of the role one is placed in, is relevant to all of us in ministry. Read more

The Call to Create: An Interview with Mary Allison Cates

Communion, copyright 2009

There is one room in my house that tells much of the story. An easel, acrylic paints, a sewing machine, stacks and stacks of fabric, and print-making tools abound. My six-month-old son primes himself for crawling on a nearby blanket while sounds of my three-year-old’s post naptime jabber drift in from the adjoining room. I am a parish associate at a Presbyterian church, where my responsibilities include preaching and leading a Bible study once a month. At another church, I co-lead a study group once a week. My office space is not located in these churches. Instead, it consists of a laptop on my bed and this one room of my house where so many creative outlets vie for my attention.

Faithful questioning and grappling with mystery have always been part of my personality, as have the enterprises of getting my hands dirty and making things. Because I was raised in a church that nurtured me intellectually and emotionally, and where the folks most like me were the ministers, I grew to see ministry as a natural medium for me to be who I am.

Similarly, my desire to create took shape in my basic high school and college art classes, where I began to see drawing, acrylic painting, and print-making as potential means for expression. My lifelong exposure to my mother’s love and skill for sewing has recently opened me up to quilting and crafting my children’s clothes. In each case, I have used the mechanisms that are convenient to me to give voice to my God-given leanings. I think we all do this. If I had grown up in a different time and place, perhaps I would now be a philosopher with a passion for basket weaving!

Tell us about your rhythms and routines for creating–do you have a particular time each day or week? How do you “get ready”? Which tools (whether physical or spiritual) do you find indispensable for your creative work? Read more