The Ethos of Elitism

As of late, I have been contemplating some of the many temptations for the theologian. One of the more subtle, what I am calling elitism, is what I am concerned with here. My worry tends to focus on the teleology of the theologian, namely, “What are we becoming?” From my perspective, what often happens is that, somewhere along the way, our loves are reorganized and re-prioritized, and we find ourselves loving the ethos of theology more than the end of theology itself.

So what is the ethos of theology? The superficial answer is something like tweed, pipes, brown leather furniture and dark cherry bookshelves housing thousands of hard to find (and barely read) volumes. There is a side of this, of course, which is both natural and good (I do love all of these things by the way). When we deepen our understanding we come to appreciate, to use an Edwardsian idea, the complexity of harmony within objects of beauty. This soon oozes out of our academic context of book reading to things like food, where fish and chips are left behind for white wine reduction; music, where U2 is left behind for Mozart; and drinks, where Bud Light is left behind for Glenlivet’s fifteen-year french oak reserve. The problem with this is that it seems to be the telos of the academy rather than the church. Isn’t this true, for instance, of any philosophy program as well?

I’m not sure why these things have been on my mind lately, and I don’t really have anything terribly constructive to add, but I would love to hear any of your thoughts on this. Is there a teleology for the theologian which pushes against the academizing of our souls? belv4Is there something inherent in the task of theology which should undermine our love for these things? Is there any sort of sense that we should start looking more like John the Baptist and less like Mr. Belvedere (see the awesome photo on right).

I wonder if Philippians could be of service to this discussion as well, which, if Joseph Hellerman is right, is mainly a polemic against the Roman worldview. It makes sense therefore for Paul to hold his status (we could probably say C.V. as well) against Jesus’ in Philippians 2 where the overall movement of Jesus’ life (which is supposed to be our attitude) is from honor to shame, from having status to handing that status over. Is the academy modelling a worldview which mimics worldly ideals that needs to be mortified for the theologian to truly be a churchly theologian?

8 thoughts on “The Ethos of Elitism

  1. I imagine this would be common to any activity or ‘culture’ of activities. I love the feeling of a well-struck golf ball and the recreation that comes from that activity (telos), but I also love everything that goes along with it: the smell of the grass, the clubhouse, cleaning my clubs before playing, etc. Perhaps it just seems more insidious with theology and the culture of academic theology. We both know down deep that the study of theology even in its most academic instantiations is not about the academy and all its cultural/societal norms (books, tweed coats, etc.) but about loving God and loving neighbor at its most basic. The challenge, like golf, would be to enjoy the culture of academy (if that is your thing) without forgeting the telos of our activity.

  2. Kyle, I found this post at first simply funny, and then the itch began. Of course, a simple scratch didn’t make it go away. I think your impression about the temptation of elitism for theologians insightful. I remember my years in the Oxford DPhil programme filled with formal events, wine tastings, travels, discussions of art and opera. I wholly recall every weekend attending film night on the likes of Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, and Parajanov at St Gregory’s, or skipping over to the Pheonix theatre to view Italian Neo-Realist films, or the latest array of aesthetic bewilderings. On the one hand, as I grew in my theological studes, my appetite grew for something substantive in all areas of life and experience. The bourgios banalities of most market driven cultures had left me, humanly speaking, bored senseless. Furthermore, the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach to almost everything from popular movies and books to media coverage and cultural analysis simply left me starving for that echo in the dark corridor of the Gothic hall. This, of course, is a spiritual temptation, because the Gothic hall and the fine wines of southern France are equally creaturely magnitudes. In and of themselves, these creaturely delights have no revelatory significance (note ‘in and of themselves’…hence the temptation). But the question does arise. Why do many of us theologians, even strong iconoclasts like myself, move ever into areas often thought of as elite. (I must challenge the ‘elite’ notion here, however, because most so-called ‘elites’ only have a superficial interest in these matters, and they are rarely anything more than dilletantes). Is it the exhaustion we feel after encountering in every sphere of life, and especially in the church, the nausea of market-produced relationships, programmes, methods and means? Is it the aftertaste we grow sick of once we’ve found out that tradition, whatever its limits, has produced something we’re hungry for in relationships and in institutions, etc. ? Namely wisdom! However, and here is the itch that doesn’t go away. In the end, this is a serious temptation, because it can lead, without proper attuning to the living Sache of the gospel, toward the wrong telos. You’re exactly right. Whatever the role of high art, culture and intellectual endeavor, its best can only ever be witness. And its worst another distraction from the ever holy Word without equals (whatever our view of participation).

  3. Thomas, thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate that you assigned these things as witnesses (at their best), though witnesses which necessarily need to be guided with the proper telos.

    I’m still wrestling with this whole question of elitism. As you stated, it started out with something of a laugh, but then kept on prodding. I guess my question at this point has to do with the pattern of our lives in general – beyond the specific – to the overall ordering of our existence as those called to think theologically for the church. Can our calling take the look of academic elitist, even if only in form, in any way? Or must our calling be so fundamentally different that we grow more and more allergic to the so called “elite,” and find ourselves saying “…it is in our weakness that we are strong?”

  4. Kyle, this ‘laugh’ that ‘prods’ surely does touch a number of issues that Christians wrestle with, and theologians in particular. In short, for intellectually oriented people, as theologians tend to be, the academy and its culture become the worldly context nearest to their interests and instincts. Whatever the role Christianity played in the formation of this environ, and places like Oxford and Cambridge, for example, still bear ‘some’ marks of this, at least formally, we’d all agree that the academy and its culture have mostly become part of the world’s opposition to the gospel. Hence your point. On one level, the intellectual emphasis of the academy can certainly drive one to become ‘proud’ and ‘arrogant’. St Paul said it best when he said ‘knowledge puffs up’. I’ve wrestled with this myself, not because I felt better than others, but I grew impatient with those who haven’t read as much, or cannot think with the detailed gradations that intellectual learning fosters. At the end of the day, this is simply impatience. And impatience abounds in academic life. Secondly, I think the academy tempts us to believe that we’re in fellowship with those whose work tends to question the ideas and systems we too are in opposition to. I think of my delight as a young student of discovering all the challenges to Modernism, Modernity, Individualism, etc. Immature indeed! The danger lies in having fellowship with darkness. Good thing that continued learning and spiritual growth weeded out this naive impulse. Finally, the temptation towards academic elitism is another form of the temptation towards any elitism. As we well know, there are plenty in the church who believe they are spiritually elite. Also, there are many in the church who think they are ‘country club’ Christians, with their Polo shirts and Calvin Klein jeans. Little is their concern that Christ is repulsed by such attitudes and commitments, because they are driven by pride and self-importance and measure value by the world’s standards. ‘Give up all and follow him’ and claim to ‘know nothing but Christ Jesus and him crucified’. This is the rub, right? I do think that we need to repent of all temptations to elitism, and follow the way of one who had nothing about him that we would call attractive by any worldly standards. Yet, all in all, this lowly man from Nazareth profounded us with the beauty of God.

  5. The elite in any time and place are those who are most learned, and thus most adept at manipulating and using whatever is the officially defined form of “knowledge” of that time and place—largely of course to enhance and extend their own self-interest and POWER.

    Before the Renaissance the guardians (and DEFINERS) of what was then the officially described form of allowable “knowledge” were the ecclesiastical establishment altogether. Popes, cardinals, bishops and priests.

    And everybody now knows how they abused this “knowledge” and its associated power.

    Such being one of the most important factors that sparked off the Protestant Reformation.

    After the Renaissance, and right up till now in 2009, the official allowed form of allowable “knowledge”, and hence by extension power, was/is defined by scientism and technology, which is really only accessible to, and controlled by, specially trained elites.

    The scientific establishment is now the ruling elite.
    The entire university system, which is permeated by the world-view of scientism is just an extension of this inherently elitist ethos or world-view.

    This also includes ALL of those within the academy who presume to talk about The Divine and religion altogether.

    Knowledge is power, and more often than not elitist. And unless those who have access to and hence control of power and knowledge are tempered by Living Wisdom they will always act to preserve their own power and privelege.

    How could it be otherwise.

  6. I like to eat paste and play with toe jam! Blah, blah, blah. Sarcasim implied. While you contemplate your existence and how you should balance your pompous compulsary quest for knowledge, people that are hurting, down-trodden, alone, etc. care not about how much knowledge you have attained. Rather, how you will be a direct representation of Jesus. A helping hand, a careless smile providing hope when someone else has none or can’t generate a smile themselves. Theology is utterly important and wonderful “in and of itself”. The crux is when you are so consumed with what goes in your head that your heart is left behind.

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