Thoughts from CFH 2012: Tracy McKenzie’s Presidential Address

Once I deliver my paper on Pietism at Bethel University tomorrow morning, my attention will shift to a different kind of writing project: an essay on the integration of learning and Christian faith in support of an application for promotion in faculty rank. I long ago decided that I was going to write my promotion essay on the theme of “The Vocation of a Christian Historian.”

Earlier tonight one of my fellow Christian college History department chairs made that task at once much easier and much more difficult.

Tracy McKenzie
Robert Tracy McKenzie – Wheaton College

Easier because, for his address as the new president of the Conference of Faith and History, Wheaton College’s Tracy McKenzie laid out his own thoughts on “The Vocation of a Christian Historian” and I’ll happily draw on what he had to say.

More difficult because I can’t imagine that I have much to offer on this subject that McKenzie didn’t convey with a great deal more erudition, conviction, persuasiveness, humility, and hard-earned wisdom than I could possibly muster at this point in my career.

But I’ll take a shot, knowing that McKenzie intended his address to come in the middle of a conversation that had begun long before he began his career and will continue long after he’s retired from Wheaton and the CFH. I’ll take his words as they were meant: as a challenge not to shrink my calling to the relatively tiny breadth and depth that either the secular academy or my own preferences would demand if they were given free rein, but to listen for the voice of God speaking into my life in large part through the promptings and needs of the communities (past and present) to which I belong.

As I work on that essay, I’ll probably try out some passages here on this blog. (One theme that bubbled up at least three times today in panels and conversations — there are those promptings I mentioned — is the notion that Christians — including Christian scholars — ought to resist the temptations of upward mobility. More on that next week, perhaps.)

But let me highlight just a few of McKenzie’s points that will surely find their way into my own essay on vocation:

There are many Christian vocations, but all are called to follow the Greatest Commandment: to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. But Christian historians have focused too much on loving God with their minds, even to the neglect of the second half of that indivisible injunction.

Frederick Buechner
Frederick Buechner – Buechner Institute, King College

In alluding to the rich repository of Christian thinking on vocation, McKenzie mentioned Frederick Buechner, whose sermon on vocation I’ve reflected on before. As McKenzie spoke about the Greatest Commandment, my mind instantly turned to Buechner, who helps us understand what it means to love neighbor as self. First, that loving self is part of the command: so Buechner encourages us to listen to “the voice that we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness.” But second, to listen to the voice telling us to go “where we are most needed,” since our gladness is needed beyond ourselves, by “a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain….”

As a corollary to the axiom that our vocation must include love of neighbor… In the traditional triad of promotion and tenure criteria, I’d not only suggest that scholarship not outweigh teaching and service, but that scholarship (for many of us, myself included) ought often to flow out of teaching and service.

As we seek to love our neighbors as historians, we must recover our vocation to the church.

This was the center of McKenzie’s contribution to Confessing History (mentioned in my earlier post on today’s CFH activities), a book that he quoted at least four times tonight. With an eye to my promotion essay on vocation, I wrote about McKenzie’s call for scholars to serve the church at some length in my recent application for renewal of tenure. Here’s a sample: (page numbers refer to Confessing History)

One distinctively Christian argument in favor of historians shifting from a focus on scholarly audiences comes from Robert Tracy McKenzie, who believes we are “called not only to labor within the academy as a Christian, but also to labor within the church as an historian” (p. 280). He acknowledges that such a “dual vocation” presents problems. Above all, McKenzie warns of “the daunting task of overcoming years of acculturation in an elitist academic establishment that produces historians increasingly aloof from the society they claim to serve.” Nevertheless, he urges his readers to pursue a different vision of the scholarly vocation: “As Christian historians seeking to breach the walls of the academy and speak to our communities of faith, it is imperative that we recognize and repudiate the pervasive assumption that the only scholarship that matters is the scholarship for other scholars” (p. 287, emphasis original).

If anything, that imperative felt even more urgent tonight.

We value innovation too much, and communication too little.

I’ve written elsewhere that — to the extent I’ve produced more conventional evidence of scholarship like journal articles and an edited volume — it’s been less the “scholarship of discovery” and more the “scholarship of recovery.” Idolizing innovation as the highest achievement of the scholar inevitably produces (as McKenzie pointed out tonight) increasingly more esoteric research increasingly divorced from the needs of those outside the academy. So I’ve felt keenly the importance of returning to a far older, pre-Enlightenment Christian understanding of the purpose of intellectual activity: not to discover something new, but to recover, reinterpret, or reflect on what’s quite old. (I need to investigate this further, but I’ve always been struck by the low view of “innovation” held by Patristic and many Eastern Orthodox theologians…)

As for communication… Well, you’re reading my own attempt at learning to write for an audience that includes scholars, pastors, my parents, and everyone in between. (And click on the “Find Me on iTunes U” button above for another effort at improving on non-traditional — for academics — modes of communication.)

As you can probably tell from this dashed-off post, my mind is still racing two hours after McKenzie started his address — that’s how provocative and rich it was. I’m sure we’ll keep debating almost everything he said. But I can’t shake the feeling that I had while listening to it: that I was witnessing a pivotal moment in the history of the Conference on Faith and History, when it became less a society of professionals and more a community of the called.

I might well be wrong: in my case, Dr. McKenzie was preaching to a choir. So I’d be curious to know what my fellow CFH members thought about the talk. Or if those of my readers outside the academy would welcome scholarship oriented more to the church and other communities, and what they think it should look like.

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