In my experience with academia, there tend to be two camps staked out on campus. One group I will call the rants, while the other reflectors.
The rants mainly feature the most biased, hardcore left-wingers. It is hard to think of where else one might find such high concentrations of militant feminists, socialists, extreme environmentalists and radical secularists as in colleges and universities. Meanwhile, the reflectors in higher learning think more seriously. They cut across the philosophical spectrum, and while obviously holding their own principles and ideas, tend to be far more welcoming in terms of engaging varying points of view.
From my undergraduate days, through a couple of graduate degrees, and now as a writer who occasionally visits campuses for conferences, lectures and performances, this split has been evident throughout.
All of this came to mind as I attended a marvelous day of theological reflection at Concordia College New York in Bronxville, on Saturday, March 19, which also served as a striking contrast to another religious conference I went to about a year-and-a-half earlier.
At Concordia, Professor Gerald Patrick Coleman offered a morning lecture examining the text of Handel's "Messiah." While the "Messiah" is most often performed around Christmas, the presentation was appropriately billed as "a perfect lead in to Holy Week." While I unfortunately missed part of Coleman's talk, what I took in was a fascinating combination of lecture, live piano and video. Charles Jennens "wrote" the text of the "Messiah," that is, he pulled together, organized and edited passages from the Bible for Handel's music. As Coleman strikingly pointed out, the "Messiah" is "primarily illuminated by Old Testament texts." These prophetic passages were used, Coleman explained, to answer big questions. Is this Messiah the Son of God? Who is this man and what did he do? Coleman did a wonderful job in getting me to think more deeply about this wondrous piece of music.
As if this were not enough, my primary reason for visiting Concordia was an exhibit and accompanying lectures on "Martin Luther -- The Reformer." The exhibit, running from March 19 to March 26, has toured the U.S. since October 2003, and turned out to be an excellent introduction to Luther, his life and thought, and the Reformation in general. It included fine replicas of paintings, illustrations, manuscripts, and other items relating to Luther's life.
The first lecture, given by Dr. Martin Treu, focused on the impact of Luther's Reformation on early modern times in Europe. One of the most interesting points raised by Treu was that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation managed to re-Christianize, or in some areas even Christianize, Europe. He noted that theological discussion and debate were widespread among the populace at the end of the sixteenth century.
There is some irony there, in that it was a dramatic split in the Western Church that led to this re-Christianization. It also raises the question of how to re-Christianize an increasingly faithless western Europe today. That will require a broad rejection of liberal Christianity, and resurgence among orthodox or traditional movements across denominations.
Rev. Dr. Alan Steinberg followed with an overview of Luther's times, from where the Church stood in 1500 to the beginnings of the Lutheran Church. And finally, Rev. Dr. Robert Kolb highlighted theological points by focusing on Reformation preaching on Luke 6: 36-42.
Spending that day at Concordia, one came away with things to ponder and discuss, no matter your level of agreement.
Now, compare this to a day spent at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, New York, in October 2003, for a conference titled "Women in the Christian Tradition: Past, Present, Future." Here was an opportunity lost. Nothing was mentioned about the many contributions made by women over the centuries in the Church, from women in the Old Testament to Mary, the mother of God, to Mother Teresa, for example. One would have welcomed some debate over what roles women can play in church structure as well.
Alas, though, I knew I was in trouble when the first speaker, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, opened her remarks by quoting a lesbian poet. From there, the gathering mainly featured assorted angles on feminist complaints about the "patriarchal" Church oppressing women over the centuries. Contrary to the illuminating event at Concordia, this amounted to little more than a feminist rant. And I say this with sadness, as I happen to be an alum of St. Joseph's.
More broadly, one wonders what might the balance be between classes and conferences in academia that are rants versus those that offer true reflection. I think the answer is clear. The events at Concordia New York on March 19 stood out because they rank more as the exception in higher learning, rather than the rule. That is most distressing.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.