Trapped in the Academic-Spirituality Divide?

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By Grace Al-Zoughbi

In the second and third centuries, Tertullian asked the following rhetorical question: ‘What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the church with the academy?’ Have you ever felt trapped in the Academic-Spirituality divide? Although these two narratives should not compete with one another, often it appears as though they seemingly are. If you consider yourself one of these two, purely spiritual or merely an engaged academic, or if you have successfully integrated these two aspects, then do read on…

Allow me at the outset to take you on a personal journey.

I was thirteen years old when I pledged to give God my very best. I was in my room and no one heard me but God. The combination of being a ‘straight-A’ student during my scholastic year and a passionate Christian teenager led me to the words of Paul in Philippians 3:8, ‘Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things…that I may gain Christ.’ To my mind, the way I could experience ‘the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus’ was to study His word. In order to accomplish this, I desired to undertake theological studies to enrich my knowledge and nurture my faith. Two decades later, I have come to realize it is not only through studying His word, but equally knowing Him at a personal level.

At 17 years of age, I had to decide on a major at college. Contrary to the status quo, I did not hesitate for a second to enroll in a theologically based degree. I quickly found out that I had fallen in love with theological academia. My love for Jesus still came first. Because I loved Jesus, I also loved academia. As I started to forge a path in the academy, I was inspired, challenged, and encouraged by many.

Regionally in the Middle East as well as globally, my calling and career led me to encounter and interact with first-class academics and top-notch theologians whom I greatly respect for their knowledge, as well as their deep faith and spirituality. They were inspiring models and nourished the mustard seed faith I had. At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice, and this was merely an observation certainly not a judgement, that others in my context seemed to have been caught up in the rigidity of theological academia. They appear to have forgotten why we study and write about theology.

Until I myself fell in this trap.

I soon observed how my books and research slowly swayed me away from the center of all things: Jesus. At times, I would wake up so eager to write my next piece of work, finish my essay or respond to someone’s argument. (It can become addictive, can’t it?) I noticed that I felt less passionate about praying or reading my Bible. This unhealthy pursuit made me vulnerable to a form of idolatry. And though I found satisfaction in academia, there was still a gap in my relationship with God. This gap made me realize that without drinking from the spring of living water, I am merely digging my own broken cisterns that cannot hold water (Jeremiah 2:13). This is somewhat similar to St. Augustine’s confession: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.’

I am not attempting here to categorize people as either ‘spiritual’ or ‘academic.’ Neither do I want to criticize or admonish. Rather, this blog comes as a note to self, but also an encouragement to others to keep Jesus at the center of all that we are doing. The entanglement with unspiritual theological academy creates complexities for familial and ecclesial relationships, as well as physical health. It can be likened to the metaphor of ‘bad’ fruit. We are explicitly encouraged to bear the fruit of the spirit, not gratifying the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5), unspiritual academy in this case. We, therefore, must never forget the reason for why we do what we do whether it is being involved in academic endeavors or ministry. Jesus is the very reason I can sacrifice several comforts for the sake of guiding others to know Him.

In all this, I must always guard myself from falling in the trap of rigidness and dryness that academia so often fosters. I should be continually reminded that theology is one way of doing ‘life and life in abundance’ (John 10:10). As scholars, theologians, practitioners, or people working in the secular field, we should always be clothed in the garments of Christ. May we continually recenter our lives on Him ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Colossians 2:3). And speaking of Paul, I think he sets a prime example of someone who was faithful and fruitful in his spiritual academy. He was well versed in the scriptures, educated, and fully able to construct arguments, but at the same time he never forgot His love and passion for His own teacher, not Gamaliel, but Him who captured his heart on that long-rugged terrain to Damascus.

As I write this, I have dreams to continue publishing articles, writing chapters, and authoring books. But I don’t want to take my eyes off the ‘author and finisher’ of life. And naturally, embedded in a context of academia, we want our critical thinking and writing skills to develop, but not at the expense of our depth of spirituality. As we strive to make persuasive arguments, let us not forget why we want to exhibit excellence and uniqueness in the way we think, articulate, write and are moved to action.

You may be wondering about how I define spirituality? To me the depth of spirituality is demonstrated by going back over and over to the Source of wisdom, Christ and the Scriptures, while being led by God’s spirit. We need to truly know Him and have a vibrant relationship with Him. A thriving theological academic career is in vain and like ‘blowing in the wind’ if it is built on a broken relationship with God. Dallas Willard reiterates ‘God’s desire for us is that we should live in him.’ We show that we are ‘ a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God’ (2 Corinthians 3:3).

Something interesting is that at times it is more difficult to be spiritual than it is to be an academic. It is easier to meticulously describe the complexity of a group of refugees than to practice holistic care towards them. It is less difficult to offer an exegetical study about passages relating to loving your enemy than it is to actually love them. Consider this example from my own research interests. It is easier to investigate the reasons why Arab women are not engaged in theological academy than to practically help them find their place. Bottomline, we should not stop being academic, nor should we stop striving to become ‘spiritual’ thus integrating the best of two worlds. Surely, we all know deep souls who have no theological training yet enjoy a vibrant personal connection with Jesus.

Our Christian context in the Middle East is in dire need of both spiritual and academic called individuals, or merely spirituals who are visibly involved in the secular world. It is in this way that we can meaningfully contribute to a healthy and thriving society. Surprisingly, as I look to find words to conclude this piece, written on a hazy Friday afternoon, I wonder if this blog is academic enough. It is not, actually, but that’s fine (I hope).

Lord, may I never be tempted to become lethargic in my faith, apathetic in my love for you and your people, the community I am serving and on whom I would want to make an influence, only because I know You Lord.

Grace is Lecturer in Theological Education and currently working on her PhD from the London School of Theology.

2 Comments

  1. Mike Kuhn says:

    Thank-you, Grace. I loved this piece, especially your willingness to reveal your own struggle and commitment. I identified with many aspects of your struggle and appreciated your “note to self” to keep Christ (and knowing him through the Spirit and scriptures) as the heart and center of all our pursuits, including academic theology.

  2. Grace Alzoughbi says:

    Thank you Mike! I appreciate your words of encouragement and the way you have articulated the centrality of Christ in your last sentence. Blessings to you and Stephanie.

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