Chinglican is probably right in his response to my prior post; more or less, he took the conversation in the direction I alluded to and then left open when I said that these matters require a broader discussion of ends and means. And much of what he laid out is probably a good reason for doing academics. As he said of my research, it is most certainly not apolitical. And probably being prophetic and caring about the common good is a good idea. Indeed, had I been pressed, this probably would have been something of the direction I might have taken the conversation myself, and probably the way that many Christians would take the conversation. So why didn’t I do that in the first place?
To tell the truth, it is because I have to a certain degree become allergic to words and phrases like “the common good” and “prophetic critique.” What is meant at the root of them is surely important. But nowadays it seems like everyone and their dog is making “prophetic critiques” right, left, and centre; and I often feel that some who talk about the “common good” really mean something else, perhaps something more common than good. Put another way, Chinglican situates the university as a body independent of various institutions that can potentially abuse power, and therefore as a legitimate critic. The problem I have though is conceiving of a university context that is in fact independent; it is not after all as if the university structure hovers above the socioeconomic and religious reality like some worldly version of the church triumphant (as understood by Protestants), nor are those who run the university beyond the temptation of twisting power manipulatively. Universities may be watchmen, but who watches the watchmen?
So how would I put the matter differently? First off, I would say that, if we are using terms like “prophetic” and “common good,” the task for Christians (and any other well meaning people for that matter) is not simply to put them out there as justifications for the academy, but rather to live in such a way that they emerge from their quotation marks – that is, such that they actually become plausible options for believing in. Yes, it is true that my generation is cynical – indeed, very cynical – but I think it is a mistake to simply blame this on a fully deliberate choice or a pervasive nihilism. These things may indeed be there, but at the very bottom of cynicism is generally an experience of deep betrayal – indeed, I would suggest that, far from being the least hopeful of people, those who are cynical about things embody a very deep hope that has been crushed. Conversely, pragmatists are not those who are particularly optimistic about the world, but rather those not optimistic enough – they cannot be bothered to take a moment and mourn for what might have been. To talk plausibly about the “common good” and “prophetic critique” we will, I think, need to live in such a way that even the most cynical – to the degree that this cynicism is symptomatic and not chosen – can begin to believe that these words might have meaning.
Secondly, I suppose I would make a distinction between my vocation as an academic and what we might call the bodied effects of this – i. e. the job I have etc. A helpful way of looking at it perhaps is what C. S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength describes as the struggle between Logres and Britain that goes on throughout society. Here, we have not so much an independent body evaluating the behavior of other parts of society as much as we have a loose collective of people working – certainly for the common good – but in a very bodied, disparate, cross vocational, and often frustrating way. Indeed, in this book, the real prophetic critique and interest in the common good comes out of Logres, but the company most likely to use terms like these (and speak of independent knowledge) are their opponents – indeed, they have managed to produce a head independent of a body and other earthly props. This distinction allows me to both agree with Chinglican and what I said prior – I am not wedded to the academy, per se – but it may be the arena where I enact the thing that is in fact undeniably part of who I am, my vocation. The company of Logres exists regardless of where each member works.
So, given my pessimism about these words and phrases, what would I talk about instead of prophetic critique and the common good? I would talk about prophetic awkwardness and the common riddle. With regard to the former, it seems to me that the two greatest instances of what we might call “the prophetic voice” – Christ and Socrates – hardly garnered the kind of favor and “cool points” we think of when we think of radical and prophetic people. When you encounter a prophet, he or she may not make you feel like an oh-so-good-radical doing oh-so-good things for an oh-so-messed up world. Rather, encountering a prophet might make you distinctly uncomfortable. It may even make you feel murderous.
And what I mean by “the common riddle” is something like what Augustine means when he talks about the restlessness in our hearts. There is a tendency for people to approach the so-called common good in the so-called common square with ready-made solutions – we have seen the common problem and we have the common fix. But I would suggest that if we do not have some degree of uncertainty or tentativeness in our minds regarding this fix, it is probably in fact not one – it is rather a way of papering over problems we don’t want to see. What Augustine knew is that our hearts our restless until they find rest in God. And this means that restlessness and problems, rather than something to be covered over, are something to be pursued. I worry that too many people, in pursuit of the so-called common good, sacrifice common mystery, which is in fact this restlessness. And the irony of course is that in fact the only way to get a truly common good – a good for both city of God and city of man – is by following this restlessness to its proper end.