Connections with Academia
Often when I tell people that I’m a theologian, the next question I get is: “Where do you teach?” It’s a fair assumption, sure enough, but when I answer that I don’t teach (at least not as a day job) and then go into my 30-second elevator speech about the NCC and what I do, there seems to be enough recognition that a PhD can be used for something else.
In truth, there are a lot of connections between my work and the academic community. First, most of the representatives sent by the churches to do their common work through the NCC, especially in the areas of theological dialogue on Christian unity and interfaith relations, are theologians and other scholars in the academy. They come from a wide variety of universities and theological schools around the country, and from many Christian traditions. While it is true that, after some 100 years of ecumenical activity, there is much sharing across traditions when it comes to academic theology, it is still fascinating to witness the diversity of perspectives and approaches present at these tables as these colleagues set about the task of addressing the issues that still divide the churches.
Second, often at the invitation of members of these tables, we usually meet in academic settings. This not only gives us the opportunity to change our surroundings; it also gives us the opportunity to engage with the local ecumenical or interfaith communities in those particular locations. This is increasingly important at a time when institutional, top-down religion is less and less popular.
Third, many of our publications are used in academic settings. While we strive to produce materials that are usable in congregational settings, often they are perceived more as resources for college and seminary classes.
And fourth, I get to mentor young scholars and ecumenists who intern for the NCC. When offering an internship, I like to give the opportunity for meaningful work. For example, I asked one intern to help edit a volume of essays, and she did such heavy lifting for the project that I gave her credit as a co-editor with me when it was published.
It turns out that, with the consolidation of our offices, and our headquarters now in Washington and those of us still in New York working in satellite offices, my office is now at Union Theological Seminary. This is one of the great seminaries of this country and certainly one with an ecumenical pedigree. With all of the connections to academia in my work, this arrangement offers a lot of potential for collaboration. It also offers an opportunity for creative experimentation, to see how the NCC, having just retooled, can be even more effective in meeting the challenges facing religious communities these days.
Tomorrow, a reflection.