Seeking to become an academic is an enormous task in itself, with unique challenges and privileges as a distinct vocation. Becoming an academic theologian, more specifically, brings with it a host of further questions with which the aspiring student must wrestle. What is the relationship between my academic work and the church? How should I relate the specific field in which I engage with the generalist character of the pastorate? What is the task of academic theology? I suspect, however, that there are at least three further challenges that an aspiring academic may face in an Indonesian (and, perhaps, Asian) context. These comments are not final, and I can say that in many ways things are improving. Nonetheless, some things remain to be said.
First, there is the problem of authority. In an Asian (or Chinese-Indonesian) context, knowledge, wisdom, and humility are all connected with respecting pre-established authorities in the form of families, age, and rank. The way one receives respect and acknowledgement as aspiring individuals within this societal context is therefore by exemplifying obedience, submission, and patient silence, even if one may disagree. Disagreements by subordinates are encouraged to be expressed by questions or suggestions, that may lead the superior to rethink his actions in such a way that the superior will still see his “changes of mind” as his own initiative, rather than prompted by the subordinate. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers presents a potent example of this. After a study of patterns of plane crashes a few decades ago, he finds that cultures in which hierarchy and positional rank are highly implemented fosters an environment in which co-pilots are incapable of telling in a strong manner how the senior pilot should make decisions on the plane. This is problematic, especially when flights demand a division of labor between the pilot and the co-pilot. Recordings of plane conversations extracted after a crash reveal that in these cultural contexts the co-pilots were afraid of offending their superiors, incapable of commanding them to steer lower or higher, or to stop for fuel. Plane crashes are the result. The solution? A new aviation practice is enforced in which pilots and junior-pilots have to address each other on a first name basis, creating the possibility for a more equal plane of communication. This simple strategy implies that the truth is outside of one’s person – no matter of one’s position, rank, or age, the truth remains independent of one, and one doesn’t automatically have privileged access to it.
The Bible certainly affirms that wisdom is associated with age (Prov. 16:31) – and one must pay respect to the authority due to elders, and never be haughty. However, as the Prophet Elihu proclaims in rebuke of Job and his three friends in Job 32:6-11:
So Elihu son of Barakel the Buzite said:
“I am young in years,
and you are old;
that is why I was fearful,
not daring to tell you what I know.
7 I thought, ‘Age should speak;
advanced years should teach wisdom.’
8 But it is the spirit[b] in a person,
the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding.
9 It is not only the old[c] who are wise,
not only the aged who understand what is right.
10 “Therefore I say: Listen to me;
I too will tell you what I know.
Wisdom, then, is a gift from God that is cultivated by the persistent pursuit of maturity, theology, and reflection, and not a natural byproduct of one’s position. There is thus a difference between two views of authority: between a naturalized authoritarianism, and an authority contingent upon the Spiritual receptivity of divine revelation.
Further, the cultural worldview also enforces the practice of proof-texting from authorities as a normal move. Quoting a relevant authority is often seen as sufficient to justify an argument or a particular position. Contrast this with the academic standards that are necessary to cultivate critical thinking and mature reasoning. To train to be an academic, and to succeed, one is expected to think on one’s feet, to ask good questions, to write well, to follow and structure arguments, and to reflect upon one’s reading. Reading well involves not merely restating what a book says, but also being able to articulate its main argument, to anticipate objections that may be raised against that argument, and to then defend the author from those objections. Comprehension is achieved when these steps are properly followed, and profundity involves this on-going rigorous criticism. Academic seminars involve students and professors sitting around a table, where students critically engage with a text, and even often with the professor. Here, pushing back against books, or even established professors (in a respectful manner), can be encouraged, and are often signs of mature thinking. Respect and agreement are not synonymous, and charitable listening and criticism are not mutually exclusive.
What’s the upshot? The normal ways in which one can succeed within an academic context are precisely those ways that are prone to lead one to social alienation and professional failure in an Indonesian context. Academic training in philosophy, history, or the humanities in general, and theology, then, actually has the effect of leveling the ground. As Orwell’s 1984 or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 clearly communicates: want to subtly maintain authoritarianism or tyranny? Stop the people from thinking well.
Second, there is the problem of pragmatism. Technological and economical advances have obtained in Indonesia (and Asia more generally), which leads to some enjoying greater material prosperity. In such rapidly developing contexts (despite the current stagnation in Indonesia), one needs to rely on simple and often ruthless pragmatism in order to earn a sustainable living; to put it mildly, one cannot philosophize if one needs to worry about the food on the table each day. With the developments, however, one’s worldviews have not caught up – making a living, creating a sustainable material legacy for one’s progeny, remained the most fundamental goals in life. In such a context, the vocations that produce the most immediately tangible results are prioritized, while others are stigmatized. This simply means that the four sacred vocations are: business, law, medicine, and engineering. Indonesian academics can easily recall situations in which they had to justify their existence to unsympathetic individuals. I remember some of my own: I have been asked in what way learning history can make money (or why it should), I have also been asked why institutions would ever fund post-doctorates, where an individual is paid for a period of time to “read a bunch of books and to write stuff very few people will read” – I was also encouraged once to drop academics and to try to write best-selling novels (because philosophy supposedly only brings stress). More sinisterly, some have voiced the opinion to me that pastors are just smart businessmen: its an easier way to make more money.
These situations reflect a lack of reflection – it is a severe misunderstanding of human flourishing, and in such contexts it is difficult for art and scholarship to be produced. It is certainly also unfortunate that in a dominant assumed philosophy, namely Confucianism, metaphysical and theological reasoning are resisted. More seriously, pragmatism neglects the biblical command to imitate Christ and thus not to do anything out of self ambition (Phil. 2:3).
Third, and finally, is the hard task of translation. Indonesian theological scholarship is growing, and for that I am thankful. However, since scholarship is still at a very young stage in this nation, its aspiring practitioners inevitably have to rely on translations of works that were written in other languages in order to engage with the field fruitfully. This also means that aspiring academics have to develop a strong command of (at least, or most probably) English, and at times because one must use English to access other languages like Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. The implication is straightforward: for Indonesian scholarship to grow, one needs more language texts that are written for Indonesian speakers, one needs more Indonesian systematic theological volumes, one needs more Indonesian translations of classic theological and philosophical texts, and one needs to develop professors, teachers, and academics that can move seamlessly between multiple languages in order for Indonesian scholarship to engage with the broader and International academic conversations. It also means that local institutions should continue to aspire to produce scholars who can be employed in international academic institutions abroad, in order to foster relationships and a global reputation.
This final task is monumentally difficult, and it actually involves overcoming the prior two problems. To develop Indonesian scholarship, one needs to invest time, energy, and financial resources to sabbaticals, research, writing, and libraries – each of which are substantially lacking in the Indonesian theological scene. Of course, I am not denying that some of this already takes place. One finds good seminaries, one finds able academics, but it is not yet in a wholly developed and easily accessible form. This means that pragmatism and naturalized authoritarianism must be overcome. One has much work to do.