On Keeping Faith in God While Studying Human Beings

oregon 1922
Oregon Klan Meeting, 1920s. Oregon Historical Society

A fellow Christian recently asked me what my dissertation is about. After giving a brief account of my research on white evangelicals she responded, “That must be hard on your faith.” This was an unusual and perceptive response. It is hard.

The difficulty is layered. The outer layer is common to many people of faith in a variety of academic disciplines. The habits of mind that we learn in our work—the questioning, the skepticism of easy answers, the careful construction and deconstruction of meaning—are extremely productive. They help advance the boundaries of human knowledge and can even make us more humble. But if not embedded in a broader theology, ethic of service, and system of social support, they can breed cynicism that is corrosive to Christian eschatological hope. It’s hard.

The inner layer of difficulty is more specific to my particular subject and biography. I am a white evangelical studying white evangelicals. Even more pointedly, I’m studying the whiteness of my theological tradition. That means I spend a lot of time learning and thinking about exclusion and dehumanization practiced in the name of Christ, my savior. It’s hard.

Many people have traveled this path and have put up some road signs to help us along. But it’s a bit of a solitary path for each of us. I’m not here to offer proven strategies to a successful destination. I’m simply saying there’s a real spiritual and emotional challenge at the core of this academic project, and working that out will in some ways determine whether the project succeeds on the academic side.

You might think this shouldn’t be such a challenge. It’s not as if I’m studying the Holocaust or something. (I think doing so has left Timothy Snyder a bit overwrought. For that I don’t blame him.) And it’s not as if Christian theology doesn’t have something to say about the evil found in history. But it’s another thing to encounter the specificity of evil in the archives in the form of people claiming to follow Jesus.

I’m left wondering how and why it could be that so many people in so many times and places could claim Christ’s name to such little effect. Or, indeed, to use him to sanction their pathetic fears and hatreds. And then I see myself standing in that same tradition, with the same selfish bent, so that finally “Jesus Saves” reads as an indulgence of hatred instead of a claim of liberation.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bleak. I enjoy my job. I have a fun love/hate relationship with writing (some of us don’t like to write but like to have written). It’s fascinating to encounter complex human beings in the past and get to know them. I love to teach. But make no mistake: it’s all hard!

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