When I met Steven Pinker in 2015, at a book signing for The Sense of Style, he kindly enquired about my background and, stunningly, recalled that I’d emailed him in 2002 – 13 years before! He remembered that I’d been a seminary student back then, which caught me off guard.
So much had changed since that time. But he reassured me: ‘It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, even if you are a thoroughgoing secularist.’
Pinker is a well-known experimental psychologist and Jewish atheist, but, as he told me, he is glad to have had a religious education. I too am fortunate to have had both seminary training and the rejection of religion as sources of knowledge and morality.
In my early 20s, after completing three years of graduate courses and chaplaincy, I declined ordination in the Episcopal-Lutheran tradition. I recall sitting in a charmingly anachronistic Hogwarts-like brick tower, conversing with a theological adviser about this decision. With dusty books and obscure journal articles (read, surely, by virtually no one) strewn across his desk, he uttered the words that changed my life: ‘Why don’t you consider a doctorate in theology?’
He intended this as a compliment. I’d done so well that I could become a thought leader. But I instantly knew that his suggestion was absurd. I shot back, so quickly I must have made the poor man’s head spin: ‘I’m sorry, but theology is a dead field.’
I’d had previous graduate training in the more rigorous field of linguistics, so I knew that valuable scholarship is predicated on dialogue.
The church, in its insular tribalism, could shore up its identity, but it couldn’t escape its own echo chamber, to speak to and with and, more importantly, listen to and learn from academics in other disciplines. This was all on my mind when I saw that the Cambridge University Department of Divinity had rescinded its fellowship offer to Peterson.
Peterson is a Canadian psychologist, who has succeeded in reaching the public in ways that have enlivened the hearts and minds of people from a diverse range intellectual and religious backgrounds. He has engaged with theological literature more willingly and open-heartedly than probably any living non-religious academic.
Due to this and his clinical experience, which gives him insight into the angst and struggles for meaning that ordinary people face, Peterson would be an asset to theology departments. Yet Cambridge Divinity made a public display of rejecting him, which only served to display their insularity.
Peterson was photographed with someone wearing an ‘I’m an Islamophobe’ T-shirt. That alone, they felt, marked him as unfit to associate with. In distancing themselves from Peterson, Cambridge Divinity did little more than signal their identity and further wedge theology into irrelevance. They missed the opportunity to converse with a person they see as a stain on society, as different, as ‘sinful’. This is not what Jesus modelled.
There’s a wonderful Greek word that I learned in seminary: μετάνοια (a transformative change of heart and mind: a whole-person conversion). If Cambridge Divinity is to snatch itself from the icy grip of Dantean theological meaninglessness, it must do more than make pronouncements about who is and isn’t worthy of social inclusion.
Cambridge Divinity needs a μετάνοια and should apologise to Jordan Peterson, reinstate his fellowship, and start a real dialogue, one from which all involved can grow.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore
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Charleen Adams is a geneticist and molecular cancer epidemiologist. She uses approaches within statistical genetics and clinical epidemiology to gain insight into cancer aetiology.
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