Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Hard Things

By Finbarr Curtis

Paul J. Griffiths is a very busy man. How busy is he? He is so busy thinking about the triune Lord that he is "thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread." Apparently, when you get thrumming-level busy you have no time for petty distractions like racism.

So when Griffiths, the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School, was invited to attend a Racial Equity Institute that hoped to provide "foundational training in understanding historical and institutional racism," he sent an email exhorting his colleagues to avoid what he confidently predicted would be "intellectually flaccid" event full of "bromides, clich├ęs and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty."

Griffiths cannot be distracted by flaccid stuff like institutional racism because he is preoccupied with hard things like Christian theology. As he explains:
Our mission is to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste.

It is possible that some scholars might object to the word "training" as this implies that there is some set task to learn rather than a set of contested issues to examine and discuss. Though it is also possible that the language of training communicates that institutional racism is not only a matter of academic debate but also involves practical employment issues that need to be addressed to ensure an equitable workplace.

When people who think like Griffiths serve on hiring or tenure committees, they can preemptively judge scholars who study racism and sexism to be intellectually flaccid and unworthy of inclusion in the academy. These decisions have real consequences. Griffiths's email, by coding work for racial equity as soft and trivial in comparison to the hard and serious labor of reading texts from the western canon in order to reflect on the triune Lord, conveys the kind of message that allows institutional racism to flourish. This would be easy to recognize by anyone who has, say, participated in even the most remedial diversity training. If you were looking for a textbook definition of prejudice, you might find it in an ability to "predict with confidence" that an institute would be a waste of time based on a brief description of an aim to dismantle racism. This is not to say that Griffiths is opposed to racial equity, but he does seem to think it is a goal that requires little time, effort, and critical reflection.

Griffiths's email also presumes the obviousness of the intellectual merits of his own scholarship. Not everyone values research that tells you what someone thinks about God in reference to a tradition, but Griffiths does have an audience for his work. His prominence as a scholar of religion, however, has a lot to do with who he is. That is, Griffiths is a former scholar of Asian religions who shifted to write defenses of Christian truth from the perspective of a conservative Catholic theologian. There are not a lot of scholars who take that track. When liberal practitioners engage a conservative Catholic like Griffiths in conversations about religion, they get to affirm virtues of tolerance, inclusivity, and diversity. In contrast, Griffiths brands the Racial Equity Institute as "illiberal" and "totalitarian." In what has become a familiar double-move in attacks on political correctness, critics of diversity and inclusivity invoke those same virtues in defense of their right to speak.

In other words, Griffiths has built a second career out of his being a skilled practitioner of identity politics. One of the privileges of whiteness is that your form of identity politics also happens to make up the same criteria for intellectual seriousness. Assumptions about what counts as serious scholarship, however, can be so deeply embedded that learning to see them can be a hard thing.

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