Essay / Education

Theology Conferences Part II of II: The Vices

© Eugenio Hansen / Wikimedia Commons

In my first post, I sought to paint a constructive vision of academic conferences, but that is far from all there is to say—for a conference is a vice-saturated affair, and it’s worth knowing that ahead of time.

One of the most superficial and natural ways vice rears its head has to do with the scarcity of jobs. Scholars with PhD’s in hand looking for a job are a dime a dozen (if only the odds were that good!)—academic job postings receive hundreds of applications, the majority of which are well qualified. That kind of competition fosters some good rigor and can bring out the best in some people, but for many of us, it is simultaneously the occasion for quite a bit of vicious thinking.

Not one to think this way, I was shocked, some years ago, to find myself looking at people, thinking: “I’ve published more than him…,” “I’m way more dynamic than her…,” “that guy is just posturing…,” or “clearly she can see that he’s just brown-nosing!” I was powerfully aware of my place on the pecking order, and it wasn’t high up. Rather, it was close to the bottom—and I needed a job.

In my need, I found myself looking for any opportunity to give myself a leg up, one form of which was an utterly ridiculous and vicious entirely internal battle with my imaginary peers.

I sincerely hope that this did not bubble over into vicious and harmful behavior—conferences are a hard enough thing when you are desperate for a job, without others unloading their hurt and baggage on you. But I felt these things powerfully, and had to work through them. My fear is that they have subsided only because of the external security that comes with a job, and were I to be deprived of that crutch, I would be right back where I started: viciously tempted to claw my way back up the pecking ladder.

The darker side of this is when it really takes hold, and becomes a soul consuming longing to “climb the ladder” apart from the perhaps more understandable and natural desperation that comes with the need for work. I take that to be a deeper and more cancerous form of the same problem, and I hope you will find yourself protected from such powerful and harmful longings.

The Antidote

The antidote? A genuine and abiding joy in your discipline, a genuine and abiding love for the people (professors, authors, publishers, PhD students—they are all people too) in your discipline, and above all, a genuine and abiding love for the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the source and fount of your discipline.

NB: This post originally appeared on Dr. Johnson’s website. To see Part I, click here.

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