A Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for Dr. Jill Biden to forego the use of her duly earned title has spurred recent conversations about the use of academic titles. Perry Glanzer’s recent post calling for “A Christian Reappraisal of Academic Titles” offers the refreshing promise to reframe these conversations through the lens of Christian values. Yet, I confess, that the further I read through Dr. Glanzer’s post, the more I was dismayed at what I can best describe as a limitation of imagination about what it means to take a Christian perspective on this issue.
In this response, I take up Dr. Glanzer’s call to view this debate from a Christian worldview. However, I diverge from Glanzer in suggesting that a more expansive Christian imagination would suggest that his proposed solution represents a limited vision of what it means to apply Christian principles and values to the issues facing the society, the Academy, and the people of God.
Expanding the Christian Imagination
Controversies about the use of earned titles is not new. As recently as June 2018, national conversation was abuzz over the question of whether female academics ought to include their titles in Twitter handles and the like. At that time, I had written a peer-reviewed response to the debacle that employed feminist theologian Dr. Valerie Saiving’s work on hamartiology1 as a way of reframing the issue as one that was heavily value laden. Saiving’s call for an expanded Christian imagination of the ways in which the meaning of sin may shift because of differences in the socialization of women and men remains relevant.
Furthermore, the implicit call of Saiving’s work to embrace an expansive Christian imagination is one that has continued to echo throughout the many decades since her work. Here, I use the term “imagination” intentionally and as a hat tip to Dr. Willie James Jennings’s use of the term in the title of his award-winning book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.2 Though addressing different issues than Dr. Saiving, Dr. Jennings’s work also engages the concept of the Christian imagination. Dr. Jennings observes the ways in which the Christian imagination has been limited by damaging, racialized perspectives that separate and alienate humans created in the image of God.
A stifling of Christian imagination reduces the diversity of God’s human creation to the experience of a small segment of humanity. Such a limited imagination may conceive identity through a lens of white, androcentric normativity. Yet, the richness of God’s creation would suggest that such a limited view not only obliterates a wealth of experience and knowledge, but it fails to honor those identities that fall beyond this purview. In doing this, a limited imagination contradicts the biblical principle of honoring those deemed least.
A Biblical Apology for Honoring the Least
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul anticipates Dr. Jennings’s ideas by diagnosing the Corinthian congregation’s ailment as factionalism (1 Cor. 1:11-13) and prescribing a cure of unity (1 Cor. 1:10). Yet, in doing this, Paul does not erase the real social, economic, class, and status divisions that pervaded that community. In fact, Paul celebrates these differences by using the analogy of a body with its many parts (1 Cor. 12:12-31) as a model for celebrating the gifts of all members of the congregation.
However, in this vast melting pot of spiritual giftings, Paul does not (as he seems to do elsewhere [cf. Gal. 3:28]) relativize these real differences in light of a common foundation in Christ. Rather, he calls for a radical reorganization of values that recognizes and, in fact, honors the least (1 Cor. 12:22-26). That is, Paul suggests to the divided Corinthian congregation that they might recognize their under-privileged community members and grant them special honors that are not needed by the more privileged among them. This differentiated ethic, of course, aligns closely with Christ’s own call for the last to be first (Matthew 20:16) and for the poor and hungry to be called blessed (Luke 6:20-23). Such special honors are not needed by those who are already powerful and privileged. However, they are to be granted to those who are marginalized.
The Least in Today’s Academy
To be sure, most earners of doctoral degrees today are among society’s most privileged. We have had the opportunity to take time away from pursuing paid careers to spend several years indulging the life of the mind. We have had the chance to learn from the best and brightest scholars in our disciplines. However, the experiences of those with doctorates varies widely across gender, racial, and class lines.
Let me use my own academic discipline of biblical studies as a small example. Demographic research from my discipline’s professional organization suggests that as a white person, I am among the overwhelming 85% majority that threatens to drown out the voices of my BIPOC colleagues. Yet, I am also among less than a quarter of my colleagues in the profession who identify as female.
In my identity as a female minority in this discipline, I have (as recently as last month) had several conversations with first-year university students who preface their suspicions about my qualifications to teach them by saying, “I know you have your PhD, but….” Such remarks, over time, begin to cut at my soul and erode my identity as a child of God called to this holy profession.
Thus, in asking students to use my title, I do not believe I am making this request for what Dr. Glanzer calls “fallen reasons” but because I recognize it as an appropriate, restorative, and healing practice that will allow me to integrate my professional identity with my personal and spiritual identity. This practice allows me to bypass the awkward bifurcation between “Sister Melanie” and “Dr. Howard” that Dr. Glanzer tries to navigate with his students, one of whom admits to experiencing initial discomfort as a result of this strange parsing of identity. Rather, the use of my title reminds me of the root of my identity as an image-bearer of God who is pursuing the sacred vocation to which that God has called me. The use of this title, then, aligns well with my own strongly-held Christian values and principles.
Moving Beyond a Limited Imagination on Title Use
Among many of my white, male, cisgender, heterosexual colleagues, Dr. Glanzer’s call for a kenotic surrendering of duly earned titles may be not only appropriate but truly demonstrative of faithful Christian values. I hope that many such colleagues will heed that call. However, for the rest of us, this call to surrender can be not only personally damaging but also antithetical to the Christian principles of honoring those who otherwise suffer forms of marginalization.
Thus, a blanket call for Christian academics to reject their duly earned titles reflects a paucity of Christian imagination about what it means to be a child of God created in the image of God. This call imagines that the experience of such academics is universal in a way that dishonors the very segments of the Academy that the Apostle Paul might have identified as most worthy of honor.
Dr. Glanzer wrote, “I’m sure many Christian academics could write another post about the wisdom of title usage” in contexts where gender and racial disparities create a “need to establish legitimacy.” I am glad to have offered just such a post here, and I hope that even as Christian academics may disagree about the application of Christian principles and values to this conversation, we may nonetheless affirm the importance and relevance of those values to the important work that we share.