Law, justice, theological metaphysics and politics, and my future

This began as an email to someone who has been a kind of mentor to me, as well as someone on whom I’ve tested various ideas in the past, but the further I got into it the more I felt I needed to post it here. What follows are some disjointed thoughts that probably only make sense in my head, a bit of an outpouring that might even spark a bit of discussion – or at the very least provoke some people to throw some advice my way. I’m totally cool with that, by the way.

Ever since I graduated from the University of Evansville with my BA in 2004 I have assumed that one day I was going to go back to graduate school, obtain a Ph.D., and go into the academic profession. The reason I did not do so immediately… well, there are actually two reasons. The first is that I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to go to grad school for the sake of Grad School, if you know what I mean. The second is that I wanted to live for a bit in the “real world” before going into full-time academia. I had a few professors in college who obviously had no conception of what it was like in the world outside the academy, and I most certainly did not want to be like that. I believe that the purpose of education is to equip people to better analyze themselves and the world(s) in which they/we live, so that they can be more free as human persons within the context of the vocational lives for which they are preparing themselves – pretty much a version of the classic “liberal arts” outlook on education. I did not believe that I could do this unless I had some kind of personal experience of the “outside” world apart from academia.

Off and on during all this time, for various reasons, I have questioned both my fitness for and calling into the academic profession. I no longer have strong doubts about my ability to study, write, research, and teach. That I have strong affinities for these things has been confirmed again and again, especially over the past couple of years. I have been praised highly in my presentations for their soundness of research and creative synthesis of ideas from different fields. I have been told that I would fare well in doctoral programs by people who taught in academic institutions, and even told that my intellectual ability was as such that, in the case of one program, a professor would vouch for me to enter the doctoral program even though I have not yet finished my MA (which is a work-in-progress, projected to finish within the next year to year-and-a-half). I have even, in certain situations, been mistaken for either an advanced graduate student or (in one case) an instructor or professor. I have received strong affirmation of my abilities that potentially suit me well for an academic career.

In spite of all this, I have never been comfortable with the prospect of an academic career. A big part of it is because I don’t want to disappear into the “ivory tower” fraternity. I don’t want to spend my time, as it has been said, writing long love letters to other academics in the form of journal articles and other academic publications. The reason I’ve wanted to teach has always been because I have wanted to be involved in the formation of students, the training of people who are going to be the hands and feet of the basileia of God in the world, and a contributor in my own right to its outworking both in theory and incarnation.

Most people know of my academic aspirations, but there is another potential vocation I’ve considered for some time about which not many people are aware. For quite some time I’ve been considering entering the legal profession. As I’ve described it elsewhere, I see the choice in vocational terms as between being primarily involved in the formation of active disciples (including activists and other prophetic figures within the context of 21st century American empire) and in being involved in defending and advocating for people who are a part of working for justice – people who speak truth to and about power, people who are involved in trying to challenge power where it needs to be challenged, people who may be trying to challenge the system but will need help from people who can work from within the system to call the powers themselves to work for justice and for (ultimately) God’s purposes of peace and reconciliation.

I have spent a lot of time working through theological, metaphysical, political, and other issues in my mind. Even though I don’t write enough here to really demonstrate it, I do have a pretty robust (and mostly coherent, I think) theologic-political-economic-philosophic basis for believing the things I do, and for wanting to be active in the areas in which I wish to be active. I want to burst out of the modern categories that divide political action from theological reflection, economics from ethics, and so on. It is all grounded in my understanding that the world and all that is in it is God’s creation, and that what Walsh and Middleton call the “biblical metanarrative” is the story that inhabits me, the story that gives hope to the world. I believe that all reflection and action is grounded in a form of what James K.A. Smith calls “theology1”, a reflexive, as opposed to reflective, underpinning for life, theory, and praxis. I believe “theology1” is also shaped and influenced by reflection and experience from all spheres of life, including “theology2”, political, economic, scientific, interdisciplinary, personal, communal, and all other modes of reflection and experience. I believe the world is “suspended”, as it were, in the greater reality of God’s hyperousion, God’s beyond-being-ness, that infinity gives itself to the finite and infuses it with meaning, and yet also that this beyond-being-ness incarnated and became real within space-time in the person of Jesus Christ, the “concrete universal”. I believe that in the person of Jesus the fallen creation is given new life, and that God has created a people for Godself to be the visible sign and agent of the extension of that new life to all creation, to all areas of life, the church. I believe that the church participates in the divine life and through service also enables the world to participate, performing a priestly function.

I do not believe that explicitly theological or “ministerial” vocations are “more holy” than “secular” vocations, though I do think them necessary. I also tend to include the academic vocation within the theological, and not necessarily just teachers of theology, though the academy (in my view) occupies a unique position that doesn’t fit nicely within either the category “theological” or “secular”. I believe that activists, environmentalists, teachers, laborers, economists, politicos, doctors, and yes, even lawyers, have vocations that are a part of how God is working out basileia in the world, preparing this world for and even now making it into what it will become when basileia is fully realized.

Over the past year-plus the thought of going into law has become much more attractive to me. Part of it has to do with the direction I’ve seen the world taking since I graduated from college, not just the world at large but also my world. People I know and care about have been arrested in protest actions and other demonstrations, and legal aid can be hard to come by. Civil liberties are under assault from both political and economic sources (as if the two could ever be separated, another fiction of modernity). In the world that is emerging, I see a real need for people who can navigate the technical waters of the legal system and the political and economic world in order to be a part of the outworking of justice – not justice as a secular construct for the preservation of civic order and the defense of certain “inalienable rights” and “self-evident truths”, but justice as a means of participating in God’s basileia, that which is already-and-not-yet.

I do not serve the idol Iustitia. I have no faith in the law in and of itself as a means of implementing Justice. I do not believe that a law whose founding discourse is fragmentary, whose roots are in a metanarrative of violence, can be the true means of instituting a society with “liberty and justice for all”. Rather, I serve in the hopes that the dikaiosune, the justice of God’s basileia would be more fully realized even through working within the fallen system. I believe that God desires to heal our modes of social, political, and economic discourse just as strongly as God wants to heal hearts that have been marred by sin. Indeed, sin always has a social component – the fall distorts relationships in all directions – Godward, otherward, selfward, and creationward. But if in Christ we participate in the life of the one who says “Behold, I am making all things new”, then we have to be in but not of the world where fragmentary discourse holds court, to be fragments not of a broken world, but of God’s world, fragments that are a part of the whole, the katholikos, against which the gates of Hades cannot stand, fragments that by their nature deconstruct the whole into which they intrude and bring the light of God’s life into the world.

I have also realized that working in law (and policy, I’m interested in possibly doing a joint degree in law and public affairs/policy, though this would NOT necessarily entail working for any government) does not mean I cannot also be involved in teaching and formation. Indeed, I’ve started to strongly question whether the academy really is the appropriate venue for me to be involved in the formation of “active disciples”. I can still write, I can still publish, I can still do seminars, and maybe even classes. The basic law degree is a doctorate, and so still theoretically qualifies one to teach at a high level, even if it is a professional (not academic) doctorate – so if I did decide my vocational outworking was going to shift to the academy I would likely have to obtain a Ph.D. or Th.D. But I could teach in the church, which may be the place where we most need teachers. Not only that, but it turns out that the same gifts and abilities that would serve me well in academia also make me potentially very well-suited for the legal profession.

Please understand that I am not saying I have my theological metaphysics, politics, economics, dogmatics, and so on all figured out to the point where I don’t NEED further academic reflection on the issues. That could not be further from the truth. Nor am I saying that whatever legal work I would be doing is a substitute of some kind for the kind of work that can only be done by the church. Rather, I would be doing my work as a part of the church, as a part of taking the world I inhabit in Christ into the world I worked in my vocation. I would still hope to be a part of all the same kinds of things about which I’ve become passionate through networks such as Ekklesia Project, Jesus Radicals, and so on. Insofar as “calling” and “vocation” can be separated conceptually, I would see legal work as vocationally working out my calling from God to be a healer and peacemaker, within the call to the church to be a healing and peacemaking community. So theological reflection would necessarily be part and parcel of what I would do.

This has gotten kind of long, so I’m going to wrap it up now. I’d love to hear what people have to say about this. I haven’t even begun to get into some other difficulties I have with this decision, not the least of which is how I can take the oath to be admitted to the bar when I have so many anarchist sympathies. But I’ll continue thinking about that.



5 Responses

  1. Hey Jason,

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m commenting because I am on a very similar track to the one you are discussing. I am an M.Div./J.D. student through Pittsbugh Theological Seminary and Duquesne University School of Law. I did my first year at PTS, this year I’m at Duq, then I’ll do a year at both schools part time, then year 4 finish at Duq, then year 5 finish at PTS.
    Similar to your desires and calling I’ve been drawn toward Ph.D work and the academy. Though I have not quite written or taught as much as you have I’ve also wrestled with the longing/calling for the academy. (Btw, I appreciated the “love letters in the form of journal articles” bit). In my theological studies I’ve begun to focus on political, ethical, social concerns and the like. I suppose I look at studying those realms through theology at looking at them “from the outside” (even though theology gives a clearer picture in many ways). So I look at law (and I’ve worked in community development and follow policy matters somewhat) as a way to get at these realms “from the inside.” Seeing the inner machinations of local political or “development” concerns has in many ways confirmed my theological understanding, though I’m sure it has challenged or expanded it in many ways too.
    Anyway, I’m just writing this to introduce myself (I’ve posted a comment or two here before) in case you would want to talk any further. The possibilities for striving for the justice of the kingdom in law are manifold. As you alluded to, a law degree opens up a lot of possibilites, thus giving Christ that many more ways in which he can use you.Peace, Darren

  2. I’ve been following your blog for some time now, and I appreciate this post.

    I am currently working on a M.Div. (I have 1.5 years left–it’s a 90-hour program, which is way too long), and I entered seminary with the goal of continuing on to another master’s program for NT studies, and then on to a Ph.D. program. I’ve lost that desire over the last year or two, and have struggled with what I am going to do. Some friends and I are dedicated to living in a depressed area of downtown, with a move coming in the next year or two. What will I do for a living? I have no idea. I enjoy teaching, but I don’t like the rigidity of the classroom. I am more apt to “teach” when it’s less contrived, less structured, less…well…academic.

    Also, for much of my young life, I wanted to go to law school. In fact, I was heading for Wabash College until my senior year of high school. Part of my desire to study law has returned for the exact reasons you mentioned above. Yet, I also have struggled to weigh the privileged position which I inhabit that allows me to have so much education. Does that make sense?

    In the end, I believe the Spirit of God will guide both you and I, and that Spirit will never lead us astray.

    May God’s wisdom find you quickly!

    P.S. Keep up the blogging. I enjoy reading your thoughts.

  3. Well, I was wondering the other day under what circumstances would it be biblical for a Christian to become a lawyer, and looky here – you’ve made it plain.

    I read the whole thing, and it’s got me thinking.

  4. While I don’t share your specific faith what with myself being Unitarian and all), I share the religious conviction of doing sacred work through secular institutions and under secular government (provided it fits into an understanding of a sacred order). I think you’d be an incredible boon to your communities if you practiced law, and I think that it would genuinely be a boon for the practice of law itself.

    Academia is frustrating in its contentment and isolation, and so I can understand the strong rational arguments against joining their ranks. Fortunately, Academia will more or less always be there, and can be done later in life, or if law doesn’t work out well. Or if you just want a change of pace for a while. Academia certainly doesn’t have to be removed from the community or from real efforts for social change, but academia also doesn’t have the necessity to interact with the world outside, which makes community interaction always a voluntary thing instead of an obligation. I think you would do well there, and I think you’d have an ample following of disciples, but perhaps that can wait a few decades, after you have stories of your actual law experience to pass along.

    Best of luck!

  5. Well… there will always be psychos who want to study laws (hehehe).

    Now, seriously, I hope the best for you. I’m sure that people like you (and other guys at Jesusradicals, jesusmanifesto, etc) are the ones who will show the world why being an active christian doesn’t mean being an idiot war-monger, hate-monger, etc etc. I share the most (if not all) your religious-theological beliefs, and I wish you will do great in whatever academic program you decide to study.

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