Arrival: The Post(Modern) University, Secret Agents, and the Value of Discretion

Last time I described the predicament I face as a 21st-century historian of Christianity. I welcome students wanting a more nuanced curriculum, and I enjoy revisiting and reframing older lectures after massive changes in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Women's Rights Movements, and parallel developments in the LGBTIQ communities. Frankly, all along I anticipated teaching an updated version of what I had been taught decades earlier. But while I have found curricular developments both challenging and rewarding, it is not the curriculum that has forced me into overdrive. Overdrive has resulted from the unwritten requirement that I use my experience as a hybrid theologian/historian to do what campus ministries ought, but are simply not equipped to do: help students from diverse religious backgrounds repair their spiritual lives after having them decimated, even uprooted, upon arrival at today's university.

This requirement results in a role lacking clear rules and calling for deep cover. Nobody discusses it openly, but I am a secret agent entrusted with the spiritual development of more and more students whose needs remain unmet regardless of university wisdom, whatever its conventions. My role is secret because the (post)modern university is unabashedly secular--yet "here I stand," in the possibly-apocryphal-but-still-useful words of Martin Luther, "I can do no other." Moreover, were I to proclaim my role at, say, a university-wide faculty meeting too bluntly, I might raise eyebrows for my "unmutual" breach of the agnostic/humanist wall many still assume surrounds even religion departments. Yet those same academics, whatever their suspicion of religion departments, can actually breathe easier given my covert activities: for it is I, not they, who must translate the conflicting signals of pop culture, religion, ethics, philosophy, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Nietzsche into something resembling a spirituality (tweaked with theological shreds and cobbled with ethical patches) students can embrace, if only to ward off the omnipresent threats of nihilism and anomie foreseen years ago in the emerging post-everything university by sociologist Peter Berger. I occupy a fragile bubble within a sterile climate, charged with the clandestine duty of not only educating, but also edifying students. An academic secret agent like myself must learn to cope while offering students an improbable and tentative hope, therefore all the more audacious and clearly off the books.

I cannot complain about my training, however: I have long been on course to become a secret agent. I started musing on the issues of secret agency already in 1970 as the Lutheran heresy trials at Concordia Seminary (St. Louis) raged on a tightly-knit, but increasingly uncontrollable campus. My three-years-plus of research in West Germany, however, just before demolishing Bee Gees records became trendy, proved especially fruitful. Indeed, I experienced the mid-1970s mere kilometers from the Iron Curtain, within an environment drawing more than just theology students to Wolfenbüttel. Leonard Forster, Schröder Professor of German at Cambridge, eventually revealed to have been a WWII Bletchley code-breaker, comes to mind. And he was


Lunch, Anna-Vorwerk-Haus, Wolfenbüttel, ca. 1978; l. to r., far side
of the table, rust-red sweater, John Stroup; Paul Raabe, Herzog August Library director and thus successor to Leibniz; Prof. Leonard Forster; others include UNESCO veteran Mechtild Raabe; Flacius expert
Oliver K. Olson; photographer, lunch-originator, and KPM-porcelain expert
Brigitte Braun; and Reinhart-Koselleck-student and Suhrkamp-editor
Horst Günther [blogger's personal collection]

not the only secret agent drawn to the finest ducal library turned research institute in Lower Saxony. While contemporary academics take deadly wine and cheese colloquia as a necessary, albeit baneful, portion of their service to the Academy, the Riesling was never sourer nor the Handkäse (and Schweineschmalz) quite so ... memorable ... as during such Wolfenbüttel gatherings. I learned much from the true narratives of characters, academic and para-academic, who might otherwise strike one as fictional. Hans-Heinrich Solf in particular stands out, not just for his red Spahi cloak, but more for his reminiscences of imprisonment by the Gestapo in the roundups before (or after?) the failed briefcase bomb attempt. But his was not the only story or flavor of worldview shared ....

Questions of food safety and ambience aside, such episodes, in Germany and elsewhere, made me consider the ethical and ironical implications of my chosen path. They showed me post-Reformation theology was trickier and riskier in theory and practice than supposed. Subtle comments by my interlocutors forced me to consider the duplicitously transformative potential of their words. Often, I would use my wineglass to shield myself from questions about my own "agenda," why I had become a Knight Templar of sorts, a clandestine operative hell-bent on preserving some sense of Western civilization and Christian humanism in a world that increasingly sought to tear such values asunder. I learned the importance of silently gathering information and of trying to break the "codes" governing my existence in this quietly perilous world (and Foucault had not yet reached full popularity). I learned to keep one set of observations for public consumption, and to record with care everything else to preserve the integrity of my own mission. My colorful wine and cheese encounters overseas and later at home broke through the naïve enthusiasm that had driven me hitherto, teaching me that all player-pawns in every corner of the Village necessarily assumed the demeanor of a secret agent to hide their true ideological agendas (sometimes even from themselves). Discretion in my approach to both spoiled cheese and topics of conversation became a matter of survival. No one was just a scholar...

Such moments have helped prepare me for where and how I now serve in the Village. Is the maxim, "A still tongue makes a happy life" fitting for life in My Village? I am not entirely certain, but I know it has some merit. Much has happened to me post-Wolfenbüttel of course. The next installment will explore how I encountered the Village Labour Exchange in the late-1970s--and the paradoxical results of learning how my human resources might best be mined, exploited, and exhausted. But again, my entry will serve a dual purpose, to explain first why I got pulled inextricably into secret agency, then also why I have become so taken with the theme of Secret Agents in contemporary North American and British cultures. I may even drop further names, cumbersome and difficult to pronounce....

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