A Feature Review of
The Mind in Another Place: My Life as a Scholar
Luke Timothy Johnson
Reviewed by Stephen Kamm
In his preface to The Mind in Another Place: My Life as a Scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson (professor emeritus at Candler School of Theology and an esteemed New Testament scholar) muses that his family probably knows little of what it means to be a scholar, a thought he finds unsettling. “They have no idea about much of what I devoted my best energies to in my long working life.” In the epilogue, he suggests his book is also for “that large group that may or may not have some acquaintance with academic types but who have little sense of what scholars actually do.” What, the question might be asked, does a scholar do on a Wednesday afternoon? The Mind in Another Place fleshes out an answer.
For those who assume that a scholar’s life is filled with long walks down tree-lined streets and slow afternoons writing under the comfortable blanket of tenure, Johnson’s story suggests otherwise. His is a life of unrelenting effort. Specifically, Johnson recounts, in some detail, “the persistence and energy necessary to carry out the process of discovery and analysis, and the emotional and intellectual strength required to overcome the inevitable discouragement that accompanies writing, publication and review.” He takes the work very seriously, and he has little patience for those who do not. “Every competent member of every university, college, or seminary department in the nation knows that some colleagues are helium-headed dullards, poseurs, charlatans.”
Nothing in the book suggests that Johnson has the slightest familiarity with those qualities. For example, upon completing his well-received work The Creed, he notes, “The penny dropped, and I was able to perceive the categories that would enable me to forge a completely new way of analyzing the nexus between Greco-Roman religion and Christianity.” Johnson wrote The Creed later in his career when a scholar might have been excused for resting a bit, a disposition with which Johnson appears constitutionally incapable. “I have never wasted time, and I have never allowed circumstances to be an excuse for less than full effort.”
Admittedly, unrelenting effort is not the most engaging narrative thread for an academic memoir. And, in truth, the book does lag a bit when simply chronicling one event followed by another. But it also becomes clear that Johnson’s prodigious effort and output are, at least in part, motivated by something other than curiosity and accolades. Born Timothy Johnson, he took the name Luke as a novitiate in the process of becoming a monk. Later ordained a priest, and weathering, at times, a discomfiting relationship with the Catholic church, he remained motivated by “the love of learning and the desire for God.” Indeed, he understood his academic calling as one carried out coram Deo, “before God.”
As such, the energy and commitment he brings to academic inquiry are a blend of curiosity and piety. “Scholarship, like all other human endeavors, has always seemed to me secondary to the serious business of becoming a certain kind of person.” That kind of person is a “saint,” the pursuit of which was his “singular ambition,” a goal that must “transcend all others.” The calling to sainthood, a belief in the process of sanctification, is the singular reason he understands his mind to be “in another place,” a disposition he would also call “passionate detachment.”
Johnson lists detachment as one of five moral virtues (courage, discipline, persistence, contentment, detachment) necessary to be an accomplished scholar. They are all qualities evident in his account, and they yield what is perhaps the most interesting and, sadly, least developed aspect of Johnson’s story: he was a bit of an iconoclast who wouldn’t fit comfortably into the “traditionalist” or “progressive” camp. As one fellow scholar noted, he was “a contrarian of the most constructive sort.” Moreover, there is little sense that Johnson paid much attention to such categories. He is not attempting to map a middle ground between ideological polarities. Rather, his blend of piety, which bubbles up consistently throughout the narrative, and his particular scholarly approach simply locates positions on both sides of the aisle.
Some will remember him for his engagement with, and critique of, the Jesus Seminar, an effort by a group of academics to assess the historicity of Jesus’s deeds and sayings. In Johnson’s The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and The Truth of the Traditional Gospels, he addresses the “naive conceptions of history . . . erratic use of evidence . . . and inflated claims” of the Seminar’s efforts and publications. He received praise from quarters with which he did not identify (“Christians who considered all critical thought concerning faith destructive”) and condemnation from fellow academics for what they perceived to be a “sarcastic and dismissive” treatment of fellow scholars. (He would describe his efforts as “crisp” and “direct.”)
Johnson did not intend to be polemical for traditionalists. Rather, he sought to recapture the “living Jesus” as “not simply a historical figure of the past but a living presence in the present: the standpoint of believers is that the resurrection of Jesus defines his reality, with the resurrection understood not as an event of the past but an existential condition of the present.” Notably, the experience of the individual is central to Johnson’s scholarly efforts. “Theology must be always ‘contextual,’ that is, emerge from and respond to actual human experience in the world.” And, also, “Whatever thinking I would do in subsequent life, it would be based not on abstractions but on contact with and reflection on actual human experience.”
The weight Johnson gives to experience is perhaps why, after flirting with the possibility of teaching at Duke Divinity School, he concluded, “It turned out I was a lot more theologically liberal, in the long run, than I usually acknowledged—at least by comparison to the faculty at Duke.” Notably, this deference to experience would lead him to “gaining a chastened stance with regard to the mystery of human sexuality that eschewed the easy and simplistic postures that proliferate around this difficult topic.” Here he would break with the Catholic church’s official teaching on human sexuality.
Whatever else might be said about Johnson’s life as a scholar, the fact that he is lauded by both traditionalists and progressives is intriguing. It is also the least developed theme of his reflections. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that Johnson doesn’t feel a particular need to account for where he ‘lands’ concerning contemporary social or political discourse. He is, in the end, simply a scholar and he arrives where he arrives using all his considerable learning and effort.
Except there is a tension at the heart of his reflections. On the one hand, he is a person of faith, called to live in obedience to faith’s demands as understood through tradition and text. As such, when he preaches he is no longer a scholar examining the biblical text but “stands under the authority of the text.” He will also say that “witness, after all, is measured not by success but by fidelity.” On the other hand, he is committed to the phenomenological enterprise of accepting the experience of individual believers as an equally authoritative source of belief and practice. How do these two threads cohere? Where do these commitments clash? Where do they enhance one another? That would be a reflection well worth reading.