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The Templeton Foundation: Boycott, Eschew, Avoid . . . Just. Say. No.

Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light . . .

I was a member of a swanky sorority at Emory for about five minutes.  I was enamored with three older girls who had played Rizzo, Frenchy and Patty to my Sandy in the Emory Ad Hoc theater performance of Grease, and I was flattered that cool girls wanted to be friends with a country mouse like me.  I mean, some of the girls in their sorority smoked cigarettes, and some had boyfriends whose families owned private jets.  But I quit the sorority during my sophomore year.

I learned two lessons in that one year of sorority life that have proven useful.  First, language matters.  If someone tells you not to worry your pretty little head about the specific words being used in any language game, suspect that game is off-kilter.  Our peer “chaplain” in the sorority was Jewish.  Michelle (not her real name) was truly gifted as a wise mentor.  She would have made a wonderful rabbi.  But in her role as “chaplain” Michelle had to direct rituals made from a cheap-baroque mishmash of vaguely Trinitarian theology and pseudo-Greco-classical tripe about Father Trident.  I nearly broke up with snorts of laughter during one of our most solemn, candle-lit rituals, because the sorority’s whole language system was utter nonsense.  It seemed all wrong, on multiple levels.  Michelle should not have had to employ that weird, pretend-Christian-Greek-Myth script in order to serve as our guide.  Christian girls in the room should have been, at the very least, aesthetically grossed out by the absurd liturgy.  Really, we were on the verge of adulthood, and we were all repeating words we could not actually mean, because they didn’t actually mean anything.  Sunday School Sandra Dee that I was, I remember worrying for days over the ways that terms ostensibly central to and embedded in my own faith had been used and reshaped into spiritual spam (spam meaning fake meat, not internet trash) by our “founding sisters.”

Second, language matters.  Sisterhood?  Was that what sorority life was about?  Sisterhood?  During our first “rush” I thought it was creepy that we were to rate each potential “sister” on a scale from 1 to 5.  Mind you, this was after visiting with a young woman for a total of about ten minutes.  In between “rounds,” we scribbled notes to ourselves on little spiral pads we’d hidden in the cushions under the couch.  This didn’t seem quite the right way to initiate real friendship.  Then, during the arduous (very earnest) conversation to sort potential sisters from discards, I noticed an icky pattern.  A few, influential, older sisters repeatedly used a term that I could not understand at first.  Certain young women were named as future “assets” to the sorority.  Assets?  How could a person be an asset?  I knew what “legacy” meant.  That meant that someone’s mother had been a member, and so she was already a sister, really.  But an asset?  Eventually, as one particular argument heated up, it became clear what the term meant.  The acceptance of a young woman I will politely categorize as having mean-girl, competitive tendencies toward other women was contested, and her fervent advocate insisted that, as an “asset,” this new sister would help us beat out another popular sorority for the coveted “first mixer” spot with one of the most affluent fraternities on campus.  Blech.  Really?  My “sorority” was sort of like a brothel, and we were assessing possible “friends” for how well they would attract groups of moneyed young men.  We were, in effect, pimping one another out.

I have seen with my own eyes a similar phenomenon in the theological academy.  I have watched some scholars promoted, chosen, or screened as possible “colleagues” due to their ability or inability to curry the favor of large donors.  To combine “Theological” and “Academy” is strange enough for a Christian, in that we are trying to figure out ways to understand, teach, and practice a faith that circles around a savior that did not screen his friends very well.  But when you add big money and stir, you have real potential for confused categories and, as a colleague politely put it, “opacity.”  And, when you add big money given according to the dictates of an eccentric gazillionaire who sought to correct Christianity itself with his own version of spirituality, things become really weird.

Try a mental experiment.  If Sun Myung Moon proposed to create a new discipline at the intersection of two major concepts, let’s say “Economics and Geography,” I would guess many scholars in the U.S. whose disciplines tangentially touch on either broad term would think twice before bragging they had been successful in securing a grant from Mr. Moon.  But, perhaps because Sir Templeton has a “Sir” and an English-gentlemanly-ish sort of name, Christian scholars have practiced all sorts of new linguistic gymnastics to fit ourselves within this late-Lord’s dream project of “Religion and Science.”  We have tried to modify our language to make ourselves into assets.

One story is indicative of a pattern.  Years ago, a young scholar who was poised, I was told, to “redefine the whole fracking field!” (paraphrase of a salty colleague) came to Duke and gave an interview lecture that really did redefine the field, but, in the process, also unequivocally named the moral turpitude of an industry headed up by a man we were courting for more money money kissy kissy.  This scholar was not an asset.   He did not get the job.  But, I contend that he would have made a good colleague.  He is to this day unselfconsciously curious about ideas and people.  He is generally more interested in reading and thinking and teaching and finding ways to communicate with other human beings than making himself sexy for some funder.  I am not sure it is a virtue, per se, on his part.  It is more a charism, really.  He is dispositionally suited to being a nerdy scholar.  I think he would have helped students to lose their fears more fully in the sometimes joyful, sometimes arduous process of learning and discovering an old fashioned thing called truth.  He would have been a good teacher and a good colleague.  But he didn’t fit into the right dress.

In the case of dancing with the Templeton Foundation in particular, scholars end up in a bizarre guessing game about how Sir John Templeton’s legacy will influence decisions about which projects will be funded.  I submit it is problematic for a scholar to be trying to match her steps to follow the lead of a donor.  Period.  Full stop.  It wastes lots of mental energy, and energy in the wrong direction, to learn how to follow a lead gracefully.  (Robert Thaves rightly noted the trickiness of such work, when he said Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels.)  But, now let’s make that leading dancer really, really weird, his decisions randomly extravagant and/or unpredictably dismissive, and you have the current situation in a created field of something called “Religion and Science.”  You have many, many creative, curious scholars, young and old, using up our precious time and our beautiful, God-given brains trying to train for and follow a dance that doesn’t make any sense.   If I were going to sabotage a generation of Christian thinkers interested in questions that circulate around faith and questions that circulate around how the non-human world is properly understood and cared for or appreciated or protected or whatever, I would come up with precisely a scheme like this one we have under a colossal entity called the Templeton Foundation.  This scheme would work really well during the Second Great Depression, right?  Given that every humanities scholar is trying to find a way to justify her very existence on the university planet of money money kissy kissy?

I am irrationally hoping my former sorority sisters don’t find out that I said we were pimps and prostitutes.  I still remember many of them with gratitude.  (The ones from Ad Hoc theater helped me think well about what thinking means, and what friendship means.)  Some sisters might recognize themselves in my description.  Others will no doubt be really pissed off and defensive.  No one wants to be compared to a pimp, much less a hooker.  I do hope that a few scholar friends will take a deep breath before defending themselves, and consider the possibility that the gifts that pulled them into the academy in the first place have been ill-used in the nebulous project that is Sir Templeton’s.  I hope that a few readers will find themselves reassured that they are not crazy for thinking that this game, this dance, this ritual of money-getting or losing is messed up.  We are not just bitter losers or gloating gainers for noting that something happens to the very definition of collegiality when a crucial sector (or two) in the Western academy is defined by one single, large, confusing foundation.  The ramifications for Christian scholarship may be less immediately obvious for theologians, perhaps, than for engineers in the field of mechanical engineering, which is dictated by funding from the massive defense industry.  But, as a Christian that takes my faith very seriously, I would submit that defining “religion” as a field is as loaded for the misuse of power as making bombs.  Christian scholars should jealously guard our capacity to think faithfully.  We should insist on working with our unhampered imaginations engaged, dancing forward, inquisitively, rather than backward, with one eye toward whether we are impressing our donor.  Our intellectual lives should prompt our students well to explore their own crucial, unique questions about what it means to be Christian and to think faithfully in this glorious, scary, intricate world.

Consider boycotting the Templeton Foundation, and using all of your individually fabulous gifts NOT trying to figure out how to get a grant from them, but instead trying to think through how the questions your students ask reverberate back into your own high-beam focus of scholarship, or trying to think about which novel might be sufficiently complicated to bring two divisively entrenched colleagues together to have a good, old fashioned argument about real words; or trying to bring your idiosyncratic interpretation of fascinating subject X, Y, or Z to a group of students in your local high security women’s prison; or reading the real words of your faculty handbook and thinking through how to organize with your colleagues to make your workplace more conducive to human flourishing.

One final word.  A colleague once announced bluntly and loudly to me, in a public place, that he would “be perfectly happy to take money from Adolph Hitler!”  After gulping back some startled tears, I suggested to him that we put Hitler aside for now, and just discuss the funder (not Templeton) in question at the time.  This colleague then accused me of thinking myself better than Mother Teresa.  Huh?  It was confusing.  (He is a rather loud and imposing colleague.)  When I came home and related, with exasperation, that this conversation had taken place, my older daughter didn’t miss a beat.  “You should have told him he is no Mother Teresa!”  That’s just it, isn’t it?  Mother Teresa may have been able to take big, weird, random and/or very ill-gotten money without reshaping her brain in order to try to figure out ways to get more of that money for her projects in the future.  If Mother Teresa had danced with Sir John Templeton, she would have led the damn dance.  But Mother Teresa is pretty rare.  I am no Mother Teresa.  And I bet you aren’t either.

If enough of us join in on this effort, it won’t be lonely.  You won’t be the one, obstinate sister (or brother) in the club who refuses to spend her energy trying to “wear that dress tonight.”  (For those of you who are really nerdy, God bless you, that is a lyrical reference to a song by the Police, called “Roxanne,” which is a meditation on the book of Hosea.)  So, let the awkward, human friendship and dance that is true scholarship continue.  May the fakery and hookery end.




Some of the arguments against the Templeton Foundation involve the apparent aversion, among their decision makers, to actual history; to tradition-based Christianity; to congregation-based Christianity; to trenchant cultural, specific theological, or historical criticisms of particular forms of scientific inquiry, technology, and/or marketing; and to any plausibly trenchant inquiry that begins from a suspicion of hierarchy, capitalism, or “science” as a “thing” (to quote a friend).  I am sympathetic to these content-based criticisms of the Foundation.  However, I wanted in this piece to draw attention to the befuddling form and the encompassing scope of the Foundation.

A few articles that might be useful, regarding more content-based criticisms.


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