Magazines 2019 May - Jun The FT Interview with Dr. Anna Robbins

The FT Interview with Dr. Anna Robbins

01 May 2019 , 2019 May - Jun

Anna Robbins was recently named the seventh president of Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, N.S., and dean of theology at Acadia University beginning July 1. She spoke about her optimism for the Church today and the role of collective repentance.

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Note: At Acadia, Anna Robbins has previously served as the Dr. Millard R. Cherry professor of theology, ethics and culture, and director of the Andrew D. MacRae Centre for Christian Faith and Culture. This interview was conducted by Faith Today editor Karen Stiller. Main photo for Faith Today by Zack Goldsmith. Photo of campus buildings Rusty Canuck / Shutterstock.com.

Faith Today: Congratulations on your appointment. How are you feeling about it all? How are you preparing yourself for this new role?

Anna Robbins: I feel on the one hand overwhelmed. There’s been a huge outpouring of excitement and congratulations. The level of excitement has been quite palpable and a bit overwhelming. I feel really supported through that, so that’s quite exciting. I’m excited for what’s coming. Of course, it’s daunting to step into such a role. It’s well known that these aren’t easy times for higher education and for theological higher education. But I’m excited because we’re poised, really, to thrive in this era.

We have an amazing faculty. We’re a newish faculty team. Lots of appointments made in recent years and you know, all the ideas that people have of what a mouldy theological faculty might look like, we’ve kind of blown out of the water. So I’m really excited about leading that team and seeing where God is going to take us in the future.

FT: How can we do better at preparing people for ministry or even bivocational life?

AR: Well for one thing it’s important that the people who are teaching have a sense of what the students are going to face when they graduate. Both in terms of opportunities and challenge, and I think that’s certainly the case for us.

I was raving about our faculty a moment ago, but I really think our faculty has a good grasp on contemporary church life. We’re all committed to the Church, we love the Church, we criticize the Church, like everyone who criticizes what they love because they want it to be so much better. And we all are aware of what many of the challenges are to the Church in the whole of the Western world today.

It’s just happening in some ways much more rapidly in Canada – we have secularized very quickly. At the same time that sometimes degenerates into a negative downward spiral where we’re always telling each other what’s wrong and how to fix it, and those kinds of things. And I just think we need to change the conversation, and talk more about what is our potential and what are we doing well. And what are we called to do in these times?

And it might not look like it looked a generation ago. In fact, I’ll be really surprised and shocked if it does. Having said that, I don’t think we know exactly what it will look like, and it might look like a lot of different things. So I think the challenge for us, as well as the opportunity, is to provide the education for students so that they’re ready to be responsive, flexible, nimble to the challenges and opportunities that are available to them as they graduate, and look for where God is leading them.

And as you said, for some it will be bivocational, probably increasingly so. For some there will still be, I think, thriving churches looking for good, solid leaders who are able to take those same gifts and skills into an established congregation that is thriving. So it’s a complex task, but it’s an awful lot of fun.

FT: This idea that we’ve adopted that "things were better before," and you are a voice pushing back on that. Can you unpack that? Where is this sunny optimism of yours coming from?

AR: Well I think I’m optimistic because I believe in Jesus Christ resurrected and the power of the Holy Spirit, so that’s the source of my optimism. I think we’ve got stuck in this mantra of "things were better before." I actually have spoken quite extensively on this, and I’m continuing to do research on it in terms of where that comes from in our culture.

I think we’ve done a terrible disservice to young people coming up through the Church, to have left them in a place where they think everything was better before. They need to believe that they are going to be able to do it better than their parents did and their grandparents did and so on. But that’s not the message we’ve given. It seems that there’s a feeling that because the Church was thriving in terms of numbers and its public voice and its influence in culture and so on before, that now it’s all bad.

The Christian hope isn’t in the past. The Christian hope is always looking forward to the future and the consummation of the Kingdom and the coming of Christ.

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But this is a time of incredible opportunity, and it wasn’t necessarily better before. Some things were better before, and some things weren’t better before. So people say, "Well, now it’s complex. We have to think things through in a different way." Well, is that a bad thing? I think there are many things that are better and there are things that are worse, and thus it has always been and always will be. The challenge changes, that’s all.

FT: It’s not a very creative posture to think things were better before.

AR: No, it’s completely defeatist. Theologically, if we look at what C. S. Lewis, for example, had to say about that, he said it was a misplaced sense of yourself. That you are always looking backwards, and you try to keep something alive that is dead instead of looking forward where the Christian hope is actually placed.

The Christian hope isn’t in the past. The Christian hope is always looking forward to the future and the consummation of the Kingdom and the coming of Christ. So if we’re stuck in that cultural moment as Christians, we’re perhaps not embracing the whole of our theology and our faith.

FT: I attended Urbana this year, which of course is the large student missions conference, and one thing that really struck me was an ongoing spirit of communal repentance, clearly a message that these younger Christians need to hear, that the Church is saying, "We are sorry for things that we did wrong." That is a looking back too, but a healthier looking back, right?

AR: That’s definitely a different kind of looking back, and actually collective repentance has been a centre of my research in ethics for a number of years. I have written on it and published in journals on this issue because, again, with the individualization that happened in culture, that of course was part and parcel of how the Church manifested itself as well.

And you know, it’s all about "me and Jesus." "I come to the garden alone." "I’m sorry for my sin." There’s no sense that there could be a "we’re sorry," that we’ve done stuff. That I might not have done as an act of my individual will, but I participated in or at least I didn’t stop, or I didn’t deny, or I’ve benefitted from.

This is a reality in Scripture from the very beginning and throughout, and it’s an important part of what it means to be human. Not to abandon the individual and the idea of the individual, because that’s crucial too in the gospel. But to not abandon, at the same time, that God’s people are God’s people together. And that we are a new people and one in Christ in the same way that in the Old Testament the community of God was responsible for their actions.

FT: Does collective repentance for the Church serve the same purpose of repentance in my own life?

AR: Well I hope that as an individual repenting, you access the forgiveness of Christ and you are reconciled to Christ. And I think it affects the same work of Christ’s reconciliation that goes out from the cross and returns all things back to Him. When we recognize that together we have done things in the past that have been clearly wrong, in the same way we are recognizing that we’ve been culpable, we can access the forgiveness of the people who have been wronged, and God’s forgiveness. And it affects reconciliation then, not only between individuals and families, but in communities and between countries, populations. It shows that the reconciliation that’s possible in Christ is vast beyond measure.

FT: The Church should be an expert at reconciliation. Can you speak to that? How can the Church be even more active in Canada with this important work of reconciliation?

AR: Yeah, I mean you think we would be better at it than we are. But again, we’ve been part of a culture with such an individualized message that we find it very difficult to grapple with issues like what does somebody else feel when they see a particular statue? You know, we can see it from our perspective, but are we able to get out of our cultural skin and understand how someone else might respond to it? Or, regarding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, I’ve heard people say things like, "Why don’t they just get over it and we can move on? When is this reconciliation thing over?"

We think deep thoughts and we read thick books, but our goal is always to bring it back to the level of the Church in a way that builds the Church up and equips the Church for meeting the challenges of culture today.

FT: What is your vision for the next few years at Acadia?

AR: Acadia has always been very clear in its mission, that our mission is for the Church and for the preparation of leaders for the Church. I think that we’ll continue, of course, to do that.

And that’s been manifested in recent times through things like the establishment of the MacRae Centre, which is a centre for supporting Christians, and exploring the relationship between faith and culture. It helps us to stay on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the culture and in churches.

At the same time, the resources we’re producing and the research we’re doing is, I hope, also benefitting the Church, and that’s become not only something that happens within the centre itself, but it has permeated the whole work of the college. I would say our Old Testament courses and New Testament courses connect people with what’s happening in the world today. I would say there’s no ivory tower really where we are.

We think deep thoughts and we read thick books, but our goal is always to bring it back to the level of the Church in a way that builds the Church up and equips the Church for meeting the challenges of culture today.

FT: Thank you, Anna.

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