Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Task of the Theologian

I’m an arrogant jerk. If you really press me, I think you’ll find this is true. Granted, I may act and speak generously, but ultimately I know that I am right on pretty much every opinion I hold. After all, aren’t we all?

This post may appear rather enigmatic to those familiar with my choice of topics. But I feel compelled to elucidate a nagging reality. I have the disease of the theologian. Perhaps I should provide some qualifications before I begin: I in no way mean to devalue the importance of theological education. Anyone who knows me even in a “surface-level” manner knows I would never advocate such a thing. I believe theological education is necessary and demanded of us as the Church. I believe as Christians we must speak about God, and since we speak about God our speech ought to be carefully considered. I believe a solid theological foundation can be the balm for much of what ails the American Church. I am a student of theology because I believe it is one of the highest callings one could commit their life to pursuing.

With that being said, I nonetheless recognize a growing disease within me. Let me explain. It seems that students of theological education go through a common journey. As one is introduced to the depth of theological study a dark cynicism begins to grow. This cynicism develops partly out of anger at never being exposed to good theology before (note to pastors and teachers). But once this anger subsides it is easy to develop cynicism based upon a feeling of superiority. Now that we have this knowledge (which we ought to have had all along), we are morally superior to those who lack it. Not only that, but clearly our opinion ought to be the normative one in cases of theological sparring since we possess an understanding our “opponent” does not. This intellectual hubris is subversive and we often fail to realize its penetrating influence. Being theologically educated does not mean one no longer needs to listen critically to the thoughts of the less informed. Did not God bring to shame the pride of the learned? Theological education is a glorious thing when it compels us to love God and our neighbor more completely, but if our theology is used to truncate the personhood of our neighbor then we have committed a grave crime to both our neighbor and theology itself.

Christians often speak of a bifurcation between “head” and “heart”. If such a distinct bifurcation exists, I do not believe either component can be elevated above the other. The Christian life is most balanced when the head and heart work cooperatively. It is when one gets ahead of the other that problems ensue if the other lags behind for a considerable period of time. It is quite possible to consider passion and charisma as the ultimate marks of a “good Christian.” But passion and charisma can lead one into easy disaster if passion is not tempered with a solid theological foundation.

Yet for students of theology this is rarely the pitfall with which we flirt. For us, it is much easier to hide behind our books while our hearts become calcified. In striving to know evermore about God, we fail to actually know God. There is a world of difference, but again the two must be in constant contact with one another. A simple personal analogy demonstrates my point: as you grow in friendship with another you gain information about that person, but you also gain a personal understanding of who that person is. If all you have is information about another but no personal interaction with that other, no real relationship exists. You can know a person’s height, weight, desires, dreams, etc. but unless you actually interact personally you never truly know the person. Conversely, if you interact with that person you will desire to know more about that person. You want to know why he/she acts the way he/she does and what it is that makes he/she tick. No real relationship can exist if you are not constantly learning more about them.

The two components must be held in tension with one another. There is no being more compelling and fascinating to discover than the Almighty God. Thus, the discipline of theology is by nature a compelling discipline. It pulls you in and the deeper you go the more you want to know and the more you realize you don’t know. Theological study should be a humbling and exciting enterprise. Karl Barth said, “The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science.” (Church Dogmatics II/1, p. 656)

With all that being said, I believe the solution to the disease of the theologian can be found within theology itself. As Barth indicates theology is not done properly if it is not done joyfully, and it cannot be done joyfully unless one knows personally the subject of his/her study. In other words, the disease of the theologian is not so much a theological disease; rather it is an ailment spawned from a perversion of the theological task; a perversion so subversive it often appears we are honoring the task. My prayer is that we budding theologians would recognize when we have abandoned the beauty of our task, and that the Spirit of God would chide us back into the true and humble path of the theologian.

Praise be to God who can do more than we could ever imagine.


::athada:: said...

I'm connecting on so many levels here - thanks.

I was talking yesterday to my IWU CM friend about some of our friends back home who went to "that" Bible college, where they blindly just "accept what the Bible says and don't impose man's wisdom on it - just do what the Bible says," which of course the first naive concept that our IBS course shatters here. I know it is one very small step to spiritual hubris when we speak like this, even as we appreciate our education and still hold it to be true.

I remember hearing a wise person saying (something along the lines of) that we don't necessarily need a deeper understanding of the details of the Scriptures more than we need a deeper commitment to its simple truths. "Consider your neighbor better than yourself"? That's radical enough for several lifetimes of love!

Shane Claiborne says of the New Monastic communities ( that he sees them as that best balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy he has seen. Their theologizing is on the street, as life is lived... that's one way I guess.

Scott Hendricks said...

Ben, I am sure of what the solution is: (as you have said) Prayer; Worship; The Bible Being a Christian. We cannot be theologians before we are Christians (baptized and anointed into Jesus, having received the Holy Spirit). The best theologians will be motivated by the task of articulating the Christian faith because our God must be proclaimed to all creation.