Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowly learning.
— Mary Oliver
When I try to capture my sense of the theological vocation, I am drawn to think about whom the theologian serves through the analogy of a what: “Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart.” I envision the theologian serving the dialogue between God and the world.
The conversation is personal, and flows from my experience of God’s continual presence in my life. God invites and sends, cajoles and confronts, assuages and empowers me. I am no ideal conversation partner, “never a quick scholar,” all too easily distracted and caught up in maelstroms of my own making. I’ve often thought the theological vocation was God’s clever way of keeping my attention. Yet there are moments when I listen and learn how to receive and respond, when “I wake with a thirst for the goodness I do not have.”
Although this conversation is dialogical it is not narrow. It comes to me through the mediation of both the church and world. These voices express in vivid forms the length and breadth of the conversation, of God’s continual sending of Christ to the world through the Holy Spirit and the ongoing incarnation of God’s kingdom that occurs when the Word is received and embodied.
Being baptized into the conversation entails a corresponding responsibility to it—and surely not a responsibility that is the theologian’s alone. Yet the theologian serves the conversation by facilitating it. My role is to hear the questions the world asks in a complex mix of longing, joy, anguish, and hope. The way to know these questions is to love the ones who ask, from the cradle-Catholic seeking further understanding of a familiar faith to the atheist for whom religion is literally incredible. These are the people to whom God speaks. In service to the conversation I have a responsibility to ensure their voices are heard, their realities addressed, and their gifts acknowledged.
I have a responsibility as well to the “other side” of the conversation, God’s revelation as it has been expressed through sacred scripture and living tradition within the church (itself a product of God’s dialogue with the world). That service is not simple. Rooted in the knowledge that arises from love of God and others, it also requires tools of the theological trade: attention to complex histories and sources; discernment of how past ideas, texts, and contexts are developed and received; a sense for how essential truths about God, human beings, and creation intertwine.
By serving both sides of the conversation I assist the coherent articulation and reception of God’s revelation. “Coherent” may seem a dry word, but to me it has two levels of meaning. First, it points to the centrality of critical reasoning for theology’s creative process, which attempts to describe mystery in meaningful ways. Second, coherence means “stickiness,” the glue that binds conversation partners together, allowing us to move from mutual understanding to shared vision and action. Coherent theology is potentially transformative for individuals and communities, and it transforms me as well.
While I think the theologian’s service is important, in the end it is one part of the conversation, a form of discipleship and service: “Who knows what will finally happen or where I will be sent, yet already I have given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst, I am slowly learning.”
Mary Oliver, “Thirst,” Thirst, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006), 69.