Discerning a call for another theological space?

I do not know how many times the question has come up for me over the last decade.  Which question?  “What do you plan to do with THAT?”  The topic in question?  My area of study.  Often times this question is raised merely in a pragmatic sense.  As a husband and father of two, people want to know how the study of theology will open employment opportunities for me.  This question seems particularly pointed since I left the practice of law in order to pursue this degree and career path.  Often, I join in asking that question.  What WILL I do with this degree?  Does it make good practical sense as a married lay person to pursue this path as a career and what does it really mean to be a theologian anyway?

It is those very questions, and various forms of them, that I think is even advanced by this blog.  As it says in the very first post:

…our aim here is faith seeking understanding in everyday life.  We hope to examine questions and issues that pertain to the role of theology in the daily life of the Body of Christ.  Our topics might range from pop culture to politics, liturgy to dialogue, economics to ecclesiology.  No matter the focus, our goal will always be to contribute in a meaningful way to the broader conversation in the contemporary Catholic and Christian context.

In a special way, we hope this conversation will involve not only those who work in ministry and academia, but all of the baptized; indeed, any who are interested are encouraged to join.”

Buried in that initial post are certain assumptions about what theology is, how it relates to the everyday, who is involved and where it is done.  In thinking about those assumptions, I again was reminded of those initial questions raised at the beginning of this post.

Those questions seem to be on the minds of quite a number of people including those who are involved in this blog.  Amanda in her first post alludes to some of these concerns obliquely when she spoke of how she “knew that martyrdom on the altar of academia does not a holy person make.”  I could be reading into that phrase more than what is there but it seems to be that under that statement by Amanda there are questions regarding the relationship between theology, the academy, the church, a holy life, career and vocation.  Katie, in her compelling first post that raised the question of vocation directly, pursued these lines of thought even further.  (These topics have also appeared on other blogs I follow.  In the last few days these questions are being asked from many different angles.  See a wonderful reflection by Bridget that raises the issue of the relationship between ministry and academic theology.  My friend Meghan also eloquently discusses how theology, vocation and ethics came together for her in a powerful way.)  These posts make me wonder:  If one feels called to be a theologian — must one be in the academy?  Must we publish or perish or we aren’t really theologians?  What good is theology in the “real world” anyway?  It is these types of questions that are really buried underneath the original question asked of me.

These questions have been raised in many circles and in many different ways.  There are too many examples in various places but recently I have revisited a couple of powerful reminders.  In his brilliant book Discerning the Mystery, Andrew Louth wonders about the nature of theology.  In attempting to raise discussion rather than assume assent on the topic, Louth’s book is “written out of a consciousness of division in modern theology, and beyond that in the life of the Church.” (pg xi.) He then discusses various aspects of division he sees in theology due to the nature of our very fragmented culture as a whole.  Without rehearsing his whole argument, it suffices to say for my purposes here that at issue is that Louth thinks that theology is really only unified in the idea of “living the mystery – the idea that theology is not just perception of, but response to, the mystery of God in Christ.” (pg xiv.)  In his 1998 book Mystical Theology:  The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology, Mark McIntosh looks at some of the questions I am raising when he analyzes the split between theology and spirituality.  In his work, he wishes to raise the possibility of renewed conversation between spirituality and theology while making an argument for the renewal of classical “mystical theology”.  Michael Himes in his book Doing the Truth in Love also wants to talk about how service and theology go hand in hand for all of us.  What good is theology in the “real world”?  He asks:

So, are you engaged in theology?  Of course you are.  Every time you ask a question like ‘Why should I get out of bed this morning?’ you are dealing with what is ultimately a theological issue.  Getting out of bed or pulling the covers over one’s head because you cannot face the world is a statement about the meaning of life, about your standard of good and evil, of right and wrong, of value or worthlessness.  One might name that standard in different ways; one name for it is God.  You are involved with thinking about God all the time.  You may avoid it.  Of course, you may not always be engaged in thinking about some ‘supreme being’ out there in the great beyond.  But, then, that has nothing to do with what we as Christian believers mean by ‘God’.  Even atheism is a kind of theology .  After all, to say that God does not exist means that you have some meaning attached to the word ‘God’ and that you have decided that the meaning is not realized in fact.  Even that is a form of talking about God, of theology. (86-87)

It seems that whether it is in the blogs that I mentioned or in these academic texts, the questions keep arising.  I would like to add two further specific questions that I think is lurking behind all these questions, “What if I am called to be a theologian but I am not called to the academy?  Where does one do theology if one is not called to the academy?”

Academic theology is a love of mine.  I respect it deeply and see the need for it for the Church.  I can see myself immersed in it.  And I know where academic theology is done and for what audience.  But what Louth, McIntosh and Himes seem to suggest in their writings is that there needs to be more theology in different modes, for different audiences and that takes involvement, practice and participation seriously.  I hear this suggestion and my heart skips with joy.  Is there another possibility?  Is the academic world the only place for the suggestion of Louth, McIntosh and Himes?  Could we imagine such a place outside the academy — where the fragmentation reported in various places by various people — theology and spirituality, subjective and objective, intellect and will, theory and practice, ministry and academics — where these things are held together?  Could there be a space that wasn’t in opposition to academic theology but was interrelated with it?  In Jean Leclercq’s book The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Leclercq points out that in the 12th century, the Church experienced the high point of just such another space for theology.  This space had its own methods and its own genre for writing.  This theology assumed a deepened prayer life, a diverse and rich practice of hospitality and service and rigorous thinking that helped to further understand and explore the Christian mysteries.  This theology was not done in a school but was done in a monastery.

Are the many who are discussing these topics looking for the equivalent of a “monastic theology” for non-monastics?  Where would this be done?  Practically, how could such theologians be paid and have a career in this new space?  Would these theologians bridge the gap between parishes and the academy?  Is this the reason so many of my friends in academic theology speak of not feeling like they fit either in or outside the academy even though they are solid thinkers who excel in their studies and who are deep practitioners of their faith?  Are these questions the results of larger and larger numbers of lay people pursuing theology and ministry in the church over the last 40 years?  Are these questions the fruit of successful high school and undergraduate campus ministry faith and mission programs?

In future posts, I am sure I will articulate my attempts to make sense of these questions in different ways.  For now though, I only invite public discussion and dialogue in order to allow the imagination of fellow “theologians” (with degrees or without, in the academy or not) to poke, prod and find space for something to take shape.  I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

5 responses to “Discerning a call for another theological space?

  1. This is an immense topic, and at 6:39 p.m. my energy is flagging. A few brief thoughts. With the Tanner Lectures on Human Values this spring at Yale, philosopher-novelist Rebecca Goldstein asked where one can do philosophy by writing novels (she’s obviously trying). I would ask a similar question of academically trained theologians who don’t want to do theology in academia: Can you do theology adequately as literature or cinema? As in Goldstein’s debate with philosopher Harry Frankfurt and novelist Michael Cunningham demonstrated, it depends on what you think makes for good theology. If you need to nail down The Truth, perhaps not. If you want to open doors and windows, lay down bridges and send out invitations, I think so. (Thoughts on the Goldstein event at http://stevendeedon.wordpress.com/category/on-writing/ ) Whether you want to do theology as literature or cinema, that’s another question.

    • Steve:

      Thanks for your points and you are right about how immense a topic this is. It has come up often for me in my thinking, my research and in conversations with professors and my peers. I think you are right to point out that one of the questions is “what makes good theology”? I had a professor say to me quite provocatively “that most theology done today is NOT theology”. In exploring what he intended by that, we got into discussions of how questions of method have taken over the scene. He also discussed that what “real theology” is for him — looks more like the mystical theology and monastic theology of old. Now whether I agree that Lonergan’s epistemological and methodological questions are not theology while Pseudo- Dionysius’ Mystical Theology is theology — there does seem to be some kind of breach here. I find this lines up with spiritual practice questions too. Evagrius Ponticus said a “A true theologian prays, and one who truly prays is a theologian.” — linking practice and words about God together in a strong way. Maybe it is because I deal with dialogue with Buddhists that I notice how practice (meditation and ritual) and theory (philosophy) are held tightly together. We have had similar insights in the West. We find this especially in contextual theology, liberationist, feminist, post-colonial, etc — where there is a strong link to holding praxis and theory together in critique of Enlightenment assumptions about epistemology. Plus the average person in the pew wonders what theology offers us if it is just abstraction and done in a classroom for other expert thinkers that they do not understand.

      So my post was me wondering aloud if these categories are all being re-negotiated in some way and if this is what has been happening for quite some time now. If we are re-discovering as Pierre Hadot points out (and Evagrius mentioned) — that good thinking is inherently linked with “a way of life”, then how can we re-link the thinking and the “way of life” in stronger ways? When I cite Leclerq’s views about monastic theology — he seems to point out in his book the split between the scholar who is trying to do what scholars do — and which is helpful for monks — and what monks do — which is living fully a way of life that is all about God. Are more and more contemporary non-monks looking for something like this? Does this fit in with the split between pastoral work and academic work that I hear discussed in seminaries and such? Does this fit in with the problems people cite about catechesis in the church (that they don’t really understand theology and how it helps them live the faith)?

      And then if we decide we do need theologians who are writing for that type of context, where can they do this as the academy has its own pressures (tenure, publishing, research, conferences) and do not leave enough time for praxis, reflection and communication to non-academics. How could theologians make a living doing this if not supported by universities?

      I guess the question I want to end with, in order to provoke further discussion and thinking is this: What if “nailing down The Truth” (as you call it in your comment) is NOT about abstraction in the academy but instead is about deeply engaged prayer/meditation, worship and service in the world that is brought into dialogue with the best from the academy and written to be effectively communicated to non-academics so they too could live The Truth? What if academic theology is only half of theology and, as Leclerq suggests provocatively in his book, theology needs to have a “monastic/poetic/praxis” part to complete the picture?

  2. I’m writing this a year later, but just found this blog and I want to thank you for these thoughts. As a PhD who finds herself – for several reasons – now working in parish ministry (adult faith formation) I struggle with, but also immensely enjoy, “translating” theological truths into language that non-academics can appreciate and find useful. It is an immense task, but one to which I very much feel called.

    It is also one with great challenges, from both sides. Do I feel respected by my former professional academic friends/acquaintaces? Nope, very little. They shake their heads and tell me I’m on a downward slippery slope. Do I feel understood by my fellow parish ministers. All too often, not. I walk the line, as Johnny Cashdollar sang, and it is seldom easy. Very gratifying, very humbling, very wonderful, but also, too often, very difficult.

    Still, not to sound overly utilitarian, but I will argue till my dying day that academic theology is of little use if it is NOT about providing a service to the world outside the academy so that everyone can live The Truth. And as you implied above, and I heartily agree, this is THE task of the future for the Church and the academy both.


    • Sue:

      So wonderful to receive your thoughts! Thank you so much for them. I have not heard much on this blog about this blog post and frankly it surprised me. I have had deep conversations about this in school with others training to be theologians and they get all enthusiastic about this topic. Many are upset with academic theology as too abstract and conceptual or as having too much focus on specialization, publish or perish or other issues. On top of this, the changes happening in universities — the utilitarian approach to learning or even the business model for administering the university — all have raised serious concerns for many in and out of the academy. I was hoping that a public discussion of the issue would occur organically when I got the ball rolling. When I hardly received any comments from any of my friends, colleagues or family — I thought that maybe I had not articulated the problem good enough to get a response.

      I am with you Sue in thinking that this is THE work for our church now. Theology in the early years of the church was about a kind of understanding and “knowing” that helped people practice the faith, deepen and live the Christian Mysteries and grow in the “Wisdom” of the tradition. There is always a space for experts who specialize and who push our knowledge theologically. But there needs to be a space that does theology that focuses on Wisdom (as opposed to knowledge). This space can overcome a lot of the fragmentation of theology that is discussed in the academy and that I point out in the original post. I wish to voice my support for your choice to do the important work that you are engaged in.

      Partly as a plug and partly to be of help, I wish to mention the non-profit organization that I am involved in. The Inner Room is a non-profit organization that has tax exemption from the federal government and is also a Private Lay Association ecclesiastically recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. We are just beginning to put together programs and resources to be of service to persons like yourself. The idea is that The Inner Room will be a space outside (but in good working relationship with) the academy. We hope to have a place that theologians who would not worry about publish or perish but more about writing theology from a space of deep prayer and Christian praxis. We are brainstorming what this would look like practically but we know that it crosses the boundaries between faith formation, continuing education for people in the pews, retreat and prayer workshops, service and social justice opportunities and networking and even sabbatical or professional support for those trained to be theologians who want more integration with parish life.

      Our web site is currently being built and programs will be starting this year but we are reaching out to those interested, asking how our organization could be of help. We would love feedback so we could be of service to those needing it. We have some pretty clear ideas about what would be helpful to focus on theologically in going forward but how to integrate our tools with practical real world programs, services, and support is really what we are asking people to inform us about. If you would like to offer your advice or to be engaged with us in the future, our Facebook page is the place to keep in touch at the moment. By clicking the “like” button, any announcements can be sent to you. The hyper-link to the page is:


      If you are on twitter, we are on there as well:


      Again, thanks so much for your comments. Please keep coming back to the blog and participate in the conversation. Hopefully the things we we write about here will continue to strike a chord.

      Deepest peace.

  3. Pingback: Seeking Silence: An Interview With Kevin M Johnson | Daily Theology·

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