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.