Theology: Serving the Conversation

Theological Shark Week


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.

8 responses to “Theology: Serving the Conversation

  1. Pingback: Theological Shark Week I: “Whom does the theologian serve?” « Daily Theology·

  2. This week I have been with someone who worked closely with Cardinal Bernardin, including in setting up the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and it was clear he worked out of this dialogical model. One cannot notice in the very method of the Council, this same approach of dialogue.

    What do we do, however, when there is no room for dialogue? What do we do when the language of “truth” is used to stifle dialogue?
    It is interesting to note the quote from Caritas in Veritate: “Truth, in fact, is lógos which creates diá-logos, and hence communication and communion.” (4)

    One question is whose conversion do we engage with? Do we rest only in academic conversations or do we also enter into the broad conversation of the whole church?

    • Kevin, you are the master of provocative quotes today! I’ve been thinking along the lines of Caritas in Veritate in designing a new course on communication for communion. “Truth” can certainly be considered in a narrow way, as something we are able to possess. In that sense, truth becomes power and self-promotion rather than loving liberation. In response, I think we have to take a note from your latest post and talk about bold humility, which acknowledges both our knowledge and its limits. God is the source of truth–and yet God remains a mystery that we can never grasp or contain.

      In this second sense, truth entails an epistemological question–how do we know? I think one important response is that truth must be discerned in multiple ways, contexts, and voices. My theological rationale for that is based on the Logos whom we know through God’s incarnation as a human being who lived within various communities, and whose ways of being and ideas were shared (and sometimes discovered!) in the midst of conversations. In contrast to monologic orthodoxy in which truth proceeds from a single human authority, Ormond Rush describes “dialogic orthodoxy in which truth is discovered ‘from below’ in a process of dialogue” (“Determining Catholic Orthodoxy, Monologue or Dialogue”).

      For my part, if the conversation itself is not “only academic” then my service to it cannot be confined to the academy either. If my theology is to be “sticky” or coherent then engagement with the conversation needs to be much broader. Much like other disciplines who engage in various forms of field work, I must go beyond the boundaries of academe in order to encounter others in their contexts and in light of their experiences. And, similar to the ways other disciplines engage in consultation, I think it is necessary to think about creative theological communication in ways which are both coherent and meaningful outside the academic realm and within people’s lives.

  3. I serve as a pastor. I see helping people find their own place and voice in these conversations as a big part of my job. Professional theologians have training, resources, and time to engage the conversation more rigorously, but it is most properly a conversation of the whole people of God, each having their own particular gifts to contribute. I appreciate the work of professional theologians. Reading and listening to them shapes my own participation in good and helpful ways. Yet I can’t outsource the conversation itself. It is something we must each live into.

    • Elaine, thanks for your comment–I very much like the idea of “living into” the conversation, and I agree that it must involve the entirety of the people of God. It’s also helpful for me to think of the important role pastors and ministers play in assisting others to join the dialogue. I think one of the challenges is creating the spaces and opportunities for the conversation’s diverse participants to come to know one another and to grow in trust so that the conversation can both flourish and deepen. From my perspective, that means that the life of the church is an extremely important theological context.

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