What are theologians for?

January 9th, 2015

Since a powerful experience at the Duke Youth Academy while I was a high schooler, I've been captivated by theology and by theologians. I didn’t know either such thing existed when I was dropped off by my Mom for the two-week summer program between my junior and senior years. To my astonishment, I discovered that there were people whose entire job was to read, think, write and speak about God.

I was active in church throughout my youth, but I was decidedly ambivalent about the church’s significance. Was this domesticated institution, peddling vague moralisms and nebulous solutions to the dull anxieties of middle-class American life, really the embodiment of the gospel of Jesus? I hadn’t really read much Scripture. (Interestingly, no one in church ever really told me to.)

But our youth choir performed “Jesus Christ Superstar” during my junior year, and I was struck by the idea that in the life and death (and resurrection, although that’s not included in the musical) of this Jesus, God was decisively revealing himself and his will for humanity. “That’s pretty amazing,” I thought. “But if that’s true, then the church simply doesn’t get it.”

It was in the midst of wrestling with this problem that I was unexpectedly introduced to theology at the Duke Youth Academy. I sat in daily lectures given by various Duke Divinity faculty members. I couldn’t understand most of what they were talking about. But I could tell that these people were serious about God and serious about the church.

Stanley Hauerwas / Duke Divinity School

One particularly important moment, that in hindsight has been crucial for the subsequent shaping of my life, was a lecture given by Dr. Stanley Hauerwas. In the minutes leading up to his lecture, I’d learned that this Hauerwas fellow was world-renowned. And I’d also learned that he often said “s---” and occasionally, “f---.” So I was not only excited, but I intuited before he even spoke that he must have something serious to say if he felt the need to dispense with normal standards of Christian politeness.

If memory serves, Dr. Hauerwas stepped up to the podium, took a brief look at the mob of high-schoolers assembled before him, and proclaimed, “If there’s an American flag in your sanctuary, your salvation is in question.” I had no idea what that meant, but I thought “Oh s---!” Dr. Hauerwas went on to explain the necessity of the church’s commitment to nonviolence in faithful response to Christ. Almost all of it went over my head. But I could tell that this guy took church as seriously as it should be taken, if the story of Jesus is actually true.

I arrived at the Duke Youth Academy captivated by the story of Jesus and ambivalent about the church. But the theologians I encountered at DYA impressed upon me the centrality of the church to God’s ongoing work as inaugurated by Jesus. They equipped me with an ecclesiology that allowed me to see the church for what it was called to be, and by God’s grace what it could be. I left with an overwhelming sense of love for and devotion to the church.

I soon discerned a call to ordained ministry, to a lifetime of service to this community on the front lines of God’s work in the world. It was the theologians in the academy who gave me the theological framework I needed to make sense of the church’s purpose and mission in the world.

Years later I went back to Duke Divinity, this time enrolled in the Master of Divinity program. Once again, these academic theologians captured my imagination. They equipped me with knowledge of the church’s Scriptures and the skills to faithfully discern within them God’s own voice. They helped me to understand the pilgrim journey of the church throughout the centuries as our own story. They strengthened my love for the church. And they taught me how to “read” my own pastoral experiences in the light of the great, unfolding narrative of God’s saving work.

I am so indebted to these academic theologians, so grateful for their gifts to me. Through the knowledge and skills they helped me to cultivate, my professors oriented me to the church in a way that makes my pastoral ministry possible. Without a thoroughly scriptural and theological ecclesiology, who could possibly bear to spend one’s life toiling away in this struggling, broken, backwards institution? But I was formed by academic theologians to see the big picture, to see the church as God’s people striving (often unsuccessfully!) to live as a witness to the peculiar God revealed in Jesus Christ.

This orientation to the church has been so powerful and so essential to my pastoral identity that I've often wondered whether God is calling me to academic theology so as to pass on these gifts to others. But these academic theologians themselves have urged me to at least begin by serving the church pastorally, on the front lines, in the trenches. What a gift are these people who have been set apart from the church for the sake of the church!

However, to my great sadness, I've continually found that many in the church do not regard theologians as a gift at all. In fact, many seem to harbor a deep-seated suspicion and resentment for academic theologians. They are regarded by many pastors as ivory tower dwellers too far removed from the real work of ministry to be of any value, and too consumed with abstract problems irrelevant to work in a typical congregation.

But the more common sentiment in the church toward academic theologians is simply a confusion about what academic theologians are for. I’ve discovered that the typical layperson has no clue what goes on at seminaries. Many assume that seminary is one long in-depth Bible study, with some occasional practical how-to classes mixed in. I've rarely encountered a layperson who understood seminary as formation in a biblical, historical, theological orientation to the church and the world.

Consequently, pastors are not often expected to be practical theologians charged with helping their congregations to envision themselves and their ministries in light of the grand economy of salvation. Instead, a pastor’s purpose, it is often assumed, is to share narrow biblical insights helpful for the (individual) life of faith and to keep the church running smoothly (i.e. growing, rather than shrinking).

Perhaps the church doesn’t know what academic theologians are for because it no longer really knows what theology is. I get the impression that the average layperson (and too many clergy) thinks theology is a specialized academic discipline that does not even pretend to have relevance to the everyday life of the church. Thus, it is not at all clear why the church should pay attention to theologians any more than they should pay attention to English professors, biological researchers or mechanical engineers. In fact, the latter two may even be seen as having greater practical value to Christians than theologians!

So why does all this matter?

We live at the so-called end of Christendom. For most of the Western church’s history, its identity has been inseparable from the social, cultural and political institutions of wider society. But now the church’s identity is being slowly and painfully separated from secular society. The result is an identity crisis for the church. We have some vague notion that we are a community called by God to do God’s will, but we seem to lack a compelling description of what exactly that entails.

Further (and I think not unrelated!), we face the problem of membership decline, which presents us with the irresistible temptation to let our desire to fill pews color our interpretation of the gospel message. We don’t really know who we are anymore and we seem to lack to the resources to figure it out.

If only we had some people set apart from the everyday struggles of parish ministry: people who weren’t overwhelmed with the exhausting duties of a local pastor, people who were not influenced by the (nearly?) idolatrous pressure to fill pews. If only we had some people who could remind us how to read Scripture and how to let Scripture read us. If only we had people who could help us put our present struggles into historical perspective. If only we had people who had been given the time and space to prayerfully sit back and think. What a gift such a people would be to our ailing church!

Perhaps God has already given us such a gift. Perhaps they have been here all along. Perhaps it’s time for us to listen for the word of God in the words of these men and women who for the sake of the church have devoted their lives to exploring the riches of the church’s own texts and lived traditions. Perhaps it’s time for the church to say, “Thanks be to God for academic theologians!”

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