Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Updates and Some Fine Theology Posts

Well, Holy Week is in the rearview mirror and the vocations conference is complete. Life seems to be settling back to (what passes for) normal around here. Of course I can't say anything specific about the participants in the Vocations Conference, but I must admit that it was quite encouraging, even exciting, to spend most of a day with several obviously quite gifted people who love the church and want to employ said gifts in serving it. This must be one of the best parts of being on Commission on Ministry.

There are several quite illuminating theological posts on blogs I read that I thought I would pass on. First, Andy Goodliff posts on Samuel Wells' book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. I must confess that this book is still on my "to-read" (well, "to-be-purchased-and-read") list, and Andy only intensifies my desire to read it and become familiar with the thought of Samuel Wells.

By the way -- and this anticipates a later shpilkis update -- I am both encouraged and aggravated that Samuel Wells is to be the new Dean of chapel at Duke University. Encouraged, because it is one more step in Duke admitting it is not merely high-church Methodist, but fully Anglican. (Thunder Jones has blogged about this, too.) Aggravated because, well, I had hoped to attend St. Mark's Church, where he was priest-in-charge, so I could hear him preach and get to know him.

Andy Goodliff also blogs on an essay in Stanley Hauerwas' book Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World and Living in Between. I read this one several years ago, but Andy nicely teases out Hauerwas' discussion of the task of a theologian:
(Andy writes)In other words, those of us who have some theological training are there to help the congregation understand how who they are and what they do fits into God's big story. So, we help show that the being and activity of the church is a witness to the God of Jesus Christ and so more
than a social club or social action. This is one way the theologian (or theologically-trained) can be of service to the church. Where there is no theological description we don't appreciate or recognise the significance of our actions, for example, the simple act of attending Sunday morning worship is significant, sometimes perhaps miraculous. We don't go because we like the people or want to get our children into a church-school, we go to worship God.

This dovetails with my intuitions about the vocation of a theologian. It also explains why I am constantly hammering on the importance of theological training and formation for priests and pastors. Theology is not a nice "add-on", an option or elective that is not essentially related to the task of a priest: it is utterly foundational to our vocation. Being able to tell the Christian story in ways that are faithful, creative and persuasive is crucial. (This is not to argue that it is only the task of the priest/pastor to be able to tell the story; ideally, all the baptized will be able to do so with skill and precision. But the situation in most parishes is that the priest will be the chief catechist in this regard, using her or his teaching and preaching to equip and encourage others to live and tell the story. Or as Hauerwas writes, quoting from Goodliff again, 'one of the essential tasks the theologian-ethicist performs is to help congregations ... appreciate the significance of their common acts ... it is the task of those committed to the theological enterprise to develop the linguistic skills that can help congregations understand better the common but no less theologically significant activities which constitute their lives' (123).)

One of the chief roadblocks to seminarians embracing theology as foundational to their vocations must be the manner in which it is presented. The (highly dubious) distinction between theology and spirituality has a great deal of momentum behind it in our culture, and as a result theology is often seen as being divorced from worship. I think this is a rather dangerous innovation, ratified in the Enlightenment, but begun in earnest by some during the Reformation. (I suspect that it has actually been an undercurrent in Christian theology throughout our history, and I suppose I need to do much more work to really lay the blame at anyone's feet with justice. Someone who might stereotypically be blamed for this would be John Calvin, but nothing could be further from the truth: he was assiduous in combining theology with (a certain sort of) piety and worship. The two were inextricable for him.) Certainly the Cappadocians -- whose massive, enduring contributions to the thought and life of the church are undeniable -- would have dismissed this sort of distinction. Basil specifically rejects what he terms "technology" (instead of "theology"), the purely rational, distant enquiry into the mystery of God, as being subchristian. So I suspect that recovering the connections between theology and worship might contribute to the task of forming theologically-literate priests.

Along the same lines, theology is at times presented as a sequence of esoteric trivia, perhaps to be memorized for an exam (or the GOEs) but with no real purchase on the life of the church or "reality". Or, as I have said in another forum, the task of theology sometimes seems like God being dissected and laid out on a gurney. The sense of mystery or the otherness of God can be lost. In distinction to this, the greatest theologians -- often in contradiction to their stereotypes, or even the ways that they have been appropriated post mortem -- maintained just this sense of mystery, awe, and wonder: John the Theologian, The Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Barth. I know there are others, this list isn't exhaustive. So I strongly suspect that if the theological guild can re-claim this part of the Christian theological tradition, it would go some ways towards improving the quality of seminary theological formation. I also expect that this will go against some of the "professionalization" of the field, which began in Germany in the nineteenth century and continues unabated in many settings these days (although it is neither universal nor in its ascendency -- I think most Episcopal seminaries, with which I am most familiar, have not succumbed to this). There is more to say here, but not sufficient time to say it. More another time.

Finally, Gaunilo has rendered me a theological service by blogging on Friedrich Schleiermacher. I had read a bit of Schleiermacher some time ago and had written him off. My enthusiasm for Barth certainly reinforced this. And my misgivings about many who stand in Schleiermacher's tradition after him also made me devalue his work. (Of course, that's like writing off Thomas Aquinas because you think neo-Thomism is a mistake, something I would argue against strenuously.) But Gaunilo shows some of the (rightly) unresolved tensions in Schleiermacher's thought, and has caused me to re-open my assessment of his work. I don't think I'll have the time to re-engage it at the level I ought to, I have far too much else to read; but at least when I run across it in the future I will approach it with an open and questioning respect, rather than a dismissive suspicion. (Or, who knows, perhaps Gaunilo will continue mediating it to me and you?)


Blogger andy goodliff said...

Hey thanks for the kind comments Jason. Sam Wells is deinfitely worth a read - I finished it today. I want to get hold of his first book now, which was a version of his PhD on Hauerwas' theology. I think his move to Duke will see him writing a lot more, which will be good.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005 5:36:00 PM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...

He returns! Thanks for the linkage, and I appreciate the thoughts on the theology-worship disjunction. It's especially apropos of those of us (so it IS Cambridge then? did funding come through?) that intend to study theology academically to bear this issue in mind. I don't know to fix it - theology being as firmly ensconced in the academic at is - but you're right that the best theologians have always written worshipful theology; Barth, to whom I have already and will always acknowledge a huge intellectual debt, has always struck me as a deeply doxological theologian. Von Balthasar is another I've read very recently whose work has the same tone.

I wonder if another factor might be academics' effort to "apply" their work to the church - I've seen too much theology dumbed down to banality and insipidity that bores ME - why on earth would the average churchgoer find it compelling? If we had a little more faith in the interest and intelligence of the person in the pews and the potency of the S/subject of our theology, perhaps theology wouldn't carry the odious connotation it does with many people.

Also - in ref. to the thread over on Thunder Jones on Wells - thanks for setting me straight of Wells' "generous orthodoxy" comment. Serves me for hasty conclusions!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005 7:29:00 PM  

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