Evils Must Be Cured by Their Contraries?

We theologians (yes, that includes me) are often tempted to justify a one-sided indulgence of our pet theological themes or rhetorical outbursts directed against one particular set of bogeymen by insisting that one cannot afford to be “balanced” when trying to correct an existing imbalance—one must lean hard in the opposite direction.  If you think your tradition is too word-centered, you go all-out sacramental and ignore the Word.  If it’s too sacerdotalist, you go all-out on preaching and faith and ignore the sacraments.  If it’s too antinomian, you talk up the Epistle of James and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  If it’s too legalistic, you only ever talk about free grace.  

While this might make sense as a temporary pastoral strategy for an individual minister seeking to rectify the imbalances of his particular congregation, it works less well as an overall theological policy, since it is more likely simply to engender even more radical one-sidedness, as Richard Hooker points out in a perceptive passage.  Addressing the Puritan claim that “evils must be cured by their contraries,” that an imbalanced repudiation of all traditional ritual is the best way to cure the temptation to popery, he declares,

“We are contrariwise of opinion, that he which will recover a sick and restore a diseased body unto health, must not endeavour so much to bring it to a state of simple contrariety, unto those evils which are to be cured.  He that will take away extreme heat by setting the body in extremity of cold, shall undoubtedly remove the disease, but together with it the diseased too.  The first thing therefore in skilful cures is the knowledge of the part affected; the next is of the evil which doth affect it; the last is not only of the kind but also of the measure of contrary things whereby to remove it. . . . 

“They reply, that to draw men from great excess, it is not amiss though we use them unto somewhat less than is competent; and that a crooked stick is not straightened unless it be bent as far on the clean contrary side, that so it may settle itself at the length in a middle estate of evenness between both.  But how can these comparisons stand them in any stead?  When they urge us to extreme opposition against the church of Rome, do they mean we should be drawn unto it only for a time, and afterwards return to a mediocrity? or was it the purpose of those reformed churches, which utterly abolished all popish ceremonies, to come in the end back again to the middle point of evenness and moderation.  Then have we conceived amiss of their meaning.  For we have always thought their opinion to be, that utter inconformity with the church of Rome was not an extremity whereunto we should be drawn for a time, but the very mediocrity itself wherein they meant we should ever continue.  Now by these comparisons it seemeth clean contrary, that howsoever they have bent themselves at first to an extreme contrariety against the Romish church, yet therein they will continue no longer than only till such time as some more moderate course for establishment of the Church may be concluded.  

“. . . They have seen that experience of the former policy, which may cause the authors of it to hang down their heads.  When Germany had stricken off that which appeared corrupt in the doctrine of the church of Rome, but seemed nevertheless in discipline still to retain therewith very great uniformity; France by that rule of policy which hath been before-mentioned, took away the popish orders which Germany did retain.  But process of time hath brought more light into the world; whereby men perceiving that they of the religion in France have also retained some orders which were before in the church of Rome, and are not commanded in the word of God, there hath arisen a sect in England, which following still the very selfsame rule of policy, seeketh to reform even the French reformation, and purge out from thence also dregs of popery.  These have not taken as yet such root that they are able to establish any thing.  But if they had, what would spring out of their stock, and how far the unquiet wit of man might be carried with rules of such policy, God doth know.”

“No Man Can Serve Two Masters”: Church and Academy in Tension

So, the Church needs theology.  We’re all agreed on that, hopefully.  And as I argued in the last post, that means not merely listening to its own inchoate voice, but seeking to let that voice be clarified by careful interrogation from theology as a discipline.  We’d go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we relied on nothing but experts, but we’d also go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we tried to get by without experts.  (Needless to say, “experts” here should not be taken to signify “those who have all the answers,” but merely “those who have learned (or at any rate begun to learn) how to frame the questions.”) 

Having defended the role of theology as a discipline, I will now offer a few thoughts on the deep problems currently afflicting the relationship between this discipline and the Church it is called to serve. 

First, I think that pausing to meditate on this word “discipline” can help us think more clearly about what we’re talking about.  Of course, the term carries academic connotations—we speak of an “academic discipline” of sociology, or applied chemistry, or English literature, or whatever.  And so one might think that when I speak of “theology as a discipline” I’m referring to “theology as an academic department,” theology as part of the university, perhaps with seminaries thought of as sort of hangers-on that can also basically claim to be part of the academy.  But of course, “discipline,” fundamentally, means “training to act in accordance with rules” or “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training” (to borrow from dictionary.com).  To say that we need theology as a “discipline” is to say that we need theology as a disciplined regimen of reflection, a trained skill of thinking.  That, of course, does not require institutional embodiment, and certainly not in the “academy” (whatever exactly that is), or the university.  


As a discipline, the task of theology represents a distinct (though not necessarily separate) calling from that of pastoral ministry and preaching.  We might be prone to wonder whether (as someone commented on the previous post) our problem started when we began to think that one could be a theologian without being a pastor, and perhaps that was the fault of the university.  After all, all the great early Church Fathers were churchmen—bishops, usually—occupied day in and day out with teaching, preaching, correcting, baptizing, and administration.  (Of course, even this generalization is too broad—think of Jerome.)  But the origin of the theologian-as-such did not come as the product of the universities, since the universities took over the task of theology by and large from the monasteries, which were the institutional context within which the discipline of theology was by and large nourished from the 6th century through the 13th.  Of course, the monastery was not necessarily detached from “church life”—from preaching and pastoral ministry.  There was a great deal of overlap and cross-pollination.  And certainly, the monasteries were a thoroughly liturgical context.  Nonetheless, it was possible to devote one’s life to study of the Scriptures and reflection upon God, without devoting one’s life to active Christian ministry. 

Of course, there are doubtless problems that can arise from this disjunction, but we would be foolish to deny that there are also benefits.  Clearly, when we think about the most important qualities in a good pastor or even a good preacher, rigor of theological reflection is probably not the highest.  Love, compassion, confidence, ability to communicate, perhaps authority—these are all essential qualities, and these are qualities that many a would-be-theologian does not have.  If we required, then, that all our theologians also be, or at the very least, first be, pastors, then we would be inflicting an awful lot of atrocious pastors on the Church.  But of course, many Christians who lack a superabundance of these relational gifts may possess intellectual gifts, or skill in written communication, as well as a passion to uncover the the depths of God’s truth and put it to the service of the Church.   They may be eminently qualified, in short, for the discipline of theology, and we would be unfairly depriving the Church if we insisted that none of these could engage in that discipline unless they were ordained ministers.  And of course, even for those gifted in both, there is the question of time; both tasks are enormously demanding, and there are few who can carry out both with consistent success.  Thus, we should speak of two distinct vocations (though of course it is quite possible that both may coincide in one person): the vocation of the theologian and the vocation of the minister. 

However, these are not simply two parallel occupations; there is a teleological relation.  The theologian is oriented to the service of the minister in a way that the minister is not to the theologian, because the task of theology is fundamentally to serve and build up the Church.  If philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, then theology is the handmaiden of ministry.  Of course, the minister is to serve every member of his flock and support them in all their lawful calllings, so to this extent he is to serve the theologian as well—but contingently.  The essence of the theologian’s task is to build up the Church, and therefore to help equip the minister (though of course also laypeople) in his task.  And this is where the question of institutional arrangement becomes pressing.  


In today’s world, the theologian occupies an odd position; he has a conflict of interest.  Whereas the carpenter’s task is to serve the architect, and so he relies on the architect for his paycheck, and the architect’s task is to serve the person who wants a new office building, and so he relies on this person for his paycheck, the theologian rarely makes his living off of the Church that he is called to serve.  He works in service of the Church, but he depends on “the academy” for his paycheck.  Whenever such a disjunction happens, it usually spells trouble (consider the current crisis of the healthcare industry, in which the doctor’s task is to serve the patient, but he relies on the insurance companies (or in most countries, the government) for his pay check).  We might think that this is only really a problem if people are being greedy, but this is not the case.  The theologian is rarely trying to get rich; he is just trying to make a living.  But to make a living, he has to please his employer, and his employer, therefore, will in large part set the agenda for what he does.  He may earnestly wish to serve the Church, and yet he has limited time and resources, so he can hardly let the Church set the agenda for his work if the academy is also doing so.  

Of course, “the academy” is a vague bogeyman if there ever was one, but perhaps we all have enough of an idea of what I mean for the following contrast to make some sense.  A theologian in service of the Church will be attentive to the needs of the church of which he finds himself a part, or the churches with which he finds himself connected.  He will ask what their urgent questions are, what serious confusions hamper their grasp of the Gospel and their witness to the world, what errors threaten their faith.  And then he will set himself the task of teaching and writing to answer these questions, clarify these matters of confusion, refute these errors.  He will teach and write in such a way, not necessarily so as to be understood by each and every churchgoer (indeed, how could that be possible), but at least in such a way that his contributions may be mediated to the church as a whole by its leaders and its most thoughtful and engaged members.  He will, moreover, seek to spend enough time immersed in its life and its discussions that he may not only clearly know the questions of its members, but also learn from their own insights and experiences.  How will the theologian engaged in this task fare in the academy?  He may succeed well—many have—but the minefield through which he has to navigate is not one through which the route to success is clear.   

As his paymaster, the academy will expect the theologian to demonstrate his ability to fruitfully engage with the vexing questions that preoccupy the academic discipline, his ability to contribute some new knowledge to their discussion.  The academy will not necessarily think much of his interest in the petty and naive questions that trouble ordinary churchgoers, it will not necessarily think much of his determination to draw on and preserve ancient wisdom, his reticence to say anything novel, or his engagement with un-respectable and unsophisticated interlocutors.  It will expect him to engage with academic secondary literature instead, and the more he is engaging with sources that the ordinary congregant would never so much have heard of, the better.  It will expect him to bring out some new and innovative opinion, rather than simply saying “to the law and to the testimony!”  It will expect him to invest his time in engaging and debating the most prestigious, sophisticated, and up-to-date scholars, not some podunk seminarian.  Attempts to ward off errors facing the church, if these errors lack academic respectability, will be seen as a waste of time.  He will be expected to spend his time attending conferences, reading articles, and writing articles, not chatting with pastors and parishioners, or attending Bible studies.  

The young theologian will find himself particularly lost in this minefield.  An established theologian, one who has secured his living and his reputation, has earned for himself a certain leisure devote himself to issues that are of concern to the Church, not merely the academy; perhaps even more importantly, he will be more able to see the whole big picture, and so to see how questions raised within ordinary congregations relate to questions that matter at the highest levels of academic reflection as well; he will find issues on which he can engage on both levels at once.  For the young theologian, however, who has not yet climbed high enough to see the whole lay of the land, this kind of perspective is difficult.  He must, it often seems, choose which set of questions he will address, and which audience he will address, and he only has the time and resources to address one; after all, he’d rather get through grad school sooner rather than later.  Financially threadbare and without an established reputation, he cannot risk investing time or resources in projects that will not help him climb the academic ladder.  He must consent, only temporarily he hopes, to set aside his larger dreams of serving the Church, and simply do his time in the discipline, closeting himself away in academic journals and academic conferences.  He looks for points of intersection, to be sure, but they are often hard to find, and his imagination is perhaps stultified by the narrow walls of the specialized sub-discipline within which he must work.

Once he has completed this regimen of training, although he may at last now have more leisure to return to the concerns that originally motivated his study of theology, he may find that the passion has been smothered, that he has become so habituated into this way of life that he has by now forgotten how to do theology in service to the Church.  He no longer can speak the language of ordinary Christians; even ministers seem hopelessly naive and provincial.  Engagement no longer seems even possible, much less profitable, and so his paymaster—the academy—wins in the end, and he devotes his life to its service.


This is a bleak tale, to be sure, and I do not pretend to say that this is a universal experience, or that the chasm between church and academy is yet so unbridgeable as this implies.  So much great work is still being done on the intersection between the two, and new ways of bridging them are being thought up all the time by Christian scholars and churchmen.  But we would be foolish not to recognize that we are in a predicament, if not perhaps quite yet a crisis, and some serious thinking by those on both sides of this divide is called for.

In a third post, I hope to at last move around to some possible solutions to this predicament.

“Listening to the Marginalized”? The Role of Theology in the Church Today

On Saturday, New College hosted a conference entitled, provocatively, “Does the Church Need Theology?  Addressing the Gap Between Professor, Pulpit, and Pew,” which I had the privilege of helping organize.  The conference was a great success—well-attended by a wide range of constituencies, with enthusiastic dialogue from all, and a hunger at the end for further discussion in future conferences.  Best of all, most everyone present seemed to agree with the premise that we need more theology, not less, in our churches—which is a premise one can hardly count on in these postmodern times.  

In the opening talk, Paul Nimmo advanced the claim that theology, as “talk about God,” is something that everyone who is a Christian does unavoidably, even if inarticulately, and is thus not merely the proper province of the learned.  The subsequent speakers amplified this emphasis and it was presupposed in much of the group discussion, which focused on how we might render clearer and more articulate the latent, largely unvoiced theology in the congregations.

As a Protestant, I of course cannot but hail this emphasis, for the priesthood of all believers might be just as well stated as the preacher-hood of all believers, or even the professor-hood of all believers.  Reflection upon revelation is not the exclusive preserve of an enlightened or authorized elite, but arises spontaneously by the illumination of the Spirit in every heart that feeds in faith upon the Word of God.  Nonetheless, it is perhaps needful in these democratic days to disentangle this wonderful Protestant doctrine from some of its more bastard descendants.  For Paul Nimmo was equally insistent in his claim that there remained a discipline of focused and regulated reflection to which some Christians were called as a vocation, a theological vocation that had as its task the guidance and, when necessary, the correction, of the whole Church.  Of course, this discipline remains itself always open to correction by the whole Church and by the Word, bound to be forever listening to the voice of Christ and the voices of His members.  Needless to say, this latter claim failed to generate as much enthusiasm, though it was more underemphasized than openly repudiated. 

As someone training for this theological vocation, I cannot but be conscious of the awkwardness of speaking up in its defence.  Perhaps due humility would dictate that I should simply take to heart the admonitions of yesterday, and leave others to offer an apologetic for the theologian, if one needs to be given.  I shall not take this humblest of courses, but I am at least sufficiently cognizant of my bias that I offer these thoughts more in the manner of musings than of an apologetic.  

Some present at the discussion seemed to be operating on the basis of an unvoiced syllogism: “theology” is something that every Christian does and is called to do, thus the “theologian” does nothing unique, and therefore, we need not bother to listen to theologians, but should instead focus merely on empowering the theologian within each one of us.  Perhaps no one quite said it that way, but many remarks inclined in this direction, and only a deaf man could be unaware that the spirit of this syllogism suffuses much of the contemporary church, both liberal and conservative.  But the “syllogism,” if indeed syllogism it is meant to be, is one hardly worthy of the name.  We might with equal plausibility assert that since each one of us, every day, is called upon to make judgments about human behavior, determining motives, discerning patterns, and predicting future behaviours, that each of us is a psychologist, a sociologist, and an anthropologist, and therefore we have no need of the disciplines of psychology, sociology, or anthropology.  Of course, perhaps I have chosen my analogy poorly, since more than a few of us (myself included) are likely to feel at times that a world without psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists might be a nice world indeed.  

So let’s try the analogy of science.  All of us inevitably “do science.”  We all interact with the physical world around us, analyze what we see, observe patterns, form generalizations.  When I notice that certain shifts in wind and certain cloud formations are likely to presage a thunderstorm, I am doing primitive meteorology.  When I determine that olive oil and vinegar will tend to separate, and need additional ingredients, well-mixed, to form a stable dressing, I am doing primitive chemistry.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Of course, no one would deduce by this ubiquity of scientific engagement with the world that the vocation of dedicated scientists was pointless.  Indeed, we can extend this analogy further.  People puzzle over how the highly specialized reflections of trained theologians could become in any way useful for the everyday life of the ordinary Christian.  But the specialized reflections of trained scientists are if anything still more abstruse and bewildering.  Yet they are regularly brought to bear on the lives of ordinary people—usually not directly from the Chemistry department at MIT to the kitchen, but mediated through various strata—the researcher, the textbook-writer, the cookbook-writer.  The same mediation can bring knowledge from professor to pulpit to pew. Now, the analogy is far from perfect.  I think we ought to insist that everyone should be a theologian in a more actively engaged and self-conscious sense than everyone should be a scientist, and that, since theology is nourished by faith, not just reason, the gap between layman and specialist ought to be much narrower in theology than in science.  Indeed, we must also insist that, because of this primacy of faith, which the poor widow may have in far greater abundance than the tenured professor, theology as a discipline has an urgent duty to listen to, and be corrected by, the voices of ordinary people in a way that the discipline of chemistry certainly does not have.  Yet the analogy should be enough to prove that the “professor-hood of all believers” does not obviate the value of professors. 


Unsurprisingly, though, there was a more radical version of this call for “theology from below” articulated at the conference, an insistence not only that we should be getting our theology by listening to one another, but by listening to what N.T. Wright wryly refers to as “that blessed postmodern category, the ‘marginalized.'”  We were strongly exhorted by Kathy Galloway to “do theology by listening to those on the margins.”  One contributor to the group discussion even expressed an objection to one of the questions they were supposed to reflect on: “What difference would more theological reflection make for practical Christian ministry, such as serving the homeless or counselling broken families?”  She said, “Why ‘serving the homeless’ instead of ‘being with the homeless’?  Why ‘counselling broken families’ instead of ‘listening to broken families'”  Of course, these are very fair concerns.  

Perhaps we do need a kind of ‘affirmative action’ in theology, giving particular weight to the perspectives of the marginalized, precisely because they have been marginalized.  Theology has had, and continues to have, more than its fair share of imperialism, as, within each tradition, a privileged elite of established perspectives force themselves upon everyone else as “the answers.”  Merely ministering sympathetically to the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, can be a way of preserving the us/them distinction, maintaining our superiority as we condescend to give them aid, thus putting them in our debt.  So “serving the homeless” that doesn’t include a commitment to simultaneously “being with the homeless” is at best of limited value, and at worst could perpetuate the ugly patterns of inequality.  Likewise, “counselling broken families” that does not seek first to attentively, patiently, and earnestly listen to them, that seeks to merely give them answers instead of giving them a voice, can be a form of arrogance more than of love.   

Nonetheless, as much value there is in these emphases, I think we need to be careful.  For “being with the homeless” without serving them, and “listening to broken families” without counselling them is not love either.  Most people who are suffering, broken, or marginalized want help; they would rather be brought out of their pit instead of just having us jump into it with them for the sake of solidarity.  I was particularly struck by this thought when Kathy Galloway asserted that “Jesus spent his time listening to the marginalised—to tax-collectors and prostitutes—and so should we.”  Well, hang on a minute.   It is undoubtedly true that Jesus gave particular focus in his ministry to the marginalised, as liberation theologians and many others have helpfully brought to our attention.  But I can’t recall many scenes in the gospels in which Jesus sits down with a group of tax-collectors and prostitutes and says, “Now tell me what you think about the kingdom of God”; “Please, share with me your experience of God.”  Of course, he may well have done so.  Indeed, I doubt not that in the close relationships he formed with many of his disciples, Jesus took a great deal of time to listen to them and find out what they thought.  But the gospels tell us little of this.  What they seem to think most important is not that Jesus saw fit to listen to the marginalized, but that he preached to the marginalized.  Jesus brought the kingdom of God to them; he did not invite them to recognize that they already had the secret to it within themselves, if only they would give voice to it.   

To those who are lost, searching for answers, disempowered, the most loving thing that we can do for them is what Jesus did, to go them and show them the way, tell them the truth, give them new life—that is, preach Jesus to them.  The point I am making here is not really about prioritizing spiritual needs over physical needs.  By all means, we need to show Christ’s love by caring for people’s physical needs.  But when it comes to caring for spiritual needs, we shouldn’t convince ourselves that it is arrogant to claim we have anything to offer them, so we should simply profess ourselves empty-handed and insist that they do the talking.  We do need to give a voice to the voiceless, but they will only have a true and authentic voice when they have Christ, and we cannot bring Christ to them without theology. 


A final musing I would like to share here is my suspicion that, if we ask who the most marginalized voices in our society today are, we might well answer “those of the past.”  The question was raised in small group discussion—”Can we sustain a commitment to orthodoxy while developing our theology in engagement with the marginalised?” or something to that effect.  A “theology from below,” it seemed, was in tension with the claim of theology to encapsulate age-old received truths, so much so that one person saw the slogan “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” as scandalous.  And yet, in all this fervour for democratic theology, we should not forget what I think G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—the voices of all those who have gone before us.  These, our forebears in the faith, are now the voiceless, and they are, in our fast-paced and forgetful society, at risk of being the most marginalized of all.  Any theology that claims to take its cue from those on the margins must be willing to take its cue from the Church of ages past.  Otherwise, we risk setting up an imperialism of the present, condemned to be always transcending itself, and trampling on whatever it has received from the past.  To do theology merely by listening to one another is to condemn ourselves to hearing a monotonous voice indeed, for with all our diversity, we today share far more assumptions (so many of them, no doubt, silly and groundless) than we realize, and we must appear from the perspective of history provincial indeed.  

So, by all means let’s have the priesthood, and the preacherhood, and the professor-hood of all believers, but let’s make sure it’s really that of all believers—of a rabbi from Tarsus, a beggar from Assisi, a crazy monk in Wittenberg.  Understood this way, the doctrine that seems to blame for wild individualism can be one of the greatest safeguards against it.  Understood this way, we can insist that theology as a discipline does have some answers to offer, without being arrogant—because theology recognizes that it has received these answers as a gift, and its calling is to share this gift, enriching it in each generation with new gifts gained in conversation with all the saints.  


In a subsequent (much shorter) post, I will explore what seem to me are perhaps one or two of the more serious problems plaguing the current relationship between theology and the church and what might be one or two of the most promising solutions.