studying theology :: life and death

What follows is a short article that I submitted to the Regent newsletter:

The reasons to study theology are probably as numerous as the students at Regent. One of my peculiar driving motivations to study theology is a (growing) conviction that bad theology kills people. One example is that of my favorite author of fiction. As a seven year-old, his pastor cornered him in a hospital hallway and told him that if he prayed “hard enough” his dying brother would recover. He did; his brother did not, and he has never since been able to take any church seriously as a place to meet God in the world.

Another example: As I study Dietrich Bonhoeffer this semester, I meet the German church of the 1930’s, who (all but a fraction) lacked the conviction to stand against the theological aberrations of Hitler’s Third Reich, and the horrendous injustice perpetrated under it. The picture of a swastika adorning an altar, coupled with the silence of the church on Kristallnacht (and afterward) bring a powerful urge to study theology hard, to be careful to get it right, and to be willing to speak out where it is needed.

This article, however, is not a laundry list of theological errors for us to look smugly down upon. Rather, think of it as an open letter to all of my friends at Regent (and most of all, myself) a few weeks into (another…) semester.

One of the initiation rites to our Regent community is a healthy injunction against the perils of Gnosticism in both ancient and contemporary forms. Most of our focus lands on the Gnostic preference for all things spiritual and ethereal, and the disdain for the material world and its messy history. I wholeheartedly agree that this aspect of Gnosticism is a real and present danger in our churches, but we tend to elide over another aspect that is perhaps an even greater danger for those of us who study theology at the graduate level.

The heart of Gnosticism is an elitism based on the possession of secret knowledge (gnosis) that liberates its holder(s) from the aforementioned messiness of matter and history. My fear, and the reason for this article, is that we would treat the knowledge we gain here at Regent as a possession, a blessing bestowed upon us for our own pleasure. It would be easy to use the things we have learned about God, Scripture, history, and theology to turn us bitter toward the innumerable misguided bumblings of our churches. The “matter and history” of the churches to which I have belonged are certainly messy enough to turn me squeamish. It would be easy to stand back at a distance and use the gift of knowledge to criticize the errors of other’s ways without taking the time to incarnate our newly-gained wisdom in an attempt to ameliorate some of these problems. It would be easy, but it would not be Christian.

Too often the hard work of the academy is quarantined – knowledge kept in reserve as the possession of the elite and educated. I am daring to call this tendency Gnostic. Please do not get the wrong idea; this is not an anti-academic diatribe on behalf of the “masses”. If it isn’t already clear, I think that our theological education is desperately important. Like it or not, for all the gaps in our knowledge and confidence, most of us do know theology better then the average citizen. I am suggesting that this knowledge comes with a measure of accountability. “To those whom much is given…”

Here it is, the punch line: Studying hard at Regent and learning our subjects well is of utmost importance. Of equal or greater importance is that we learn how to communicate what we learn here to others in creative and compelling ways. Whether we end up behind a bricklayer’s trowel, a poet’s pen, a surgeon’s scalpel, a church’s pulpit, or a teacher’s desk, it will be a tremendous shame if the things we learn here stagnate in our own heads and hearts. Not only the whole church, but the whole world is in desperate need of that which we are blessed to receive. A carefully articulated, holistically integrated, life-encompassing, rubber-on-the-road account of what it means to follow Jesus might be the light at the end of a lot of this world’s tunnels. If we don’t do the hard work to which we are called, understanding our faith and integrating it with the whole of our lives, who will? If we don’t help others to do the same, who will? And who will be left in the lurch by our failure? If your time in the library doesn’t feel like a life and death matter, perhaps it is time to look again.

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