Friday, 20 August 2010

On theology and friendship

Thomas Mann once said that a writer is simply someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

I wonder if this insight could also be extended into theology. Theologians are people for whom the Christian faith is especially difficult, incomprehensible, infuriating. As a rule they are not especially talented or spiritually adept individuals. They are people whose minds have been hurt by God, and they are restlessly searching for – what? Healing perhaps, or catharsis? To expect so much from the study of theology would be futile or even dangerous. At any rate there is no lack of opportunities for theological catharsis: often our worship services seem calculated to remove the difficulty of believing, to make God easy and accessible, more a cure than a wasting sickness.

Perhaps then we should define theologians like this: They are people for whom even the Christian worship service does not provide adequate catharsis of the hurtfulness of God.

That is why, as a general rule, you should try to show kindness to theologians. Not because they are necessarily exemplary personalities. Not because they necessarily know what they're talking about. Not because they are necessarily people of great faith. Instead, you should show them kindness because their faith is so weak and so vulnerable; because they are burdened by the difficulty of God; because they are driven to think about God the way some people are driven to drink. You should take care of your theologians the way you would care for the widow and the orphan.

Jürgen Moltmann has somewhere remarked: "We are not theologians because we are particularly religious; we are theologians because in the face of this world we miss God."

This does not mean theology takes place under conditions of God's absence. We "miss God" in the world only because God is revealed in the world, only because God is so devastatingly near. It is in the company of an intimate friend that one experiences the true depths of loneliness. Theology springs from the joy and the loneliness of God's nearness.

Thus one of the proper goals of theology is not so much spiritual catharsis or intellectual mastery – clearing up every difficulty so that one can sleep at night – as the cultivation of theological friendships. Friendship sustains the difficulty of thinking about God. I warm myself by the fire of a friend's loneliness. God is near, and so we are lonely for God. Friendship is the small room in which we share together the loneliness and the joy of God's nearness.

48 Comments:

Student said...

Oh my, what a gift this piece is. I've never heard this from another theologian, though have wondered as I make my way through thousands of pages of text, days and nights of writing, thinking and more thinking.

I'm only second year to formal study of theology, but it's a lifelong passion. Here in mid life, it consumes my time, heart, emotions, after a 30-yr hiatus. I memorized entire books of Scripture as a teen, studied like crazy on my own...then life (and what I thought common sense) intervened.

Well thanks for this gift to me, this day. God's grace.

byron smith said...

This is one of the most moving things you're written Ben. Thank you.

James K.A. Smith said...

I would say that this is precisely the upshot of Stanley's memoir.

Ryan said...

"This does not mean theology takes place under conditions of God's absence. We 'miss God' in the world only because God has been revealed in the world, only because God is so devastatingly near. It is in the company of an intimate friend that one experiences the true depths of loneliness. Theology springs from the joy and the loneliness of God's nearness."

So very well said. Thank you for this wonderful reflection.

Robin said...

Oh, this is wonderful. And such a good explanation for why I spent so much time in seminary (just finished) soaking up theology courses and mystified by the fascination many of my friends had for classes on worship and practice, and vice versa. I knew that our experiences of God were very different, and this post articulates it well.

brainofdtrain said...

Ben,

How would this idea of theological friendships relate to your concern of "tribalism" in the theological blogging world?

A. D. Hunt said...

This is much like what Hauerwas said of himself in "Hannah's Child," that not many people need to become theologians to become a Christian, but he did.

Роман Соловій said...

Thank you for a great post!

Jason Goroncy said...

Great post Ben. On the matter of showing 'kindness to theologians', one might add that the constant demand to stop taking 'theology' so seriously and to start doing something 'practical' is one good place to start. To run with your analogy, it's no act of friendship to ask widows to stop being widows.

Brad said...

Ben,

This is a wonderfully written post, and I "get" where it is coming from, and the reality you are naming for many. But in what ways are you being prescriptive instead of descriptive? Is it simply true historically that theologians are characterized in this way? Is it from your personal experiences, or encounters with others? In other words: on what grounds do you say these things, however true (or beautifully accurate) they may be for some?

Ben Myers said...

Brad, no I really don't mean to be prescriptive — it's more just a reflection on my own experience.

Thanks for the connections to Hauerwas's memoir too. I still haven't found time to read it, but I hope to get to it soon.

Geoff Broughton said...

If we take care of our theologians the way we take care of our widows and orphans, then theologians might need to prepare themselves for a lonely old time... Sure we say we care for the widow and orphans, but it is an example of how our theology is way ahead of our practice (I think alluded to by Jason).

Now, if theologians and widows/orphans became friends in large numbers, the world might begin to change.

Beautiful post all the same, though - thanks

Paul Tyson said...

Wonderful post Ben. Two things ‘trouble’ me about it though. Firstly, shouldn’t Christian faith be a difficult struggle for everyone? If so, why mark out the theologians for special recognition here? Secondly, the idea of friendship being about loneliness and the nearness of God being felt in loneliness is, perhaps, not how I would describe the painfully inexpressible yearnings of intimacy. But I presume we are talking about the same sort of thing.

Scott Kirkland said...

Reminds me of the opening scene of the film 'Doubt' where the father played by Philip Seymour Hoffman says: "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone."

charismanglican.com said...

Do read it, Ben. It is mostly about becoming a Christian through being a theologian, and becoming a Christian through the grace of friendship. It's very apropos.

Halden Doerge posted a few reflections from James Alison on some very similar sentiments.

I can not be so bold as to call myself a theologian, but I know the pain that you are describing...have known it since my youth. But I hesitate to meditate on it too deeply, because that wound is so small in comparison to my life of overwhelming privilege.

pilgrimpathways said...

This resonates with me. But how does it fit with Barth's claim that theology is "the joyful science?"

jridenour said...

Instead, you should show them kindness because their faith is so weak and so vulnerable; because they are burdened by the difficulty of God; because they are driven to think about God the way some people are driven to drink.

But wouldn't it be just as true to say that theologians are the ones who strive to have honest faith? Personally, I know plenty of Christians who never think twice about their faith in a critical manner. They have 'faith', but often times it seems as if faith is a convenient cover for not actually grappling with the insoluble issues that every theologian must address.

Why are theologians so prone to romanticize the common religious believer?

Pamela said...

Very moving and honest Ben.

chuck said...

Thanks for posting this Ben, I can identify with the post as I have been feeling much of an outcast at church myself, especially since I entered the seminary...

Anthony Douglas said...

I'll bite.

It's beautifully written (as ever!), but can I ask a favour? Might you resolve for me the signficant tension between describing believers (sure, not all theologians are, but hopefully some are!) as 'hurt by God' and holding to Romans 8:28 et al?

I'd appreciate it.

roger flyer said...

Another thoughtful post, Ben.
I like the comments...
@ Paul. Every human being is a theologian. Some are just very bad at it.

@ Scott...and the last line in the film when the nun played by Meryl Streep says: "I have doubts."
Wow!

My own comment--After Ben's post, I now take issue with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco:"Theologians...
don't know nothin'...'bout my soul."

Pete Enns said...

Ben, this is a keeper. So very insightful and much needed.

kim fabricius said...

Yeah, great, touching counter-intuitive post. Alas, from the historical record, one could be forgiven for thinking that it's the cultivation of enmity (rabies) that drives the theological enterprise. Nein? (Though 30+ years on, Karl did send the dying Emil a message: "Tell him, Yes, that the time when I thought that I had to say 'No' to him is now long past, since we all live only by virtue of the fact that a great and merciful God says his gracvious Yes to all of us.")

Which poignant story leads me to one further thought: sometimes the converse of what you say, Ben, is true too: that it is friendship with God that sustains the difficulty of thinking about other people.

Chris E Green said...

Echoing what everyone is already saying: a beautiful, warming post. The comments only add to the beauty. Kim mentions one of my favorite - no, my very favorite - bit of Barth's oeuvre. And Kim's concluding comment is exactly on point.

Perhaps it would be as true to say that (at least) some theologians are captured by the beauty of God, and find themselves drawn , rather than driven, to God? Perhaps it is something of both for all or at least most of us?

Tony and Jamie are right to recall Hauerwas, I think. Perhaps what you say here applies especially to him, and perhaps less so to, say, theologians of other times and places?

In any case, you give us sound advice and much to think about. Thank you for this.

Jim said...

your best post ever ben.

dbarber said...

I'd like to echo the sentiment of jridenour's comment. I think there is a question of ethics here, of intellectual virtue, which perhaps the "theologian" (as here described) takes seriously in a way that others do not. This is not to deny that there may be "authentic" non-theologian believers, but simply to ask why the issue is framed over against the norm of those who "get it" apart from certain questioning (which foregrounds a privation in the theologian).

jridenour said...

Dan,

I think that's a helpful way of framing it.

In response to the question I posed earlier "Why are theologians so prone to romanticize the common religious believer?" I would offer this response. I think theologians are forced to idealize the common religious believer because there seems to be some sort of vocational guilt. Theologians feel as if they've somehow escaped the real world by hiding in their ivory towers. In turn this leads them to abase themselves and pretend that somehow they are the true ones who don't believe or have faith. Perhaps the self-abasement is a way to dissolve the boundaries between theologian/nontheologian. I'm sure many theologians do turn to theological study because they struggle with doubt and insecurity. But is this doubt qualitatively different from the doubt every religious believer experiences?

That's why I've always respected those theologians who dedicate their lives debating issues that are so esoteric that they can't even begin to pretend that the ramifications of these concepts will somehow impact the church.

jridenour said...

Also I found a quote from everyone's favorite theologian, Altizer, that seemed rather appropriate.

"Here, we can see why even modern Thomists such as Karl Rahner can finally affirm the absolute unknowability of God, for the God who we can actually know is too terrible to contemplate, so that in this perspective there is no more dangerous or more pathological vocation than theology, a discipline that truly is a sickness unto death. Why then choose theology? Why accept such a loathsome and pathological calling? Can one here be at most simply a scapegoat? Would it not be far wiser simply to end such a calling? Our contemporary world has very nearly succeeded in ending every genuine theological calling, perhaps it knows all too well that theology is not truly a vocation for the healthy-minded, and I was shocked by John Cobb’s wonder that I did not realize that all process theologians are once-born or healthy-minded. No, I can only think of theology as a vocation for the sick soul, I simply cannot imagine theological depth apart from a true opening to the deepest pathology" (Living the death of God, 105-6).

kim fabricius said...

I hear Karl Barth, the author of "Kierkegaard and the Theologians", the tombstone removed, turning and arising from his grave.

Barth writes of those theologians "who have worked themselves deeper and deeper into Kierkegaard" - and so a fortiori into Nietzsche - "so much so that they could not work themselves out again... They see themselves and the others, the Church and the world, surrounded by nothing but threatening negations. To them their vocation is a continuous temptation, their genuine authentic Christianity one continuous attack on all other 'Christianities'.... Their sad pleasure or pleasurable sadness ... is a seriousness that never allows them to be really serious, a smile that can never be laughter."

And yet there are other kinds of theologians who have also been to the school of Kierkegaard - and a fortiori Nietzsche - who "too could not put behind them the stimulus received from him, ... and could not return to the fleshpots of a bourgeois Christianism ..., could never again ignore or suppress the 'no' uttered in the Gospel to the world and the Church. But - and this led them beyond Kierkegaard" - and a fortiori Nietzsche - "they could now hear it and bear witness to it as the 'no' enfolded in God's 'yes'; they could bear witness to it as the fire of his love, which aims ... at the entire godless world and seeks to be proclaimed as such by the Church."

I think Ben's take on the theologian is more Barthian than Altizerian, more living the life of God than his death.

jridenour said...

Ya I know Ben was invoking Barth and not Altizer. Also I mostly like the Altizer quote because of how silly Cobb and process theologians alike for thinking theology is a happy enterprise.

Anyway, sorry for the distraction. I'd like to hear someone respond to my question and Dan's question concerning this splitting of the theologian from the nontheologian and the ethical implications.

Tennikate said...

"one of the proper goals of theology is not so much spiritual catharsis or intellectual mastery – clearing up every difficulty so that one can sleep at night – as the cultivation of theological friendships"...

currently experiencing the truth in this... although still not sleeping very well :o)

The Convergence of Theology said...

such a moving post, thank you.

Dustin said...

Question: might anyone here know whether or not Barth read the Austrian journal Der Brenner? Or, if he read any of their frequent contributors such as Theodore Haecker and Ferdinand Ebner (both played a prominent role in the first wave of SK's reception into Weimar culture)?

roger flyer said...

I have missed the God I used to know. I miss him so much as I am now huddling in these dark woods after walking with him for more than 30 years. I turned around and there he was--gone.

I have missed Him so much, and I have become a much deeper theology student and hide and seeker of God since I got lost.

Student said...

I miss the God of my innocence.

Paul Tyson said...

Dear Roger. I wonder …

Has God (A) gone, or was God (B) not there in the first place, or is God (C) there and has always been there but we have never known God, and God will not be an object of our mastery? Or maybe (D) we did indeed used to know God, and now we really do not? I think (C) is a big part of it, but whilst I rule out (B) I do think (A) and (D) are also in the mix. But as modern Western people, I do think a big part of our problem is how we understand knowledge, power and community. But the experience of “missing God” and being lost in the dark woods, yes, this is the experience of many serious Christians I know, and my own experience. It is, I think, by no means a good experience – the sense of abandonment, disorientation, isolation, the failure of the Lebensform of church life on which our own identity as believers and followers of Jesus depends – these are I think nothing we can make a virtue out of. Lord have mercy on us! Lord bring us through this dark, lonely, barren, lost place not into some Enlightenment certain finished human project of our own religious making, but into the living way that is the Life of Christ lived out in the fellowship of believers and for the redemption of the world.

joel mason said...

"I turned around and there he was-gone." roger, that is apophaticism at its best. there he was, gone. merton's "theology of creativity" is something i've been reading that reminds me of your comment (both of which i love).

ben, thanks so much for this post, sincerely. there is a small group of us here in Vancouver looking to do something, anything, nothing, something. i read your post at a breakfast get together and the truth in it hushed the room.

I also love Kim's quoting of Barth - the no enfolded in God's yes. realism enfolded in greater realism.

Randy said...

Excellent post and very much appreciated.

Erin said...

Ben your writing is really wonderful; engaging and generous. I can't quite get with the thesis on this one, though. Is theologian a new category of person? If so, we owe Aristotle for the discipline. We might soften it by claiming we mean only "god-talk", but in the context of this blog, “theologian” is still painted with western academic culture; a specialist in theology, and I can't help but think this suggests an ontology of God different than the voice speaking from the burning bush or evidenced by people sharing testimonies in church. Theologian God-talk proceeds in a specialized way, one which requires a certain amount of privilege to enter. What kind of God is in view, the loss of whom would generate Brill's back catalog? Perhaps the wounding is as much a result of the nature of academic reflection.

Is a theologian’s wounding more profound or categorically different than what others experience? The sick? The poor? Besides, it has always troubled me to learn of the profound dysfunction and evil many notable theologians are guilty of: I like your description of the "drivenness" of it. Perhaps theology is as much a product of an internal dysfunction as is the loneliness. My pet theory is that it’s a denial of death.

Just thinking aloud, though. I tend to imagine theologians as more Promethean, and I've probably underestimated how generous your definition really is, one that includes Job and wonders, “what then should we do?” Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

re "Is a theologian’s wounding more profound or categorically different than what others experience? The sick? The poor? "

Many, many theologians have been sick and poor. Possibly more than not, but there's no way to know for sure.

More famous ones include Jesus (murdered as well), St. Francis, Thomas Aquinas, (mendicant), St. John of the Cross (also incarcerated by his fellow "Christians.) Then there's Buddha, perhaps Gandhi could be included.

But forget the famous and published. Consider the countless missionaries, teachers, mystics, gurus, clergy of the eons who have, for the love of theology and the Divine partaken of "God alone."

Theology is nothing if not the study of God's appearance and interaction with the lost, the forsaken, the poor, the sick. Hence the grace is all the more appreciated.

Steven Britt said...

I think that you may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater here. I myself have not been to seminary, nor have I taken a single theology class - but I do believe that there is merit in someone dedicating themselves to the study of God's Word in order to know for certain what it says. It reminds me of the Bereans that Paul spoke about:

Acts 17:11
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Our dedication to God and to the Way is two-fold: it should be manifest both in our eagerness to serve others and in our hunger for God's Word. Christ Himself said that "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." I think that the landscape of Christianity would be drastically different if everyone would strive to understand the bible as though it were our job (which, for a Theologian, it is). We should all be sitting down as often as possible to read our bible cover-to-cover, making our understanding complete as we contemplate every verse, for all scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for doctrine.

Of course not every theologian is led by God's spirit, nor is everyone who calls themselves Christian, for Jesus said that no one could come to Him unless the Father draws them. I do not believe that everyone who reads and studies the bible gets what God intended out of it, but I do believe that they at least build character until the time that God will call all men.

As I myself learn and study the bible, I post bible studies to my blogs:
http://spiritual-snacks.blogspot.com (updated frequently with short studies)
http://thevoiceofonecryingoutinthewilderness.blogspot.com (updated less frequently with longer studies)

Tina Beattie said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post - I much appreciate it. Thomas Aquinas associates knowledge with the beatitude of mourning (ST 1.2.69.3), and he quotes Ecclesiastes 1:18: 'For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.'

But I also love the quote from Barth, about 'a smile that can never be laughter'. I don't think we theologians should take ourselves too seriously - at best, we can only ever be holy fools, and at worst I'm afraid we tend to be tedious prats. Maybe we should laugh at ourselves at least once a day.

As for sleepless nights, I always think of doing theology as being like Penelope stitching shrouds by day and unpicking them by night.

And I think Eve should definitely be the patron saint of theologians.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Tina — nice to see you around these parts. Thanks for your delightful comment: I love the image of Penelope; and I wish I'd known that Thomas passage when I was writing the post!

Anyway, since I've been writing all day on T. S. Eliot, I can't resist one more (very) melancholy quote: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"

Tina Beattie said...

Ah, what a question. Perhaps we must repent of our knowledge first?

Andrew Kenny said...

Nice post but surely we are all theologians as we seek the way of salvation and as Dr Luther said:'I did not learn my theology all at once,I had to follow where my temptations led me. It is not by reading or writing or speculating that one becomes a theologian. It is rather living, dying and being damned that makes one a theologian.'
I agree with him

Chris said...

The problem I have with this artuicle/comment by Ben is the "elitism" it tries to avoid. All Christians are theologians...people who observe and study the nature and work of God in their daily lives...some of us are narrative theologians; some of us are systematic, academic theologians; some of us are affective, artistic, poetic theologians;some of us are natural, non-formally educated theologians.Some of us have "head knowledge" and some of us have "heart knowledge." The danger of giving primacy to the voice of academic, systematic theologians is that it is only one way of experiencing/describing/talking about God (sadly, often incomprehensibly.)The many voices of the many types of theologians in the Church is infact the proper nature of the Church, and the 'symphony'is an excellent one for describing this diverse and rich community of voices.

Chris said...

...as my Professor of English said (a Fellow of St.John's College Cambridge)"A sign of real intelligence is the ability to say and present complex things simply"...hmmm

Highanddry said...

@ Chris

Unfortunately, so often in my experience theologians spend more time presenting simple things in increasing complexity. It's why there are so few great theologians.

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