Tuesday 27 March 2007

Ten propositions on being a theologian

by Kim Fabricius

1. Actually, there is no such thing as a theologian, anymore than there is such a thing as a Christian. Theologians are not solitary creatures. Theology is the outcome of good conversation, the conversation of friends. Though – the rabies theologorum – you could be forgiven for thinking the opposite! Which is why, in the interest of world peace, it is probably wise that theological conferences are held infrequently. Theologians are like horse manure: all in one place and they stink to high heaven; they are best spread around.

2. “Theology is not free speech but holy speech” (John Webster). The theologian is a servant of the word: in multi-logue with other theologians, she thinks about what God has told us in the Bible. Thus – but only thus – is she also a servant of the church, creatura verbi Divini. The theologian tests the church’s preaching and teaching, and the work of other theologians, to keep them honest, i.e. to ensure that they are about the love and grace of God.

3. The theologian, therefore, is not an academic but an ecclesiodemic. He may work in a university but he is not of the university. He must be multilingual, but he must remember that his hometown is Jerusalem, not Athens. So he must hang loose to criteria of academic respectability. Submission, for example, to the idea that theology must never be homiletical, or that a theologian should not begin a lecture with prayer, suggests a Babylonian captivity. To switch biblical geography, the theologian must not hanker after the fleshpots of Nile College.

4. Can a theologian be an unbeliever? Don’t be ridiculous! Theology is fides quaerens intellectum: no fides, no intellectum. Furthermore, one can speak about God only as one speaks to God. Prayer is the epistemological precondition of theology, which to issue in pietas must begin with invocation. A prayerless theologian is an oxymoron; indeed a prayerless theologian is a moron – which is not to say that God cannot use the braying of Balaam’s ass.

5. Since the 12th century the notion has been around that the theologian is a speculator in ideas, and since the Enlightenment that he is a specialist in certain distinct areas of enquiry. We must lament “the disappearance of the ‘complete’ theologian, the theologian who is also a saint” (Hans Urs von Balthasar), and insist that theologians are “[none] the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel unless we find the power of the truths abiding in our hearts” (John Owen). And the notion that the theologian can be biblical, historical, dogmatic, pastoral without all these disciplines encroaching on each other is a cloven fiction indeed.

6. Theology (with Aquinas, Calvin, Barth) is thus a very spiritual matter, and a very practical, very ethical matter. In fact the theologian, as a student of the humanity of God, is the quintessential humanist. She will have in her sights not only God but also the good, God in his perfections and humanity in its perfectibility, i.e. she will be concerned with human flourishing. And as humans can only flourish in community – in the polis – a question that one should always ask about a theologian is: How does her theology politic?

7. All good theology is always contextual theology. Which is not to say that the context sets the agenda of the theologian, because contexts never come neat, they are not self-interpreting: the theologian must be an exegete not only of the text but also of the context. Rather it is to say that the theologian works at the interface of text and context, and seeks to address specific text to specific context. The letters of Paul – all occasional, none systematic – are the paradigm for the theologian.

8. The theologian will be a person who, off his knees, can think on his feet. He will be a bricoleur, engaged in ad hoc “selective retrieval and eclectic reconfiguration” (Jeffrey Stout). If the Holy Spirit is a dove, the theologian is a cuckoo, free to squat in any nest – and steal the eggs. Incorrigibly kleptomaniacal, while the theologian may not long for Egypt, he may certainly rip off the Egyptians.

9. Strictly speaking, all believers are theologians, because all believers, willy-nilly, think about God. The only question is whether we think well or poorly. It is not the theologian’s job to think about God for us, it is the theologian’s job to help us think about God better, so that we may believe, pray, live and die better. Dorothy Sayers said that “Christians would rather die than think – and most of them do.” The theologian is out to make Ms Sayers a liar.

10. Ultimately, of course, theologians do not know what they are talking about. So they should exercise meticulous word-care – and not talk too much. I often think that books of theology should contain occasional blank pages, to signal the reader to pause, in silence and wonder. There will be no theology in the eschaton. Before the divine doxa, we will confess, with St Thomas, “All my work is like straw.” Karl Barth famously said that when he gets to heaven he will seek out Mozart before Calvin. Quite right – and presumably he spoke to Calvin only to compare errors. Me – I’ll be heading for the choir of angels, to find Sandy Koufax, to see how he made the baseball sing.


Mike Messerli said...

I just found your blog. Looking forward to reading your thoughts. Thanks for the work you have put into the site. I am enjoying it.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

The theologian must think PRIMARILY about what God has told us in Scripture, Kim. But theologians must also think about what God may be saying elsewhere in Creation--and about the questions of creatures, even unbelieving creatures.

John P. said...

This may very well be my favorite "propositions" of all time...thanks for yet another invaluable meditation.

Thomas Adams said...

Kim -- Koufax isn't dead yet, so there's no need to wait for heaven. Of course, given his reclusive nature, heaven might be your best chance of seeing him face-to-face.

As for what baseball player I want to meet first when I get to heaven, my choice is the Babe – that guy must have a ton of great stories. Second choice: John McGraw.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I expect that the first thing we all will do "in heaven" will be to fall down before the Lamb. Next is we will be repenting for all our sins--especially our sins AS THEOLOGIANS. Finally, we will spend time getting our defective (heretical?) theologies corrected. Then we'll get to enter into joy. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Of course I agree with what you say about the theologian eavesdropping on all creation. Thanks for making explicit what I hope to have implied by the theologian's being multi-linguistic, humanistic, occasional-contextual, etc. (And I trust no one will take my reference to moronic non-praying theologians too literally; I don't want to cause offense, I just couldn't resist the word-play with "oxymoron".)

Hi Thomas,

Yes, I'm aware that Sandy K. is not dead - at least the last I heard (though he's unlikely to make the UK obits!) - and it could be that I precede him into the heavenly Chavez Ravine, so long live the King; but one way or another we'll eventually be at the Ballpark together and I'll be sure to get his autograph - again!
By the way, as you'll be heading for the Babe, who lived a less than holy life (to put it mildly!), I'm glad to hear that you're a universalist! :)

Anonymous said...

I reckon some morons are oxier than others.

Brianne said...

I just stumbled upon your blog, and it looks interesting! I'm wondering if you've read or considered reading anything by Bill McKibben.. he's very interesting and questions the role that technology plays and how it's affects our religious and spiritual values. If you're interested you should check out his book Enough.

michael jensen said...

Michael W-W: is there a special purgatory for theologians? Is this what Paul meant by saying 'some will be saved as through flames?'

I love the stuff on the Holiness of Theology by Webster in his book on Holiness. While Michael W-W is right about creation, Webster is also quite strong in this chapter about the fashionable inattentiveness of theology to its proper source and its tendency to distraction. It becomes then a kind of poor-man's philosophy (or lit-crit or film crit or sociology or politics) having no distinct accent of its own and nothing of its own to say. Theologians have become great dabblers, but to little result.

As for me, I will be looking up Don Bradman - if he's there (I ain't a universalist, or at least, I don't think it is my call to make!)

metalepsis said...

that was wonderful!

Shane said...

"Ultimately, of course, theologians do not know what they are talking about."

I always suspected.

Anonymous said...

A palpable hit, Shane (you gadfly you!), but theologians do know whom they are talking about - or at least whom they love, with the love of friendship. Or at least so says the Angelic Doctor himself!

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous" above is me!

Anonymous said...

Alright Kim.... Now I'm riled sure enough. I can only say that when the goodly and godly Chris Tilling posts his lengthy refutation that you will simply need to know that I am in complete, 100% agreement with him! Buckle your seat belt, pagan!


Anonymous said...

As promised...


Let the lamentation and repentance begin!

Chris Tilling said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Tilling said...

Utter trip, Kim. And you've made the Cardinal furious

Shane said...

On the Contrary, is the authority of St. Augustine, "What do I love, when I love thee?"

(This is, incidentally, the most beautiful page of theology ever written.)

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, Shane: to be precise, "Quid ergo amo, cum deum meum amo?" To which the author of The Cloud of Unknowing counters: "How can we know what we do not love?"

As for the Cardinal, I prefer the St. Louis variety. You know, the guys who just won the World Series in Doxological Rounders, surrounded by a communion of saints that would include Stan the Man and, in his time, Sandy K's only serious rival, Bob Gibson. Of course, I wouldn't expect Philistines who prefer baseball on valium - i.e. cricket - to know any better! But at least you prove my shitty P. #1 about the rabies theologorum. :)

Chris Tilling said...

Tripe. I meant tripe not frigging trip. Damn it!

Michael J. Pailthorpe said...

I found myself agreeing in laughter as I read through the propositions and comments. Thank Kym.

Matt Jenson said...

Kim, after a long day of office hours and a frustratingly boring (mea culpa) three hours trying to discussion the Confessions with college freshmen, thank you. This was great.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Chris, that's "tripe" - as in "shite"! To be fair to you, if Thomas thought his theology mere chaff, I guess mine would definitely come into the total shit category!

By the way, guys, I am actually a great aficionado of cricket, but I live in the UK where the sport is all dust and not-ashes (Aussies will know what I mean!).

Oh, Shane, I've just been reading-reminded of another great Augustine quote:

"We are speaking of God; it shouldn't surprise you if you do not comprehend it! If you were to comprehend him, it would not be God."

And again: "We speak of God, what wonder if you do not understand? For if you understand, it is not God. Let there be a pious confession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To touch God to some extent with the mind is a great blessing, but to comprehend him is entirely impossible."

Great stuff.

Shane said...

How to speak truly about an incomprehensible mystery? It's almost as if we need words to apply to God that apply to God and creatures in senses that are neither absolutely the same nor absolutely different. But what does that relation halfway between univocity and equivocity look like?

Well, perhaps the names we use for God like Just and Wise are said primarily and most importantly of the infinite, perfect divine justice and wisdom and we, being finite and imperfect, are wise or just in virtue of some analogical relation between our wisdom and his, or our justice and his.

Now we should not say that this analogical relation a sort of gradient along where God's justice is just a bit more just than ours, because this still makes 'justice' one univocal idea under which God and creatures are compared, which impugns the divine transcendence because there is nothing outside of, above or beyond God which could act as a standard to compare him to creatures. God is in no genus.

God's ways are not our ways and his Justice is not our justice, because the divine simplicity tells us God is justice itself, and justice itself is somehow coextensive with mercy itself. A second's reflection will show how far short human "justice" falls of this.

Yet despite this yawning gulf between his justice and ours, we assert that we are just because he is just, because we are his creatures and the creator is present in his creation.

Just some thoughts for your consideration.


Anonymous said...

Thoughtful thoughts. Thank you, Shane.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim, excellent post. One comment though - I was a little disappointed that you didn't explicate the role of the theologian as one who works primarily within the primary theological paradigm: the "Missio Dei". Quoting Bosch: "mission is the mother of theology." I think your points 6 and 7 go in that direction, but I think the Reign of God, and the essential character of the Christian faith as missionary (which is to say, all theology must be grounded in the missional act of God: God's self-communication in Jesus Christ, which is both the ground of our faith, and the beginning point of all theological reflection.) Anyway, I guess what I am arguing here is that I take this to be significant enough that it should have warranted special mention in your propositions.

Sorry to sound so preachy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks - and not in the least bit preachy. And your point is a good one, one I could easily have made explicit in #7 with specific reference to Paul's "occasional" theology.


Michael Aguilera said...

Hi Kim

I think that a capacity for wonder must be at the root of all 'occasional' theology. To quote Barth: 'A quite specific astonishment stands at the begining of every theological perception, inquiry, and thought, in fact at the root of every theological word. This astonishment is indispensable if theology is to exist and be perpetually renewed as a modest, free, critical and happy science. If such astonishment is lacking, the whole enterprise of even the best theologian would canker at the roots. On the other hand, as long as even a poor theologian is capable of astonishment, he is not lost to the fulfilment of his task. He remains serviceable as long as the possibility is left open that astonishment may seize him like an armed man.'

Thanks again Kim for a great post and apologies for the long quote. I couldn't help myself!


Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

Yet another excellent point. And never worry about over-quoting Karl Barth to me!


Anonymous said...

WooW =)

Anonymous said...

You say: 2. "'Theology is not free speech but holy speech' (John Webster). The theologian is a servant of the word: in multi-logue with other theologians, she thinks about what God has told us in the Bible. Thus – but only thus – is she also a servant of the church, creatura verbi Divini." Nothing more to add, except perhaps to state that the Church, is indeed creature, but creature of the "Divine Word", not of the Bible. The Bible is creature of the Divine Word as well. It is the word that witnesses to and witnessed by the Word, it is the testifying word that testifies to the Word... I hope there is no easy identification here between Bible and Word of God; there is a strict relationship, but it is not one of identity. Otherwise, our Christian theology of the Scripture is no different from an Islamic theology of the Qur'an as the Word of God.

Anonymous said...

Theology always seems to come up as meaning the study of God.But I greatly question this theory.I asked a couple of pastors as they preached this from their pulpit.And I asked,"How can anyone study God and when did you do this?" I said,"No one has ever studied God." So needless to say I looked up on line peoples thoughts about what a theologiain or theology is.
Yes the word in itself Theo(meaning god) and ology (meaning the study of) in that wording you can only say,theology is the study of God.But to put it into principle this literally does not exist.So then we have to relate it to what is,and who considers himself a theologain.So when you use the word study .You can use the word obsever.Other than that of one trying to memeorize prewritten literature.I would have to say .A theologian is one who seeks to understand Gods' ways and who he is.I would have to say .A theologian is one who seeks to understand.Instead of having understanding.Many theologians seek understanding of God through past literature. Which they automatically start off on the wrong path by doing so. Theologiains are believers in God.But they are not one who knows the will of God.In other perspectives.It all depends what the person is seeking in studying what they would be known as theology.A question in this arises that is quite profound in these dicoveries.Can a theologain ever be considered a prophet.I would have to say,"NO" Can a theologian ever become a prophet? I would have to say,"yes" God can use anyone for his service for humnity.People can approach theology from many paths.But this I can say.If a theologain doesn't concern themsleves with the present at all times.While they thrive from the things of the past to try to understand God and his dealings with humanity.Its all in vain. a seeker is to be loved.But who cares about the seeker who can't care and seek to understand his nieghbor.Recognize the false theologain.Though I do a lot of research in history and relgion,the bible.God doesn't live in these books,the bible,or the undiscovered.But love in the present.In what is unseen which many to seek with their physical eye.But to bring back a lost theologain.One must seek them in their lost path.

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