Wednesday 11 April 2007

Theology in the second person

Over at Disruptive Grace, Chris gives some autobiographical insight into the potential pitfalls of theological study: “My theological language has changed subtly from the second person to the third person over the years. As my love for theology has grown, my conversation with God has ceased.” And a recent post at Subversive Christianity (an excellent new blog) makes the same point: “Theology becomes theory. Theology becomes systematic…. Theology becomes comprehensive. Theology, if one isn’t real careful, becomes God-in-a-Box.”

As Schleiermacher tirelessly emphasised, the faith of the theologian is simply ordinary, everyday faith: and it’s this everyday faith that makes theology possible (and interesting) at all. To turn theology into a substitute for faith would be like buying a set of these sheets: it might look like the real thing, but in the morning you’ll still wake up alone.

Although it’s necessary to practise theology in the third person – theology as academic reflection – we shouldn’t forget that theology is always most at home when it takes the form of second-person address. In the best theological work ever written – Augustine’s Confessions – theological reflection becomes indistinguishable from prayer; talk about God merges with talk to God.

This, then, is theology in its most basic and most characteristic form: “Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new – late have I loved you! For you were within, and I was abroad; and there I searched for you, and tried to fill my heart with those lovely forms that you had made…. You called, cried out, and shattered my deafness. You flashed, shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed your perfume, and I drew breath, and now I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burn for your peace.” (Confessions, 10.27.38)


Anonymous said...

I definitely experienced this, too, and I don't think I've fully recovered. But praying the Office has been a big part of my recovery. It seems to me theologians and clergy in particular need a really rich form of frequent, daily prayer to ground our theology in more than just the books we're reading.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. I'm hoping that my new blog will be a kind of Augustine's Confessions for the 21st century. Cheers for the encouragement.

Anonymous said...

I think this is very true. I wonder if so much of the tilt for burgeoning theologians towards losing faith is a result of this as much as any philosophical argumentation. When God becomes practically and experientially only and object, my tank certainly runs dry. I think the same can be true of pastors and their congregations, as well.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Erin. I doubt that many people have ever lost their faith as a result of philosophical argumentation. In most cases, faith just fades away imperceptibly, until one day you realize it's gone. And then the philosophical arguments are brought in.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Thanks for putting this up, Ben, and for all your comments. I think saying that my conversation with God has "ceased" was a bit too strong. In talking with George Hunsinger about this, he reminded me that "faith seeking understanding" is a valid mode of faith. I just wonder if it's healthy to remain ONLY in this mode, which I seemed to have fallen into. Faith should be confidence (Luther) as well. I just find it all too convenient and a form of cheap grace to think objectively about God-for-us. The mental-state of theological inquiry remains objective, no matter how wonderful and beautiful its subject matter might be.

How do we avoid pietism and overemphasis on subjectivity without falling into intellectualism?

On that note, I'm off to the Daily Office. ;-)


Looney said...

Back when y'all were discussing favorite theologians, I was about to suggest Fanny Crosby, for the reasons cited in the post.

Anonymous said...

Yup. I've been there too - and there is always a temptation to go there again, as a pastor let alone a theologian. Early on in my ministry, as I got "busier", I actually had to keep telling myself that I was in the wrong job if a "busy" day meant less, not more prayer. The reverse is true: the more activity, the more contemplation. A prie-diu in the study beside the desk is crucial at least as metaphorical furniture.

Anonymous said...

I'm there too. John Piper has a spot on remark, "Make your life -- especially the life of your study -- a life of constant communion with God in prayer. The aroma of God will not linger on a person who does not linger in the presence of God.... We are called to the ministry of the word and prayer, because without prayer the God of our studies will be the unfrightening and uninspiring God of insipid academic gamesmanship."

Anonymous said...

This is such a timely post, Ben; thanks.

Guy Davies said...

This is certainly a danger for Ministers. If we are to live for God and preach his word, our theology must catch fire. We must make time for prayer and meditation.

I think that this is where the theology of the Reformers and Puritans is so helpful. How many modern theological works would devote a large chatper to prayer as Calvin did in his Institutes?

I also like Vanhoozer's theo-dramatic proposal "that doctrine, far from being unrelated to life, serves the church by directing its members to the project of wise living, to the glory of God".

Phillipe Copeland said...

This is a magnificent post and great conversation. As a Baha'i scholar, I also meditate deeply on making sure that my scholarship is a form of worship and not merely an intellectual exercise. This takes conscious, prayerful effort as all of you have said. Baha'is are encouraged to strive to live in a "state of prayer" because prayer is "the sweetest of conditions". A day lived in such a way will be a very good one and theology practice in such a spirit will keep the "theo" in theology.

Looney said...

Phillipe, God provide Jesus, his only son, as the only provision for our salvation. It is only through Jesus that we can truly know God. Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me." Without this, meditation and scholarship are worthless. With Jesus, a sensible relationship with God finally becomes possible.

Anonymous said...

I think oftentimes overlooked is the role of human relations in shaping the theological self: there is theological/philosophical inquiry, there is prayer, and there are the relationships that actually force us to deal with people not in our heads! There are an awful lot of brilliant, prayerful theologians who were jerks. Pity the grad student steeped in sytematics but estranged from his or her spouse! At the end of the day, our ability to love and empathize presses us to wrestle with philosophy and prayer in new and more honest ways. So go hug someone.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Phillipe -- thanks for your comment. It sounds as though, in this respect, you are wiser than many Christian theologians! Best wishes for your continuing scholarship.

Erin: thanks for this excellent point -- I think you're absolutely right. On a similar note, Luther once praised the theological importance of changing nappies:

"I confess to you [Lord] that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or change its nappies, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving your creature and your most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised.... God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling – not because the father is changing nappies, but because he is doing so in Christian faith."

Anonymous said...


i appreciate your comments. I find it naive when scholars encourage someone to set their emotions aside when conducting academic pursuits. I understand what they are saying, but is this really possible? And second, is it really the best to completely divorce a part of ourselves when studying? How does that not also in a way bias us?

Does this make sense?

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