Sunday, 3 April 2011

Theology: the heart of ministry

Somehow, a lot of people (at least ones I worked with and/or taught) felt that 'theology' is academic, and 'real' training for ministry needs to focus on 'practical' skills. Skip all that theology junk--I even had one student tell me that it was 'arrogant' to think we could learn anything about God by studying theology.

Perhaps he was right. However, I don't think so. Even if we can't learn anything much about God, we can certainly learn to do theology--learn to speak of God. Not only to speak of God, but to speak wisely and well of God. Theology is, literally 'words about God'--theo and logos. But logos isn't any old words, at least not for the Christian, who believes the Logos, Christ himself, is the embodied wisdom and logic of God.

Theologians and pastors have a distinct responsibility to speak wisely and sensibly about God, at least as much as any learned person in any field of endeavor has a duty of care to speak thoughtfully about his or her chosen object of inquiry. If, for example, I go to my physician, complaining of feeling fatigued, forgetful or confused, she should not tell me that the hamster that runs my brain has fallen off its wheel. (Granted, I sometimes say this about myself--but I am not a physician.) She has the responsibility to take a history of my symptoms and recent activities, order any tests which might help in a diagnosis, and to prescribe treatments that have some basis in good medical science which are likely to help my condition. I expect her to have kept current in her knowledge, to confer with others if she does not have ready solutions to my problems, and to respect my needs and preferences concerning my treatment (in other words, to respect me as an intelligent adult capable of informed choices regarding my own care).

Pastors, and the theologians who help prepare them for ministry, have parallel responsibilities. As a theological educator, my work has not been to stuff people's heads full of data, that can be readily accessed to quote unthinkingly in sermons, sprinkled on as an afterthought like scattering croutons on a salad. My work is not about making people into 'academics' rather than practicing pastors, but that does not mean that I ignore my own responsibility to help them grow in diligent and energetic study of all things that strengthen the faith (theirs and those among whom they minister). My work is about helping future ministers speak wisely about God--to actually do theology--so that they can help those among whom they will be serving to do the same.

This means looking at what others have said about God, and deciding whether it is something we actually agree with, or something we wish to challenge as unwise speech. Take, for example, Rufinus' comments on Christ crucified, and how this effects our salvation. A reasonably good translation of the text can be found here:

This has become my favorite text on how not to speak of God, after a student was taken in by the vivid 'hook and bait' imagery. But is this what we really want to say? (By the way, I think that is the key question we should always ask of any piece of theology, ancient or modern, 'academic' or from the pulpit in our own churches.)

Do we really want to say that God owed Satan anything? Do we really want to say that God in Christ needed to resort to a deception (quite literally, a 'bait and switch') to affect our salvation? I don't think we do, if we actually believe that all that is, belongs to God, and that God is the source of all truth. Rufinus certainly speaks of God here--in vivid and memorable terms. But is it wise speech? I certainly wouldn't credit it as such, and I certainly would hope that any minister would think twice about asking his or her congregation to build a life of faith on the idea that God needs to resort to lies and deception on our behalf. I would consider it as irresponsible to do so as I would if my health care professionals spoke of the hamster in my brain, and expected me to take it seriously.

In Laity, Church and World, Yves Congar said that a lay person has the 'duty and corresponding right' to become an adult Christian. The US Catholic Bishops, furthermore, have said that 'adulthood implies knowledge, experience and awareness, freedom and responsibility, and mutuality in relationships', and that lay adults are 'called to exercise the same mature interdependence and practical self-direction which characterize them in other areas of life.' This statement about the lay person's vocation to exercise adult judgment in matters of faith is applicable to Christians of all denominations. And it is, in my view, the responsibility of ordained ministers to help this happen.

Theology is not an 'academic' exercise for the aspiring minister, any more than anatomy and biochemistry are for the aspiring doctor, 'hoops to jump through' before the 'real', practical stuff of ministry (or medicine) can be exercised. Theology, learning to think and speak well and wisely of God, and helping--no, make that requiring--others to do so, in order that they may fulfill their vocation as Christians, is at the very heart of ministry.

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