By David Barr
Michael Polanyi famously pointed out in the 1950s that the subjectivity of scientific research occurs precisely in the way it is conducted by people. People will always pursue research from a finite and personal perspective, and so even our scientific observations have an element of relativity. This has been widely recognized in the humanities, and it is equally true of the queen of the sciences — theology — even when we don’t want to admit it.
As a younger clergy person, I regularly get to have conversations with young folks who are discerning their vocations in life, and a number of whom are interested in pursuing a career in ministry. Of this group, there is a smaller group that expresses an interest in doing some kind of intellectual work for the sake of the Church. I love this. I find it thrilling. However, I do have a slight concern. My worry is in an almost imperceptible, but still pervasive, attitude that the Church is not where real intellectual stuff happens. It is never admitted outright but rather assumed in a kind of resistance to doing any kind of ministry. “My gifts are better suited for the academy,” someone might candidly admit. And that might be very true, but if one’s hidden assumption is that there is more interesting, faithful, and rigorous dialogue in academic circles, then I would suggest otherwise. The Church can be a great environment to think, read, write, and learn, and furthermore, coming into an academic environment is no guarantee for intellectual satisfaction.
Academic theology, like any other discipline, often pursues intellectual fads and trends, driven by broader social movements that minds more skilled than mine can chart. Likewise, theologians often publish what they learn not simply because they believe it is true and valuable, but in order to advance a career or pursue a set of questions relevant to academic institutions. Sometimes they write just to make a buzz. This kind of setting can be invigorating, but it can also drive intelligent minds to pursue questions that have very little to do with the life of the Church and the people who depend on her life.
None of this is to pick a fight with academics or to make any argument for the telos of universities. Universities and theological schools can sometimes be refreshing places of respite for people who have not been encouraged to ask questions in their various ecclesial traditions. My point is simply that academic communities often select the terms for one’s questions, and that they do this in similar ways as some theological traditions that feel confining or stale. So, if you are pining for a place to pursue challenging questions for the sake of the Church, then the Church could be just the place.
Many of the most interesting, current, theological minds have, in fact, made the Church their location for doing intellectual work, not to mention the numerous cases within the history of the Church. There are obvious contemporary examples here: one thinks of Bishop N. T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, Tim Keller, Pope Benedict XVI — all highly trained thinkers and clergy who have written for the broader edification of God’s Church. The list could go on. But let us not forget that part of the success of some of these thinkers is precisely in their intentionality about writing in the Church and for the Church. In other words, the Church has made their intellectual offerings more interesting, not less.
Which brings me to my second point. Perhaps the best way to set a faithful agenda for Christian thinking and writing is to take seriously the things that “ordinary” lay people think about, worry about, and ask questions about. There is a theological and methodological primacy to this point; Christ’s body should be taken seriously. But there is also the simple truth that parishioners ask fascinating and very challenging questions. For instance, I had a five-year-old ask me why Jesus had to die specifically on a cross. I have had many conversations about the prevalence of suicide and how to make sense of its destruction. I have fielded challenging questions about the necessity and strangeness of having two Testaments in our scriptural canon. And none of these situations allowed for the crutch of theological jargon that often blunts the intensity of genuine intellectual rigor. While my parishioners don’t typically get into debates about nominalism or the influence of Hegelian thought on Protestant theology, the questions that they have are challenging, rich, and highly resistant to intellectual sidesteps and sloppy thinking. It could even be the case that some academic trends even offer distractions for the more challenging, basic questions that parishioners ask, like: What is heaven like? How do I tell if someone is a Christian or not? Where did my dog go when she died? Will I ever start sinning less? The basic questions are often the most interesting if we are willing to take them seriously.
If you are interested in theology and want to wrestle with challenging questions for the sake of others, don’t forget that the Church is the perfect context for such a vocation. The Church is certainly a busy place to think; it does not afford the time for reading and studying that a graduate program does. And yet it is a never-ending school for those who are willing to learn from its pains, celebrations, and longings. The questions that one encounters in this context are of a varied sort: mundane, vexing, deep, unrelenting, and heart breaking. But there is no better context, because the hidden intellectual agenda given in the Church is ultimately not fickle or trendy; it is none other than that long, transfixed, and illustrious goal of taking on the mind of Christ. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the questions of God’s people are straightforward or uninteresting, or that there are greener fields out there. The Church is the perfect place to pursue the most challenging questions on earth, the ones people engage with their very souls and hearts.
For many years I thought that the intellectual interests of the Church lag behind the research interests of the academy by ten to twenty years. But now I see that it is the other way around. The questions that people ask in churches are the ones that we never get over. Whether it is liturgical theology or Protestant ethics or theological interpretation of Scripture, the Church has gone on dealing with these questions whether the academy has noted it or not, in homes, at lunch meetings, and in early morning Bible studies. If you want rigorous theological engagement, the Church is where you find it.
The Rev. Dr. David Barr is associate rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN.