The Nature of Theology and Ministry
What does it mean to be a Christian theologian? After changing my major three times, I learned to grapple with the meaning of my vocation. I found it hard, however, to pinpoint a way of being which made sense of my calling as a theologian. Does being a theologian mean making sure the Church exists within the right propositional truths? Perhaps, it is the job of the theologian to develop an accurate “Statement of Beliefs” for a congregation or making sure the teaching pastor’s work is thoroughly orthodox. But these job descriptions do not necessarily need the theologian, they need the faithful witness of the Scriptures and creeds which already exist and are readily accessible. How then, does my vocation as a theologian fit dynamically in the life of the Church?
I’ve written before about a painting that I often reflect on when thinking about the task of theology. In it, Caravaggio depicts the “Incredulity of St. Thomas.” Like many artists of the Baroque movement, his stunning colors and dramatic lighting fill the scene with tension and hope as two disciples peer over his shoulder. Thomas is painted with his finger digging into the side of the risen Christ, knowing and exploring him by literally “getting his hands dirty.” What has always struck me is Thomas’s blind eyes. Although extra-canonical to the Gospels, Carvaggio’s artistic freedom imbues Thomas’s doubt with new meaning. What does it mean to see and believe? To be a Christian theologian is to publicly attempt to lay hold of the infinite God, not as if to master him, but come to know him in our blind groping after his being.
Theology, however, is not about finding the correct knowledge to establish my congregation as acceptable according to the teaching of the Church. Instead, theology is a way of being in the world that exists within a broader interpretative tradition. These things, theology as being and theology as interpretation, are birthed from the witness of the Apostles to the Word of God made flesh.
Theology understood in this manner is both prayer and discipleship. Prayer, in the sense that theology is first dialogue with God. As Thomas reaches into the side of Christ, so the theologian enters into a knowledge of Christ which is born from prayer in the Spirit. Theology is never divorced from prayer, as prayer looks to God to see a way of becoming that is finished in the eschaton and, in this way, defines our way of being in the world. As Carvaggio’s Thomas reaches into the side of Christ, he also does so with two onlookers who have the eyes to witness what he is doing. Theology as discipleship is prayer in community, that is, it constitutes a particular way of being (or becoming) in the world which begs to be imitated. As theology explicates our way of being in prayer, it does so for the Church to see so that they may imitate its way of “seeing” the cosmos in the light of the Word of God. In this way, theology situates itself in a particular interpretative tradition, that is, Jesus Christ’s lens of seeing the world as testified by the Word and the Church.
It follows that theology understood in this way is primarily a philosophy of teaching. Its actions of defining the way of being are fruitless if they do not form the theologian toward God. Likewise, theology’s efforts of publicly defining a way of becoming are fruitless if they do not form the hearers toward God. About a year ago, I tried my hand at pottery. In my first class, I was so gentle with the clay that when I began to try to form it into a vessel, my gentleness caused the clay to follow gravity instead of my hands before I could even form the walls. More than once, I was left with a collapsed pot that could never function as an adequate vessel for anything. Recognizing that I was too gentle with the clay, I resolved to be more firm. This helped in the beginning, but as the walls grew taller and the clay thinner, my firm hand produced the same result as before.
Why do I bring up this story of my failed vocation as a potter? When my hand was too gentle, my inherited interpretation failed to translate to my way of being with the clay. The interpretative method that helped me to see the clay as a vessel instead of a lump could not see its fulfillment because my way of being with the clay was incongruent with my interpretative understanding. As my way of being with the clay failed, I determined to reform my learned interpretation—the same interpretation which helped me to see the clay as a vessel before. I took on a way of being with the clay that was firm enough to correct my mistakes in the beginning but failed to interpret the clay as something beyond the lump that I was trying to mold. In my obsession with correcting my personal prayer, I lost the vision of my community’s prayer.
This not only shows the necessity of practice and interpretation when it comes to theology but also the charitable philosophy of teaching that is necessary when practicing the vocation. What kind of teaching is necessary for theology? Should it be too gentle, it results in a way of being that exists outside of prayer and thus exists apart from the object and subject of theology even if it has correct knowledge of the interpretive tradition. Likewise, should it be too firm, it results in a way of being that is not prayer unto God but prayer unto self, and its overcorrection points the observer of the theological task toward the theologian and not unto God. The way of teaching necessary for theology must be charitable. The teaching of theology is the invitation to belong to God (in prayer/being) and to belong to one another (in discipleship/interpretive tradition).
My exhaustive definition of theology culminates simply. Ministry as a theologian in the church is 1) To devote oneself to prayer, 2) To devote oneself to prayer in and with the church for the life of the church, and 3) To do the former two in such a way that invites the observer to belong to God and to belong to one another.