It seems that wherever I move a certain catalogue eventually finds me. There aren’t many of these anymore, but this one, selling ‘Christian books’, shows up without fail. From it one can buy shelves of Patristic theological works for some shockingly low price. One could, though I’m not sure that it’s available, buy all of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics for less than $200 US. The sections peddling biblical commentaries have more options than a seed catalogue. That’s the exciting stuff. But along with it comes page after page selling faddish, in-substantial books written by the oddest of creatures–the Christian celebrity. The trend now seems to be that some pastor writes a popular bit of whimsy and then, when that sells well, publishes a study guide to that whimsy, and if that also sells, releases a video series. I’m biased. I admit it. I wish much of this material didn’t exist. I wish the ‘masses’ were more theologically literate; I wish theology still had a place in North American universities; I wish pastors were more apt to see theological work as a part of their calling. I wish there were more grass-roots intellectuals comfortable speaking of God and the important things of life. Tara Isabella Burton explores the value of studying theology, whether one believes or not, in The Atlantic (Oct. 30, 2013). Describing her own experience pursuing such study against the wishes of her mother, Burton writes,
The BA I did at Oxford was a completely secular program, attracting students from all over the religious spectrum. My classmates included a would-be priest who ended up an atheist, as well as a militant atheist now considering the priesthood. During my time there, I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism. As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: ‘theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.’ A good theologian, he says, ‘has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.’ In many ways, a course in theology is an ideal synthesis of all other liberal arts.”
Burton is right, not just about the rigors of such study and its value, but also about what there is to gain from exploring faith from the inside. For one thing, its less tempting to disbelieve in a straw-man God when one encounters the serious thinking of a faith community (instead whatever its celebrity representatives are claiming). Burton concludes:
If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the ‘outside,’ the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events ‘from within’: an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today. That such avenues of inquiry have virtually vanished from many of the institutions where they were once best explored is hardly a triumph of progress or of secularism. Instead, the absence of theology in our universities is an unfortunate example of blindness—willful or no—to the fact that engagement with the past requires more than mere objective or comparative analysis. It requires a willingness to look outside our own perspectives in order engage with the great questions—and questioners—of history on their own terms. . . .”
Thinking beyond the academy, the challenge is just not the dearth of such reflection in formal institutions of higher learning, but the difficulty our modern pragmatic sensibilities present to this sort of learning within faith communities. Burton’s article is certainly worth a read.