Still a Young Theologian

A few weeks ago I got to speak at a prayer retreat in West Virginia. A Church of God (Anderson, IN) women’s organization runs this annual retreat, and as I walked into the cafeteria for dinner on Friday night, I realized just how out of place I was. I am a United Methodist, I don’t particularly enjoy events involving large groups of women, and I was younger than ninety-eight percent of the retreatants by at least forty years. As I enjoyed my dinner with Carolyn, Betty, Lila, and Nola, ages 74–83, all women who would take no nonsense from anyone and whose laughs are as mischievous as they are generous, an image came to mind: Helmut Thielicke’s young theologian.

When I was in college I was a religion major sure that seminary and ministry were my call. Knowing this, a professor assigned me (extracurricularly) Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Eerdmans, 1962). It is still one of the most significant books I have read. I assign it to every seminary class I teach. It should be required reading for every theology student. Thielicke presents an image of the first-year seminarian home on break and asked to preach at his home church. The student, enamored with all he has been learning about God, wants so much to share what he has been learning so everyone can be dazzled by God. But in his excitement, the young theologian stays in the ethereal and uses all of his new and exciting vocabulary words. The result is that he does not so much dazzle as dizzy the congregation. Worse, the young theologian has forgotten one very important thing – the congregation, in their long experience of faithfulness, has a lot more wisdom and deep understanding of faith than he does. Thielicke says that the seminarian is left standing in the pulpit looking like a child in his father’s suit, not yet grown into his theological britches.

It’s a comical and cutting image. I’ve tried, in my (paltry) 13-odd years of studying theology, to hold on to that image and keep my education in its proper place. That came home to me very quickly at this women’s prayer retreat. If I had stood up at the lectern and tried to lecture these saints about how prayer works, they would have put me in my place real fast. I was the whippersnapper in the room, and they have all lived lives more than twice mine with joys and sorrows and challenges I may never know. More than this, they are the faithful saints of the church. They know about prayer at a deep level because they spend all their days praying. I, a theologian, have at best a few words from others about what prayer is. And though I pray daily, my life is simply not long enough to have the wisdom of these women. I count it a gift of Providence that I was too busy to think about preparing another lecture and instead chose to facilitate a few ancient forms of prayer for these women. I offered them resources from the tradition and invited them to tell each other, and me, what God was speaking. It was both a gift to learn about the way my training and my vocation are useful to the church as well as a slap of a reminder that the way I use my education matters.

It’s a hard thing for those of us who study theology. We know how important the things we’re learning are. We know they will sustain our ministry and our students’ ministries; we know they support the church. And yet without faith, they are nothing. We sometimes spend so much time talking about God that we forget to sit still and talk to him. It’s one of the things that I love about many ancient theological writings: they are often theology in the second person. Confessions is Augustine’s prayer. Anselm’s Proslogion is directed at God. Read your homework in such a way that it makes you want to pray. The subject of our study is not dead. He is risen. And so he is alive. Is our theology? Look at the people around you in your church. When you preach, when you pray, when you teach a Sunday School class, they will tell you whether your theology is alive. When it’s not, we need to receive the gift of people who grab us by the shoulders, look us in the eye, and say, “God! He is risen!”

Still a Young Theologian

A few weeks ago I got to speak at a prayer retreat in West Virginia. A Church of God (Anderson, IN) women’s organization runs this annual retreat, and as I walked into the cafeteria for dinner on Friday night, I realized just how out of place I was. I am a United Methodist, I don’t particularly enjoy events involving large groups of women, and I was younger than ninety-eight percent of the retreatants by at least forty years. As I enjoyed my dinner with Carolyn, Betty, Lila, and Nola, ages 74–83, all women who would take no nonsense from anyone and whose laughs are as mischievous as they are generous, an image came to mind: Helmut Thielicke’s young theologian.

When I was in college I was a religion major sure that seminary and ministry were my call. Knowing this, a professor assigned me (extracurricularly) Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Eerdmans, 1962). It is still one of the most significant books I have read. I assign it to every seminary class I teach. It should be required reading for every theology student. Thielicke presents an image of the first-year seminarian home on break and asked to preach at his home church. The student, enamored with all he has been learning about God, wants so much to share what he has been learning so everyone can be dazzled by God. But in his excitement, the young theologian stays in the ethereal and uses all of his new and exciting vocabulary words. The result is that he does not so much dazzle as dizzy the congregation. Worse, the young theologian has forgotten one very important thing – the congregation, in their long experience of faithfulness, has a lot more wisdom and deep understanding of faith than he does. Thielicke says that the seminarian is left standing in the pulpit looking like a child in his father’s suit, not yet grown into his theological britches.

It’s a comical and cutting image. I’ve tried, in my (paltry) 13-odd years of studying theology, to hold on to that image and keep my education in its proper place. That came home to me very quickly at this women’s prayer retreat. If I had stood up at the lectern and tried to lecture these saints about how prayer works, they would have put me in my place real fast. I was the whippersnapper in the room, and they have all lived lives more than twice mine with joys and sorrows and challenges I may never know. More than this, they are the faithful saints of the church. They know about prayer at a deep level because they spend all their days praying. I, a theologian, have at best a few words from others about what prayer is. And though I pray daily, my life is simply not long enough to have the wisdom of these women. I count it a gift of Providence that I was too busy to think about preparing another lecture and instead chose to facilitate a few ancient forms of prayer for these women. I offered them resources from the tradition and invited them to tell each other, and me, what God was speaking. It was both a gift to learn about the way my training and my vocation are useful to the church as well as a slap of a reminder that the way I use my education matters.

It’s a hard thing for those of us who study theology. We know how important the things we’re learning are. We know they will sustain our ministry and our students’ ministries; we know they support the church. And yet without faith, they are nothing. We sometimes spend so much time talking about God that we forget to sit still and talk to him. It’s one of the things that I love about many ancient theological writings: they are often theology in the second person. Confessions is Augustine’s prayer. Anselm’s Proslogion is directed at God. Read your homework in such a way that it makes you want to pray. The subject of our study is not dead. He is risen. And so he is alive. Is our theology? Look at the people around you in your church. When you preach, when you pray, when you teach a Sunday School class, they will tell you whether your theology is alive. When it’s not, we need to receive the gift of people who grab us by the shoulders, look us in the eye, and say, “God! He is risen!”

Practice Resurrection

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” Irenaeus writes. “Practice resurrection” is Wendell Berry’s line. They’re basically the same thing, and it’s something the ancients emphasize when they talk about salvation. Ask an ancient who Christ is or what salvation is, and you’ll get On the Incarnation, a story of cosmic proportions. They can’t tell us who Christ is without starting before the beginning. Then they tell us who we are, how we are called to live, and how the story ends in Christ’s return.

Athanasius tells us in the beginning was God. And God created everything, the whole cosmos. God also created humans and put his image in them so that they might be his glory. That image made them fully alive and able to overcome their tendency to dissolve back into the nothingness from which they came. Then these humans tarnished the image of God in them and began sliding back to nothing. Sin grew worse in the universe, and humans began to die. God, who was in the beginning, still was. God took on flesh and began to re-create his creation. Christ died to save, and death could not hold him. Christ burst out of the tomb, reversing the curse on humanity and making humans whole and alive again. In our baptisms, we are joined to that resurrection. We live.

But do we live? Most of the students I encounter rush from one thing to the next with anxious, exhausted eyes, forgetting to breathe. Most talk about just getting by or skipping readings because they just don’t have time. Some are extremely dedicated and take all of their coursework deadly seriously, having intense debates about the intermediate state or infant baptism. Others are convinced that spending all their time in the chapel or in prayer is what they need to be doing. All of my students tell me that Christ died for their sins, so they know that they are saved. Very few of them seem to understand that Christ also rose for their lives.

When I think of what it means to be fully alive for God’s glory, what it means to practice resurrection, I think of a moment from a backpacking trip I led when I was in seminary and working as a wilderness guide. On this particular trip, I had a fourteen-year-old boy named Tim ask me to teach him to memorize the prologue of John. This was astounding enough, but the moment that still strikes me as nothing short of beautiful was later that evening, after we had hiked along memorizing in call-and-response. I looked over to some boulders at our campsite to see Tim jumping off the rocks with a sharp stick in his hand, rushing at a bee’s nest. He was reciting the prologue of John. Jumping off a rock and calling out to the Rock.

Could this be what it means to be truly human? To engage our physicality and also our noetic capacities? To be abundantly silly and deeply serious? To play in utter exuberance and joy in this life God has created, stretching our muscles and expanding our lungs in exuberant, jovial shouts as well as to embrace the One who created our muscles and lungs and the whole of us? Jesus’s command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, calls us to engage our minds as well as the rest of us. It strikes me, then, that when we aren’t living this kind of life, we aren’t really living. If we’re neglecting the jumping and playing, or the asking of big questions, or the silliness, or the wonder and praise of God, then we’re not being fully human. If we’re not taking time to enjoy one another’s company over a cup of conversation while we also spend good time reading the church fathers, or if we fail to work hard and write good papers while we also take time to stretch our legs and play, or if we forget to worship in the midst of preparing the next sermon, or if we forget to laugh deeply while we live deeply, we’re not living into our salvation.

It strikes me that Tim could do all of these things at once. He didn’t have to jump for a while and then ask questions or memorize Scripture; I watched him hike while asking questions about the Incarnation and salvation and play hacky sack while reciting John’s prologue. To Tim, there wasn’t such a thing as a “secular” part of life and a “spiritual” part of life. To Tim, it was all just life. Could spiritual formation be something that happens in our classes, and not merely something we attend an hour a week for our first year of seminary? Can we worship while playing basketball or Frisbee? Can we laugh and be silly while studying atonement theories and looking up words like “extracalvinisticum”? I am inclined to think that we can, and indeed, that we should. Let us find some rocks, call out to the Rock, and live.

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