Sunday, November 21, 2010

Studies in Theology

The Pope's pronouncements rarely go unremarked. His latest on condom use by male prostitutes is a marvellously  obscure theological exercise in ambiguity, which has had everyone from the UN to Oprah hopping up and down wondering what he actually meant. 
In contrast, SPCK is promoting an Advent course from the pastor of a Baptist Church in Nevada City which is refreshingly simple. It begins with a full-frontal exegesis of Luke's account of the Annunciation, using 'virgin' in its most customary modern form. Ah. OK. I was reminded of my first days at a (remarkably liberal) theological college with its “professional approach”, distinguishing between “official theology” (the production of church institutions, like Rome), “ordinary theology” (the reflection of virtually all believers), and “professional-academic theology.” The purpose of academic theology is to mediate constructively and critically between the other two flavours. In order to do this, academic theology should distance itself from both church and academy; “systematic theology must necessarily be a bit of an outsider in both the church and the university if it is to contribute fruitfully to the quest for greater understanding of the Christian faith.” OK, That lets me in, then, because I’m nowhere near an understanding of whether the virgin birth was an historical and biological fact but I do think it has immense doctrinal value. I think  that the concept of Jesus as the “Son of God” does not depend on the doctrine of the virgin birth; on the contrary, the stories of a virgin birth depend wholly on the Christian community’s prior faith in Jesus as the “Son of God.” The Biblical narrative tends to suggest that we  put the cart before the horse. Students of theology, however, the ‘Queen of sciences’ are notorious for their arrogance and are sometimes thought by non-theologians to be subject to delusional states who are entirely able to put whatever spin is most appropriate or relevant to the audience on everything from Jonah’s whale (one theologian described it as ‘a pub’) to the role of angels.   If you’ve ever fancied  flirting with the Queen, the following should be enough to put you off. With thanks and apologies for shameless plagiarism to Ben Myers.

     1. As a theological student, your aim is to accumulate opinions – as many as you can, and as fast as possible. (Exceptional students may acquire all their opinions within the first few weeks; others require rather longer.) One of the best ways to collect opinions is to choose your theological group (“I shall be progressive,” or “I will be evangelical,” or “I am a Barthian”, even “I can spell “Schleiermacher”), then sign up to all the opinions usually associated with that social group. If at first you don’t feel much conviction for these new opinions, be patient: within months you will be a staunch advocate, and you’ll even be able to help new students acquire the same opinions.

2. At the earliest possible opportunity you should also form an opinion about your favourite theological discipline: that is, you should choose your specialisation. To communicate this choice to others, you should dismiss as trivial or irrelevant all other disciplines: the systematic theologian should teach him (or her) self to utter humorous , disparaging remarks about the worth of “practical” theology, while the New Testament student should learn to hold forth emphatically on the dangers of systematic theology; and so on.

3. As far as possible, you should try to avoid all non-theological interests or pursuits. All your time and energy should be invested in reading important books and discussing important ideas. (Novels, TV and video games in particular should be avoided, as they are notorious time-wasters; they furnish you with faster reflexes but no new opinions.)

4. Every successful theological student must master the proper vocabulary. All theological conversations should be peppered with these termini technici (e.g. “Only a demythologised Barthian ontology can subvert the différance of postmodern theory and re-construe the analogia entis in terms of temporal mediation”). The less comprehensible and more sibylline the sentence uttered, the better. There are some stock-in-trade terms that are de rigueur (e.g. perichoresis, imago Dei, Heilsgeschichte - I actually remember what this means -  even a load of Bullsgeschichte), but the really outstanding student should find creative ways to deploy a wide range of foreign polysyllabic words. Phrases of Latin, Greek or German derivation are particularly prized. (Those of Hebrew of Syriac extraction should be used more sparingly – they are usually greeted with some puzzlement, or with cries of “Gesundheit!”)

5. Now that you’re a theological student, you will discover that the world is filled with people who – incomprehensibly - don’t share your new opinions. Every conversation should thus be viewed as an opportunity to persuade others of their simple-mindedness and to convert them to a better understanding. If you’re feeling shy about this, you should start by practising on your family and closest friends. They won’t mind. Honestly. And it’s not always necessary to engage in a full-blown discussion; at times a single Latin term or a knowing smirk is all that’s required to demolish another person’s argument.

6. Were you raised in a conservative Christian family? If so, your theological education provides you with the perfect opportunity for rebellion. The benefits of theological rebellion should not be underestimated: rejecting all your parents’ religious opinions allows you both to assert your independence and to imply that your parents are backward and naïve. In this respect, theological education can be every bit as effective as smoking cannabis or moving in with your girl or boyfriend: but without all the bad smells.

7. Every true theologian is an avid collector of books. The day you became a theological student, you entered a race to amass a personal library larger and more impressive than those of your peers. Books should be acquired as quickly and as indiscriminately as possible; second-hand books are even better, since they give the appearance of having been read, which can save you a great deal of time.

8. When you are asked to preach, you should take the opportunity to display the advantages of theological education. Every good sermon should quote the words of some great theologian; even better, a “great German theologian”. Don't forget, pronouncing "Barth" as in the English "Bath" is absolutely correct. Saying "Bart" as in "Simpson" will surely provoke titters of amusement from an enlightened congregation. And the phrase “the original Greek says…” should be used sparingly but effectively – perhaps just eight or nine times in a sermon. The church will surely ask you back. Frequently.

9. The goal of theological education is a good career: preferably an academic career, although in some cases you might have to settle for pastoral ministry (or worse, a regular job). It’s never too early to get your career on track: every essay, every conversation with a professor, every question you ask in class – these are the opportunities to show the professor how deeply you share their opinions, and how superior your own insights are to those of your classmates. In all circumstances you should revere, admire and emulate your professors. Even if they are neither wise nor virtuous, your goal is to become their perfect reflection, mirroring back to them their own opinions, preferences and prejudices. To show that you are the professor’s true protégé: this is the beginning of wisdom, and the bedrock of any good career.

10. Under no circumstances should you resort to old-fashioned pieties like daily prayer and Bible-reading. There are far too many important things to be thinking about, and far too many important things to be reading. Church attendance is acceptable, however, since it gives you the opportunity of improving your pastor’s theological education.

I wonder if Pastor might appreciate my thoughts. Er..


  1. At various times and in diverse places I sheepishly (oh, I'm so punny) admit to being each of those wretched people, numbers one through, what? Ten?. Ugh.
    Now, I just trust that God tells the truth when He says, "If you look for Me, you'll find Me." I assume that when someone else finds Him (because they were looking) they'll know. They don't need me (or Barth or the Pope) to affirm/confirm it.

    Your usual stellar drivel. Must have enjoyed your days off. =)

  2. These wretched people? My heroes, one and all.


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