In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, there are countless angles from which to think about that event and its continuing significance. By no means the least important is the fact that Luther’s Reformation in particular was in many respects a university-based movement. And still in our world, when the “academic study of religion” often nudges theological reflection to curricular margins, it remains possible to think of oneself not simply as a scholar of religion but also as a theologian. For any so inclined, I offer the following 9.5 theses.
Thesis 1: The fundamental academic task is no different for the theologian than for anyone else. It is to learn to love God with the mind, as Jesus teaches us. Or, as a well-known hymn puts it:
Have you not bid me love you,
God and King;
All, all your own, soul, heart, and
strength, and mind?
I see your cross; there teach my
heart to cling.
Oh, let me seek you and, oh, let
This is not always easy—especially for academicians too readily tempted to assert themselves under the guise of scholarship and pedagogy. But God claims our minds as his own, and to offer them back is our reasonable service.
Thesis 2: The point of loving God with the mind is not only to seek but also to find. “Oh, let me seek you and, oh, let me find.” Or as G. K. Chesterton put it: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” A certain simplicity of mind remains necessary for the theologian, however learned he or she may become. And our greatest danger is that, constantly immersed in analysis and evaluation, we may lose that simplicity. We may forget, as C. S. Lewis said, that “to see through all things is the same as not to see.”
Thesis 3: Loving God with the mind calls, therefore, for the virtue of humility, a much misunderstood virtue. For humility is not shown simply in an endless search for truth. It also instills in us a willingness to find that truth—or, perhaps better, to be found and taught by it. To seek is dangerous unless we truly desire to find. After all, the day may come when we are found—when a powerful hand takes us by the shoulder and an authoritative voice invites us to look, to see, and to know.
Thesis 4: Attaining the simplicity of mind that is eager not only to find but also to be found does not mean to think uncritically. We do not have to teach for very long before we realize that no paper is easier to write than one that offers negative criticism of someone else’s argument. Indeed, if with no further instruction I assign a “critical” paper, students are likely to assume that they must find fault. The true critical task for theology, as for all academic work, is both more difficult and more instructive. It is to explore and unfold the meaning and significance of our subject matter, whatever it may be. For the theologian, this means an attempt to understand and make sense of what the Church has affirmed, and what it has debated, over the centuries. In service of that task, all our powers of critical intellect will be needed, and we must learn to disagree without scorn.
Thesis 5: Not only is this harder than mere negative critique; in the long run it is more interesting as well. “It is,” Dorothy L. Sayers once wrote, “the dogma that is the drama . . . the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.” Not to explore the dogma is to cut off both our students and ourselves from one of life’s great pleasures.
Thesis 6: To close the mind on something solid, to seek to enter critically into the Christian web of belief, will mean learning not only from our contemporaries but also from teachers of the Church who have preceded us—Irenaeus, Augustine, Teresa of Avila, Wesley, Edwards. They did not think in terms already familiar to us, and their assumptions may not be our own. They represent the Church’s true cultural diversity.
Thesis 7: To love God with the mind in this way calls not only for humility but at least as much for the virtue of patience. To learn to say, “I don’t know.” To learn that the Church can and will carry on even if I never get entirely clear on how the external works of the Trinity are indivisible. Gradually to learn to offer God the whole of my intellect with all its powers, yet not to suppose that the Church is built upon that intellect. This demands a patience for which we ought daily to pray. Barth’s Church Dogmatics is unfinished. St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae is unfinished—in his case, at least according to the accounts, by choice. For having had a mystical vision, Thomas declared that, compared with what he had seen, all he had written was straw. And he stopped. It is important to remember that he stopped. It is just as important to remember that he wrote a good bit before he stopped.
Thesis 8: If and when theologians in the academy attempt all this, they can and should do no more. It is not our task to overcome the naivete of our students—which naivete may, after all, be that simplicity we should all seek. Nor is it our task to make believers of our students—as if the Holy Spirit had relinquished that responsibility.
Thesis 9: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Those are, of course, the words of the first of Luther’s ninety-five theses. In their original setting they had special relevance to the controversy over indulgences, but they enunciate a more general truth about the Christian life. There is no way to offer up our weak attempts to be true academicians except within a life that is fundamentally one of confession and repentance—a life that is a continual return to our baptism. In that baptism, the sign of the cross was placed not only on our hearts but also on our minds, which minds we now seek to offer back to Jesus’s Father and our Father.
Thesis 9.5: As C. S. Lewis once wrote: “One is sometimes (not often) glad not to be a great theologian; one might so easily mistake it for being a good Christian.”
Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University and a fellow of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.