Saturday, March 07, 2009

Ministry Meanderings (L-O-N-G!)

Much of this post just went off by email to a blogging friend, a woman who is in a doctoral program combining theology and the practice of ministry. (I'm hoping she will clarify and permit me to be more precise). But I am developing an interest in this topic, so thought I'd share here.

Some background:

I'm smack in the middle of an M.Div, program, making a (later than) midlife vocational change. I'm a lawyer and I'm a teacher, and was most of the way through an M.A. program in Humanities before switching to a seminary degree. In others words, I have mountains of graduate school and professional work behind me. I think that I could fairly assess myself as a reasonably intelligent person ~ no genius, and certainly little enough in the way of capacity for memory. But, you know, smart enough for most everyday tasks that do not involve tax returns or electrical wiring.

As anyone who's been reading knows, I have just slogged my way through a course in Christology with great difficulty. I had expected to love it and ~ I didn't. And it has been a very long time indeed since I have submitted an academic paper without a good idea of whether or not I had achieved the hoped-for goal ~ but a few days ago, I did just that.

A few days later, Quotidian Grace wrote
an entry about a discussion in her church's adult education program on ~ yeah, you guessed it ~ Christology! Although they did not, apparently, identify it as such, that was, in fact, the topic at hand. And I began to wonder, as indicated below, why we are not better versed in these theological dilemmas. I don't expect that most of us would be able to solve them or anything like that; they have, after all, been wrestled with by the greatest minds within and without the church for two and one-half millenia (I'm including the Greeks and their debates over matter and being here). But how is it that the rest of us stay in that damn cave all the time?

Of course, I should speak only for myself. I often find myself envying my Jesuit friends their THREE YEARS of philosophy studies, but then I realize that I could not posibly have survived such training. I do wish, though, that we aimed just a little higher than we do.

My email to my friend (somewhat modified for blog purposes):

"I can't say that my Christology professor has soured me on theology. I would love to ascribe my limitations to him, and I have also considered whether the problem is this experience of unending heart-rending grief, which certainly has profoundly compromised my intellectual capacity.

But the truth is that I have never "got" Rahner, whom we have studied in my spiritual direction program and in whom I have read extensively, and I did not "get" Tillich in the course I audited this past quarter. I read Shirley Guthrie for my basic systemmatics course last year and it was barely comprehendable, and I consider that to be very basic reading indeed.

I think that I just do not have a mind intended for philosophic thinking. I've never understood any of the classical philosophers, either.

Now the reality is that I have a pretty good mind. If you could take it out and look at it, you would say, Hmmm, lots of capacity and very well trained. But -- oops -- this one little section is entirely mising.

I used to think that it was the part that in other people permits access to chemistry, but apparently it is a bit more expansive of a part!

Anyway, your program now is in theology and ministry or something of that sort, right? Making theology accessible to the body of Christ?

Maybe you can find a way in for people like me who run into one brick wall after another. Now I love Moltmann, what little of him I do get -- maybe you could write a study guide for Moltmann! If you aim for about a 6th grade level, perhaps . . . .

I'm not entirely joking. I would love to be able to understand the things I've read. "

Hmmm. Apparently some of my email was cut-off due to a little server glitch this morning. But it continued in this vein:

"I was so disappointed when I returned to church in my thirties, having taken for granted a high school Biblical studies education in which we were introduced to the historical-critical method, to discover pastors preaching as if Moses had written the Torah and no one in the pews could be expected to understand otherwise. Now I find that I am responding much the same way to what little I can grasp of theology. We have a 2,000 (plus)-year-old history of philosophy and theology behind us, and the general assumption seems to be that it is not within reach of the typical churchgoer, and that she wouldn't be interested anyway."

I'm not arguing for church to be transformed into a Ph.D. program in theology.

But it really is exasperating to realize how little of our tradition we share with one another.

And now . . . oh, honestly, I feel another post brewing, this one about my envy of my rabbi friends, whose theological education encompasses endless (and I mean that literally) debate over every topic under the sun. Even I could develop a tiny bit of understanding via a participatory rather than an open-brain-insert-lecture method.

But that's for another day.

Comments most welcome and encouraged!


Purple said...

Oh Gannett...can I say right on? You summed it up perfectly with this one statement: "But how is it that the rest of us stay in that damn cave all the time?"

Those of us trained in the historical-critical method come at "ministry" through a different lens. For has made a huge difference in what I preach, how I "see" the church, and how I "see" the world.

I am continually "translating" words/phrases/ideas people use. And part of the reason they use them is they have not been exposed to any other sort of way to process, think, experience, reflect on scripture and theology.

Many days it is as if we are still stuck in the damn cave.

Joan Calvin said...

On the preaching as if Moses wrote the Torah. I struggle with the teaching/preaching dilemma. I do a few "teaching sermons" each year, but it is hard. My congregation consists of folks who have the same understanding of Christianity they were taught in first grade to folks who will only read Spong and Borg. (Very, very few in the latter category.) I started talking about substitutionary atonement last night during a break in the movie (Fireproof: not recommended) and the response was "what do you mean?" and "but that's what I grew up with." After reading your post, I'm wondering if I should do a basics of the faith series of studies. But, I am far, far more liberal than most of my congregation. I would also add (should put this somewhere earlier in this comment) that in 15 or 20 minutes it is really difficult to talk about metaphor and taking the text out of literalism. Of course I'm responding from the Bible belt.

mompriest said...

I read an artical once, I think it was by Kathryn Tanner, on atonement theology and her understanding. She listed 7 different theologies and one that she has developed. It was in The Anglican Theological Review about 5 years ago. Anyway, it was helpful to me. I'll send it to you if I can find it again.

It was helpful to me just to realize that Christianity has engaged in 7, or 8, different ways of understanding what God was/is doing in the life, death, and resurrection....

Also, I don't have a mind for philosophy either, but I do like Systematical Theology, it is a little easier to grasp - because it is a system of thought with the intent of trying to explain the unexplainable.

I too wish we could engage in discussion and debate like the rabbi's - it could be so exciting!

Anyway, you are not alone in this struggle.

Betsy said...

We are blessed in our parish to have a highly respected NT theologian/seminary professor as one of our assisting priests. At the end of his incredible sermons, which enlighten, teach, and inspire, it all seems so simple to understand a passage in a new, critically examined way that leads to greater faith. When I try to do the same thing, it rarely works quite so well (fortunately he is also an incredibly gracious man and never makes me feel foolish in the attempt!). So I have concluded that serious theology and teaching can be both possible and well-received in a congregation, but it takes a preacher with a true gift for doing so...and the gift is rare.

Gannet Girl said...

Monpriest, we spent a day on a basic outline of 12 or 13 (can't remember the exact number - was it 12 theories in Christology and 13 expanations of theodicy in pastoral care or vice versa?)theories of atonement a couple of weeks ago. You could easily spend a month on each to gain only the most elementary of understandings.

And Besty, I would love a link to your church if the sermons are online; you could email me at

Anonymous said...

Whoa, I would definitely be needing the Coles notes for these courses!! Sounds like trigonometry to me... or worse yet, like doing an income tax return at about 1:00 in the morning. My hat's off to you for having written and submitted a paper at all.

I had to look up what Christology was. Sounds like pretty theoretical stuff that, I would think, would be much less appealing at a time in our lives when we'd rather get down to brass tacks or cut to the chase. Makes me think of teacher education courses that are a necessary evil for a degree but have little relevance in the practical application of the day to day life in a classroom.

Not sure if you already mentioned this or not, GG, but what would you say exactly is disturbing you the most about this course? Is it the fact that you're having a hard time wrapping your head around it, that it's a disappointment, that it offers little in terms of reflecting spiritual life, that it's dry as toast...?


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I realized a number of years ago that my brain doesn't do systematic theology. My brain does metaphor. I've learned to be content with that.

Sarah S-D said...

and i haven't written you back yet! sigh!

i am too tired to read all the comments here at the moment, though i want to.

you raise a VERY real concern and one that was at the heart of my application to my fellowship program. i spent a lot of energy seeking to teach theology to lay people in my first (and only) congregational call, and finding reading material that didn't send them screaming was darn near impossible. we spent two years on shirley guthrie's text, 2 years!!!! one chapter at a time until we really had a grasp. and then when we finished some people were saying, can we start again? the beginning will make so much more sense now! and others were saying, "if you EVER make me read this again, I'll, I'll..." But all were agreed that their questions were theological questions and they wanted to keep studying... thus my dilemma began... so I developed a curriculum of sorts... and we worked through it. but finding source material they could access.... hard, and not something i always achieved. and these are not dumb people. and you my friend are a BRILLIANT person.

there's work to be done.

i don't think i'll be writing a study guide to moltmann any time soon, i'm sorry to say. haven't read him in years... but... the basic request, it is one that i am committed to- making theology accessible for people in the pews, without flattening it, or depriving it of mystery. i'm committed to making theology sing. it will be hard though. really hard.

when i got your e-mail i thought about the fact that i used to think that EVERYBODY could sing because i couldn't imagine not being able to sing. now, i know that EVERYBODY can make a joyful noise, can sing in a sense, but not everybody can sing well, or match pitch. and not everybody can be taught. i still imagine that EVERYBODY can learn theology, but... i do think our brains are wired differently and maybe, because i fell in love with this so quickly, and it came so naturally to me (though reading and grasping the texts did not!) I don't really get the ways it is not on everyone's radar. i would never in a million years say "EVERYBODY can do calculus." because i can't. and i can't imagine wanting to even.

but, as the paragraph that is in your blogpost, but didn't make the e-mail indicates... this points to the heart of our faith... shouldn't all confess faith in Christ be able to think theologically and do theology? hell yeah. and in fact, we all do. but academic theology operates on a different plane with a different vernacular that leaves so many out.

and something needs to be done about that. and i hope i can be someone to do it. some day.

but right now... i'm learning german and taking care of a baby. and studying very little theology actually.

keep me honest, g.g.

keep holding my feet to the fire.


thanks for this conversation. i may not e-mail now because this became a much longer stream-of-consciousness comment than i intended.

should be sleeping, baby's been sleeping for hours and will likely wake soon and i am exhausted.

thanks again.

Kathryn J said...

I'm glad you have friends more capable to respond than me. My brain grasps chemistry and a tiny bit of theology - philosophy not so much but then I've never really tried.

I wonder about so many things and have so little time.

Sarah said...

derien, for your award, btw.

Quotidian Grace said...

Sorry to be late commenting here after your very nice shout-out to my post. We were out of town this weekend.

I'm with you in thinking I don't have a very philosophical turn of mind.

I think we need to remember that God reaches us in different ways. For some that will be through philosophy/theology or the use of the historical critical method of reading the Bible. For others the stories of the Bible are multi-layered and full of personal meaning and sufficient unto themselves for faith.

The series Armchair Theologian published by John Knox is intended for adult study groups and covers Calvin, Wesley, Barth, Luther and others--even "heretics". I recommend it for those looking for a good resource for lay groups.

Jodie said...

I am not impressed by unintelligible philosophers who require you to expand your vocabulary and grammar by orders of magnitude just in order to decide if you even agree with them. Of course you do.

It's just a mind game, caves within caves.

I am much more impressed by real people who navigate through real life and in the tears of grief over watching a young sister slowly die of cancer, watching her hold on with all her might to raise her teenage children just one more day or hour, out of that to say of God:

"I plan to slap him in the face, if he has one".

It's in English, and it says it all.

Deb said...

You know... I frequently wrestle with this. Jesus tells us to have "faith like a child" and so we spend half a sermon explaining what a child is. What's worse, are the people who distill theology into man-centric "you daughter of Eve, you" diatribes.


I'm in the middle of systematics this semester and am finding the whole business extremely unsettling...