At this year’s meeting of the College Theology Society, among many other helpful sessions, there was an open forum in which theologians were placed into groups (I had not met anyone in my group before the session) and were asked to share answers to two basic questions: (1) why do you do what you do?, and (2) what gives you hope? Matt Shadle and Dan Horan have already written about this session.
This may sound odd to believing, practicing Catholics, but theologians don’t actually talk much about their personal faith, at least not in meetings of the guild. We talk about the tradition, the arguments, the crucial points, the key criticisms. We may be arguing about grace or virtue or Jesus or the Trinity or the relation between faith and reason, or a thousand other things that have everything to do with faith. But, particularly because we are academics, we tend to argue as though we are scientists, neutral observers of these things “out there.” We often argue as if we have no personal stake in the argument. We don’t often pause and talk to one another about what we believe, about how our faith shapes our work and lives, nor even about whether we indeed share a faith that is deeper than the arguments that often divide us. That is the stuff of faith-sharing groups, not professional conferences.
The dynamic that results is something like this: I know, of course, my own deeply held beliefs and how they motivate me and my work. And I have some friends in the field whose faith I know because I know them personally, and we have had personal conversations about these things. But there are many people whom I encounter principally as persons on the other side of an argument. And they, of course, argue like professionals and give me no glimpse of their personal faith. This context of impersonal argument makes it too easy for me to assume that they are not motivated by any real personal faith. Meanwhile, I become more and more convinced that my friends and I have solid faith and right ways of thinking about the issues we think about (collective self-criticism needed!). If I am not the only one who is guilty of thinking in this way, this dynamic surely works on many of us, and it works to reinforce the divisions among us. Obviously, a little reflection ought to be able to show the problematic dynamic driving this way of thinking. But part of the problem is that the whole dynamic tends to happen subconsciously. I had not realized how much I tended to think about strangers at conferences in this way until I found myself so surprised by the expression of deep personal faith at the open forum in Omaha.
The first question we were asked at the open forum in Omaha was “why do you do what you do?” We were asked to write about the question for five minutes. The first thing I wrote was “Because I have come to believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true, and I feel called to share it with others.” For me, that is the very heart of why I study and teach theology. But I spent the next four minutes coming up with other descriptions, along the lines of “I want to introduce students to the resources that the tradition has for helping them discover the meaning of their lives and live according to their authentic values.” In a way, of course, it’s the same thing, since I’m convinced that Jesus is the central resource that the tradition offers. But the latter expression speaks the truth in a way that is less pious-sounding and, of course, less personal. After much debate, I offered both expressions to my small group, but I prefaced the one with an apology for sounding too pious, for getting too personal. A very interesting thing happened. As our conversation followed, others quoted me a couple times. “Like Dana said, this may sound too pious for a CTS meeting, but what I really want to say is….” We apologized for the piety, but we shared it anyway. But then we listened as group after group shared real, personal, reflective, and often pious, reasons they did what they did. Somehow, we overcame our hesitance and shared and connected.
For me, and for many others I spoke with, the open forum was a real gift for two reasons. First, it helped us to reflect upon the connections between our personal faith and our professional work as theologians and as teachers of theology. Secondly, it allowed us to see one another as whole persons of deep faith and of personal commitment to our professional work, with that commitment grounded in a sense of vocation.
In the spirit of that event, we are launching a new series here. Each Friday, starting tomorrow (and going for about 10 weeks, perhaps longer if more guest posts develop), look for a post from a theologian who will discuss his or her faith and how that faith impacts his or her work as a theologian, and perhaps vice versa. I’m hopeful that the writing and the sharing of these posts will help remind us (and others) that there is much that unites us, even in the midst of some real differences among us.
And, please, read these with charity, because we are asking people to step out of their comfort zone, out of their training, and write not simply about theology, but about themselves and their own personal faith. Look for the first post tomorrow!
You can read the other posts in the series by clicking on each author’s name: Dana Dillon, Charlie Camosy, Emily Reimer-Barry, Beth Haile, David Cloutier, Jana Bennett, MT Dávila, Tom Bushlack, Jason King, Jessica Wrobleski, Drew Kim, Kari-Shane Davis Zimmerman, Nichole Flores. Others will be added here once their posts are added.