11 Theses on Faithful Theological Dissent, or: How to Be a Heretic Without Being a Tool
In the same way that college is that time when students cast off the chains of tradition or parental bounds or conservative ideology or whatever, seminary is that place where students feel liberated from their previous [insert word for whichever prior unenlightened perspective they held] and accordingly feel free to preach the good news to any and all within earshot, in a spirit of evangelistic fervor and confidence they heretofore had never felt for the actual gospel. Because serious theological reflection is a virtue in seminary, and thus students ought to have their worlds shaken to some extent, the ensuing theological shrapnel, disordered and painful, ought not to be discarded or ignored or discouraged as if the experience is unexceptional. Rather, students ought to be taught, led, and formed in such a way that the theological bombshells laid before them neither send them running for cover nor lead them to the high-and-mighty condescension of having finally reached the theological nirvana unmet by so many of their peers — “peers” meaning “congregations.” There is a way to be faithful in the midst of so much tension and questions; and the following are some suggestions to keep one’s theological head on straight even in disagreement.
(A reference and a caveat: I especially appreciate Ben Meyers’ thoughts on theological education, so go read them first. As well, know that I am speaking of and to orthodox Christians in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan tradition. Even writing that sounds haughty or exclusive, but it is the best identifier I know, and I have no idea what guidelines might be offered to “anyone” experiencing theological education. With that in mind, enjoy!)
1. No scholar, theologian, saint, bishop, deconstructor, ideology, professor, or preacher in all of history has discovered the answer. Attachment, therefore, in rigid discipleship to any such person, ancient or living, is foolish and unhelpful to the extent that it both creates an allegiance which makes enemies of those those who do not share membership in the club and substitutes a merely human expositor of Christ for Christ himself.
2. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever identify your own perspective on any issue whatsoever as “radical.” Nearly every viable theological perspective strives in some way to be, or to present itself as, “radical” because “radical” means “revolutionary” as well as “from the root” — all things attractive to non-members. What it really means, however, in academic jargon is “more committed to x issue than you.” If you value being radical — whether regarding church, politics, poverty, sex, gender, race, media, whatever — live out your convictions. Do not inform others of your own radicalism.
3. Develop the self-awareness to know that any overarching, newly discovered, or subordinate theological or social system of thought is inherently transitory. That is not to say one ought to reject such systems of thought (Thomism, dialectical theory, Radical Orthodoxy) or to treat them with disdain — only to remember that not only are they not The Answer (see #1), but also that what you believed yesterday is not stupid, what you believe today is not infallible, and what you believe tomorrow may yet replace today’s yet-to-be-discovered flawed worldview — and tomorrow’s will still not be “it”!
4. Explicitly or implicitly the centrality of Scripture for Christian faith and praxis cannot and must not be replaced. Origen, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Barth, Yoder, et al, are, every one of them, servants of the Word. The same goes, in various ways, for the traditions they represent. Their and others’ writings, alongside your own opinions, do not negate or antiquate the question, “What does the Bible say?” It is not the only question, nor is it necessarily the most important (for example: “What is the will of God?”), but it is the question for the people of God when treading the depths of theological thinking and especially when training ministers and theologians for service in the church. The moment that question becomes passé is the moment “Christian” is removed as a descriptor for theology or ministry.
5. If you are led by a class, your reading, or experience seriously to question, reformulate, or reject a practice or tenet of faith kept by the church’s tradition throughout history, do not be hasty in your judgment or decision. It may well prove that you are right or that you cannot honestly go on without changing your belief or practice, but beware of swift turnabouts devoid of long discernment and communal wisdom. Perhaps you read Yoder and cannot go back regarding violence and discipleship, or you hear a compelling case made for the ordination of gay Christians and are shot to the core; but do not reject your friends, leaders, church, tradition, or previously-appreciated authors: in fact, do not reject anything. Be patient in prayer and discernment, and trust that God has not abandoned you to discover alone what is true and right. You belong to a people, and the fact that university education in America wants you to believe that you are an individual master who must settle in your own mind a thousand minute points of fact or opinion does not mean seminary, however similar in practical function, asks the same of you.
6. Learn the virtuous practice of hospitality to strangers — both personal and ideological. There is a rhetorical way of excluding any possibility of sane disagreement with you, and it goes something like this: “I know of no respectable scholar who holds such a view…” Such a statement is the equivalent of saying, “Nobody likes that guy. He’s a dork.” Instead, learn the practices of friendship and of love for enemies, otherwise known as hospitality. There will be fellow students whom you dislike, just as neighbor and congregant alike are not tailor made for your pleasure; this is for your benefit. Learn to love them, to be their friend — and likewise to love their (potentially) wrong opinions, to befriend their thoughts. You never know when you might be entertaining (theologically proficient yet simplistically deceptive) angels. Practically, this means reading John Piper if you prefer Joel Green, Neuhaus alongside Hauerwas, Heim next to Hick. Learn to listen.
7. Find and bind yourself to a church community. You will be swept away by the tides of ever-changing theological perspectives if you do not belong to a local church (and, furthermore, if you do not have some kind of spiritual mentor). This might be my greatest pet peeve: Listening to a fellow seminarian discuss some subject derisively regarding an item of high regard in most churches, him or herself not actually belonging to or even attending a local church body. Not only does it slice the legs of your credibility right out from beneath you; it ensures from the outset that you will be a cloud without rain, carried along hither and thither, rather than rooted in the foundation of the life of God’s people.
8. Unequivocally, it is okay — indeed, not only okay but properly Christian — not to know everything. To be sure, theology as vocation (ministry included) is a hard road. You are expected to be able to comment intelligently on just about every subject under the sun. But it is essential to recognize human limitation: theologian neither as renaissance man nor as intelligentsia. Nor as con man. It is untenable to know every good theological book, every good literary work, every good poet, every good movie, every good composer, every good band, every good piece of art, every historical event, every modern political machination, every religious fact. It is not only untenable but impossible and ludicrous. Thus you will be tempted to act as if you know these things even when you do not. To be a commentator when not a reader or participant. Do not quote or cite or offer an opinion on that which you do not know! It is academic gossip, and nothing less.
9. Keep following Jesus. The joy of obedience does not find its vacuum in seminary. Supposed liberation from this or that “archaic” tradition or moral injunction does not free you from continuing to walk the narrow path of discipleship. So you realize the Bible is not the Prohibitionist Manifesto — don’t start getting drunk! So you hear someone wax philosophical on Christian sexual ethics as properly lax — don’t start sleeping around! In the same way, social issues, however important, cannot trump Jesus or his church such that they become a means to a larger social end. Rather, learn true sociality (and thus true justice) in the life of that church which follows Jesus Christ.
10. Be on your guard against prefacing comparisons or explanations of your theological perspectives, especially with or over against others’, with “my.” To describe a conviction you hold as “my ethics,” or to explain your difference of opinion with another by beginning, “My theology is/does not…” is narcissistic and even goofily overbearing. “You” do not have “an” ethics or “a” theology. You have theological, ethical, social, ecclesial views and perspectives and opinions and thoughts — all belonging to a mostly disordered but perhaps sometimes coherent worldview — but the only capital-T theology which is “yours” is that of the church. It is (sometimes) good to differ in opinion or even conviction from the church on this or that matter, but you are differing precisely on a matter which belongs to the church — to which you belong! Thus “you” do not “have” a hermeneutics; you submit to a hermeneutics found in the church’s reading of Scripture. Theology is not an Easter egg hunt in which you run around like a chicken with its head cut off, swiping this or that opinion until you build up your own personal mountain of unassailable Truth. The people to which you belong, the church, is the proper home in which theology abides. To the extent that you are welcomed and schooled in the practice of participating in it, do so. But it is never your possession, and it is never atomistic. Do not fall into the temptation to think otherwise.
11. Swearing is not cool. What society deems vulgar or unfitting language may be required or defensible at times — following not far behind the daring speech of Israel’s prophets, or, analogously, Stanley Hauerwas — but you have not discovered what was so long stifled or repressed in small or conservative communities yet now gloriously revealed, namely, that cussing is awesome. Consumerist hip culture might have goaded you into thinking that such “rebellion” is cool, but it is not. If what you have to say can only be said coated in language offensive for the sake of being offensive, learn again the virtue of disciplined speech — and better yet, silence.
Brad is a second-year MDiv student at Candler School of Theology. Hailing from Austin, Texas, with his wife Katelin, Brad plans to go on to doctorate work and to teach and write at the university level. His academic interests include Christian pacifism, theological interpretation of Scripture, and ecclesiology, and he loves film, poetry, Tex-Mex, and Wendell Berry. You can check out Brad’s blog at Resident Theology. This article first appeared on Brad’s blog.