I have crises-of-pursuit with alarming regularity. The questions, What actually am I doing? and Am I able to do it? surface, but any potential answers to soothe my fears remain subterraneous. I dig down into the past, where one might expect to excavate some reasons for validation in the present and hope for the future. Yet in truth, this particular history is not as auspicious as I’d like it to be.
I remember my brother
interrogating questioning me about my fledgling interest in biblical studies around four years ago. “What do you want to be?” he asked, which was another way of posing the very Kelly question “How do you intend to earn a living out of this?” Though I worded it in a roundabout way, in my head things were quite clear: I wanted to be Dr Arden Autry, and to get paid for it. I used the word “authority” in my response, in the sense that I wanted to be an authority that people would naturally and uncoercively look to for wisdom and knowledge in the same way that I looked to Arden. I saw him as authoritative, a person whose words carried considerable weight. There was a gentle yet compelling power at work when he spoke (and when he speaks today). I wanted that power. The power to hold the attention of a room full of people. The power to teach. The power to be asked questions and to give good answers. And since, in my mind, knowledge was the source of this power, the acquisition of this powerful knowledge became my quest.
Of course authority, power, and knowledge are considered dangerous to postmodern sensibilities, and the one who wields them a threat to equality and justice and freedom. Was I therefore setting out to be a theological tyrant, lording my knowledge over ignorant subjects? With Arden as my type that wasn’t quite the case. Nevertheless, I didn’t know what made someone like Arden, well, Arden. I only saw the fruit. I didn’t see the planting, the watering, the pruning – the matrix in which his learning took place. Knowledge was not a sufficient condition for the kind of power I experienced in Emmaus Scripture School. If Arden had any authority to speak on the New Testament, it was because he knew its divine Author. Only in deep relatedness to God could his knowledge be given and received as grace; his authority be experienced as gentle persuasion. I began this journey seeking to know as much as Arden knew, not perceiving that the most determinative and powerful thing he knew was the Trinity.
This is a modern malaise – seeking to be a theologian without seeking God. My almost clockwork-like crises are no doubt a symptom of this. If pain is God's megaphone, then such doubt is Barth's, serving as it does to wake us up to the proper subject of theology – God – and to its proper goal: worship. Academic theology is a spiritual vocation that requires spiritual practices which produce spiritual character. Indeed, the original academy was a sacred site dedicated to the goddess of wisdom, with the word then used to denote Plato's community of intellectuals which discussed and debated the Good. All this is by way of saying that academic theology is not inherently divorced from virtue or spirituality or whatever you want to call it. That is a dichotomy as false as it is modern. It is one that I have often followed but which I must finally reject.
To ease my fears and secure my future I think that I need to read more Barth or Yoder or Augustine, or I need to write more learned essays and get better marks, or I need to subscribe to theology journals and build up a network of contacts within the guild. I may well need to do all those things, but what I really need to do is pray more. This is the example set by academics from Augustine to Autry.