Note from the Editor: When I was a graduate student, I became quickly enamored with Alvin Plantinga’s well known essay, “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Although I was a religion and not a philosophy Ph.D. I still found the substance and method of the essay extremely helpful. Inspired by Plantinga’s model, we are starting a series of articles from senior scholars in various disciplines that will be entitled, “Advice to Christian [fill in the academic discipline].” Our first contribution comes from the only discipline whose focus of study can be worshiped: Theology. We are pleased to offer this opening essay by Stanley Hauerwas. This essay recently appeared in Christian Scholar’s Review 50(2).
To be asked to advise anyone with the ambition to be a theologian in the Christian tradition is not a happy assignment. To be called to do theology is a happy calling but given the current institutional realities it is not going to be easy to do theology well. By “current institutional realities” I am thinking about the increasing loss of people identifying as Christians but also developments in universities that make theology an unlikely subject.
I am aware that what I have just written cannot help but seem a poor way to begin an essay designed to give advice to anyone who would desire to be a theologian. But I have to be honest about the challenges before those who want to be theologians. I suspect the character of theology as well as the institutional place in which theology can be done may well be quite different than our current practices.
I suspect I have been asked to provide advice because I seem to have done well enough. But I am increasingly aware of how lucky I was to be a theologian both for the church and the university during the time I have worked. In an odd way I was fortunate not to receive extended advice about how to be a theologian. I was not smart enough to take advantage of any advice I was given. As a result I took risks I did not know I was taking and that proved to be a good thing.
For example I was not told, as most young graduate students are now told, that I should only publish with a university press. My first book, Vision and Virtue, was published by Fides Press a press that was not on anyone’s radar as an important scholarly press. It was, moreover, a press connected with the Christian Family Movement, an organization begun by a wonderful C.S.C. priest from Austria who had strong socialist inclinations. I did not know it at the time but it was an honor to be published by such people.
I thought what was important was not who the publisher happened to be. What I cared about getting out was what I thought needed to be said. I probably had a higher opinion about what I had to say than was justified but introducing Iris Murdoch to the theological world was not unimportant. I simply did not understand what might be called the politics of publishing so I did not publish to get tenure. I wrote because I wanted to change the world. I am still trying.
Bill May, an eloquent theologian who taught at Indiana and SMU, in the process of giving advice to young academic theologians would distinguish between writing in from writing out. He associated the former with discourse shaped by disciplinary habits that only insiders of the discipline could understand. As an alternative he advocated the importance of learning how to write out. By writing out he meant that we should be able to write in a manner that the non-academic can understand. I have tried to follow his advice.
To write out means it is very important to have a reader in mind you want to engage. That may well mean that you will at times try to create a reader. That such work defies the oft made distinction between scholarly and popular theology. Any paragraph or book by Rowan Williams is sufficient to call into question that dubious distinction. Of course, that does not mean that a reader may find difficulty with this paragraph, chapter, or book but there must be writing sufficient to lead them on.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not suggesting that you do not try to have your book, which of course is your dissertation, published by a university press. Rather I am suggesting that it is a mistake to let the assumed scholarly standards defeat why you are called to be a theologian in the first place. I have directed a good number of dissertations. I have always given my students this advice—write about what you care about. Write about what fuels your passions. Without passion theology can be a deadly discipline that kills the soul. Few sins are more deadly than making God boring.
I begin this essay calling attention to the challenges facing anyone desiring to be a theologian in the world as we now find it. Yet I want to suggest that the challenges I named are also opportunities for the recovery of theology as a free discipline. The loss of the church’s social and political status means theologians are free to think thoughts that were hard to think when Christianity was assumed to be the ethos necessary to sustain something called Western Civilization. I am not suggesting that all that was done in that respect was without value but I do think we live in a new day.
Which leads me to give advice that may seem strange. I think it particularly important in our time for theologians to be read in areas that are not explicitly theological. What I take to be odd about such advice is given the challenges that makes theology seem to be a problematic enterprise in the modern university one would expect the emphasis should be on the intensification of theology as a self-justifying discipline. But when theology becomes a self-consuming artifact it betrays its character as a discourse about all that is. If theology becomes just another course to provide information about an esoteric subject then something has gone wrong.
I am asking for much by giving such advice. Which is but a way to advise those beginning in theology to avoid what appears to be the “in” topic of the moment. That is a temptation hard to avoid but there is a remedy for avoiding that pitfall—you will always need friends that will read what you write and will then tell you the truth. Friends, moreover, may regard you quite critically and you may return the favor but then it is wise to remember that our enemy is more likely to tell us the truth than our friends.
It is important to remember that many of your friends are dead but have left material that can help you avoid the parochialism of the present. No one can command knowledge of the whole Christian tradition, but to read the theology of the early church is a necessary exercise for the doing of theology. It is so for no other reason that their problems are not necessarily our problems but that is why they are so important. They help us recover a theological imagination by forcing us to think differently.
I have recently been given the gift of quite literally being in conversation with friends. Brian Brock, who probably knows me better than I know myself, has developed a series of questions about my work that have now been published under the title, Beginnings 1 Sam Wells and I have been recorded in conversation about our work published in a book called just that, Conversation.2
I call attention to these books because I think they may provide an example of how theology may be done in the future. Moreover they show rather than just say how friendship is integral to the theological task.
Above I stressed the importance of theologians reading widely and for enjoyment. You never know what may stir your imagination. For example, one of the more popular essays I have written is on the novel Watership Down. If you can make theological hay off a book about rabbits you have an indication that nothing is off limits and potentially of use. But it is important to note I did not read the novel thinking it might be of use. It turned out to be a novel that exemplified the interrelation of political theory and the importance of narrative that gave me the opportunity to say better what I had been trying to say. There is no better way to enrich theological imagination than to read Dante.
An implication of the recommendation to read widely has implications for your relation to other disciplines such as scripture and historical theology that are necessary if we are to do theology well. I think we are approaching a time when the current disciplinary divisions are beginning to break down. I take that to be a good thing but it also means extra labor for the theologian. One of our weaknesses as modern theologians is our thin knowledge of scripture. How to make scripture integral to theological work as was done by the Church Fathers remains a challenge that will require imaginative responses that we are not sure we know what such work will look like.
At the very least in order to avoid letting the current disciplinary division determine how we should think it is a good idea to read what your colleagues in the other fields read. This is not to manipulate your relationship with your colleagues. On the contrary it is a condition necessary to sustain the kind of conversations that can produce thought.
Conversations with colleagues are very important, but I urge you to think of your writing to be the attempt to be in conversation often with those you do not know. Over the years I discovered that by writing I discovered friends I did not know I had. By writing I was introduced to people who were thinking thoughts that were not unlike thoughts I was trying to develop. The result for me has been a continuing education that I believe has made me a better theologian. If I had to name one characteristic that has made what I have done possible it is my assumption that there is something else I need to learn. I have never presumed my education is finished.
Which brings me back to the worries with which I begin. Will there be a people left that care that the work of theology be continued? If such a people exist will there exist institutional resources that make the work of theology possible? My answer to such questions is I do not have the slightest idea how to answer either. But I suspect changes are coming that I cannot imagine. What I am sure about is that those who are called to the office of theology for the church will have to take the church seriously if the work of theology is possible.
It is no secret that when the university became the primary home of theology theologians have written for other theologians. I hope we may be in a time when theologians will find their primary home in the church. That does not mean that theology will need to be written in a popular style, though that is not always a bad idea, but it means theology cannot be isolated from the practices that are constitutive of Christian community. That will require those who would be theologians in the future to do their work as if their life depended on it. The latter is the most important advice I can give because it just happens to be true, that is, our lives do depend on the subject that makes what we do as theologians at once so important and so hard.