In Nicolas Lash’s volume, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, many of the themes we continually address here at Theology Forum are brought together in one volume on pilgrim theology. From the outset, Lash shows allergy to systematics as such, claiming that, “God elegantly orders our world, but we lose all truthful purchase on this claim if we forget that the manner of his action disrupts our easy use of all such concepts, for the focus of his ‘ordering’ is the disorder of Calvary; the appearance of his beauty the disfigurement of the crucified” (x). Using the disciples on the way to Emmaus as the governing illustration, Lash claims,
Those disciples, like the rest of us, had some difficulty in ‘reading’ their history, and the context of ‘recognition’, the occasion on which things began to make sense was, not some ‘religious’ event in a sacred space, but an act of human hospitality” (xii).
Criticism or Construction? The Task of the Theologian
Here, I will consider the first essay in the volume (title noted above), a title which Lash himself shows some hesitancy over. In answer his own question, Lash hopes to bridge the divide between academic theology and life, proposing a mode of theology that isn’t abstracted to the academy and yet doesn’t lose its ability to be critical.
In order to ground his approach to the question, let me quote him at length: “Patterns of human action embody particular conceptions, not only of what it is, but of what it might be, to be human: they simultaneously express both fact and possibility, actuality and hope. Patterns of human action – whether individual, domestic, social or political – thus symbolically express both what is and what might be meant by ‘humanity’…If human existence, as it is and as it might be made to be, is the contingent expression of the creative and transformative action of God, then patterns of human action are not merely symbolic but are, in principle, sacramental – expressive of the mystery of grace” (5-6). Therefore, the theologian takes part in the task of the Church, functioning in both word and deed, to declare this mystery of grace. Therefore, if we are to draw a line between criticism or construction, as theologians of the church we must step on the side of construction.
Theology therefore, is “giving symbolic expression to that meaning of ‘humanity’, that account of human identity, significance and destiny, which Christian faith declares…” Therefore, the task of theology is the business of the people of God – it is for everyone. Therefore, theology is not simply done in the academy, but nor is it done in the church, if by church we are referring to the church as an institution; instead, theology is done where people live, work and relate. This concept does not undermine the importance of academic theology, but repositions it away from a true expertise in its true object, God, and back to the field of systematics. In other words, it does not provide grounds for an elitism that all too often pervades academic theological discourse, but orients the vision of the theologian to a knowledge of God as incomprehensible mystery.
Theology therefore, as a pilgrim enterprise, is theology on the way. It never begins from scratch, explains Lash, but as it begins with God finding us, we are now able to move into the dark without being afraid of it. He states, “To put the point technically, to speak of God finding us has the merit of respecting the primacy of grace, whereas to speak as if we had found God is not only Pelagian but, by encouraging us to suppose that, having ‘found’ him, we now have only to ‘hang on to’ him, it reduces the ‘God’ whom we have found to a ‘possession’ that we have acquired – and this is just another form of idolatry” (11). Therefore, the claim that many of the laity make against academic theology is false, if their worry is that they make theology too difficult; Lash, on the other hand, wants to say that academic theology tries to make it too easy to appropriate God and his grace to our language and systems.
Theology therefore is constructive, but it must be critical, if by critical we mean a purification of our arrogance and idolatry and desire to constrain or simplify God. Theology is, as it were, a pilgrim trek. What constitutes this trek? We’ll see in future posts.