Forgetting God in the Midst of Theology

We have been exploring the inner life of the theologian (and the theological student) from various angles over the last couple months. Most recently, James challenged us to consider Lent a season for ‘setting aside’ areas of our calling in order that we might take them up again in renewed awareness of their dedication to God. Toward this end, James is setting aside scholarship (and TF) for Lent because, ‘I can sit and think all day about God without ever really thinking about God.’

divinehoursvol3_150For the same reason, I began praying the daily offices, or ‘divine hours’, at the turn of the year (Morning, Midday, Vespers, and Compline). I found the rythms of my days dictated entirely by my research and writing and, like James, I could almost entirely forget God in the midst of theology.  So I began using Phyllis Tickle’s seasonal guide to praying the daily offices in order that a rhythm of dialogue with God might order my day rather than my self-prescribed schedule. I have found it both refreshing and frustrating.

Why frustrating? I find myself  consistently missing the midday prayers.  Now I could chalk this up to the steep learning curve I’m on regarding scheduled prayers (a free church guy like me has had little exposure to traditional Christian practices like this) – but that would let me off the hook too easily. Forgetting the midday office reminds me that I have a long way to go before the cadence of my day breaks free from my self-prescribed designs and attaches more self-consciously to a rhythm of remembering God – and not only remembering God, but working consciously (in Barth’s words) ‘under the rule and blessing of God’.

Because theology demands so much of our faculties it is a ready temptation for theologians and theological students to fall headlong into the intensity of our work without actually inviting God into it – the object of the work itself. One can surely think about the relationship between prayer and theology from various angles, and theologians may describe the relationship between the two in their own work in just as many ways. Even so, Karl Barth’s words have been ringing in my ears throughout this learning process:

The first and basic act of theological work is prayer…Undoubtedly, from the very beginning and without intermission, theological work also study; in every respect it is also service; and finally it would certainly be in vain were it not also an act of love. But theological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it; in its totality it is peculiar and characteristic of theology that it can be performed only in the act of prayer … We should keep in mind the fact that prayer, as such, is work; in fact, very hard work, although in its execution the hands are most fittingly not moved but folded. Where theology is concerned, the rule Ore et labora! is valid under all circumstances – pray and work! … Work must be that sort of act that has the manner and meaning of prayer in all its dimensions, relationships, and movements (Evangelical Theology, 160).

6 thoughts on “Forgetting God in the Midst of Theology

  1. i agree, kent. it is easy for the midday prayer to slip by. i picked up phyllis tickle’s spring prayers for my chosen “spiritual practice” for a class i’m taking and, boy, does it take quite a bit of discipline to reshape the makeup of one’s day in order to get into a true inner and outer rhythm of prayer.

    as i commented once, i appreciate this forum’s current on-going dialogue regarding spirituality in the life of a theologian. i find that rare and refreshing in theological circles.

  2. Your distinction between our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ rhythms is a good one Jen. There certainly is a sense in which we can have one or the other but not both. On one hand, we might thrive in patterns of ongoing inner prayer, but not really allow prayer to effect the structure of our day. Or, on the other hand, we may have a day structured around prayer but fall into the habit of sequestering dialogue with God to those times alone. Thanks Jen.

  3. Thank you Kent, for a deep article. My response:

    There is so much I should do.

    I should love my wife by spending time and talking with her each day.
    I should pray.
    I should keep fit and get exercise.
    I should go the denominational meetings.
    I should keep up to date with my reading.
    I should relax.
    I have to commute.
    I really should do some work, too!

    This is complicated by the fact that I am a little bit obsessive, which might be apparent from this post!

    Grace for me, has been letting myself lighten up. Morning prayer, first thing, is really important. It noticeably shapes my day. A Compline litany is good, but often does not happen. I have let go of midday prayers.

    Here, from upstairs in the city, what is liberating for me is to actually stop for lunch… didn’t do that for seven years in IT… and simply wander up and down Rundle Mall and watch what goes past.
    I sometimes regret the “not” of the midday Office, but I think it is doing me good not to try at everything so hard.


  4. Hello there…

    I appreciate that this is rather a ‘shot in the dark’ but I was wondering whether any other new-to-doctoral-studies in theology folk are out there?

    I really am right at the very beginning of my research and it already sometimes feels like rather a lonely business where every other researcher feels like an expert in their field and I feel, well to be honest, just a little bit out of my depth and like a stranger in a foreign land…

    So, why am I posting?

    I don’t know really. I guess in an ideal world someone else going through this same experience will relate to what I am saying and say hello so that in some way we might be able to encourage and support one another.

    How do other people go about this process? Especially if they are doing it part-time and from a distance? Am I missing some obvious support that exists out there?

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sound like a whiner – I have chosen to do this research and I am glad that I have. Its just that at this stage it feels as if one is rather alone…

    Any help, support, advice, encouragement will be VERY gladly received…

    With gratitude,

    Martyn J Smith

  5. Hey Martyn! I am grateful for your transparency and willingness to lay bare some of your needs as a postgraduate student.

    Personally, I found nothing in your list that I did not experience myself. Loneliness, check. Feeling like a novice, check. Stranger in a foreign land, check. At the very least, I can assure you that most every theological student I have interacted with experiences just these emotions during the process of completing their research. And these experiences are often most accute at the beginning, although they will may revisit you throughout the process.

    Beyond that, (1) let me encourage you to seek out a couple other students of like heart and mind with whom to ‘do life’. Get together often and be honest about your struggles sharing mutual support and encouragement. Also, (2) pray, and I say this with great seriousness, read the Bible often. Students in biblical studies need to read really good theology, and theological students need to read the scriptures with equal vigor. Finally, (3) postgraduate research can be incredibly narcissistic and self-involving. You will be spending all your time reading, thinking, writing, and thinking some more; all of which have the tendency to push you inward. Do whatever it takes to draw you out of this: volunteer to teach the kids in your church, watch movies that make you laugh and cry, read good poetry, take up painting, go for a run – whatever it takes to pull you out of your inner world!

    Blessings in your studies Martyn. I hope you stop in here often.

  6. Kent,

    How very encouraging of you to write in this way! I will take your advice to heart (although I might skip the running part if that’s ok. lol)

    Since writing I have set up a Blog where I am seeking to share thought/ideas.

    If it’s not too self-seeking of me can I announce it here? (

    Yes, I’ll drop in from time to time – your site is a VERY stimulating place to be…

    Peace, grace, truth and LOVE.

    Martyn J Smith

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