Of the many theological temptations that can plague the theologian, grandiosity may be one of the most subtle. Grandiosity is that aspect of fleshliness that allows one to find their identity in what they do – and it is used as a means to create a self that is greater, stronger and solidified in a way their true self is not. It tends to trade knowledge of theology for knowledge of God and self, being convinced that one’s labors are always kingdom labors, and that one’s effort is of the highest order.
In this sense, it inclines the theologian towards existential bi-polar angst. In other words, there is no middle ground. Everything they do jumps from perfection to pointlessness. Their craft as a theologian lacks purity because it is done to seek approval from others and is grounded in their self-identity and meaning. Praise for their work fuels the endeavor while critique sheds light on their deepest fears that they really don’t know what they are talking about. Other theologians who are brighter, more well-read and advanced in their theological reasoning are either seen as necessary compatriots who they need to be aligned with, or they must be in some way undermined, either in character, in viewpoints or in background.
The closer one is to fundamentalism, in many cases, the more grandiose is one’s view. This stems, in part ( I believe) from the apologetic character of fundamentalist theology. This kind of thinker becomes the theological equivalent of William Wallace, wielding apologetic material rather than a two-handed broad-sword. I have no doubt that you can imagine certain theologians who see their own work as single-handedly holding back the forces of darkness. They become convinced that if they stumble, so falls the church and God’s work in the world (we might call this an Elijah complex (1 Kings 19:10)).
But, of course, this cannot be tied to fundamentalism alone. Theology easily becomes the mode in which to work out angst against one’s fundamentalist background, against authority, against….anything. The theologian, in no lesser terms, can will to power, seeking to advance their own cause even through liberating prose. Soon, and just as easily, theology is so tied to one’s identity that proving their point equals proving their worth. The quest for perfection in both work and life leads to a lack of realism in both work and life, and all theologians can fall into this trap. Realism is attached to vocation. In Thomas Merton’s words,
…the fulfillment of every individual vocation demands not only the renouncement of what is evil in itself, but also of all the precise goods that are not willed by God.
Grandiosity is a struggle with what call God has not given. James’ words are not irrelevant: “But the brother in humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation…” (James 1:9) This person’s struggle makes it impossible to speak Paul’s words, “…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” His was an appropriately detached understanding of vocation. His desire to go to Spain was thwarted, and instead of collapsing with defeat in his imprisonment he gloried in his opportunity. I think most of us spend our time wishing we were out of prison rather than writing the letter to the Philippians. Our grandiosity keeps us from satisfaction in our vocation.
Those who crash against the rocks of this temptation do so because they hear the siren call of importance/meaning- but it is a value in which they grasp, control and in the end abuse for their own ends. In short, grandiosity becomes the theological outlet for self-love. Grandiosity necessarily pushes against the call to reason for the church, and morphs into a desire to reason for an identity.
I wanted to talk about grandiosity because of how foundational of a temptation it is. In theological circles, these thinkers are usually just seen as arrogant because the grandiose thinker has tied their entire identity, and many times the gospel itself, to their ideas. Faith becomes faith in themselves, and their own ability to properly conceive of Christianity. This has led many to assume that people with “wrong” views are just bad people – people who are seeking to tear down the pillars of the gospel. The idea that others are seeking to read the text faithfully, under God’s judgment and for God’s church, and still have fundamentally different ideas on what that means and what that looks like is such a devastating concept, that oftentimes it leads to one of two extremes: questioning their own faithfulness, or just demonizing their counterparts.
I’ve always been impressed by Karl Barth in this regard, who has a million sayings to choose from, but one I ran across recently was in a letter to another prominent theologian. In closing, he referred back to being called “honored and venerable professor” by the man, and said in response, “I never was this and shall not be or become so in my remaining days.”