What are the dangers of academic theology for the theologian? This is something I often think about, so I was keenly interested when I stumbled upon this Lenten meditation from a theologian at Notre Dame. The entire post is worth reading here, but this bit in particular stood out to me.
Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate a bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.
Let me add a few thoughts. It seems to me that one of the principal dangers for the academic theologian is their vocational self-understanding (by “academic” I mean a theologian, like myself, whose work is formally and primarily, though not exclusively, carried out in the university). What frames the meaning and fitting practices of their vocation? Is it defined by the narrative and logic of the modern Western academy (the “university”), or is it framed and ordered by Christian teaching, specifically the narrative of the triune God of grace? Let me assure you that the practices one finds sensible and fitting can differ quite dramatically between the two.
From the perspective of the divine economy, the theologian’s role is not ultimately given by their academic post but by their place within the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit. Thus the character of that role, its justification, and its fitting practices are not ultimately determined by the canons of the modern academy (overlap not withstanding) but by the active subject who occupies their attention: the triune God whose saving economy is witnessed to in Scripture, voiced in ecumenical creeds, and attested throughout the tradition of faith. If the theologian’s self-understanding is framed and ordered by the divine economy, then self-appraisal will not ultimately be determined by rank, publication, or prestige in the guild. Rather, the theologian will measure themselves by their joyful captivation to the Spirit’s work of new creation who conforms the church to the image of Christ on its way to participation in the divine life.
Yes, certainly, the academic theologian has a host of orbiting concerns measured by learning outcomes, course objectives, and institutional directives. And this sketch of the theologian’s vocation in no way depletes the rigor and robustness of their work (Aquinas, Barth, and more recently John Webster all illustrate the point). Nor does it exclude the academic theologian from public discourse, multifaith dialogue, or meaningful interaction with the uncommitted.
Rather, it shifts the gravitational center of their vocational self-understanding: from the narrative of the modern Western academy to the narrative of the triune God into whose service the theologian is conscripted. If we ran this a little closer to the ground, then we might apply it to the theologian’s relation to their students. Within this narrative, the academic theologian stands not above their students but with them as they abide together in the economy of grace.