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Theology as a Way of Life

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Today we hear a lot about the need for students to feel safe in our classrooms. This makes a certain amount of sense. If students experience a class as demeaning, if they aren’t confident their questions, experiences, and ideas are being taken seriously, if they decide a teacher doesn’t particularly care about them as human beings, or if they sense they’re being coerced or manipulated, they probably aren’t going to learn much. Few of us open ourselves to people we think are hostile or indifferent to us. But it’s also true that if students feel only affirmed in our classes, if our classes never disturb, unsettle, or expose them, if they never find themselves fighting for their lives, then they probably aren’t going to learn much in that kind of environment either.

This is especially true when teaching Christianity. The atmosphere of our classes ought to cohere as much as possible with the reality we are attempting to describe. And since Christian theology occurs as an encounter with the living God, a confrontation that tears us away from patterns of life that obscure or contradict the truth, at least something of the spirit of that struggle ought to be reflected in our classrooms. If Isaiah’s response is paradigmatic of every serious confrontation with God –“Woe is me”– and if it is impossible to “withdraw more or less unscathed from the shock that makes one a theologian,” then the last thing teachers ought to do is shelter students from the life-giving trauma of this encounter.[i]

In an utterly non-coercive way––in a way that respects students’ freedom, affords them space to explore the mysteries of the faith, encourages them to draw their own conclusions, and eschews every kind of manipulation and indoctrination––we have to make clear to students that the subject matter of Christian theology demands a decision, and it demands a decision now. Notice, the subject matter demands a decision––not the teacher! “The Word cries out for belief, for acceptance in recognition, trust, and obedience.”[ii] Careful description, probing interrogation, incisive criticism, and broad cataloging of options play an important role when Christianity is taught well, but we mislead students unless we clarify that Jesus Christ, as the New Testament describes him, is someone whose life demands a personal response. As Karl Barth puts it: “Any theology which would not even consider the necessity to respond to God personally could only be false theology.”[iii] Søren Kierkegaard expresses this point in a vivid analogy:

“We all know what it is to play at war, that it is to simulate as convincingly as possible everything that happens in war: the troops line up, they take the field, everyone looks serious but also full of courage and enthusiasm, the orderlies dash back and forth fearlessly, the officers’ voices are heard, the signals, the battle cries, the musket volleys, the thunder of cannon … everything, everything just as in war; only one thing is lacking––the dangers. So it is with playing at Christianity––it is to simulate the Christian proclamation in such a way that everything, everything, everything is included as convincingly as possible, but one thing is omitted––the dangers. In the proclamation as it is in the New Testament, the whole emphasis falls on the personal––this accounts for the dangers; when we play at Christianity, the thing to do (but carefully, convincingly) is to draw attention away from the personal––so the dangers are also absent.”[iv]

And yet, despite appearances, when you’re standing in front of a group of students, you cannot reliably discern if the battle you see taking place in front of you is real. Because what looks and feels like a real fight might actually be a pseudo struggle, when nothing is at stake and nothing important is happening, and what appears to be a lull in the action, a minor skirmish, or even a truce, may in fact be lethal combat for a student. You just can’t tell. Teachers are incapable of measuring and assessing the work God is (or is not) doing in the classroom.[v] And strangely enough, one of the easiest ways to misread the situation is to be misled when students tell you how much they enjoy your classes. To be sure, if students hate your classes, it’s probably your fault, and your teaching needs to change. But if students like your classes, if they are attentive and engaged, if you get almost exclusively positive feedback in your course evaluations, and if students routinely praise your teaching, it’s nearly impossible not to draw the conclusion that your teaching is successful. And yet if students enjoy your classes, it may mean nothing more than that they enjoy your classes. The lasting effect may run no deeper than that. But then, so what? Can you think of anything more inane than a Christian theologian who things his or her classes are successful just because everyone likes them and no one feels uncomfortable?

And the same thing is true from the opposite side. Students are easily tricked into thinking a class worked just because they enjoyed it. I’ve taught whole courses on Christology where I’ve said all sorts of things except the one thing students most need to hear. Yet they came to class and enjoyed the experience. They read the books, wrote the papers, and never noticed that I neglected to raise the question that Jesus himself continually asks each one of us: “Okay fine, but who do you say that I am?” Still, at the end of the semester, most of them gave five stars and wrote encouraging notes in the comment boxes. But what they should have done, and maybe what they would have done if they had realized what was happening, is criticize me for engineering a class that was perfectly safe for them and, I now realize, even safer for me.

Of course, if you could pick your problems, this is the one you’d pick. Because while a useless class can pulse with energy and tension, we all know that ineffective classes can also become soul-wearingly boring for students. We care about the material and expect students to care too. Nevertheless, many of them remain uninterested, and we can’t figure out why. At our worst, we become frustrated and curmudgeonly and start complaining about how incurious students are these days, and how they’re not serious enough, and how they’re distracted by trivia and technology, and how we wish they were smarter, and whatever else we feel like complaining about. But there’s usually a much simpler reason why we bore them. We bore them because we’re boring.

And very often, even when students are mildly interested, what we teach them remains detached and sealed in some ethereal and abstract theological-academic realm that hovers above them, without making meaningful contact with the daily rhythms and concerns of their lives. They struggle to see what difference our courses make for ordinary life and ministry. And the really unforgiveable thing is how little time we spend helping them imagine these connections. Maybe we even have some convoluted rationale for why doing so is not our responsibility. We operate as though training students to trace the repercussions of the material into their lives is ancillary to our important work––if we think it is part of our work at all. But in addition to describing and examining theological ideas, a fully Christian approach to teaching Christian theology will involve helping students perceive some of the concrete implications of the material, and thus help them live less divided lives.

Maybe it’s like this. If you were in the mood to listen, I could tell you all about the underlying and evolving tactical philosophy that animates the way FC Barcelona plays soccer: their eccentric approach to time and space, the way players interchange positions, how they defend while possessing the ball, and so on. And you might find what I had to say interesting, even intellectually exciting in its own way. But no matter how fascinating you found the ideas, it would never occur to you that any of it pertained to you personally, and it would never occur to me to talk to you as if it did. But now imagine you’re Andres Iniesta, and you’ve been at the club since you were a boy, and you’re on the training ground before an important match, and the manager is explaining the team’s tactics. In that case, you would hear everything differently. The tactical philosophy would acquire new meaning, since you would listen as an insider rather than an outsider, as someone responsible for responding to it rather than merely thinking about it. Similarly, if the reality of God’s reconciling love for the world in Christ teaches us anything about our students, anything at all, it teaches us that they are always already insiders to God’s grace. Each one of them is at every moment personally addressed by God in Christ. God continually calls them not merely to listen but to act––not merely to reflect on the truth but to become truthful. Indeed, recognition of the truth (who they are in Christ) is inseparable from responsiveness to the truth (becoming who they are in Christ), and helping students perceive this––or perceive it more clearly––is a distinguishing feature of all good teaching.

“Nicodemus Was Dreaming”

The Gospels could hardly be clearer that one cannot know Jesus from a safe distance. Consider, for example, his conversation with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was impressed by Jesus. He could see that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2). Moved by Jesus’s wisdom and power, Nicodemus wanted to have “a cautious, judicious, tolerant, religious conversation ––as from one bank of a stream to another.”[vi] If there has ever been a sincere religious seeker, it was Nicodemus. He had “real questions, earnest burning questions,” and he was perceptive enough to recognize that Jesus could answer them.[vii] In fact, Nicodemus’s earnestness is precisely what makes Jesus’s response to him so shocking. Rather than entering into respectful dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus immediately launched an attack: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). With that one assertion, “all the cards were struck from Nicodemus’s hand. All his chartered positions were unrolled before the battle began. He finds himself face to face with something new and incomprehensible, something he cannot fathom.”[viii]

Stunned and confused, Nicodemus mumbled a question about the meaning of old people being born, and when Jesus confounded him with the further claim that to enter the kingdom of God one has to be born of water and the Spirit, he weakly muttered, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). To which Jesus ironically replied, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things!” (John 3:10). And just like that, “Nicodemus was check-mated by three moves.”[ix]

Notice what’s happening here. Nicodemus wanted to engage Jesus in serious religious discussion––the kind of careful and sincere dialogue that takes place between two generous and informed conversation partners exchanging opinions with each other. But Nicodemus managed only a single confident sentence before Jesus overwhelmed and silenced him. “Nicodemus must have felt as if suddenly a flashing sword was swung over him while he sat there with harmless and friendly intent.”[x]

And as readers, we find ourselves disoriented right along with him. What did Nicodemus do to receive such rough treatment? Why would Jesus attack someone seeking earnest conversation? Was it really necessary to speak to Nicodemus so sharply and abrasively?

The longer you ponder these questions, the clearer the answers become. Jesus wanted Nicodemus to see the truth, but he could tell that “Nicodemus was dreaming.”[xi] He recognized that Nicodemus had no idea who he was talking to and did not perceive how dangerous discussing God really is. So to open his eyes, Jesus needed to shatter Nicodemus’s illusions. To heal him, Jesus had to wound him. Or to change the metaphor, “Jesus saw Nicodemus standing, as it were, under a roof that kept him from looking toward heaven. He could not show him heaven at all, as long as he was under the roof, even though he would have taken endless pains to do so. Therefore he did the only thing that he could do. He tried from the first to take him away from the roof and lead him under the open heavens, to place him upon wholly new ground.”[xii] Seen in this light, what initially appears as an unnecessary assault turns out to be an act of divine kindness. Jesus’s apparent refusal to listen to Nicodemus is in fact an event of profound empathy. Jesus understood Nicodemus better than Nicodemus understood himself. Nicodemus was oblivious to what was really happening. He thought he was seeking Jesus, but the reader perceives (and perhaps Nicodemus eventually did too) that Jesus was seeking Nicodemus––seeking, that is, to awaken Nicodemus to reality. Had Jesus allowed Nicodemus to converse with him from a safe distance, converse with him on Nicodemus’s own terms, Nicodemus’s illusions would only have been reinforced. Thus Jesus needed to give him “a sharp jolt.”[xiii]

We see this kind of encounter throughout the Gospels. Conversations with Jesus rarely unfold according to plan. Jesus continually shocks and astonishes people, rattles their cages, upends their expectations, eludes their traps, and zeroes in on their deepest motivations. This makes for exhilarating reading, but the more you reflect on it, the more unsettling it becomes. As you watch Jesus stride through the narrative, you begin to realize that being near him requires courage. It dawns on you that if you are afraid of the truth, afraid of being exposed, you better keep your distance. And even when you do manage to screw up the courage to move closer to Jesus, to open yourself to him earnestly and sincerely, you never know what will happen next. Jesus is beyond predicting. To be clear, God’s love for us in Christ is absolutely secure and dependable, and knowing this is essential for teaching and studying Christian theology well. Without this confidence, theological inquiry would be an exercise in anxiety. As Kierkegaard saw so clearly, “love gives unbounded courage”––exactly the kind of courage that theological study requires.[xiv] But the constancy of divine love does not manifest itself in a stable, cozy relationship. In fact, just the opposite. According to the New Testament, following Jesus is as precarious as it is unpredictable. In a sermon ostensibly about Jeremiah, but expressing his own agonizing experience of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,

O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed. I had no idea what was coming when you seized me––and now I cannot get away from you anymore; you have carried me off as your booty. You tie us to your victory chariot and pull us along behind you. … How could we know that your love hurts so much; that your grace is so stern? … You have bound me to you for better or worse. God, why are you so terrifyingly near to us? … God, why are you so close to us? Not to be able to get away from God is the constant disquieting thing in the life of every Christian. If once you let God into your life, if you once allow yourself to be enticed by God, you will never get away again––as a child never gets away from its mother, as a man never gets away from the woman whom he loves. [xv]

This passage is arresting not because Bonhoeffer is describing an uncommon experience but because he gives voice to what it feels like to attach yourself to a God who is completely beyond your control. Bonhoeffer is describing an experience that many Christians have but few manage to express with such honesty and eloquence––namely, that following Jesus hurts, and that becoming his disciple means “entering into endless insecurity.”[xvi] One of the most striking features of the Gospels is how they make no attempt to hide any of this. Anyone who reads the New Testament and who attempts to follow Jesus according to the pattern of life described there knows that when Jesus enters the comfortable living room of your life, he throws the furniture around.[xvii] He leads you to places you don’t want to go. He lays waste to the fortresses you construct to protect yourself against his love. “To believe in Jesus is the most hazardous of all hazards,”[xviii] Barth writes, and Kierkegaard agrees: “In the New Testament, Christianity is the deepest wound that can be inflicted upon a person. It is calculated to collide on the most terrifying scale with everything.”[xix]

The Opposite of Good Teaching

Before moving on, allow me to clarify the blindingly obvious. I am describing the Christian life, the risks and perils inherent in following Jesus. I am emphatically not recommending that teachers assume an analogously disruptive role in the classroom. To misunderstand this point would inevitably lead to misery for teacher and student alike. Consider, for example, a teacher who makes it his personal mission to unsettle and attack the supposedly naïve and benighted faith of his students. Convinced of the superiority of his wisdom and the righteousness of his cause, he seeks to dismantle and destroy untutored devotion wherever he encounters it. Such a person is as confused as he is contemptible. Instead of teaching, it would be better if he tied a stone around his neck and throw himself into the sea (Luke 17:2). Teaching Christianity is an act of love. Teachers are called to help students perceive and respond to the truth, not to threaten, provoke, or scandalize them. That almost goes without saying. And yet it should be similarly obvious, at least to anyone who has read the New Testament, that to describe Christianity responsibly requires honesty about what knowing God and following Christ are really like.

Divine Presence

Given the sheer quantity of disruptive and disorienting encounters people have with Jesus is the New Testament, I doubt many teachers would explicitly argue against the harrowing descriptions of discipleship we find in Kierkegaard, Barth, and Bonhoeffer. The greater temptation is to minimize or ignore this dimension of Christian existence. When we make this mistake, we do so in countless ways and for reasons too numerous to list or explore here, but one form of this error seems especially common and insidious: we tend to talk about God as if he is not present. Few things are harder than remembering that God is alive and active in our classrooms, few things easier than teaching as if he is not. Imagine you and I are having a conversation about someone. Whatever we happen to be saying about that person, no matter how positive or negative our comments happen to be, the conversation will shift if that person suddenly walks into the room. Her presence with us will change the atmosphere of our discussion. We will stop talking one way and start talking another way. The same is true about God. If we think he is present in our classrooms, that will affect how we talk about him, and if we don’t think he is present (or forget that he is), that will too. In other words, we instruct students not only by what we say about God but also by how we speak about him.

This leads us back to the themes of the previous chapter. If our way of talking about God leaves students unaware of the threat he poses to our lives, perhaps that is because we no longer perceive the threat he poses to our lives. This is an abiding occupational hazard of everyone who teaches Christian theology. As we become more professionally competent, more familiar with the history of theology, more assured in our knowledge and clear about our commitments, we easily assume an air of knowingness, attitude of self-assured security that exudes confidence and control. As we become comfortable in our role as experts on the topic of God, professionals with theological answers at our fingertips, this attitude manifests itself in our teaching, and students are instructed by it. The clarity of Kierkegaard’s perception of this point is invaluable.

In general there are two decisive errors with respect to Christianity. First, Christianity is not a doctrine but an existence-communication. This is the source of all the nuisances of orthodoxy, its quarrels about one thing and another, while existence remains totally unchanged, so that people quarrel about what is Christian just as they do about what is Platonic philosophy and the like. … Second, consequently (because Christianity is not a doctrine) in relation to it, it is not a matter of indifference who presents it, as with a doctrine, provided only that he (objectively) says the right thing.––No, Christ appointed not assistant professors––but followers. If Christianity, precisely because it is not a doctrine, does not reduplicate itself in the person who presents it, then what he is presenting is not Christianity. For Christianity is an existence-communication and can only be presented––by existing. Fundamentally, to exist in it is of course to express it in existence, etc.––it is to reduplicate.[xx]

For all his emphasis on the freedom of God’s self-communication, the frailty of and fallibility of God’s human witnesses, the non-contingency of the truth upon those called to articulate it, and the abiding sinfulness and self-deception of even the holiest among us, Barth, dogmatic theologian par excellence, agreed with Kierkegaard that Christianity cannot be reduced to doctrines about God and that Christian existence conditions the plausibility of Christian speech.[xxi] And if they are right, then either our teaching––including who we are, the ways we speak about God, and the atmosphere we cultivate in our classes––will suggest God’s urgent uncontrollable presence with us, his “terrifying nearness” as Bonhoeffer put it, or our teaching will mislead students. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Safety

But this kind of teaching is way easier said than done––not only because attending to the presence of God and losing the illusion of control require, more spiritual discipline and maturity than most of us possess, and not even because such teaching is an expression of the orientation of one’s whole life rather than a pedagogical technique one can master, but also because many students do not want this kind of teaching. Some do––or at least they welcome it when they encounter it––but many students enter our classes seeking various forms of safety, security, and control. They want a teacher who will offer them sanctuary from the various threats inherent to Christian existence, someone who will alleviate the difficulty by reducing some of the risks associated with believing in God. This desire takes many forms, but two seem especially common.

The first is a search for the security of theological certainty. Whether confused by the chaos of contemporary life, caught in patterns of doubt, threatened by the existence of intelligent unbelievers, unnerved by the complexity and diversity of the church’s own history of theological reflection, or for countless other reasons, many students seek refuge in a teacher who will tell them what to think. They want an expert who will provide them with definitive theological solutions, someone who will tie up the loose ends and alleviate the various pressures they are experiencing. The last thing these students want is a teacher who requires them to make their own theological decisions––a teacher through whom they come to realize that Christianity is even more demanding than they realized.

For other students, the desire for security takes the mirror-opposite form. Rather than unreservedly committing themselves to a single teacher or tradition, they embrace the safety of ceaseless uncertainty. For these students, theological education becomes a process of endless deliberation. Forever reading, thinking, and talking, they never get around to making decisions. Theological reflection and conversation become substitutes for theological commitment. Protected by the fact that there is always more to learn, another angle to consider, a new position to evaluate, these students retreat into a state of permanently suspended judgment in which they are “always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). While superficially different, these two outlooks share a common unwillingness to embrace the risks associated with Christian existence.

To the second group of students, those stuck in the cycle of endless deliberation, Kierkegaard make the telling observation that delay is itself a decision: “A person indeed must choose––God is not mocked. Thus it is truly the case that if a person avoids choosing, this is the same as the blasphemy of choosing the world.”[xxii] Since rational deliberation is open-ended, there will always be reasons––often very good reasons––to postpone making a definite theological commitment. But permanent postponement is indistinguishable from unbelief. Moreover, no amount of additional contemplation will lead these students out of the cycle of perpetual analysis. For that to happen, something else is required.

If someone wanted to be [Christ’s] followers, [Christ’s] approach, as seen in the Gospel, was different from lecturing. To such a person he said something like this: Venture a decisive act; then we can begin. What does this mean? It means that one does not become a Christian by hearing something about Christianity, by reading something about it, by thinking about it, or, while Christ was living, by seeing him once in a while or by going and staring at him all day long. No, a setting (a situation) is required––venture a decisive act; the proof does not precede but follows, is in and with the imitation that follows Christ. [xxiii]

As he so often does, Bonhoeffer agrees with Kierkegaard here: “You see, there are always reasons not to do something; the question is whether you do it in spite of them. If you only want to do things that have every reason in their favor, you’ll end up never doing anything, or else it won’t be necessary any longer, since others will have taken over for you. Yet every real deed is one that no one else can do, only you yourself.”[xxiv]

The first group of students, those seeking to submit to an authoritative teacher, demonstrate an analogous unwillingness to step into the fray. Rather than engaging in the struggle of real theological education, these students expect their teachers to do the hard work for them.[xxv] And yet, since secondhand knowledge of God is impossible, since God is always known in the context of a living relationship that never passes over into human control, since theological knowledge cannot be reduced to pieces of intellectual data that teachers accumulate, organize, and dispense, teachers are incapable of offering these students what they want. We cannot give them what we do not possess. Real theological education is a process of continual confrontation with God. To receive it, students have to fight for it themselves. The most teachers can do is participate in this apprenticeship alongside them.

Is truth such that in relation to it one may suppose that a person can appropriate it summarily with the help of another? Summarily, that is, without willing oneself to be developed in like manner, to be tried, to battle, to suffer as did the one who acquired the truth for him? Is it not just as impossible as to sleep or dream oneself into the truth, is it not just as impossible summarily to appropriate it, however wide awake one is? Or if one is wide awake, is it not merely an illusion if one does not understand or refuses to understand that in relation to the truth there is no abridgment that leaves out the acquiring of it, and that in relation to acquiring of it from generation to generation there is no essential abridgment, so that every generation and everyone in the generation must essentially begin from the beginning?[xxvi]

Students unwilling to enter and remain in this struggle can obviously read and understand Scripture and Christian theology, but true knowledge of God involves the whole person, not merely the intellect. In Kierkegaard’s unforgettable formulation, “The truth is a trap: you cannot get hold of it without getting caught; you cannot get hold of the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.”[xxvii] Thus the rhythm of revelation is continual renewal. The God whom Christian theology seek to know “again and again discloses himself anew and must be discovered anew.”[xxviii] Rather than becoming the believer’s permanent possession, knowledge of God is “constantly being acquired.”[xxix] Barth draws the inevitable conclusion that follows from this line of reasoning––an inference that I suspect will sound odd to many people who sign up for Christian theology classes: “We cannot, therefore, define Christians simply as those who are awake while the rest sleep, but more cautiously as those who wake up in the sense that they are awakened a first time and then again and again. … They are, in fact, those who constantly stand in need of reawakening and who depend upon the fact that they are continually reawakened. They are those who, it is to be hoped, continually awake up.”[xxx]

The Price of Real Education

Throughout this chapter I have stressed that real knowledge of God happens for only those students willing to embrace the risks it involves. If I am right about that, then theological education is not something teachers can give students, nor is it something students can buy. What students pay for is entrance into a context in which they might be educated, and that happens only for those courageous, assiduous, and vulnerable enough to enter the perilous process of continual reawakening that Barth describes. But real education is as demanding for teachers as it is for students. Responsible teaching requires honesty.

It requires teachers to clarify the dangers inherent in Christian existence and to cultivate classroom environments that suggest those difficulties. But the costs associated with such teaching are rapidly increasing. As educational institutions compete for students like businesses compete for customers, as university campuses are transformed into “retirement spreads for the young,” as student evaluations factor heavily in assessment and promotion decisions, and as the very idea of liberal education rapidly loses ground to utilitarian strategies for career training, teachers face extraordinary pressure to pander to students and downplay the requirements of serious education.[xxxi] And what is true in academia is likewise true in the church. Pastors and teachers are pressed on all sides to make “everything as convenient, as comfortable and as inexpensive as possible.”[xxxii] The pressure to sell Christianity at discount prices is intense, and Christian leaders who refuse to adjust to these conditions create very real problems for themselves. I would not presume to advise anyone negotiating these challenges, nor do I claim to have navigated them well myself. I have made numerous concessions along the way and do not claim to be an example of truly courageous teaching. I have never reached the end of a semester and been pleased with my performance. Not once. I consider myself guilty of what Kierkegaard called “playing at Christianity and making a fool of God.”[xxxiii] The most I can say for myself is that I am trying to learn to teach courses that cohere more closely with the reality I am attempting to describe. And since I see no reason to hope that abstract and undemanding courses will faithfully communicate the about knowing God and following Christ, I plan to keep trying.

Reprinted from Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019) with permission from Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.