Friday, January 12, 2007

In Praise of Theology

This week we started up our theology reading group again. We're reading Thomas de Zengotita's Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. I really like the book although some of the group have protested that it isn't theology. Others in the group were keen to read it though so we are. This reading group is one of my favourite parts of the chaplaincy. Paul Viminitz of the Philosophy dept at the University of Lethbridge and I started it years ago. Over the years people have come and gone. Right now we have a good core group of regulars but fewer students than the past few years. We had some really bright committed students who graduated last spring. This is one of the hard things about chaplaincy...saying goodbye to students when they move on.

The following is an article I wrote about the study of theology. It was published originally in The Sower.

In Praise of Theology

Growing up we spent our summers with the Isaac family and Phil Isaac, or Uncle Phil as my sister and I called him, spent hours teaching us to appreciate the natural realm. He would teach us how to identify plants, and interpret tracks. He taught us how to recognize developing weather patterns and how to make clam chowder from the clams we discovered at our favourite beach. When a spring storm pealed back a layer of limestone rock Uncle Phil identified the various fossils in the rock and told us that we were the first eyes to see these creatures as they had no eyes. For a kid who had grown up on stories of people living off the land Uncle Phil was the perfect adult. He was also the Associate Dean of Science at the University of Manitoba and a plant physiologist. When I went to university I wanted to be like him, combining the academic study of nature with the naturalist’s love of the outdoors.

Then I discovered theology. In my first year at the University of Winnipeg I took Introduction to the Bible with Carl Ridd. I still remember the paper I wrote on the Abrahamic covenant for Carl’s class. It was due at the beginning of December and I handed it in at the beginning of March. For months I had been immersed in a hundred years of interpretation of the book of Genesis. I had learned about source criticism and textual manuscripts and Biblical archaeology. It was fascinating to follow debates about how to interpret a particular verse and to see them in the bigger context of debates over how to approach Genesis. Needless to say, my science courses suffered and the following year I returned to university as a religious studies major.

In my second year I took “Western Thought in the Making: Christian Bases” from Ken Hamilton. My first paper was on the Nicene Creed and I approached it the way I had my paper on Genesis. I read everything I could on the 3rd and 4th century debates on the trinity and I produced a paper, (on time because Ken was much stricter than Carl) on the Creed pleased because I thought I had a good grasp on the nuances of the debate. I was more than just a little crushed when I got it back though with a decent grade but this question written on the last page, “what difference would it have made if the Arians had won?” It had never occurred to me to ask the question of what difference theology made.

Later I would take a number of courses with Tom Graham, who was also an Anglican priest, and he taught me to take seriously what he called the ‘so what’ of academic work. These profs taught me that at its best the academic study of theology and the Bible never loses sight of the lived faith it informs.

I went on to do graduate studies, first at Wilfrid Laurier University and then at McMaster University. I was blessed with teachers like Peter Erb and John Robertson who combined a deep Christian faith and commitment to the church with a rigorous intellectual approach to the mysteries of our faith. It was Peter who taught me that when Christians talk about the mystery of God, of the incarnation, of the atonement, they are not talking about that which can not be understood but that which can never be exhausted. We can spend a lifetime studying these mysteries and not come to an end. Rather than find it discouraging that there was always more to read and to study than time would allow Peter would say with glee, ‘but that is what eternity is for!’

Now that I minister on two campuses and in a parish I try to share that same passion for loving God with our minds that I discovered at university. One of my greatest joys is the theology reading group I have lead for seven or eight years now. Each year brings its own insights and joys but the highlight for me was probably the year we read Miroslav Volf’s book Exclusion and Embrace. This is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read but also one of the most important. In it Volf engages the question of what does it mean for a Christian to love his or her neighbour. Out of his own experience as a Croatian he writes about the Christian imperative to seek reconciliation in a world of violence. It is an amazing book but not for casual reading. Yet it has shaped my preaching and teaching and I hope that in this way Volf’s insights are communicated to our community.

I have been blessed with theology profs who like Uncle Phil have been able to translate their academic interests into a kind of teaching that benefits those outside the university. I hope that through my study and preaching that I am able to be a part of that translation process. And in the end it turned out that my switch in majors wasn’t all that dramatic for I have learned in my studies that theology has traditionally been called the “Queen of the sciences.”

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