When I was a student at Caltech in Pasadena, I used to visit the Fuller Seminary Bookstore. One day, I saw a small shelf labelled “Practical Theology.” I turned around and looked at the rows upon rows of bookshelves filling the small building and asked, “Then what in God’s name is the rest of this?”
I still haven’t found a satisfying answer.
Don’t get me wrong. I am fully convinced of the idea of theology. It is essential to know what we believe, and I completely agree that our concept of God ultimately shapes every aspect of our lives. I have been deeply moved and blessed by many of the theologians I have read and studied under.
The way theology is actually taught and practiced doesn’t really seem to live up to its promise. People who have gone to seminary are certainly more serious about their faith, but don’t actually seem to be any better at living it out. The systematic theologies and creedal statements I have studied, written, and argued over often feel more like shibboleths to establish who is in and out rather than useful tools for becoming like Jesus.
On my more cynical days, I worry that seminaries have become a tool for perpetuating a priestly class who acquire esoteric learning in order to maintain religious authority over congregations so they can draw a salary to pay off their college loans. 🙂
At the same time, I am keenly aware that Christianity needs communities of practice and knowledgeable experts to promote both inquiry and tradition. The establishment may often be wrong, but its detractors are usually more so. Peer review is still the best tool humanity has developed for weeding out error, even if it doesn’t guarantee discovering truth.
So I find myself in something of a quandary. I am working on a book (Anjali’s Catechism) that is promoting a vision of Spiritual Christianity that is disruptive in both the technical and colloquial senses of the term. I sincerely believe this a fundamentally better way to think about and practice Christianity. If I am even close to being right, it would raise serious questions about the efficacy and relevance of most existing Christians institutions.
But at the same time, I love those institutions. They have given me everything about Christianity I have ever known, including the Bible I still revere as the ultimate authority. And even if I am right about some of these important points, there are as many if not more points where I am wrong and they are right. To cut myself off from their critique and correction would be a level of folly and arrogance even I cringe at.
So, I could use your help. How can I find people within academia who are willing to engage with me in a respectful questioning of issues central to both their faith and their livelihood? Who will be a Barnabas to convince understandably skeptical believers that I am not a villainous destroyer of everything they hold dear, but a sincere brother they should welcome?
How can I be faithful to the radical call God has placed on my life, while still being faithful to the Christian community I seek to honor as my father and my mother?
I welcome your suggestions and advice.