Where Have All The Theologians Gone?

Keith Ruckhaus ©2016

I am looking for people who think it valuable to invest in the theological endeavor in our fast changing “post-modern” world.

My appeal is fourfold and clarifies:

  • How times have changed?
  • What is theology?
  • So what?
  • Why me?

The Times
It has been labeled by some as “post-modern.” it generally refers to the past 30 years in which the operating assumptions of the modern era have undergone tremendous upheaval and are viewed with a high degree of suspicion.  Regardless of whether one cares about such labels, it reflects a sentiment that I think most people understand—the world we live in is undergoing tremendous change. No one knows with certainty what will come next. We all experience the decline of social values and institutions great and small. Some respond to this by doubling down on modern assumptions, traditions, and institutions. Others embrace the need to accept the changes and adapt to them.

The Theological Task
There are countless ways to define theology. Basically, it is “reasoning or discourse about the divinity,” as Augustine put it. Theology is god talk. Most people engage in god-talk in a variety of ways. Theology is partly talk about God or even talk about anything that includes a divine angle to it. Orthodox theology applies god-talk to prayer, as in Evagrius Pontificus’ saying, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” Theology is talking to God as well as talking of God.

Historically and traditionally, there are relatively few who are labeled a theologian. It is applied to great thinkers of the Church who have articulated the faith especially in times of crisis and/or controversy. They are thus known as “defenders of the true faith,” but this is extended to those who teach the faith as well. Sometimes they are called “doctors of the Church.” Most often they are recognized and supported by the institutional Church, and are usually quite scholarly. In this respect, they are recognized as people of tremendous learning and insight.

I do not claim to be in that category, other than to share the passion or compulsion to “think” about God perhaps more than the average person, and I earned a doctorate in Old Testament theology from the University of South Africa.

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible are the recognized precursors to the Church’s understanding of a theologian. Most Christians, I have found, have a misguided understanding of a biblical prophet. They think of them as future-tellers, but their primary role was to apply “god-thinking” to all aspects of human existence. Prophets of the ancient world were “fortune-tellers,” predicting the level of success one will have with one’s endeavors (This is how many people today prefer god-talkers to be). The prophets of the Hebrew bible, however, radically altered that function. Their “god-thinking” gave them a particular paradigm in which to evaluate or critique the social behaviors and structures of their time. They did not tell people what to do; rather, they articulated the kinds of choices that had to be made from an “Other” perspective. As Stanly Haurwas states, “The task of theology is quite rightly to force the questions to be asked” (The State of the University; Academic Knowledge and the Knowledge of God).

 Both the prophets of old and the theologians of the Church remind us that their gifts are not always noticed or well received. Many of them were persecuted, harassed, or martyred. Some like Jeremiah fulfilled most of their prophetic ministry in unpleasant circumstances with times of deep despair. Nearly all had to oppose others who also claimed authentic prophetic insight. Some had institutional support, but many only had a small, dedicated group of people who believed in what they were doing and supported them.  In fact, we would not have any of the biblical prophet’s writings if it were not for these “sponsors.”  Some, like the prophet Isaiah or Hosea, probably had the means to fund their own endeavors.

Many of them were not considered successful people. On the contrary, they were often considered misfits, obstructionists, losers, or simpletons. Oddly, the Bible states that you can test the authenticity of a prophet by how little his god-talk is received! (Isa 6:9-11).

So What?
Is the theological/prophetic task important today? Science, technology, politics and economics are the arenas of human interface now. Isn’t the influence of religion fading away? Yes and no.

Yes, religion, has been in steady decline especially in the West. This is fact. Most people, even if they do claim religious faith, make their important choices in life devoid of (or even against) theological perspectives. For many people, religious perspectives seem disconnected or even antagonistic toward the challenges of today’s world. In this context, the theological imperative must explore the implications of this. It may require a “retooling” of its standard conventions used to even “talk” about, of, or to God. The theological task today may include, dare I say, the closure of it. Or it may mean that I translate and interpret “god-speak” to those not familiar with it.

 No. In some ways, religion has become even more influential in the world. And to many, the influence is dangerous and destructive. To a large extent, I agree, yet distorted, abusive, obstructive religious profiteers are amazingly well funded. They are skilled at making powerful emotional appeals. “Reasoned” discourse or appeals based on the historically rooted traditions of the Scripture and the Church has difficulty competing in the market place.

Why me?
It is precarious to apply a theologian label to one’s self. It can easily gravitate to misunderstanding by others or to self-conceit.  Although I am a god-thinker and talker, I make no claim to be a god-whisperer, having a special inside track with the Almighty.

Certainly, my church institution does not recognize me as a theologian, nor does any academic institution. It is not up to me to judge whether this disqualifies me from doing theology on anything except a “hobby” or “amateur” type level.

Over the years, I have made concerted efforts to get into academic or ecclesial circles and have not been successful. In addition, trying to get published in today’s environment where the whole publishing industry is being seriously challenged is not very hopeful. My last publishing endeavor required me to front most of the cost to publish, and I reap next to nothing from the sale of the book. It is mainly done just to get some exposure as an author.  And it is done because I really do believe I have something important to contribute.

I do assert that my lack of recognition has a lot to do with who I know or who is in power, things that I am not adept. Theologians and prophets are usually not good at self-promotion. Indeed, some of them may be the kind of person least likely to be invited to important social occasions.

My daring to include myself in the category of theologian is to two-fold:

First, I am simply wired to do so. Ever since I became a Christian as a teenager, I have been committed to the diligent study of Scripture, pursuit of spiritual maturity, and participation in the work of the Church. I have not only done these consistently and constantly, but I have given priority to these things above career and business pursuits. Support or no support, I will not be able to abandon my “god-thinking.” I cannot not do it.  If I could financially manage it, I would most want to commit the time and resources I have to the theological task.

 Second, perhaps my peculiar experiences and study has shaped me in such a way as to be uniquely situated for “post-modern” theology. For good or bad, I am not constrained by academic, ecclesial, or publishing institutions that are often driven by concerns that can severely limit their ability or willingness to face the challenges we now have. I was not raised in a particular religious tradition with its often deep-seated emotional constraints. I have had to make my religious choices with a different set of variables than most people, and this provides a particular kind of insight. I know what it is like to be rejected by the very people or institutions that I most want to identify with.

 The prophets of the Hebrew Bible are the recognized precursors to the Church’s understanding of a theologian. Most Christians, I have found, have a misguided understanding of a biblical prophet. They think of them as future-tellers, but their primary role was to apply “god-thinking” to all aspects of human existence. Prophets of the ancient world were “fortune-tellers,” predicting the level of success one will have with one’s endeavors (This is how many people today prefer god-talkers to be). The prophets of the Hebrew bible, however, radically altered that function. Their “god-thinking” gave them a particular paradigm in which to evaluate or critique the social behaviors and structures of their time. They did not tell people what to do; rather, they articulated the kinds of choices that had to be made from an “Other” perspective.