Moving

No vans required. I am moving all my blogs (yes, there are a number of them…) to a new website: atheologianinthefamily.net. When I started this blog, I had thought that Lewis and I would contribute to it together, and it would mostly be theological reflection.

But my theology and my life are of a piece. I have been inspired by the prologue to the rule of Benedict, in which he describes the monastery as ‘a school for the Lord’s service.’ For me, the family is that school. Home is where we learn to love, to give, to trust, and to think. It seems to me that the most difficult place to live out the Christian faith is at home, in the family, where the daily vexations and struggles are utterly relentless. I once wrote to a friend that if anyone else tried my patience as unremittingly as my children do, I would find some means of escape. So here I am, learning to love those who are at once the easiest and most difficult people to love: those who are closest to me.

And I continue to be a theologian. I’m not a part-time theologian and a part-time mother; I am a full-time theologian and full-time mother. I think theology while I am cooking and disciplining and reading stories; I think about parenting while I am reading theology and Scripture and writing about ‘academic’ topics. These things live together in my soul, and I am both of them at the same time, by training and by temperament. As a teenager, I was certain that my future vocation had to be meaningful, and that I would have to practice it while fulfilling my other life’s goal: being a mother.

So here I am, having found that when dreams come true, they don’t always look like we expected or hoped. Living the dream means making ends meet and coping with defiance and struggling to meet deadlines and staying up late preparing for teaching. Sunny days and happy times grace my daily life, and usually I can see that my life is uncommonly good. Except when I can’t, and then the whole project of living and parenting and writing seems like it proceeds in deepest darkness. Fortunately the light continues to shine, even when my eyes are shut tight against it.

I am grateful for all who have followed this blog, and hope that you will enjoy the new one.

light and peace to you all.

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Standing still

I should be writing about tenderness. (Apologies @NDLiturgyCenter…) Or I should be washing Anna’s hair. But I’m not. I’m here.
 
And that’s precisely the point. I am here. I know that this shouldn’t come as a shock, but it occurred to me (finally) today that God doesn’t call us to a vocation and then put us in a place where we cannot practice it. At no time since I started down the road of academic theology have I seen that vocation change. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many times I thought I was doing such a horrible job of my mothering and my academic work that I ought to give up the latter–not being able to relinquish the former, of course, or at least not as easily. Each time, however, something happened to confirm again that I was called to keep doing what I am doing. So I have carried on.
 
But it proceeds so agonizingly slowly. So slowly, in fact, that I feel like I am standing still. We had a great time having Wesley Hill with us this weekend–great conversations and an interesting conference as well. As I listened to Wes and Lewis talk this morning–about books and people in their respective fields–well, I listened. Didn’t have much to add, except the “Who is that?” and “So, what, exactly, is the argument of that book?” I read. But I don’t keep up. Not by a long shot.
 
The academic discourses to which I once thought I would contribute have moved on, and it seems like many of the people who are moving them forward are younger than I, with more recent PhDs. Usually when I observe this, it makes me yearn for the day when the kids will all be in school, when I can ‘catch up’, and focus on the academic game. Madness lies that way: I am not going to catch up. I read slowly and write slowly, and that isn’t going to change. And thinking about catching up both stresses me out about a future totally unknown to me and robs me of all the joy of today, of right now.
However it may appear, I am not standing still. Maybe the movement is as yet imperceptible (the Spirit of God brooding over the surface of the water…) but the thing about that calling to be a theologian is that it isn’t just something I will get to do when the kids are grown up a little. It is something I am doing now. I am just not doing it very quickly, or very publicly. My theological conversations happen in the personal realm, not the professional, and I am more likely to be away on retreat than at a conference.
 
I want to make sense of this. I want to know what this is for. Why have I come down this road? But I can’t. I can only pursue my calling right here, between the hair washing and the laundry folding, and in the hair washing and the laundry folding. I don’t know why I’ve gone this way. But I do know that where I am, God is, and I am not going to find peace by looking elsewhere.
 
Deo gratias.
 

What worries me

Well, honestly, a lot of things worry me. Stupid things and little things and big things and almost impossible things. But Rowan Williams names precisely what worries me about what I do as a theologian: “[the desert fathers and mothers] seem very well aware that one of the great temptations of religious living is to intrude between God and other people. We love to think that we know more of God than other people…” (Silence and Honey Cakes).

That worries me. It probably worries me more because I am not the smartest theologian I know. Not nearly. (Since you asked, I would certainly rank Rowan Williams as one of the two or three smartest theologians I know.) I spent an awfully long time trying to write a Very Clever conclusion to my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, and eventually realized that in trying to write a sexy and theoretical finale, I was trying to be someone I am not. Yes, I read the necessary books by de Certeau. But in the end I didn't write about that stuff. I wrote about discipleship, because that's what seemed to me to be the heart of Christian identity. It's about following Jesus. This is not a Clever and Original idea. It's a commonplace in Christian theology from the gospels onward.
 
So where does that leave me, as a teacher of theology? Well, the book was published, and the only review I have seen so far didn't write it off as just repeating stuff everyone already knows. I'm grateful for that, and for the reviewer's practical response to the book, which was to read Gregory of Nyssa. But I am never going to be a person who trades in cleverness. I know how much I don't know, and I would far rather start with cards on the table. I know what I do know, and I have confidence that I can teach the subject. I also know that I am not going to win arguments with John Milbank about Plato or political theory. (By the way, he's in that small group with Rowan Williams.)
 
I would, however, be perfectly happy talking with John, even arguing, about Jesus. Not about Christology, certainly, but about Jesus. And that's what worries me. Because not trading in cleverness all these years, first as a graduate student, and then as a teacher, has meant that I put a great deal of emphasis on faithfulness to the gospel and on spiritual discipline; I say that it is more important to be faithful than clever, if you are a theologian. It isn't knowing about God that makes good theology; it's knowing God. (It is both, of course, and you can't just have one or the other, as Andrew Louth suggested a great many years ago in an essay about theology and spirituality. And he's another theologian I would place on the top of the smart list.)
 
But do I thereby imply that I know God better than my students or my colleagues? Good heavens, no. Teaching theology to people who are training for ministry is an awesome privilege and a serious charge. What qualifies me to stand in front is formal and academic knowledge; it's having practiced talking about the God we all know in particular ways, ways that are faithful to the Bible and the Church's memory of Jesus preserved through the ages in its sacred doctrine. I certainly can make no claim to “know more of God” than my students. Faithfulness is a shared enterprise, and spiritual discipline is for the Church and not solely (or even primarily) for individuals.
 
A lot of the things that worry me are petty, even ridiculous. But not this one. I take Rowan Williams' words to heart. This should worry me. I don't have any formula for getting it right, for teaching sound doctrine intelligently to intelligent people, and simultaneously bearing in mind that it's not all about intelligence; or for bearing in mind that in the classroom faith does actively seek understanding, that the exercise of the intellect is a part of faithful discipleship. It is enough that I worry about it, I think, so long as the 'worry' always becomes 'pray.' This work I do is like the rest of my life before God: possible only by his grace.
 
 

The Trinity for toddlers, part 2

Teaching theology affords an incredible opportunity to see how people cope with a doctrine that resists the intellect's instinctive attempts to solve it. It is not, as theologians like Rowan Williams and Thomas Weinandy (two very different thinkers, to say the least) have observed, a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be pondered. It's a mystery. Rowan Williams says, drawing on the resources of Eastern Orthodox theology, that 'the doctrine of the Trinity is a crucifixion of the intellect.' So it isn't surprising that students of theology, whether giving the lectures or hearing them, find it difficult.
 
But it doesn't crucify the intellect to no purpose, nor is it the most difficult of the mysteries of the faith. We might think that Jesus is the answer, but he raised a whole lot of questions for a few hundred years. The incarnation and the atonement present us with mystery just as irreducible as the Trinity. The intellectual life of the believing soul involves contemplating the truths of the faith while holding fast to the knowledge of God's ultimate incomprehensibilty. And nowhere is this more true than in that most difficult, deal-breaking area of theological reflection that we call theodicy. The problem of evil is not, like the Trinity might be, a stumbling block just for the intellect. It confronts us when inexplicable and unjust things happen to us or to those we love, things that make us turn to God in confusion, wondering how a God who is omnipotent and perfectly, completely good, could allow such things to happen. I understand how it ends up being a deal-breaker.
 
I used to wonder why I still had my faith, after all I did to lose it, and after it was challenged by my experience of life. Eventually I came to see that it wasn't 'mine' to lose, really: it is the faith of the Church, and I participate in it, I don't possess it. But that doesn't explain why I am still hanging around. Probably I owe that to my mother, who taught me lots of songs about Jesus when I was small. They're not the sorts of songs that survived the 1980's, but they impressed upon me a certain understanding of Jesus, one that stayed with me. The core of what I think about Jesus was formed before I was old enough really to be puzzled about how someone could be fully God and fully human.
 
So I am really glad that when my small son asked me, 'Who is God?' I answered with reference to the Trinity, with the sign of the cross, with the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I could have answered, as I supposed might be more practical, with something about God as the creator, or God as love. These would have been good. But at age three, my son never asked how the one I called God could also be called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It isn't like we grow up and suddenly the penny drops, and we grasp how three can be one, how one can be three; we don't mature intellectually such that if we wait long enough to introduce these difficult concepts, we will be able to understand them. Better to get used to a name that names something we don't understand from the get-go, and grow into appreciation of the mystery as we develop intellectually and spiritually.
 
Now I can imagine lots of objections to that, but they will have to wait for another day.

in the kitchen

When I started this blog, I thought I’d be sharing the conversations we have in our kitchen, on those rare occasions when we talk theology like we did ‘in the old days’. But I have found that often, those conversations are not really fit for public consumption. It’s not because they’re trashy (though sometimes the language isn’t what we’d want the kids to use at school), but because they are unformed.

In teaching theology and ethics, I often have to wade into treacherous (for a doctrinally conservative person who works hard at charitable living) waters. Usually I keep my feet on the ground. The classroom isn’t a place where I want to work out what I really think, at the edges of my Christian faith and practice. Nope: that’s what I do in the kitchen.

Theologians and ministers especially, and Christians in general, won’t always have a ready answer to the question of the moment, or the latest news. We need time and space–safe space–to consider, to pray, and to talk with people who know us well enough to help us figure out what to say, if indeed we find we need to speak. That’s my kitchen, and I am glad there’s no webcam in it. Sometimes I realise that what I was thinking is just plain wrong as soon as I have said it. And then I’m really glad only Lewis was listening.