A few years ago, I came across a quotation from Evagrius of Pontus on my students’ papers. Actually, it was a paraphrase of a famous bit of Evagrius, in which he says that ‘one who prays truly will be a theologian, and one who is a theologian will pray truly.’ The impression you would have had from the context in which Evagrius was being paraphrased is that anyone who prays is a theologian. My uncertainty about that, which started as a certain skepticism (of the form ‘I do not think it means what you think it means’), has led me to wonder about the relationship between prayer and the practice of theology down the ages. Now I am a theologian, but not a historian. And this topic warrants historical and theological investigation. So I need help!
It therefore makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to gather a small group of wise and learned and spiritually astute people to talk about just this topic. Not only that, but we are gathering at my very favorite place on the planet: Minster Abbey. For two days, we will join the community for prayer and spend the rest of the time in conversation about the relationship between prayer and theology in a handful of theologians from late antiquity onward.
What is the relationship between prayer and theology? While I fully expect that this question will continue to vex future generations, I have reason to hope that we who gather at Minster in Eastertide will be nourished in our lives of prayer and theology, and for that I am unimaginably grateful.
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that reading Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology has had on my life. No, I am not a Barth scholar. Nor have I read through the Church Dogmatics as I thought I would when I was twenty-something. But in reading that little book of Barth’s I fell in love with theology. Oddly, it isn’t a book I re-read–I’ve read Middlemarch three or four times now, but Evangelical Theology just the once. I recommend it, I assign it, I return to bits of it.
If there is one bit I return to more than others, it is the description Barth gives of theological grammar. Theology is a response; we have been addressed by God, and our reply is necessarily in the second person. The object of my study is not an object at all, but a subject; not an “it” but a “you”.
Sometimes I forget that, at my peril. I forget that thinking about God isn’t really possible– I mean, thinking apart from God, with some sort of critical distance. There is no such thing as critical distance, here. We are always thinking coram Deo, thinking in the presence of God, who is more present to us than we are to ourselves. There is no place for idle speculation here, there are no ‘academic’ questions. That isn’t to say that it’s not important to think hard, to read attentively (thanks, Ben Myers), and to speak clearly. But it is to say that all the hard work in the world won’t get us closer to God than we already are, won’t show us God more clearly. Only God can do that.
So Barth would have agreed, perhaps, with Evagrius–the theologian is one who prays. Maybe somewhere in the pages of the Church Dogmatics I haven’t read, he says so. Either way, I am glad of the reminder that, however much I doubt my adequacy for the task of theology, I can do no better than to respond, and begin nowhere else but in prayer: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.