giving thanks (for some women)

This past week, I was honoured to find myself on Maggi Dawn’s list of women writers of theology, spirituality and Christian history–especially as the list included women who have taught and inspired me over the years. I am no less grateful to Bryony Taylor for reading the list all the way to the bottom, and discovering my name near the end of an alphabetically-ordered postscript. Thanks, Bryony, for broadcasting your findings!

And I have been thinking about that list, and the women who have taught me. Because even though I have been taught by many more men than women, it is the women who have drawn me forward, pointed me toward the path I now tread. I wasn’t just being nice when I acknowledged my debt to feminism. (See my feminist paradox.) So today I am giving thanks for a few of these women .

As an undergraduate, I looked forward to the classes I had with Karen King. After class, I would grab my dictionary and look up the words I hadn’t heard before, which she used in class as ordinary and precise vocabulary. Her lectures were always interesting, and she was brilliant in the Q & A. Thanks, Karen. I knew as a junior at Oxy that I wanted to be like you when I grew up; I am still trying.

When I continued in my studies at Duke University, I encountered two particularly gifted and challenging teachers, who introduced me to worlds about which I had known very little. Elizabeth Clark taught me more through her silence at the beginning of seminars than many others could through eloquence: think, and learn to speak your mind carefully and clearly. We were expected to read and to make an intelligent contribution to the discussion. I fell in love with early Christianity because of Liz (and ended up married to Lewis as a result, perhaps). Thank you, Liz.

The teacher I have always most desired to emulate, however, didn’t teach me theology or anything about Christianity, really. Lynn Sumida Joy taught me the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. I avoided philosophy, too intimidated and unsure of myself, until I arrived at Duke and was forced to take ‘Theories of Religion’; I became intrigued by Kant, and signed up for Dr Joy’s seminar the next semester. Never mind that some prior study of philosophy, preferably of Kant’s philosophy, was really necessary for the seminar–if not listed as a formal prerequisite. I was baffled by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and turned up to class feeling that I had no idea what it was all about. By the time I left the classroom two hours later, I thought I grasped the basic point. She wasn’t just a teacher, she was a miracle worker. Thank you, Lynn (if I may).

For these women, and many more who have instructed, inspired, encouraged, and challenged me, I give thanks.

Deo gratias.

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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.