A note: The following post is part of an inter-blog series on “the vocation of the theologian,” sponsored by Emerging Theologians in connection with this weekend’s meeting of the College Theology Society. Emerging Theologians is an international network of early-career Catholic theologians that first took form in a 2012 Boston conference on the future of the Catholic Church and the 50th anniversary of Vatican II (so, nothing to do with “emergent.”) I’d encourage you to read the Final Statement from that meeting; it offers a concise articulation of many of the “hopes and concerns” that form the conference season conversation among my group of Catholic theologians (“my group” being, generally, those in and just out of grad school who have lived exclusively in the post-Conciliar Catholic Church, and are more likely to think about the Council’s legacy in terms of positive steps toward openness, decentralization, dialogue, and the full participation of the laity than in terms of negative turns toward relativism or away from reverence). For more on these general points, I’d strongly recommend the book that came from ET’s initial conference: Visions of Hope: Emerging Theologians and the Future of the Church. For more on the vocation of the theologian, please do read some of the other posts in the series.
The classic definition of theology, the one you’ll find on almost every Intro to Theology syllabus, is Anselm’s motto: faith seeking understanding. I have no argument with Anselm on that point: one could take each of those three terms in order, and arrive at quite a robust articulation of the point of theology. Many have done so. The vocation of the theologian, then, would be something on the lines articulated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church.” But I find that description on its own to be somewhat bloodless. It’s key to how a theologian responds to her calling, of course, but I’m reticent to describe the theologian’s vocation itself in that way. Of course, the pursuit of ever-deepening understanding can be exciting and satisfying—you don’t go into academia if you don’t have plenty of experiences of curling up happily with a cup of tea and a dense text, or being moved to excitement, tears, or anger by a text your friends think should be marketed as a cure for insomnia. But after seven years of graduate school in theology, I’m fairly firm in my belief that “ever-deepening understanding” is not alone sufficient to describe the theologian’s vocation, nor to sustain most of us in the life of an academic theologian.
Nor does the CDF present it as the theologian’s final goal: theology, the CDF says, “offers its contribution so that the faith might be communicated.” Vocation never exists apart from communication, community, communion. Of course, the CDF’s main emphasis in developing those themes is on theologians’ necessary obedience to the Magisterium: “The freedom of the act of faith cannot justify a right to dissent. … One cannot appeal to these rights of man in order to oppose the interventions of the Magisterium.” Now, I have no interest in removing service to the Church and the communication of faith from the theologian’s goals—but I wonder if this turn toward a necessary intervening Magisterium becomes inevitable once we have framed the theologian’s vocation so squarely in terms of the understanding and articulation of faith. Again, without denying the centrality of that task, I’d like to take a Metzian turn in considering the theologian’s vocation, and turn our focus from the theological virtue of faith to that of hope.
The CDF’s “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” uses the word “hope” only once. But it refers three times to the scriptural verse I most often think of when considering the task of theology: 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is in you”: “Theological science … aids the People of God in fulfilling the Apostle’s command to give an accounting for their hope to those who ask it”; “Revelation in fact penetrates human reason, elevates it, and calls it to give an account of itself”; “In order to exercise the prophetic function in the world, the People of God must continually reawaken or ‘rekindle’ its own life of faith. It does this particularly by contemplating ever more deeply, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the contents of the faith itself and by dutifully presenting the reasonableness of the faith to those who ask an account of it.”
It’s noteworthy to me that in the two later references to this verse, the task it enjoins upon Christians shifts: no longer are we called to give a defense [apologia] to all those who demand from us an account [logos] of the hope that is in us. Rather, revelation calls human reason to give an account of itself, and those who ask an account from us are given a dutiful presentation of the reasonableness of Christian faith. This is surely not wholly removed from “giving an account of the hope that is in you”—any hope that is disconnected from reason is not hope but a fantasy of optimism that can only dull us to the difficult labor true hope inspires. But we surely know a person who asks how she can hold onto hope should not be met with theistic proofs or doctrinal explanations.
Or perhaps we don’t know that. Perhaps that’s, in fact, a pressure point in current ecclesial tensions regarding the vocation of the theologian. Are theologians called upon to give accounts for a hope already delineated by bishops—we’re handed the solution to an equation, and make our contribution by “showing the work” necessary to get there—or can we see the “account” we give as something less mathematical?
Johann Baptist Metz often refers to the story of the hedgehog and the hare: a hare challenged a hedgehog to a race, not knowing the hedgehog had a wife whose appearance was indistinguishable from that of her husband. On the day of the race, the two hedgehogs dressed identically. While the hare ran the strenuous route, the hedgehog husband began the race and then hid, while the hedgehog wife popped out of hiding just shy of the finish line. None of the spectators had any idea that there were two hedgehogs. And so when the hare arrived at the finish line, utterly exhausted, the hare found that the hedgehog had already been named the victor. As the Brothers Grimm tell the story, the hedgehogs are the heroes. But Metz calls on theologians to be more like the hare than the hedgehogs: we must run the race, with hope but not assurance of victory.
Theologians are called to do more than describe how to reach the desired and clearly-seen endpoint. Our task is not to ensure that our garments match those worn by our finish-line doppelgänger. We are called to something far more kenotic. We are called to exhaust ourselves in the labor of offering accounts that may not work and running races we may not win—so long as that exhausting work is done in the service of genuine communal hope. As I’ve said before, hope must not be confused with optimism, which can easily become a vice opposed to the virtue of hope. For Metz, genuine hope can be distinguished from empty optimism by its focus on those who have died seemingly without hope. Genuine hope is not a conviction that our lives will improve, or even that the lives of those yet to be born will be better than ours have been. Genuine hope is the faith that God still has a future for those who have already been crushed by history.
Given all that, my understanding of the vocation of the theologian centers less on “faith seeking understanding,” and more on “hope seeking speech.” Our vocation is to draw from the tools and resources of the academy constructively to give speech to the hope that is in us and critically to expand and re-focus the Christian community’s images of the subjects of hope. In so doing, we must refuse to part with the hope that even when we seem to have utterly spent ourselves, only to lose the race, we have contributed something. We are sustained by the hope that even when our terms remain confused and fail to achieve total clarity, we may have offered some word of solace to an unknown reader. And we must act in the hope that the witness of living in the often-exhausting tension of this race might inspire hope in others, despite the imperfection of the account of our hope we offer even to ourselves.
Within the next two weeks, look for a follow-up post in which I’ll suggest that efforts to reflect on the vocation of the theologian can help us move past one of the tired conversations that seems to pop up on the internet periodically: Why don’t more women write “hard” theology blogs? I would suggest that among the many unexamined issues behind that question (including why the assumed absence of [white] women is more visible than the assumed absence of black and Latin@ theologians and other theologians of color), is an assumption about “real” theology blogging that elevates a particular manner of blogging that is disproportionately male and disproportionately Protestant. If we instead center those blogs to which women in academic theology do regularly contribute, I think we’ll find that the common feature isn’t a lack of interest in “systematic” topics, but rather a commitment to theology blogging as one part of a response to the theologian’s calling to put the resources of academic training to the task of giving an account of the hope that is in us.