I recently read an article by Barbara Brown Taylor that appeared in the July 15, 2020 issue of Christian Century, entitled “At Home with Strangers.” She reflects on the “death of God” and the decline of mainline churches that has been occurring since the 1960s. In part, her essay is an appeal for people to change their vocabulary in order to better address their new context: a world in which religious pluralism and the decline of Christian churches are commonplace. She does not speak of “the church” anymore, for instance, but only of various churches. She also does not assume that when she uses traditional words like “salvation” or “God,” people know what she means. She explains what she had to do, especially when writing Leaving Church: “This involved tucking my specialized Christian language into a velvet-lined box where I could find it when I needed it, then taking all the time necessary to recall what kinds of human experience that language was invented to describe” (34).
As a newly appointed theologian in residence at my local United Church of Christ congregation, I am challenged to speak of the divine in ways that are similarly plain—ways that are not simplistic or one-dimensional but that are nonetheless reliable and understandable. And this is a difficult task, both because of the jargon that makes academic theology dense and also because of the courage it takes to speak or write without the comfort of multitudinous caveats, conditions, qualifications, and footnotes. Of course, this is not a situation unique to theologians in residence. Many theologians are asked to speak at local congregations, in speaker series, Sunday schools, and—perhaps most harrowingly—to our families and friends. Considering the case of the theologian in residence might be instructive, nonetheless, since it formalizes a relationship that theologians might have to various churches at different times and places.
The context for the emergence of the “theologian in residence” is familiar enough. Because most congregants typically do not have the time, energy, and/or background knowledge to read book-length theological works that are both academically sophisticated and practical enough to enrich their spiritual lives, ministers play a mediating role by reading academic theology in seminary and continuing education, and then pass on to their congregants what they’ve gleaned through their study. However, providing theological education to congregants is not as easy for many ministers as that description would make it seem. Ministers have a lot of other professional tasks to attend to, including pastoral care. But it’s not simply that ministers don’t have the time. They also typically attend to pastoral care while they carry out other tasks, so that even when they are teaching about the Bible or theology, for instance, they have in mind the particular contexts of participants who may have recently lost a partner, or who may be waiting for a diagnosis, or who might be angry about a recent exchange with another participant. While this can be good in many ways, it also has the potential to weaken theological education, either because of the pastor’s avoidance of topics that might be difficult for congregants to hear while they are in a particular situation, or because of a pastor’s skillful use of vagueness, which might allow congregants to glean what they need in their own situation from the pastor’s teaching. Pastoral work is difficult in part precisely because of trade-offs like this that ministers must make routinely (and I do not blame them for in the least), even if they wish to offer robust theological education to their congregants.
Barbara Brown Taylor recalls the words of her homiletics teacher, Fred Craddock, which are just as true of theological education as they are about preaching: “People don’t want you to tell them what they need to know. They want you to say what they want to say but don’t know how” (34). In the context of theological education, this might mean that although congregants might need or want to know the history of religions, the history of Christianity, or the technical formulations involved in creedal language, the kind of theological education that will change them and deepen their spiritual lives is the kind that speaks plainly about the human reception of redemption that theological language was originally meant to express. If this is what congregants need not only from the pulpit but also around the classroom table, who can accomplish this work? Are either ministers or theologians adequately equipped to do so in a sustained way—the one with their competing pastoral demands, and the other with their fancy jargon and more footnotes than is probably healthy?
Lawrence Wood wrote an article in the February 2014 issue of Christian Century called “Theologians in Place.” Therein, he admits, “‘theologian in residence’ is a provocative term that raises many questions—questions about the relation of pastoral work to theology, about the expectations and responsibilities of clergy, about class and privilege and about how theology grows out of a place. Designating a person in a particular place whose primary role is to think about theology may seem like a luxury. But for the church, making room for such work may be a necessity.”
In the article, the work of a theologian in residence includes being a sounding board for ministers and a teacher for parishioners. Greg Carey, a theologian in residence at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, also raises the notion of plain-speaking when thinking about his role at the church: “It has allowed me to be in one place rather than travel, and to see real growth in the church. … We’ve found that ministry grows when you’re honest with people, not when you protect them.” And again, Michael Walker of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, also thinks theologians in residence can and should speak plainly: “Theology is not just for ivory-tower academics,” he said. “Folks are tired of superficial pep talks.”
The hope, then, is that theologians in residence might enrich church life by speaking honestly and deeply, and with some remove from traditional pastoral work. By bringing theological education to the congregation and leaders of a church in an unmediated way—that is, not through writing books that are read, interpreted, digested, and paraphrased for others in a new context by pastors with competing demands both on their time and their purpose—theologians in residence might be able to offer words that have the potential to deepen, challenge, and strengthen people’s lives. Doing so without specialized Christian language, so says Barbara Brown Taylor, is exactly what churches need.
Karl Barth, the great Reformed theologian of the 20th century, is reported to have been asked after a lecture at the University of Chicago in 1962 whether he could summarize his theology in just one sentence (which now sits 14 volumes large on my shelf). His response was simply: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Were I pressed to answer this question with the words of a children’s song, I think I would answer, “Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.” Both of these attempts say much too little to be of real use. But they might get us thinking: What do congregants, ministers, and church staff need from theologians? How can theology be made plain enough that it is life-giving rather than a burden for the already heavy-laden, and robust enough that it can describe the most profound experiences of congregants’ spiritual lives? I don’t have easy answers to these questions, but I do think that considering them will make better theologians of all of us.