An Open Letter to Pastor-Theologians

Dear Pastor-Theologian,

Every Sunday morning we inhabit an infinitely complex and wild pneumatic reality. Theology is irreducible from encounter with persons because God makes himself known to persons in lived-reality. When it comes to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “pastoral” theology is not a subset of the real thing – it is theology.

I know you care about the life of the mind, and I understand your desire to think deeply and theologically. I can empathize with the compulsion to start flipping tables when folks in the church are disinterested in plumbing the depths of exegetical issues you know are important.

However, for their sake as well as our own, remember that the bodies around us and the dirt under our feet, the conversations over meals and conflict hidden behind smiles are the real stuff. Let's surrender our gifts and passions unto this reality. The return for publishing that article in that peer-reviewed journal is thinner than we think.

I know you are troubled by the division between the academy and the local church. I see why you feel like you’ve been forced to choose between the two. I agree that those worlds have been, for several centuries now, drifting slowly apart but are meant to be mutually reinforcing expressions speaking with the same voice.

However, for their sake as well as our own, remember that the church is not simply the new arena to flex theological muscle because the former world of academic theology is becoming too crowded. Rather, the local church is the fleshy context in which we come and learn how and why and where our talk about God matters most as it takes on flesh.

The local church is the place where we come, as a gifted thinkers, to learn how to die for the sake of others. Where we learn, like Paul, to be participants in the life of the crucified, self-emptying, personal God.

If you find yourself gradually escaping into our office – increasingly retreating into thoughts about the church rather than encounter with persons, I get it. The demands of life-on-life presence among others can be exhausting. I resonate with how difficult it is to quantify the impact of presence. I know the ache of being misunderstood and underappreciated.

However, for their sake as well as our own, remember that at the heart of being in Christ is cruciform self-giving. This is a disposition – a way of being-in-the-world – we can’t think our way into it. We can only surrender our way into it and invite others to surrender their way into it.

This is all discovered in that wild pneumatic reality. We may be able to bring lots of academy into the church but never learn cruciform self-giving love. If there is any “academic” task, it’s just that: creatively articulating, contextualizing and embodying what it looks like to participate in cruciform self-giving love. All the joys, hurts, mundane tasks, disappointments, laughter and tears – all the persons we give ourself to in the concrete – in pursuit of cultivating this cruciform self-giving love, will turn us upside down and make us wonder why we ever settled for anything less.

Let us remember, pastor-theologians, each day is filled to the brim with opportunities to inhabit an infinitely complex and wild pneumatic reality. Throw yourself in – for at the end of the day this is our primary theological work.

[Photo by evclpics, CC via Flickr]

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