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The Question of Credentials and #TrulyHuman Theological Engagement

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Some folks have a hard time when an un-credentialed voice wins out over their own, “credentialed,” voice. I know because I am one of those folks.

I remember the first time the guy who slept through his theology classes was picked over me as the speaker for the campus worship service. I felt like the system was broken – like the fluffy and sensational once again won over substance and maturity. I felt like something drastic must be done. I felt like, somehow, I needed to prove that this troubling tendency was ultimately bad for everybody. 

Notwithstanding the slippery question of who gets to decide what counts as credentialed, the experience can be disorienting. You work hard, put in the time, jump through all the hoops, carefully refine and nuance, but the louder and flashier voice gets the attention.

For some reason, this phenomenon surprises me every time – like something strange is happening. Because I’ve noticed this in myself, along with my defensive tendency to offer a swift rebuttal, I have also noticed, especially recently, the incredulous sense of surprise and reactivity from the credentialed evangelical world at large when an un-credentialed voice goes viral.

Don’t we already live in this world? In other spheres of life, don’t we regularly witness un-credentialed, sensational voices gaining public approval over those who have trained and sharpened their craft for years? In our world, doesn’t the light and shallow commonly resonate with the masses much more often than thicker and deeper?

Why are we surprised when this same phenomenon occurs in the church – especially in a time when traditional structures of ecclesial authority (academic or otherwise) are increasingly questioned and do not hold the power they once held fifty years ago?

Surely there is a posture of faithfulness, a way beyond the reactivity, that leads deeper into God’s reconciliation of all things in Christ without getting trapped in a battle for (the right kind of) attention and (perceived) public significance.

David Fitch recently advocated for theological discourse that moves us beyond this trap. He writes,

We need spaces to have serious theological reflection among these very popular writings…. We also need a more historically grounded theology, engaged with the history of arguments, generated by leaders on the ground, leading local church communities, engaging the cultural challenges, with a deeper sense of the history of the conversations they are speaking into.

Fitch calls for “organic intellectuals” who work locally. In this environment, “Theology is more than the best musings of isolated individuals reacting to the ills of their past church experiences. This theology has flesh and bones on it, real lived life.”

Rephrased slightly, the question Fitch raises is this, “How do we make space for serious theological reflection and discourse in the ways and places that matter most?

It seems to me that Fitch is advocating for theological discourse that is more truly human. If the true humanity in Christ is our litmus test for what matters most, then truly human theological engagement would aim at the lives people actually live.

That may seem like an obvious thing to say, but most of the theological discourse approved by the (serious) academic powers-that-be is so abstracted from people’s actual lives that those who might listen don’t even know they’re being addressed.

Truly human theological engagement is one that is radically with and for people just as Christ is radically with and for us. With-ness and for-ness. Embodied in a community for the sake of those who are there.

What, then, does with-ness and for-ness look like amidst the tug between popular appeals to the discontented masses on the one hand and presumptuous appeals to "credentials" on the other? Where or how does truly human theological engagement begin?

Making space for this type of engagement begins with cultivating a posture of patient presence. Patient presence trusts that faithful, long-term, embodied witness among people on the ground will, eventually, prove more genuine than cheap, hollow substitutes.

This means there are many scenarios in which (if we believe we are truly witnessing to life) the best thing we can do is simply be faithful, articulate witnesses on the ground and let things play out – trusting that truth ultimately does not need defending. Truth will reveal itself by the fruit it does, or does not, bear.

Truly human theological engagement learns to accept the phenomenon in which less substantive work often becomes more popular more quickly as the climate of a broken world. In accepting this reality we learn to cease from flailing against it – acknowledging this is not a game we want to play anyway.

 

I’ve recently noticed how this posture plays out (by analogy) every time I go cycling. Inevitably, someone jumps on my wheel and then aggressively, obnoxiously zooms around me. In my pride, I interpret this as an invitation to duel. I think to myself, “This person is just a poser – all zeal and no skill. It is my responsibility to expose this poser for what he really is – to put him back in his proper place on the pecking order of amateur-Saturday-morning-cyclists.”

So I reactively abandon the healthy, sustainable cadence of my peddle-stroke, often veering off course, in order to catch and overtake the other cyclist. Although I get a shot of instant gratification as I muscle my way back in front, the victory is cheap. I haven’t actually accomplished anything except expending unnecessary energy.

I’m learning that the best option is simply letting the ride play itself out. There is no need to react beyond remaining faithfully committed to the work already set before me. I take this posture trusting that the fruit of the best cycling will be made evident when it matters most. If the other cyclist truly is without substance, then his pace will not be sustainable and that will be revealed a few miles down the road when he burns out. However, if the other cyclist has more substance, then that will also be revealed a few miles down the road, and I must be open to learning a more faithful way.

Either way, I need not react but simply remain faithful to the way and trust that the fruit will be self-authenticating.

Eugene Peterson captures this posture in his memoir:

The most effective strategy for change, for revolution – at least on a large scale that the kingdom of God involves – comes from a minority working from the margins.… [A] minority people working from the margins has the best chance of being a community capable of penetrating the noncommunity, the mob, the depersonalized, function-defined crowd that is the sociological norm of America. (The Pastor, 16)

[Photo by Roy Appleyard, CC via Flickr]

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