Some seventeen years ago (I cannot believe it has been that long) I became a “dropout” of sorts, withdrawing formally from the PhD program at Duke University and converting my studies into material for an M.A. in theology. The story is more convoluted and personal than I would care to share in this public forum. But I recall a conversation I had with Stanley Hauerwas, who was one of the Professors on my Committee (as they say).
My greatest concentrated work had been under Geoffrey Wainwright, as gentle and gentlemanly a scholar as I have ever had pleasure to know, and a great guide in all of my studies. It was he that directed me towards the theology of icons – the subject which eventually became the topic of my thesis.
But Hauerwas is one of those figures whom you cannot brush aside or place in the background. Time Magazine dubbed him “America’s Greatest Theologian” (which I’m sure would meet with some argument in some quarters) but it certainly underlines the power of his voice when he speaks (which incidentally includes some of the twang of his Texas roots and a wit that is exceedingly sharp, occasionally crossing the point of propriety). I’ll just be blunt – Stanley has had a tendency to cuss.
I came to appreciate his theology far more when I was no longer in his classroom, surrounded by Hauerwasian devotees who could leave my mind behind in the dust of their quick jaunts through the world of “Post-Wittgensteinian, sectarian Tribalism” (as Hauerwas’ theology was characterized at one point). In my post-Duke musings, I found I needed to confront and digest much that I heard from him and realized that there were points where I would have to agree.
But the conversation which I have in mind concerned my leaving the “program.” I was returning to parish work. In discussing this with Hauerwas I said to him, “I’m leaving the academy (Duke) so that I can do theology” (the parish). There was no argument from him, but a quick understanding that a parish is what theology looks like (at least in very important points).
Theology that is limited to words in a book (or on a blog) is certainly words – but not really the substance that constitutes theology. We may speak of God, or speak of the Church, but God is not speech nor speech the Church.
Hauerwas, in jargon that became a familiar part of classroom debates, would challenge a student’s argument with the question: “How is that displayed?” I grew weary of the jargon, but the question remained. When you say something about God or about the Church, what does it actually look like? It was a question that had a way of clearing the abstractions and forcing us to reality.
The same, of course, has to be a question placed to our own lives. What does my life look like? What is the character of my existence? Is there anything in my life that could be used as evidence for the truth of the Christian gospel?
I cannot credit myself with pursuing a line of thought faithfully in the years after Duke. Instead, I would have to say that I was myself pursued. “If you believe this is the truth – how is it displayed?” Despite my dislike of the jargon, the question would still come back. “What does the truth look like?”
Eventually (and this is making something quite complex sound too simple) the question took the shape of the Orthodox faith. I should not only say “eventually” but also “inevitably” for that conclusion was already at work to some measure before I ever left my studies. I was writing on the theology of icons, after all.
But the answer still had the same general shape. I left academic theology for the theology that is the parish church – and eventually for the theology that is an Orthodox parish church. The life of a parish is not an abstraction, a theology removed from that about which it speaks – it is, whether well done or not, an embodiment of the life of Christ – His Body, in the language of Scripture. And in that context the whole of the gospel comes to bear. The life of love, of forgiveness, of mercy, of patience, of union with Christ in everything, is finally lived out in a community of people or it remains but an abstraction of speech.
The challenges of that community are simply the challenge of a broken world as it meets the fullness of Christ (in the best of times) and still the broken world meeting the fullness of Christ (in the worst of times).
The worst of temptations in parish life is to live as something less than the Body of Christ. To institutionalize in the worst sense of the word is to bury Christ beneath the sociology of American organizational life. Coming out of that rubble is one of the most serious tasks facing Orthodox Christian communities (I cannot speak for any other community and only speak of the Orthodox community as a member – not as its official spokesman). “How is the forgiving, unrelenting love of Christ to be displayed in the community of which I am a part?” This may be the only serious theological question of our lives. It certainly is a question that cannot be ignored. It is what theology looks like.