Expanding Imagination: Asking Fr. Andrew Louth about Theology in the Public Arena

Wednesday afternoon, I had the privilege of attending a Q&A with esteemed Orthodox theologian Fr. Andrew Louth (you can watch it in its entirety here). This event was sponsored in part by the school where I occasionally lecture and teach, the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College (Toronto). If you haven’t heard of Fr. Andrew Louth, he is professor emeritus at Durham University in the UK and among the top patristic scholars alive today. It was a privilege to meet him and get to hear his thoughts.

In this post, I’ll be reflecting on a question I asked Fr. Louth during the course of the afternoon (you can hear my question around minute 48:00):

What does it mean to be a theologian or wrestle with theological questions in the public arena–i.e. outside of the academy–for the good of the Church and humanity in general?

Before we get to Fr. Louth’s response, however, let’s unpack this question a bit and why I asked it in the first place.

First, what is a theologian?

In my mind, there is a technical/ narrow understanding of this term and a nontechnical/ broader one. On the technical side: a “theologian” is someone with a particular scholarly training in divinity. (Although it’s worth noting that many Orthodox theologians came to the discipline from other fields, like Florovsky who was originally trained as a historian.) Like Florovsky, my background is in history. Unlike him, however, although I wrestle with theological questions and approaches in my work, I’ve never found it particularly helpful or accurate to claim the title of theologian.

Outside of this technical context, though, there’s another sense in which one can be a theologian. It’s summed up by Evagrius’ maxim: “If you pray truly, you are a theologian.” Again, not something I necessarily “qualify” for (have I ever truly prayed???), but the statement is a crucial reminder that theology (“talking about/ studying God,” if we abide by the Greek) is ultimately an encounter with something (or someone) deeper and more mysterious than an academic mode of thought.

I’m highlighting this distinction because it gets at an age-old tension that afflicts Orthodoxy and the Christian faith at large: the gap between theory and practice. This chasm extends from the highest institutions of learning down to the intricacies of the human heart. Scholars in the Church, for their part, possess an expertise and an ability to consider issues in detail and nuance that is absolutely vital for the longevity of Orthodox thought and practice. Yet how often does their work really communicate meaningful insights into to the plain and simple task of being, speaking, and acting as a Christian in the very complex, increasingly post-Christian climate most of us call home? What do koine Greek root words and obscure Neoplatonist thinkers have to do with postmodern life?

This is not a critique of theology–there is a necessity for high-level scholarship. But as a thinker and writer, I consider myself someone who bridges theory and practice–I’m always trying to bring academic discourses into the lived arena of faith. And it’s hard to know how to do this sometimes.

Earlier in the Q&A, the dean of our college–Dr. Christopher Brittain–had asked Fr. Louth what key questions should theologians today be wrestling with. It was an important question, but I found Fr. Louth’s answer a bit too narrow. He mainly addressed theologians’ purpose in regards to the Church and the academy. Importantly, they are not there to tell the Church what to believe–it is the task of bishops to “rightly divide the word of Truth.” Instead, theologians are people who “bring their learning to bear on the way the Church teaches” and provide constructive critique on the Church’s interpretation of Tradition.

Fair enough, but what about those of us whose writing serves either the laity or broader audiences outside either the Church or the theological academy? With this in mind, I pushed Fr. Louth a little bit…

What does it mean to be a theologian or wrestle with theological questions in the public arena–i.e. outside of the academy–for the good of the Church and humanity in general?

Happily, his answer did not disappoint.

First, he highlighted what he sees as the central question of theology today: What does it mean to be a human being? (While theology has traditionally concerned itself with the nature of God, Fr. Louth had clarified earlier that if as a society we cannot even talk about what it means to be human–for example, in scientific and bioethical discourses–how can we begin to talk about God?)

The crucial point is this: the theologian’s task is NOT to answer the question of what it means to be human, but rather to perpetually bear witness to the fact that it this a valid question in the first place.

 

This is increasingly vital, as there is almost no space in public discourses for such a question. Instead, the public square is dominated by utilitarian and electoral issues.

(Side note: British accents being what they are, for about half the time, I thought Fr. Louth was saying “electric issues,” not “electoral.” I was like, “Hm… I think we’ve figured out electricity–we’ve moved on to digital concerns. Maybe he’s just never used the internet?” He was actually talking about electoralism, or the obsession with which policies or ideologies will gain the most votes/ stakeholders/ interest/ money, etc.)

So, in this context, the important thing is to remind and reawaken society to the question of what it means to be human.

We do this, Fr. Louth thinks, by taking on the task Anglican bishop Rowan Williams once spoke about: expanding the public imagination so that theological questions can even be asked. To put it bluntly: don’t preach, reawaken imagination.

What a beautiful way of putting it.

Yet we must recognize that this mandate of sorts is hardly confined to the writers or the theologians out there. To some extent, this is the task of all Christians–this is the great mandate for the postmodern age. We live in a Western culture that has basically become impoverished by its own narrowness and lack of shared meaning. And in that barrenness, those of us who remember mystery and sacredness must constantly seek to “make the world strange again,” as poet William Carlos Williams put it. In so doing, we offer an inviting alternative to habitual, taken-for-granted ways of thinking and being.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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