by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | May 16, 2019Hi friends, I’ve just returned from a little over a week in England. I was there attending some lectures and talking with professors as part of a large and extended continuing education project. (And enjoying the pubs, too.) I’d like to reflect some on why continuing our educations is so important, and then tell you a little about this specific project I’m doing.
One of my favorite passages in the bible is God’s leading all the creatures of the earth to the first man “to see what he would call them” (Gen.2:19). God engages a faculty the man did not know he had: learning, matching mind to world. God educates him. To educate is to ex ducere, “to lead out.” God leads the creatures out from burrows and nests and shadows that they might be known by Adam, a Creature-Who-Knows. That’s part of our job as human beings: to be the creatures on earth who are reflective, who not only engage physically with our environment as animals do, but who also tell stories about it, interpret its past, imagine its future. Of all God’s creatures, we are the ones tasked with discovering and creating meanings. We’re the ones whose currency is symbol.
To do this, we must learn. We are all God’s students. When God leads all the other creatures out so that Adam can name them, we are witnessing Adam’s learning how to think. It is not enough, apparently, that tigers and hummingbirds and javelinas simply exist; they must be named and thought about. When we see Adam naming all the creatures, we see their becoming recognizable to him. They’re thinkable now. Adam can remember that tigers are scary and best watched from only a great distance, and because of this, he can communicate to Eve and Cain and Abel that God’s power is terrifying—like the ferocity of a tiger. Adam can think and communicate that hummingbirds are beautiful as they flit about the flowers, filling their throats with rubies. Because Adam can name this, he can contemplate it. He can communicate to his friends and family that the grace of God comes to us like nectar from a flower. They, in turn, can understand him, and can respond with their own wisdom.
What does all this have to do with education the way you and I usually experience it? When we learn—whether by reading a book or conversing with a friend or going to a class or traveling—God ‘leads out to us’ a new idea or experience or emotion, and we put language on it. We ‘name it’ as Adam named the javelinas. This gives the idea or experience or emotion a distinct shape in our minds. We learn its contours. As it becomes uniquely recognizable to us, it becomes communicable to others. When a new parent says, “having a child is like having your heart walk around on the outside of your chest,” they are naming a new reality.
Another example might be helpful. The other day I was meeting with someone who is working through some significant questions related to her work. We prayed together, and as we prayed we arrived at asking God to make her “patient and relentless” as she seeks clarity about her questions. We were both a bit surprised at the word choice, but were struck by how fitting it was. One can be unceasing in prayer, or diligent, or disciplined. But none of those have quite the force of being relentless. In naming her experience in this way, we were better able to recognize it afterwards. The naming is part and parcel of the learning: “ah, yes, this is what it’s like.” Going forward, each of us has now learned that some of life’s big questions demand that we be relentless in pursuing them. Until we had named the experience in that way, neither of us could have identified it quite rightly. As speaking beings, we can’t think what we can’t name.
The same is no less true of more formalized kinds of education: books and syllabi and taking classes. For example, for decades Christians talked about the Holy Spirit, about Jesus Christ, and about the God who is Jesus’ Father in Heaven. But until a man named Tertullian used the word Trinity at some point late in the 2nd or early in the 3rd century CE, the unity that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was even more difficult for Christians to think and speak about. By committing his reflections to writing, generations of Christians thenceforward have learned a helpful way to name, and therefore to contemplate, the particular mystery that is God’s triune oneness.
This brings me to the specific continuing education project I’m working on. This past fall, I began an MA with the University of Nottingham in England. (Yes, Nottingham as in “Sheriff of.”) It’s a distance degree, largely self-paced and research-oriented, with regular supervision and feedback from professors. Once every spring, there are lectures at the university which distance students like me attend. That’s where I was this past Sunday. I’m working on the degree at the slowest possible pace, only turning in essays every six months or so. This degree is how I’ve chosen to invest the continuing education and travel budget St. Liz provides as part of the vicar’s compensation package.
So, what is this degree in? The degree is in Systematic and Philosophical Theology. The simplest way to define theology is just to say that theology is the practice of speaking true statements about God. In this sense, we’re all theologians. What academic theologians do is frequently different in depth, breadth, and technical rigor than what we do on Sunday morning or in Life Groups, but at root it’s not fundamentally different. The tools Christian theologians use, at universities and at St. Liz, are scripture, tradition, and reason. (This last should be as broadly defined as possible, including experience and imagination.) These are not neat and mutually exclusive categories—but that’s another post for another day!
What makes theology systematic? If theology is the practice of crafting true statements about God, then systematic theology is the discipline of gathering those true statements together and showing how they are part of a coherent whole. This involves responding to the myriad questions these statements raise, either on their own or when held next to each other. For example, it’s one thing to say, “God loves all people.” It’s another thing to say, “God will judge all people and nations.” And it’s yet another thing to say, “the human soul is eternal because it is the imprint of God’s image.” All these are theological statements; they are all true from an orthodox Christian perspective; and yet it’s not at all clear how we can hold all three of them together in a coherent whole. If God is the judge of all people and nations, and if the human soul exists eternally, then it would seem that God’s judgments on human beings will endure eternally. Well and good. And yet if God is also loving, then how could God render a judgment of condemnation?
We become systematic theologians when we undertake the task of articulating as fully as possible how these three statements might coexist. In short, a systematic theologian is simply someone who is trying to be consistent and clear when they speak of God and God’s relation to the created order. If I say X about God, I am accountable to that utterance when I also try to say Y or Z about God.
What makes theology philosophical? I confess that “philosophical theology” is a newer phrase for me. From what I can tell, theology is philosophical when it does not shy away from concepts that can only be discussed in the abstract. For example, we might say that qualities like goodness or truth can inhere in any number of more concrete objects, but to talk about goodness itself can only be undertaken in the abstract, which is to say philosophically. For example, a bicycle can be good and a grape can be good, but because they are good for quite different reasons—ever try to ride a grape or make jelly from a bicycle?!—articulating the quality of goodness that they have in common, and which they get from God, demands a level of philosophical abstraction. You can’t point to goodness the way you can point to a grape, but this does not mean that goodness is not real and worthy of our reflection.
If all of that leaves you a bit cold, don’t worry; theology of this sort isn’t for everybody. (And thank God for that. Church would be a miserable place if we all went around pontificating about metaphysics!) I’m undertaking this degree for several reasons. The first is that part of my job as a preacher, teacher and pastor is to help us as a community put language on our experience of God and of the world. This helps us to name it, to recognize it, to communicate it to each other. The discipline of study keeps me encountering newer and newer ‘creatures,’ so to speak, and therefore keeps the repository of language and concept from which I draw fresh and fluid and intelligible. (Well, hopefully.) The second reason I’m undertaking this degree is simply because learning is a source of great happiness for me, and I like being happy.
As I said earlier, I’m working on this degree at the slowest possible pace. I began in the fall and only just turned in my first essay at the end of February. That one was seeking to articulate how we understand the authority of Holy Scripture. I’ll probably write about that in a couple weeks. I’ll turn in another essay at the end of August. That one will be about how the New Testament Canon became what it is today. When I finish that one, I’ll be sure to write about what I learned!
Finally, thank you for supporting me in this. St. Elizabeth and the Diocese of West Texas are making this degree possible, both financially and in supporting me with the space and time actually to work on it. I am profoundly grateful, and I pray that this course of study bears fruit in our community of faith.