August 1, 2022

Theological scholarship is so much more than reading books

We live in a glut of information. Practically anyone can find any information or opinion that they wish if they put a few minutes of effort into it. As a result, people tend to mistrust scholarship. “I can think for myself!” is the constant refrain. Or, as I saw recently on Facebook, “We are all theologians by right of our baptism.”

In such a world, why on earth would I put the time, money, and effort into becoming a scholar? Why would anyone listen to a theologian?

The truth is: theological scholarship is so much more than just reading books.

I remember my first week in the PhD program. Previously, I had been a big fish in a very small pond. People told me my ideas were brilliant and innovative. I knew more on my subject than anyone else around. The first week of PhD classes, I got repeatedly smacked down for making assumptions. I remember talking about a biblical theme that was fundamental to my understanding of God and the universe and that I thought was pervasive throughout Scripture, and was asked, “Are you sure that’s actually a theme?” Upon examination, the topic showed up three times total. I had to reassess everything.

I was constantly challenged for assumptions that I made about theology and God. Constantly asked to defend every assertion I made and pushed to follow every argument to its logical conclusion — some of which ended up being rather shocking if you take them all the way. I had to examine my arguments for bias and underlying assumptions at every turn.

It’s hard to relearn how to think and to examine every premise that you believe. It’s hard to defend every detail of why you think what you think. You have to build your faith back up again, brick by brick.

But this process is necessary. By doing this, you can recognize others’ assumptions and the gaps in their scholarship. You can see where previous theologians’ biases and assumptions obscured the truth of God. You can see where your own worldview is liable to cloud your eyes. Only then can you meaningfully add your voice to the great cloud of theological witnesses of millennia.

Being a scholar isn’t about reading all the books — although on many topics, you should be grateful for the scholars who have read every single work on the topic and saved you months of weeding out inane drivel! Being a theological scholar is about trying to set your biases and preconceptions about God and the world aside and arrive at the truth.

Theological study must attempt to set aside the whims and pressures of society to understand what the truth is; only then can the study be applied to the individual issue or crisis at hand. Issue-based theology or feeling-based theology only leads to compounding the biases with which we enter a study; so the scholar must put those aside and search only for the facts. Then the truth can illuminate the problem, be it racism, poverty, war, or disaster. Then the Word of God can shine light on the shadow of human events all the more fully because truth has been honored above all else, and then the feelings and sufferings of humanity can be heard in light of that truth. And the truth can set us free.

That’s what scholarship is: a search for truth. And there is no room for sloppiness in thinking or assumptions in a search for truth. Now, granted, if you’ve studied any philosophy, you know that you can ‘un-assume’ your way into oblivion. Everyone starts with some sort of assumption, be it “Cogito, ergo sum” or some other basic principle. But the important thing is to recognize and state your foundational assumption so that you can build from there with intellectual integrity. So here is the one assumption that Christian theologians must stand on as a foundation for theological scholarship: that Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, crucified, resurrected, and ascended, is God. Everything else flows from this one truth.

The prompt for this blog was the question: “What does scholarship bring to The Episcopal Church?” Well, all the reading and examining and thinking that we do saves everyone else a heck of a lot of time! But my answer has to be that scholarship brings a passion for pursuing truth over bias — and that is deeply important for healing the rifts in our culture. It gives us a reason for what we do as Christians. It prompts an investigation into the assumptions that our culture makes about God and the world, it places understanding truth at the heart of our life, study, and worship.