Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Obscure Theology

The monastery, I've suggested, is a powerful reality that can direct those doing the work of theology toward great goods like silence and prayer. It may be worth it, in fact, to turn even to less well known monastic ideals. The Cistercians, for example, seek a life that is "ordinary, obscure, and laborious." What might these sorts of commitments mean for theologians?

Having pondered a bit the first of thesewhat it might mean for theologians not only to tolerate, but to embrace, what is "ordinary"what might we say about the second? Theologians should seek obscurity? Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but could academic theology really need to be any more obscure than it already is?

Surely, though, the point here is not that we should seek to do work that no one can understand. We better understand the call to obscurity when we see it in the context of the whole monastic life.  This is a path of radical unmooring from every form of reassurance and distraction. Poverty means letting go of the basic means by which we sustain and steer our lives. Chastity in a sense cuts even deeper, setting aside marriage and family and some of the deepest joys that belong to this life, not to mention a sense of natural legacy. Obedience, in a way, subsumes them all, insisting, "Your life is not your own."  The call to obscurity, we might say, focuses this renunciation in a very specific direction. Here is a call to give up not marriage or money or power but recognition. (Or, as you will, pick a similar description: "honor," "glory," "fame," "the praise of others"...)

That towering intellect, St. Augustine, saw this clearly. Augustine was a philosopher, after all. Palatial houses, worldly power, bacchanalian entertainment: all of these, he could see right through. But praise from others, and in particular, praise for his intellectual achievements...  there, he knew his own weaknesses too well.  (Augustine, in the end, of course, seeks a doxological cure. Here's a reason to re-read the Confessions: think through it all as an extended essay on the sinsick and salutary possibilities surrounding praise.)

Now, no doubt, wise reader, you have a whole set of questions rising immediately in your mind. Can this really be a call steadfastly to avoid all recognition? Isn't it, after all, precisely excellence in academic pursuit that elicits recognition in the first place? Should we hide our thoughts, our writings, from our companions and colleagues and from a broader readership, in order to avoid the possibility that they might judge them to be, say, good—and that they might say so?

But if you are asking these questions, then we are already having the conversation that must take place. There are no simple answers, as the monastics themselves knew. You need look no further than certain communities of Benedictines, who, having vowed poverty, then established themselves in quiet, disciplined forms of industry and production... and fairly promptly began to grow rich. Or, think of the complicated discernment that any religious order must undertake in order actually to live its vows. Even the most primitive Franciscans, after all, have never quite followed their founder in removing all their clothes. (When I think of my new, Franciscan colleague stepping into his Intro-to-Theology classroom this fall, the wisdom in this choice appears anew.) Even as they seek to live the counsels of perfection, Christians face the messy reality of life in this world: a rich and complicated path of seeking many, distinct goods.  

So, it may be that, just as the Franciscan comes to own a habit or two, we theologians sometimes deal in praise. The collective wisdom of the monastery, though, urges care. Seeing the complexity doesn't mean ignoring the danger. The radical, reforming impulses of the monastery insist that we can never simply go unthinkingly along with the way everyone around us does it. At the very least, theologianswho often note with both frustration and a hint of self-satisfaction their relative lack of wealth or secular power—would do well to keep one eye on that which may tempt them most of all. 

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