Greater Communion

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Would you make a distinction between a pastor or priest and a theologian?

There used to be a time when simply being a pastor or a priest meant you were also a theologian. There is no doubt that many contemporary pastors and priests study their Bibles and seek to know and teach others about God. In that sense, they are doing “theology.” What primarily accounts for the distinction between theologian and pastor / priest today has everything to do with the breadth and depth of study. The sad truth is that many contemporary pastors spend more time reading modern-day self-help, leadership books, and biblical commentaries than they do the Church Fathers. If Augustine, Aquinas, or Bonaventure happens to be quoted in a sermon, usually it’s because they read it in a commentary on the book they’re studying rather than from actually reading Augustine or Aquinas themselves. I realize there are exceptions to this; but the trend—at least as it appears to me—is that many contemporary pastors and priests have made themselves more dependent on biblical commentaries for their homilies than they have on some of the greatest theological minds of all time. It would behoove them to give up on the Top Christian Bestsellers lists and read a book or two from one of these theological giants. Their soul would be the better for it. Their sermons would be the better for it. Their congregations would be the better for it. And their wallets would be the better for it: most of these works are available for free.

I should also mention that it’s important for pastors and priests to not only get in the habit of reading some theological classics, but to stop speaking in ways that belittle those who do this more often than they do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in on a sermon and listened to subtle gibes at those with PhDs in theology or philosophy. I don’t know if it’s because of some deep-seated insecurity they have around those who pursued a more academically rigorous degree than they did or some need to be perceived as the sole dispenser of wisdom for God’s sheep; but for whatever reason, there is a tendency to elevate the practical ministry over the theoretical one. The consequence is young people who grow up thinking it’s more important to learn how to become a charismatic leader than it is to study and contemplate the deep things of God and share with others from this rich storehouse of contemplation and study.

Where are the theologians today?

This really has more to do with the location and time period in which you live. In the middle east, for example, theologians—in the form of imams and clerics—are heard about and from all the time. They are the authoritative voices in their cities and culture. There was a time when the same could be said of the Western world, and especially America. But this is no longer true. The authoritative voices in our society have become the scientists and parasitic pundits on our major news outlets and TV shows. If a theologian is ever consulted, it is either in honor of some major holiday, the discovery of some “artifact” relevant to the Bible or the Church, or because of some local controversy over a pastor or priest behaving badly. Today, science is the latest heavy-weight champion of the Western world; and as long as Western democracies are more concerned with tummy tucks, face lifts, and turning back the hands of time, they will continue to look to science for their shallow form of happiness. History moves in cycles. There comes a day when people will realize the bankruptcy of their bodies, minds, and souls. That’s when they turn from those who study the hows and the whats to those who study the whys and the oughts.

What advice do you have for others looking to pursue a degree in Theology, Philosophy, or Bible?

You are choosing to study two of the most important subjects to know. But you should do your homework by reading up on various professors you’d like to study with before applying to a school. These are the mentors who are going to help shape and refine you as a person. The more you know about them, the better you’ll know which professors and which program will be the best fit for you. You may also need to check and make sure that the professors you’d like to study with are taking on more students and don’t plan on retiring at the time you join the program. Both of these fields—like many others in academia—are filled with good and bad professors. So do your homework. Read their works. Find out about the programs. And then do what you need to do to apply for them.

Second, just because you are studying two of the most important subjects to know doesn’t guarantee that others will value the degree as much as you do. The Humanities, as a whole, gets less funding and less attention than the more profitable fields of study (e.g., Business, Medicine, and other fields of Science). Expect to be overlooked. Expect others in academia to look down on you. Expect friends and family members not to understand the ‘utility’ of your decision to pursue an academic discipline that—at least in their minds—shares the same space with starving artists and musicians. Realize that there is a healthy dose of truth in their sentiments. Do not expect to get a job in academia, but don’t give up trying if that’s what you intend to pursue. You will likely have to diversify your skill-set some and do things along the way to earn money and pay the bills. At the end of your journey you may even have to consider using your knowledge in a career you never originally envisioned for yourself. All of this should come as no surprise. The world will never cease to be a place where newcomers have to both produce original work and find creative ways to market it to others. You will have to chart a course for yourself that helps define your niche, aligns with your passions, and connects with others who are interested in hearing what you have to contribute. Just keep at it. For you have the most to give to a world that so frequently loses—but occasionally rediscovers—its lifeblood in the Humanities.