Theopoetics: The Case for Scholarship

Once upon a time, someone asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest.  He said that the greatest command is to love God with everything you’ve got, and the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself.  Those two commands, Jesus said, undergird all the Law and the Prophets — which is to say, the whole Bible at the time He was speaking.  Paul made a similar comment when he said that love fulfills the whole Law.

I teach in a seminary.  I regularly require scholarly papers, complete with footnotes and all the appurtenances of academic geekdom.  When I have such a requirement, I expect the bibliographic citations to conform to Turabian and the Chicago Manual of Style.  How do I reconcile Jesus’ commands on love — plus all I’ve said on theopoetics in the two prior posts — with my pedagogical “rigidity” in an academic institution?  Or put another way, how does scholarship meet theopoetics?

At its best, scholarship is the opposite of laziness and sloppiness; it is precision with purpose.  Scholarship is about loving enough to Get It Right, and that  is a truly great idea.  You don’t want to hear the words “Well, I think that’ll fix it good enough” from your brain surgeon…or even from your barber, for that matter.  No, you want them to know what they’re doing, be skilled enough to get the job done, and care about you enough to be sure they get it right.

In the theo- disciplines, this means loving God enough to make sure you understand His Word (or His world) correctly.  Loving your neighbor enough to be sure you explain your idea well, and clearly.  Loving those who’ve gone before you enough to give them credit where it’s due, rather than letting your readers or listeners think you just came up with it all on your own.  Loving your fellow scholars enough to pay your dues into the guild, listen to those who’ve gone before you, gain the wisdom they have to offer, and demonstrate to them that you have something to offer which can benefit them.

However, when “academic standards” and the folkways of the guild become an end in themselves (which they often have), then they have become Dagon, and Dagon must fall in the presence of Yahweh.  When the pursuit of theory and minutia and theological castles-in-the-sky impedes our obedience to the two Greatest Commandments, then our “pursuit of truth” has become, in fact, a 72-straight-hour-long game of Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy that distracts us from reality — our relationship with the Living God.  When we are willing to sacrifice the integrity of our relationships with the brothers and sisters God gave us  in order to maintain the integrity of our thought experiment, we love neither our brothers nor our God.  At this point one can no longer talk about how some people enjoy fellowship and other people enjoy old books, as though it were a simple matter of Christian liberty.  Where there is no love, there is no liberty; addicts always think their addiction sets them free, and they’re always wrong.  Even if it’s an addiction to theology books, or a particular theological system of thought.

Good scholarship is first, last and always about love.  This is not simply a different-parts-of-the-body kind of argument.  If the whole body were loving, then where would be the…what?  Is there a body part or function that fits in that sentence?  No.  If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, then I am nothing.  An unloving scholar, a man whose “pursuit of truth” causes division and sows discord among brethren, does not serve our Lord Christ, but his own belly.  He is nothing.  Let him repent and be restored, to the greater glory of God.  If he will not, then let his days be few, and let another take his office.

Good poetry touches the real world; it makes us see something we never saw before, or see something as if we’ve never seen it before.  To do that, and do it well, we must observe the world as it really is.  In our contemplation of divinity, this means careful observation and interpretation of God’s Word, Christ’s Body, the Spirit’s work in the world, and so on.  The best sort of scholarship — the love that draws us to Get It Right — is not only helpful to good theopoetic work, it’s absolutely indispensable.

But this is a scholarship that serves, a scholarship unashamed to wash feet, not a ruler-of-the-Gentiles scholarship that aspires to personal empire-building.  It is a scholarship that serves Yahweh, not just the standards of the guild, and therefore it must be a scholarship that aspires to communicate in the way that God models for us.  It may never write a paper with footnotes and a bibliography; it is enough to love well, and in loving well, get it right.  Imperfectly, to be sure, but right enough for this application, right now.  If there is a paper with footnotes, the guild may be satisfied, but the Christian scholar must not be.  That paper must be only an intermediate step; there is no biblical precedent for that as the end product God wishes us to produce.  A scholarly paper on chronological teaching as a tool for evangelistic Bible study must become an actual evangelistic Bible study, or what’s the point?


2 Responses to Theopoetics: The Case for Scholarship

  1. Brian says:

    Hi Tim. So, just when I think you’ve lost it, in the words of a certain Harry, “You go and totally redeem yourself!” Josiah captured my thoughts quite well after last weeks post. I was having my doubts after that post, but you’ve allayed my concerns. I’m wondering if that fog you cast over the path ahead wasn’t intentional. It seems that you’re intent includes encouraging your readers to grapple with your thoughts. Other than a question posted in response to one of your posts, I’ve been quietly observing since somewhere in the midst of your Mystical Union series, so I probably ought to have known better and been a bit more patient. I appreciate what you’re doing here. I’ve received great benefit over the last few years from being open to questioning assumptions held rather blindly, and you’ve provided opportunities for me to continue growing in this way. And in case it isn’t completely clear, that first line is delivered tongue-in-cheek. And don’t worry if you don’t get the reference, I certainly won’t respect you less for not being familiar with that one.

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    You surely weren’t the only one a little worried by that one, and yes, it was intentional. If the proverbs and the parables are any guide, paradox is good for the soul. It’s certainly productive.

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