What Gives Theologians Hope

This week happens to be the annual, if unofficial, “theology week.” It began last weekend with the annual meeting of the College Theology Society (CTS) held this year at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and will conclude this weekend with the annual gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) held in Miami, Florida. The two meetings represent the academic theological guild, that group of professors, researchers, and graduate students who have dedicated their lives, careers, and ministries to education and the pursuit of what St. Anselm is remembered for having described as fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”).

The theme of this year’s CTS meeting was “Teaching Theology and Handing on the Faith: Challenges and Convergences,” a subject that aimed to elicit scholarly reflections on pedagogy, the relationship between catechesis and theology, sources for theological reflection, and the vocation of the theologian, among other themes. The keynote addresses offered the several-hundred theologians in attendance much to ponder and provided the participants the opportunity to respond critically and reflect more deeply on the various scholarly perspectives presented (NCR reporter Josh McElwee wrote two articles about the first two keynotes here and here).

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Two things about this year’s conference have stayed with me as sources for further reflection (and, I should note, that I’m writing this post from a retreat center in Upstate New York at a gathering of Franciscan friars all involved in higher education, so reflection on our life and ministry as educators continues). The first thing that impressed me – and always has impressed me about the CTS meeting each year – is the generosity and collegiality of the participating theologians. Unlike some academic meetings, there is a real sense of respect and support for the work of other scholars even when one disagrees with her or his starting point, method, or conclusions. My own work presented this year offered an alternative approach to the relationship between catechesis and academic theology than what was presented in the first keynote address of the weekend. The conversations that ensued were nevertheless collegial and enthusiastic, even among those of differing opinions. The conference offered a space within which a community of women and men committed to seeking better understanding of the faith could do so freely, intellectually, and respectfully.

The other thing that impressed me had less to do with the academic context of the gathering and more to do with one striking experience that unfolded on Saturday afternoon. Amid the usual business of presenting scholarly research there was a unique opportunity to reflect as a community on several questions posed to us, including “why do you do what you do?” and “what gives you hope?”

These are not the typical questions that academic theologians (or scholars of any sort) reflect upon during annual conferences, but they allowed those gathered to consider and share important aspects of the vocation of the theologian. On the one hand, it can be easy to get caught up in the business of academic life and the responsibilities of everyday work at a university. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to be in the middle of often-contentious disputes between ecclesiastical leaders and the professional theologians about what constitutes authentic theology. Both foci have captured the attention of theologians, the professional theological societies, and the bishops over many years, and with good reason. However, there have not been many opportunities to step back as a group and really consider why we do what we do and what gives us hope about it.

The discussion, initially within several small groups and then shared with the assembled theologians as a whole, was encouraging and insightful.

While everyone acknowledged the challenges that are present for theologians today, a consensus seemed to form around the “why” question that reflected a love for the discipline, a desire to deepen one’s faith and the faith of the Christian community, an enthusiasm for sharing the life of the mind and the tradition with students, and a respect for and appreciation of the colleagues that constitute the theological guild.

Among the responses that arose from the “what gives you hope” question, one point was shared with the large group at least twice and might surprise a number of people: Pope Francis gives many theologians hope, among other factors. Oftentimes, it is my impression that academic theologians are perceived to be cynical (and, many times, with good reason). Yet, this discussion about what gives theologians hope really challenged that caricature. What I saw about myself and about those others who were present was that there is a genuine love for the church, for the tradition, for the academic study of theology, for our colleagues, and for the students entrusted to us.

It is a good thing to pause and consider “why it is that we do what we do” and “what gives us hope.” And this is not just a practice that is valuable for theologians, but for all in each area of ministry and work. As many theologians gather in Miami this weekend for the CTSA meeting, the theme of which is “Conversion” this year, another opportunity arises to consider the place of continued and ongoing conversion in our lives in a personal way beyond a scholarly treatment of the subject. Focusing on the personal side of the practice of theology is itself a source of hope for theologians.

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