The vocation of the theologian begins with an invitation

In a casual conversation I had just after arriving in Berkeley in 1976, barely two months after defending my dissertation in Rome, one of my new colleagues at J.S.T.B. (as it was then called), probably trying to find something suitable for conversation with this strange new creature—a woman theologian—asked me, “How old were you when you first knew that you wanted to study theology?” I am not sure what I mumbled at that moment.

When I later reflected on that conversation, it reminded me, with a chuckle, of that old story about the cross-examining prosecuting attorney who attempted to entrap the defendant on the witness stand by asking him, “And when did you stop beating your wife?” The defendant replied, “I didn’t.” “What?!” exclaimed the prosecutor. “You never stopped?” “No,” he replied, “I never started.”

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Most people just don’t know that their pondering about life, about what really matters, is called theology.

When I tried to think about when I began to be seriously interested in theology, the real answer was “I never began,” because I really could not remember a time when I was not involved in theological exploration. Were not all of us, even as children—as we dealt with the death of a pet or a parent, the deferral of things hoped for, evil and injustice, happiness and suffering—raising questions that were really about God? Questions about nature, morality, death, hope, community, unconditional love, forgiveness, joy?

In short, that question from my new colleague made me realize that I and probably everyone who has the leisure and privilege to think about life always want, perhaps without knowing it, to study theology. Most people just don’t know that their pondering about life, about what really matters, is called theology.

Theology as ministry

That question at the very beginning of my theological ministry, helped me realize especially in hindsight that becoming a theologian is not the choice of a job or even of a profession. It is a response to a vocation—and not a vocation that confers superior status or commissions us to deliver abstract solutions to theoretical problems. It is a vocation that gives us privileged access to people’s deepest desires, however unarticulated they might be, and calls us to respond to them as Jesus did to his contemporaries—in ways that enlighten, yes, but especially in ways that encourage and console, liberate and empower. It is a vocation to tending the truth about the most important issues in human experience. Perhaps that is why Jesus did not spend his brief ministerial life arguing with the learned but offering to his contemporaries parables that challenged them to not only think differently but to choose differently.

A second memory comes from the time I was preparing to study theology—while I was a graduate student in philosophy. We were studying Plato, still my favorite philosopher. Running through Plato’s philosophy like an electric current is the theme of teaching, which almost everyone who gets a degree in theology will do, whether in the academy, from the pulpit or in direct pastoral ministry. For the vocation of the theologian is not about pursuing a career. It is not even undertaken solely in order to answer one’s own questions. It is always, in a very fundamental way, about helping others seek life-giving answers to the really important questions of human existence.

I really could not remember a time when I was not involved in theological exploration.

Theology is intrinsically kerygmatic; it is about the “good news” that leads one who learns it to want to put it at the service of others. Theology, in other words, is not only a personal vocation to the quest for ultimate meaning in one’s own life. It is also a call to ministry—and especially to the ministry of the word, to making truth fruitful in the lives of those to whom we are sent, that is, to teaching.

So what has that to do with Plato? Plato was formed by and he preserved for us the picture of his own personal and professional model and mentor, Socrates, a wandering philosopher (or we might say theologian, given the nature of his subject matter) who never wrote anything himself but got himself martyred for teaching people like Plato. Like another non-writing teacher who followed him by five centuries, Socrates was executed not only because of what he taught but especially because of how he taught. Socrates called his teaching “midwifing,” that is, bringing forth in his students, in pain and joy and hope, the best that was in them, new life for the world. Jesus used that same image in John 16 when he forewarned his disciples that, like a woman in labor, they would suffer in their ministerial endeavors but would rejoice in the new life they would bring to birth. Socrates carried out this work of education primarily by questioning his disciples, pushing them to doubt the facile answer, to distrust the lazy meanderings of their own minds and to interrogate the stock answers of the establishment, until they hit the bedrock of truth.

The true teacher, especially one whose integrity is not for sale, is always in danger from institutional power. 

The city fathers of Athens knew how dangerous to the established order this quest for truth could be, especially if it was inculcated into young people who still had the innocence and the energy to question the accepted “wisdom” of the status quo. When Socrates defied orders to stop teaching they sentenced him to death. But they offered to look the other way if he would just disappear from the city and not come back, if he agreed to stop teaching in Athens. Socrates, like Jesus, who faced the same choice from the religious and political powers-that-be in first-century Jerusalem centuries later, declined the offer. For Socrates, to sacrifice his integrity to save his life would have been to invalidate all he had tried to teach his students. Teaching, as Socrates and Jesus understood it, is not a job. It is a mission that is inherent to the vocation of the theologian. Therefore, it is an expression less of what one knows than of who one is. So, the true teacher, especially one whose integrity is not for sale no matter how high the offer, is always in danger from institutional power. Through the figure of Socrates, the greatest teacher of antiquity, I came to understand more clearly what Jesus, who was first of all a teacher, was really doing.

An invitation to engage

A third pertinent memory was upsetting to me when it happened and has remained unsettling, at some level, throughout my teaching ministry. One reason I find Pope Francis, exercising his teaching ministry, so attractive and exciting is that in a way he is the embodiment of an answer to the question this third event raised for me.

The event occurred a few days before I boarded the plane for Paris to begin my graduate theological studies. At that time, Catholic religious life, to which I belonged (and still do), and especially that of women, was rigidly institutionalized. There were rules for everything and most of them started with “Do not....” What not to do, where not to go, with whom not to relate, what not to doubt or question, imagine, investigate or believe. I landed in Paris in June 1968, just as the student revolution exploded in the streets of the Latin Quarter and spilled over into the university I was to attend.

“Remember this one thing: Don’t ever refuse an invitation.”

A friend of mine in New York, a religious brother with whom I had once made a retreat, drove me to the airport on the day of my departure and, as he bade me farewell, he said he had one piece of advice for me. I expected to be urged to pray daily, to study hard and so on. But he said, “Remember this one thing: Don’t ever refuse an invitation.” If ever in my life I had heard a recipe for moral, vocational and theological shipwreck, that bit of advice was it. Catholic life at that point in history (particularly religious life) could almost have been formulated as the inverse of that advice: “Never accept an invitation—at least not until it has been vetted by authority, checked against the Rule book and explicitly allowed by the necessary permissions.” Needless to say, I had no intention of putting my friend’s dangerous advice into practice.

But almost before I got out of the airport in Paris I began facing the challenge of how to respond to invitations: the invitation to engage with people from cultures and religious traditions I had earlier met only in books where they were usually presented as erroneous or ignorant, if not evil; the invitation to read well beyond the Bible, the lives of the saints or the Rule; the invitation to enter the whole world of art and political thought from which religious life and Catholic isolationism had insulated me since adolescence; and the invitation to engage the explosion of new thought and sensibility gushing simultaneously from the just-concluded Second Vatican Council (1962-65), from the social-sexual-political cultural revolution that came to be called “the ’60s” and from the radical currents unleashed by liberation theology in general and feminism in particular. The year 1968 was a watershed year, indeed a defining year, all over the Western world. Perhaps it could have been defined as a cataclysm of invitation.

A refusal of the invitation to engage almost certainly leads to theological and ministerial irrelevance.

Many times as something I had never heard of or thought about arose in my experience and I interiorly ran for cover in the rules and customs and expectations I had imbibed in my religious youth, I heard the voice of my friend saying, “Never refuse an invitation.” But over the years I learned by much trial and error that “invitation” was not synonymous with seduction or temptation and that the problematic and programmatic word was “refuse.” The response to an invitation was not a choice between mindless or spineless capitulation to whatever presented itself, on the one hand, and rigid conformity to rules developed for and in another place and time, on the other. An invitation was just that, something offered for one’s consideration, something that was, in the nature of the case, new, not domesticated by one’s already developed categories of “what religious have always done” or “what the Catholic Church has always taught” or “how Americans have always lived.” The challenge was to renounce the a priori refusal of the new or different, to not shut down reflection before it starts and, instead, to risk engagement.

Meaningful gestures

What I gradually came to see was that theology—a vocation to seek the truth about ultimate reality, not just for oneself but in order to teach, to share it with others—could not be, to use Pope Francis’ vocabulary, self-referential, a rat-race on a training wheel in a laboratory cage. It would only have something life-giving to offer if it was fully engaged with the reality of the world in which real people, including oneself, live and struggle. Does such an open approach have risks? Yes. Does not taking such an approach protect one from risks? No. But refusal of the invitation to engage almost certainly leads to theological and ministerial irrelevance.

One thing the ’60s began to expose was that for many of our contemporaries, especially young people, the institutional church had become largely irrelevant. That is partly what unleashed the decade’s cultural revolution. And it is what is reaping a bitter harvest in our own time. The challenge that theologians face today is not so much that people do not believe but that they find what is proposed to faith irrelevant.

Francis is listening to and accepting in the name of the whole church invitations we have been refusing for centuries.

Pope Francis is not universally popular in Catholic circles, maybe especially in some theological circles. And there is much discussion in the press about why everyone is not enamored of this engaging figure who, literally and symbolically, washes the feet of all; who lets a rambunctious 5-year-old tug on his cassock while he is delivering a pontifical address to ecclesiastical dignitaries; who causes near cardiac arrest in his security detail by taking a grateful slurp of unvetted tea from a common mug handed to him by an unidentified stranger in the crowd around his popemobile; who embraces people disfigured by poverty and disease and sin; who shops for his own black shoes but skips the French cuffs; who speaks in an inclusive vernacular, “Fratelli e sorelle—buona sera,” rather than intoning, “urbi et orbi,” in solemn Latin few in the audience can understand; and perhaps most scandalously, who humbly admits that he had spoken harshly about allegations of sexual abuse without ascertaining all the facts and so asks pardon of those he hurt by discounting their experience, their suffering. What is not to like about this pope?

What is not to like is that Francis does not just mingle with the people, take questions he has not seen ahead of time or speak without notes to reporters. These are not just charming idiosyncrasies. They are eloquent gestures that the guardians of the ecclesiastical city-state, like those of Athens in the time of Socrates and Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, recognize—and fear—because of what they symbolize. Today’s protectors of the status quo, including our own interior censors, like all such down through history, have a vested interest in maintaining the system that seems to work for them. They/we fear that if we admit that we were ever mistaken we raise the possibility that we could be mistaken again, even now. After all, one is either infallible or not. And the infallible, by definition, do not make mistakes, much less publicly apologize for them. It is not love but power that means “never having to say you’re sorry.” Even looking again at questions we have declared “settled” and entertaining the possibility of revision would threaten the absoluteness of the whole system.

‘Prove yourselves worthy of the One you follow’

What Francis has been doing from day one of his service of the people of God is to “accept the invitations” offered to him by the suffering of people, the anguished questions of those rejected and banned by official religion, the widespread disaffection of youth. And not just questions that have been carefully selected, vetted, cleaned up, put into “papalese” and preemptively nullified or invalidated by appeals to established positions. He is engaging the real questions of today, not first of all in theory but in terms of the people whose lives are touched, sometimes radically, by what is proclaimed as absolute.

Francis knows that real wars are fought in trenches, not in marble corridors or paneled lecture halls.

Francis knows that real wars are fought in trenches, not in marble corridors or paneled lecture halls. A war zone (and Jesus defined life as a war between the reign of God and the kingdom of Satan) needs “field hospitals.” The wounded cannot wait until a state-of-the-art medical center can be built. People who are suffering may not know how to cure themselves, but they do know what is not helping.

Francis is listening to and accepting in the name of the whole church invitations we have been refusing for centuries. He is allowing experience to challenge theory, even the theories enshrined in ancient, seemingly irreformable doctrinal and moral positions. He is implicitly raising the question of whether the practices and even some teachings enshrined in the writings of his predecessors might be in need of re-examination.

What many do not like about Francis is that he, like Jesus choosing to stay in the home of Zacchaeus the public sinner or to touch unclean women or lepers, is not closing the door on the invitations offered not just to him but to the whole church. Francis is letting experience lead the church into new dialogues. His message is an acted out acceptance of the fact that only God is God and that revelation is never closed because the revealing God is neither dead nor retired. The experience of people, outside as well as inside the institutional church, the laity as well as the clergy, women as well as men, the poor, uneducated, incarcerated and ill as well as those in the halls of civil and ecclesiastical power are not threats to the church but invitations to look again, to entertain the real questions, to be evangelized anew.

Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), is an eloquent testimony to this disconcertingly exhilarating openness that beckons to a new generation of scholars taking up their theological vocation and mission. It is a call to embrace the council’s resounding affirmation of the universal call to holiness. Not only are all in the church called to personal holiness, but all in the church are called to foster the holiness of the whole church. Francis does not cite just his own writings or those of his predecessors, propose only the spirituality of his own religious order, make the culture of Latin America or Rome normative, talk of the people of God exclusively as “men” or “sons” or “brothers” or urge the laity to follow their pastors with docility and silence. He cites saints from every historical period, from diverse religious orders and types of spirituality, from every walk of life and vocation in the church, from episcopal conferences all over the world. He invites his readers to engage, to learn, to expand their horizons and imaginations, to accept the invitations of our time and culture to address the suffering of the world God so loved as to give God’s only Son.

I think what Francis is saying to all of us engaged by vocation in the ministry of theology is this: “Do not refuse the invitation of your time and place. Respond with integrity to every challenge, even the threat of persecution or death, and thereby prove yourselves worthy of the one you follow, in whose own ministry you are involved, and whose final approval is the only reward worth seeking.”

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Frank Bergen
4 weeks 1 day ago

Thank you, Sandra, for your insights into the call to do theology, to share from the pulpit, in the classroom, in the street, the word entrusted to us by the Spirit. And thank you for your appreciation of our Jesuit brother Francis who walks with us in love not in judgment. May he lead that part of the one holy catholic Church for which he bears some responsibility into a fullness of life it so often seeks desperately to avoid.
A wise man, that brother who advised you to never refuse an invitation.

Josh Faust
4 weeks ago

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Tom Massaro
4 weeks ago

Many thanks to Sandra Schneiders for sharing these illuminating elements of her sense of vocation as a theologian. Particularly insightful is the observation that all human persons function as true theologians, in all the diverse ways that they seek to make meaning out of their experiences of transcendence as well as finitude in a world of suffering and death. I would simply hasten to add that the next step is to ponder the most helpful division of labor, as professional theologians with advanced levels of education turn their attention to assisting their brothers and sisters to reflect on the landscape of human experience and draw lessons and trajectories for ethical action in the world. The profession of theologian is always, as Dr. Schneiders implies, a helping profession, not a personal embellishment or vehicle for vain pride. These remarks provide much light along the way! They sounded enriching when many of us heard them proclaimed at the Jesuit School of Theology Commencement on May 19 in Berkeley, and they ring even truer in these challenging days we face, with mounting crises on the border, in the church, in the halls of government, and beyond.

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