Can you be a theologian outside of academia? I’m going to find out.
On Feb. 24, the board of trustees at Marymount University, a Catholic university in Arlington, Va., founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, voted unanimously to cut several liberal arts programs, including theology. This means that these subjects will no longer be offered as majors, although some of them remain part of the university’s liberal arts core curriculum. Even so, the cuts come on the heels of a restructuring of that core in the previous academic year that saw significant reductions in requirements in the humanities.
These cuts had been in development since the fall semester. After more than eight years teaching there, at the end of the fall semester I voluntarily resigned from my position teaching theology at Marymount, effective this past January. As William Bridges, the author of a classic work on the process of making major life transitions, notes, however, while we may think that changes in concrete life circumstances are what spurs a transition—the spiritual process of letting go of one thing and embracing something new—surprisingly, concrete changes often occur near the endof a transition.
For a while, my wife and I had been living and working in different states. This situation is so common in higher education—because of the scarcity of faculty and administrative positions—that academics even have a name for it: the “two-body problem.” With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, we (like many people) re-examined our life priorities and decided that we needed to find a way to be together. I was able to teach remotely from Iowa for a while, but that was not a long-term solution. With the events at Marymount this academic year, the pieces just fell together.
On Feb. 24, the board of trustees at Marymount University, a Catholic university founded by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, voted unanimously to cut several liberal arts programs, including theology.
As I began my job search several months ago, looking for a position closer to our home in Iowa, I realized that I would need to be open to finding employment as something other than a professor. That may sound easy, but a doctorate in theology does not qualify you for much outside of being a theology professor, and I have been nothing but a graduate student or professor since I was 21.
In situations like these, and indeed in all situations requiring discernment, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, counsels us to adopt an attitude of indifference. His point is not that we should stop caring; rather, he means that we should be open to letting go of possessions, relationships, titles, status and even our self-identity in pursuit of loving and serving God. It is a trusting surrender.
The Chinese sage Laozi (or Lao Tzu) offers similar advice in the Tao Te Ching, where he suggests we should be like water, which he compares to the “highest good” (No. 8) because of its “submissiveness”: “The most submissive thing in the world [i.e., water] can ride roughshod over the hardest in the world—that which is without substance entering that which is without crevices” (Tao Te Ching, No. 43, translation by D. C. Lau).
A doctorate in theology does not qualify you for much outside of being a theology professor, and I have been nothing but a graduate student or professor since I was 21.
Laozi hints that the power of water is its ability to adapt to its surroundings because of its fluidity. Unlike a dry solid (which Laozi associates with “the dead,” No. 76), water does not attempt to hold on to its present form. Like Ignatius, then, Laozi recognizes that we are tempted to grasp on to who we were in the past or who we are in the present. We must learn to be open to the flow of reality.
Wrestling with these insights has helped me to imagine myself as something other than a university professor and see opportunities I may have missed if I was holding on to the past. Still, I am haunted by the words the German author Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to an aspiring writer in his Letters to a Young Poet:
Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it (translation by M. D. Herter Norton).
Despite my spiritual wrestling (or perhaps because of it), my desire to theologize is much like the not so water-y experience of being a poet that Rilke describes. The reason that bids me to theologize seems irresistible, whatever my next career move. So what to do?
In graduate school, I suspect that many budding theologians pick up the impression that the only way to fulfill the vocation of a theologian is by becoming a university professor or maybe through church ministry. And of course, in practical terms, there is a grain of truth in that. Yet there are a number of active theologians who are university administrators, ecclesial ministers, members of religious orders, high school teachers and “independent scholars” of many other types. The number of theologians in non-faculty roles will only increase as more colleges cut their theology programs, reduce their core requirements and leave the positions of retiring faculty unfilled.
The reason that bids me to theologize seems irresistible, whatever my next career move. So what to do?
The role of “theologian” has evolved significantly over the centuries, and I believe we are in the midst of a stage in that evolution in which the role of theologian becomes increasingly distinct from that of university professor, although what form that role might be taking is unclear to me. It helps, however, to identify some essential characteristics of theology as a “profession” (if we understand that term in the traditional sense of something we “profess” and practice rather than as a form of employment):
- St. Anselm of Canterbury famously defined theology as “faith seeking understanding,” and the goal or purpose of theology is to deepen our understanding of the mysteries of faith. David Tracy adds that theology is at the service of the church, society and the university. I would suggest that theology’s service to the church includes not just informing ministry and catechesis but also fostering a sense of wonder and contemplation before God’s mystery; from time to time, when reading theology, you should have the experience of going, “Whoa!”
- The practice of theology requires rigorous education, in Scripture, the church’s tradition and the works of great theologians of the past; the proper forms of reasoning about and analyzing theological questions; and increasingly an interdisciplinary mindset, as well. Therefore, the continuing practice of theology will depend on educational programs like graduate schools and seminaries.
- Theology is a communal practice. Theologians share their work with one another, as well as with the broader public, evaluate each others’ work and carry on an ongoing conversation with one another. Theologians also support one another, by providing education in the practice of theology, creating opportunities for sharing their work (i.e., journals and conferences) and building each other up in myriad ways (e.g., letters of recommendation, promotion of each others’ work and the support of friendship).
I believe that theologians will increasingly need to “be like water” and find new ways to live out these essential characteristics of our profession outside of academia. In my experience so far, it is in imagining our profession as a communal practice outside of academia where we need the most work. My fellow theologians have been nothing but supportive when I have told them about my career situation and ongoing job search, and I am forever grateful for that; that is not the kind of support that is lacking. Rather, we need to build new ways for theologians outside of academia to participate in the ongoing practice of theology. I want to highlight two areas in particular:
- Access to scholarly publications. It is difficult for a theologian outside of academia to have ready access to scholarly journals and books, and this problem has been magnified a hundredfold by the digitization of publishing. University libraries now routinely purchase licenses for digital books and journals rather than paper copies, but these electronic resources are almost always only available to university employees and students. The role of university libraries as public knowledge hubs is diminishing, and I think it is incumbent on theologians to find other ways to share theological research.
- Attendance at conferences. Most professors receive professional development funds that help them pay for the registration costs and travel expenses of attending theological conferences. Theologians outside of academia typically do not have access to these funds, making it more difficult to attend. In recent years, there has been discussion about the ongoing usefulness of academic conferences, a conversation that has significantly shifted in the aftermath of Covid-19. When wrestling with this question, I think theologians ought to take seriously the participation of non-academic theologians.
I want to close with a line from the 17th-century bishop and spiritual writer St. Francis de Sales: “God brought you out of nothingness, in order to make you what you are, not because he had any need of you, but solely out of his goodness” (Introduction to the Devout Life).
Pondering this passage, I realized that God has no need of me as a theologian, either. I like to think that I have something vital to say, something people needto hear. If I don’t finish this article or book, it will be a tragedy. Maybe others feel the same way about their own work. But I may never finish that work because I get caught up with other things. God forbid, I may lose the physical or mental capacities needed to do the work. God, however, can raise up other theologians to do it. God doesn’t need me.
These are scary thoughts, and it may sound spiritually abusive to say “God doesn’t need you.” But recall that de Sales says that God made you what you are not because God needs you but out of God’s goodness—in other words, because God wants you. At this moment, whatever career path I take, God wants me to be a theologian; and, like Rilke, I should build my life around the longing I discover in my heart. That may change; God may want something different from me later, and I will need to prayerfully respond to that. But I am convinced that part of the answer to the question “What does it mean to be a theologian?” is: It is a gift.
This article was originally published at Window Light.