Discerning the Role of Theology
A tension between spiritual discipline and career
Matt Shadle, friend of Okeydoxy and previous guest on the Daily Theology podcast, has an essay out this week in America. He writes about his departure from Marymount University and his discernment about what it means to be a theologian without the typical job as professor. I had read his piece when it first came out in his Substack, and there were two things in it that particularly resonated with me.
The first was the reality of working in higher ed, especially in theology. Marymount, despite being a Catholic, liberal arts university, recently voted to eliminate several liberal arts majors, including theology. The eliminated majors all had fairly low enrollments and thus were not cost-effective to maintain. Courses in those fields will still be part of the core curriculum, but who knows for how long. This reminded me of my own institution, which a few years ago abruptly eliminated our campus religion major while retaining our role in the core for the same reasons. Beyond that, we have had significant struggles in the last few years, some of them quite publicly, which have given me a feeling of precarity that I didn’t expect to have after I received tenure (and let’s be honest, my position is not remotely as precarious as most people who work in higher ed).
Second, I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means for me to be a theologian. At present, I have the typical job as a professor, with the same three common responsibilities nearly all faculty have. So I teach (normally a 4/4 load, meaning four classes each fall and spring semester, but I also teach overloads and summer courses); I research and write (although not as much as I should); and I serve on committees (my record in one year was six including chairing one, but I don’t think I’ve had a year in the last ten where I was on fewer than three). I’m incredibly lucky, and nine days out of ten very grateful for what I get to do.
This typical professor job is the structure through which I get to do theology. To be honest, when I think of myself as a “theologian,” I mostly am thinking of myself as a “theology professor.” It is within that structure, specifically the teaching and writing responsibilities, that I get to talk about theology, theologians, scripture, Church history, etc. That ongoing conversation, of which I am one brief participant in its millennia-long unfolding, is what I think being a theologian is about.
Why did I get into theology in the first place? Partly it was my first semester in college. I went in as a math and philosophy major, but my first philosophy course bored me deeply at the same time that my first theology course evoked wonder (I did stay with the math major, though). Partly it was the course I took on Dante my second year, that opened up new questions about freedom, identity, and responsibility. Honestly there were a lot of good courses, and good classmates and good professors, that nourished me along the way.
I don’t think these were why I got into theology, though: they were more the midwives of my coming to theology. The actual conception, the origin, was trying to figure out God, and trying to figure out myself laid bare before God. I had not grown up with any particular religious tradition outside of an uncommitted, vaguely cultural Presbyterianism, and yet religion fascinated me from my youth. I was sent to a Jesuit high school for the education, but became drawn to talking about fundamental questions of meaning (plus I got enmeshed in campus ministry, for better and worse). And when I went to college and embarked on all those good courses, beyond trying to understand John’s Gospel and Dante and Rahner, I was trying to understand me, the finite, beloved, sinful nerd created in the image of the eternal, uncreated, ultimate source and ground of all reality. Theology was my spiritual discipline, my prayer.
Of course I didn’t have all my spiritual questions worked out by the end of undergrad, so I went on for the masters degree. And then I took a detour, two years in a cubicle, to get away from academic theology and test whether I still felt called to further study. I had good coworkers, made good money for a twenty-something in Chicago, and the work featured a lot of interesting problem solving. I didn’t take the work home with me at night, which was nice, but I also didn’t take the work home with me and was ultimately unsatisfied.
I sometimes tell my students that for some people, the job that pays the bills has to be vocationally satisfying in itself. For others, the job that pays the bills is what funds the other vocationally satisfying parts of life. It turned out for me to be the former. The pull to study theology was still there, so I went on to a PhD. After that I got the job (and the attendant impostor’s syndrome) and, a few years later, got tenure (and the attendant survivor’s guilt). I get to be part of the big conversation in large part because, thanks to a little hard work and a lot more luck, I have the institutional credentials.
Less clear to me now is whether my luck will hold. As I said earlier, my institution is precarious, as is theology across higher education. I expect more Marymounts will make the cost-saving cuts, and more Marymount Californias will close entirely. I might only be a year, or a few years, behind Shadle in making a career move, or having one made for me. I don’t know.
Ever the optimist, there is something good emerging from my anxiety about being a theologian within, and possibly without, the academy. I am faced with a second, more personal question: what would my spiritual life look like, apart from the academy? Studying theology became my primary spiritual discipline, but there’s a risk that comes with that sort of thing.
As part of my prayer practice for Lent, I’ve been reading through Luigi Gioia’s Say it to God. In the first chapter, he says that anything can be fuel for prayer, that “any scrap of wood is good to feed fire.” He uses this image to push against the idea that prayer needs serenity, a quiet location, or freedom from strong emotions. All of these can be fuel for prayer. The academic study of theology can provide good scraps of wood too.
But there is a difference between praying and reading about prayer. It’s not lost on me that my Lenten prayer practice is reading a book about prayer. And for me, having the academic study of theology be the heart of my spiritual discipline has often come with the temptation to substitute the academic for the spiritual. I haven’t always been good at feeding the fire, giving my time instead to discoursing on the scraps of wood.
Perhaps I am actually struggling with two different conflations. The first is letting the intellectual work of theology be the whole of my spiritual exercise. The second is thinking that being a professor is how I pursue my vocation to holiness rather than being a theologian. When put all together, it’s easy to imagine how I may have let being a professor become, ultimately, my spiritual practice, and an unsatisfying one at that.
Happily for me, I think Shadle’s career change and subsequent post are aiding me in both spiritual and professional capacities. The precarity of academic theology, of higher education, of my own institution: taken together, these put me to the question, or better yet, back to the question that started me on this journey to begin with. I am again, I am still, a finite, beloved, sinful nerd created in the image of the eternal, uncreated, ultimate source and ground of all reality who is just trying to figure it out.
The form this takes may stay the same, and it may adjust (I’m still teaching, but also returning to podcasting). But I hope the intention behind it will shift, away from so much focus on the career and back toward putting wood on the fire.