Thursday, July 12, 2012

Geekery & Godliness: Some Preliminary Thoughts

The ideas in this post are a work in progress. For almost a year now, questions about the intersection between academic theological study and growth in godliness have been at the back of my mind. (Probably for longer than that, to be honest.) Even though I suspect that these questions are best worked out in a longer writing project, I felt compelled to start getting them on paper, if in abbreviated form.

The topic is definitely in need of refinement. You'll note that the post is titled "Geekery & Godliness," because when I first jotted down the idea for this post, I was thinking in terms of a more catch-all category of "theology geeks," including those who are self-identified nerds about theology, but are not necessarily engaged in formal study of the subject. As I began writing, though, I noticed that my concrete ideas were closely connected to the life of the theology graduate student -- unsurprisingly, as that's the life I know. It's possible that much of this can apply to non-academic geeks as well as grad students, but I am not sure yet.

Also, the cautions I give below arise from my own experience. They are all areas in which I have felt personally convicted. I'm quite certain, however, that not all academics have experienced these precise things, and I would love to hear those other perspectives. And, if there is anything here you'd like to see me expand upon in future posts, please let me know. Like I said, I'm kind of testing the waters to see if this is sustainable as a longer-term project -- something that can be of help to others.

It should go without saying that I think the academic pursuit of theology and/or "theology geekery" is a glorious thing. It is a blessing to have so many wonderful resources at my disposal, as well as a context in which to develop my ideas. But I have become increasingly convicted that geeking out over my Puritan Paperbacks or Popular Patristics collections, or doing theological research as my job, are not, in themselves, signs of a healthy spiritual life.

A Couple Obvious Gifts of Theological Study
  • Theological study should lead us to praise God continually, to desire to pursue Him ever more deeply, and to love the church, Christ's Bride, more and more. It is a sweet privilege to have the opportunity to devote ourselves to an intensive study of these subjects. We should rejoice in that.
  • Theological study should compel us to serve the church with what we've learned, in any variety of ways. It is rightly undertaken with the aim of being at the church's disposal.

Some Cautions
  • Theology geekery is not automatically spiritually beneficial. Just because I am often surrounded by the works of the early church fathers or the Puritans does not mean I am actively seeking the Lord, but it is easy to allow my studies to become a proxy for prayer and time spent in Scripture. There have been seasons when, because I was studying sacred things, I lulled myself into believing I could allow my prayer life to slide. Proximity to godliness is not the same as practicing it.
  • Studying theology for a living is not spiritually superior to any other employment or vocation.
  • A theology student should be firmly anchored in the local church and submitted to its leadership. Listening to lectures and engaging in seminar discussions during the week is not the same as sitting under the preaching of the Word. The latter is one of the ordinary means of grace; the former (mercifully) are not. And while you should certainly bring your God-given intellect to bear on what you are taught in church, that is not an invitation to spend the bulk of the sermon critiquing the pastor's exegesis and thinking how you could do it better.
  • A theology student should regularly soak in the basics of the faith, above all in God's Word. Chances are, a graduate theological education (or, sadly, in my experience, a seminary education) is not going to teach you how to do this, which points again to the importance of being under the shepherding of godly leaders. Don't be too proud to ask elders or mature believers for counsel in this area. (If you have time, take a moment to read the Martin Luther quote in this blog post by Carl Trueman. I believe it's getting at the same idea.) It's important to do this, not in spite of the intricacy of your dissertation topic, but because of it. You probably understand less than you think you do.
  • Take time to be in relationship with non-academics and those who aren't consumed by the student season of life. You need them; and fellowship with your brothers and sisters will far outlast your successes and failures in academia, and will prove far sweeter besides.

I believe it is possible to cultivate a life of both God-glorifying scholarship and vibrant, mature faith. My concern is that theological study, as it is often practiced today, does not always lend itself to ready integration of these areas; at any rate, it sometimes leaves students adrift and scrambling to pick up the pieces. I'm not attempting to lay down guidelines for how to do that, as I am very much caught in the midst of it myself. However, I hope this could be a place to start a conversation.

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