Lent and the Academic Theologian

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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In previous years, I proposed that it would be a worthy goal to fast from a posture of suspicion, ideology, and demonization during the season of Lent. I still think this is a worthy idea–a fast that I hope would effect real social change in politics, education, and in communal life through the gift of the Church’s Eucharistic imagination.

But this year, I wanted to turn my attention to a fast that seems necessary for my own profession: the academic theologian. The danger of being an academic theologian is two-fold. One, you’re an academic. Two, you’re a theologian.

The present life of the academy does not operate according to the virtues of Eucharistic self-gift. Rather, positions within the academy often cultivate the vice of pride, superbia. Pride is the disorder of desire in which one sees oneself as above others, above God. In the academy, this is embodied in the assumption that because of the credentials that follow my name, the publications that I have written, my humanity is better than your own. I am the expert and “you” (the student, the novice, the lay person) should learn to follow me toward enlightenment.Pride

The academic, in this way, becomes the savior of humanity. He or she composes publications that offer the definitive interpretation of texts or events (publications which only the enlightened will read). In this world, one is more concerned about one’s name being attached to articles appearing in the most august journals even if the reward of publication is predicated upon the use of those “buzz words” that are popular within one’s field rather than the search for truth. The academic in the classroom delights in the act of deconstructing the student’s assumptions, violently awakening him/her from the dogmatic somnolence that the academic despises. In such a context, there is an implicit temptation to hate the student, to hate the intellectual vacuity of the student’s writing and conversation. Likewise, the academic is one who refuses (because of this pride) to admit that his or her thought may have been wrong all along. Instead, the academic entrenches oneself in a position, fighting to the bitter end.

The academic also is constantly tempted to believe that his or her degree has bestowed an uncommon competence in all areas of life. He or she is more politically aware than the non-academic. My vision of education, of health care, of the relationship between the Church and the university–well, it’s obvious it should be accepted once you recognize my pedigree. After all, I graduated from “X.” Others are more than welcome to participate in my vision of the world, as long as you agree to apprentice under my intellect. And call me Dr.

Unto itself, belonging to the academy is a temptation for those who seek to practice the art of self-giving love. Yet, at the Catholic university, these temptations take on a particular danger for the theologian. The theologian is not simply a student of texts, of ideas, of intellectual propositions. Rather, he or she devotes the intellect to an inquiry into the mystery of Christian faith.FidesQuaerens Intellectum

For this reason, the temptations of the academy are risky for the theologian. The theologian may begin to falsely imagine that his or her work is the definitive interpretation of such divine mysteries. That only I have penetrated into the mind of God. Other visions of reality, as viewed through theological categories different from my own, must be deconstructed. My ideas will not simply give a renewed vigor to the political or economic order but will save the Church, her hierarchs, and the unsophisticated who are members of this body. Anything practical or personal or spiritual or catechetical might be fine for the simple. But for those of us with a Ph.D., we have moved beyond such basics.

The classroom is a perilous place for those of us belonging to this guild. We may grow angry that our students do not awaken to the vision that we present. We may learn to forget that the texts that we employ, the ideas that we present, are not part of some intellectual game alone. Rather, they point toward a narrative of divine love, one in which the entirety of humanity is to be saved through the love of God poured out over the cosmos. We may forget to awaken our students to the beauty of this narrative, allowing our own intellectual and spiritual wounds, to manifest themselves in bitter teaching. We may fail to remember that in the classroom the very lives of our students are at stake not simply their grade.

I present these visions not to condemn those other theologians. Rather, these are my temptations. I am tempted to view my own intellect, my acumen, as evidence of my own salvation. I am tempted on a daily basis to hate my students, to make the sort of arguments that paralyze their reason, to force them along the path of my own enlightenment. I am tempted to publish not because I have anything particular that I want to say but because I want a CV that extends into pages six and seven and then eight and nine. I forget the original love that brought me to this study, entering into the classroom as a burden to be borne rather than a gift to be received. I want to tell the Church as a whole how to function, for them to turn to me for expertise. In other words, I want to become a theological god. I want power and control and prestige and privilege and recognition and chair named after meAshWednesday

Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate a bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.

Thus, Ash Wednesday and the subsequent season of Lent is a salutary gift to the entire academic community. During this season, we are invited to turn away from the violence of intellectual grasping and seizing, from power plays and critical discourse (without subsequent constructive claims), to join the entire Christian world in the art of self-gift. Such practice, such conversion of every theologian (and every academic) might lead to a renewal of our universities as places in which truth is sought in the fullness of love. In which knowledge is sought as gift, as wisdom itself.

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11 thoughts on “Lent and the Academic Theologian”

  1. So I just read this this Ash Wednesday morning Tim, and it’s uncanny how similar my thoughts were to yours this beginning of Lent (I’m referring to my Daily Theology post). Great reflection here Mr. Tim. Thank you!!!

  2. You’ve articulated some temptations that sound very familiar. Thanks for this, Tim.

  3. As a grad student preparing for theo comps this summer, I am grateful for the cautionary note your honest reflection raises for me. In a few months (God and my board willing) I will be able to say, I have a masters in theology from Notre Dame. But what will those words mean? The temptations, as you’ve noted, are to convey theological superiority, a privileged understanding of God, the Church, my spirituality and yours, perhaps even an extra dose of holiness.

    In reality, I struggle with what those words mean. Friends have begun to ask more earnestly as I enter my seventh year of this journey, “What will you do with that degree?” Until now I have maintained that I will do what I already do, but better, more meaningfully. I will direct the music and liturgical preparation of my parish with greater insight. In honesty, I am not sure that is enough.

    The year of study leading up to comps is fanning a flame of understanding and love for God encountered in the liturgy — and inspired further by wonderful ND professors — that I wish for others. For my coworkers in a corporate setting, for my grown children who see Sunday as a day of rest, but not rest in God, for friends estranged from religion, but clinging to an undefined craving for spirituality. For those in my parish, my community, the world.

    The temptation, perhaps, for the theology student, is not only academic arrogance, but apathy. Just as the liturgy is not about us, but about God, is not initiated by us, but by the Trinity, so too, perhaps, the liturgy degree is not about me, but something greater, something that will demand a concerted effort, an ascetic practice, in order to continue its ripening and bear fruit in the world.

    A thought to prayerfully ponder in Lent.

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