Theology: Embattled Defense or Heroic Quest?
I spent a little over three years as a Biblical Studies Major in two Christian colleges. The first and last years I spent at Maranatha University; the middle year at a small start-up college.
One day, at Maranatha, it occurred to me, “I’m done,” and I withdrew my registration and walked away in the middle of the first semester of my senior year. It was very difficult to explain to people why I was leaving when graduation was in reach. Although I found all the rules and standards stressful, Maranatha’s atmosphere in that regard was bucolic in comparison to Bob Jones University, where my sister spent a semester (partying, because she knew she hadn’t a hope of getting through anyhow.) I was also discouraged by the general attitude of the student body, which was boorish.
However, I had found good experiences there as well. The Bible faculty, Josh and I agreed (we were engaged then) should be running the school. Our classes were challenging (or at least some of them were) and we found some new idea to talk about every day.
It was like I had been able to wind myself up to walk nearly all the way on my journey to a B.A. in Biblical Studies, but on that day I simply wound down and tottered my last step and didn’t have anymore in me. Oh well.
“I’ve gotten everything I can get out of this experience. I never cared about the diploma; I just wanted to improve my grasp of theology.” That’s what I told people.
I didn’t tell them that I was also severely depressed. It was a marvel that I had made it this far. Two years earlier, on spring break while my family roamed the beaches of GA’s golden isles on a rare family vacation, and I stayed back, for once, to study Greek declensions in the rented beach house, I had my first experience of going within myself. What I encountered was a deep, seemingly bottomless emptiness. I stood, it seemed to me, on the lip of an abyss. I was almost going over. If I chose, I could die at that moment, simply by letting myself slip in. With a dry emotionless decision, I pulled back and chose to live.
In my eyes-open world, I had to hang on to my grasp of reality by deciding not to take that experience literally. Surely I wouldn’t have died if I had merely imagined myself going over the lip of an imaginary abyss! But it showed me that I was in such a state that dying seemed easier than living.
I sat out a year, then went back to Maranatha, which was less demanding than the start-up school. I made it through a year, started the next, and as I have said, left.
I have never regretted what I did, because it seems to me that I couldn’t have done anything else. Whatever my gifts are, they don’t extend to a ready toleration of stress. While I place a very high value on certain aspects of classroom experience, I have never flourished in a classroom. I know that finding one’s place in the classroom can, for most people, prepare them for what their place in life might be. And the experience of having a living teacher with whom to interact, rather than learning only from books, is priceless. Yet it never worked properly for me. I have always been too ready to grasp the teacher’s ideas and too vulnerable to the physical effects of hard study. I was always too able to write and too slow to speech. I have always been ready to drink the teacher’s understanding dry, and too unable to connect with my fellow classmates. I have especially been too delicate in my feelings to measure myself in relation to anyone, least of all my fellow classmates.
I left college with roughly a 3.0 grade point average and walked past a lot of bewildered and disappointed faces to do it. I still feel a sense of sadness and unpaid debt to those who tried to make me succeed, and couldn’t.
Josh and I recently celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. I think it’s fair to say that Josh was the one person in a student body of 1,000 that I was fully able to communicate with. Communication has remained the strength of our relationship. After I dropped out of school, I devoted my free time to helping Josh graduate. He was in the same program I had left. I helped him study for tests, write papers, and research for debates. He graduated about six months after we married, and in a way I came to feel that I had a shadow degree. At any rate, Josh and I have always been able to talk about theology.
I dare say if we hadn’t married one another, neither of us would have ended up Orthodox.
Our theological training gave us many tools such as the basics of exegesis and familiarity with the theological landscape and the history of the church. But it gave us those tools within a larger framework of embattled defense. Everything we were learning was so that we could defend the Baptist and fundamentalist way of thinking and believing. Some of those beliefs, of course, were simply Christian. Some of them were aberrant.
Somewhere along the way, I realized today, I’ve quietly released that whole framework of “embattled defense” and given myself a new way of using those tools I received from Bible College – what I’ve referred to as the “heroic quest.”
Merely giving positive or negative names to an approach means nothing except as a way of communicating the speaker’s attitude, of course. So I’ll try to define my current theological attitude better.
I don’t believe anyone can know the truth if their overall approach to theology is “defending one’s position.” Of course, the position you reach must sometimes be defended – at least, it must if you care what others believe or if you want to respond to the challenges they pose to your conclusions.
However, long before you defend a position, you must discover a position worth planting your flag in. And no one ever did that well from a defensive attitude.
What is the approach to theology that bestows a sensitive detection of truth? I believe it is one in which one trains one’s mind, not to defend belief, but to seek out and notice virtue. For reasons I plan to go into in another post, the essential theological question, in my understanding, is not “is this true/actual/verifiable?” but “would it be Good if this were True?”
Virtue is that essential quality of anything by which it is uniquely itself. If ‘itself’ is an agent, then its virtue is necessarily agency. So virtue is also power.
The virtue of a spoon – what makes it a spoon instead of a fork – is the bowl-shaped depression of its lower extremity, and the handle which forms its higher. Any of countless possible variations on that theme will still produce a spoon. Flatten the bowl shape, and it’s a marred spoon, or no spoon at all.
But that virtue does not only give a spoon its “spoon-ness.” It also gives it the power to convey soup to one’s mouth.
Likewise there is a virtue of man and of woman; of heaven and of earth; of beast and fowl and fish and creeping thing; of wood and field, of country and of town. Some are complex and some are simple. But all have this in common: it is impossible to see the truth of any of them unless you are able to detect the virtue in them.
Defensiveness trains itself to see flaws.
But seeking virtue, a person sees flaws automatically, because he is looking for virtue and the flaws are defined by the virtues which they mar.
Therefore a theologically defensive person has memorized the supposed virtue of his own position, but sees no virtue anywhere else. He is necessarily frightened by what he sees. No wonder Bible College is stressful.
But a theological pilgrim sees everything – first virtue, and then flaws. That is why a pilgrim is not afraid. That is why he is able to change his views without losing his footing.
This is article of yours is very true to my own experience. I used to feel intense fear in the face of the dark abyss that was God; I suffered panic attacks precisely because I thought I had to internally defend and uphold a particular and precise definition of who God is that I had learned somewhere along the way, while at the same time being overtly aware that the actual Person of God completely illuded my conciousness, like a blackhole illudes space and time. Ironically, the more I “knew” God, struggling to make His form fit the shape of my preconcieved ideas, the more uncertain I was of His Goodness. And just as ironically, once I accepted His “formlessness,” His “unknowability,” just as space and time cannot “know” a blackhole, I soon discovered His Goodness. I cannot explain it well, but I am happy to say I no longer have panic attacks.
Thank you for your insight.
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“would it be Good if this were True?”
There have been times in my life where when contemplating the sacrifice of Christ I have stood witness to the unmistakeable Truth simply by becoming aware that “it would not be Good if this were not true.”
At the same time, the heroic quest can protect one from some of the consequences of untruth that occur along the way. Neither is it a Quixotic quest. For those who set themselves upon the heroic quest are not “brought to their senses by reality” as was Don Quixote. Truth is reality and the more of it we allow into our lives and learn, the more real we become.
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