changing of the guard

March 27, 2008

i spent this morning cleaning out a retired jesuit’s office. i packed books into boxes–theological dictionaries, encyclopedias of the church, overviews of the development of christology, treatises on the sacramentality of marriage. and stranger things: a book on english pronunciation, 1960s art deco bookends, and a miniature pietas. the office was in the jesuit residence, an edifice on campus where a female receptionist must buzz you in and tranquil chapel is the first thing to meet you when you pass through the reinforced double doors. the interior was silent as a trappist monastery (which is more fitting than i intend). the office itself was spare–white walls bare except for a landscape portrait of the chicago waterfront, simple bookshelves topped with rustic religious art. a chair, an ashtray, a large desk, a reading chair and a lamp. a sink and mirror occupied a corner behind the door.

basically, the room was both what i expected and what i would never have imagined as the office of the emeritus chair of theology at my university. and as i used brown packing tape to reconstruct boxes, i realized that i could do that. i could sit in a simple room and read theology and pray and correspond with others doing the same thing, collecting complimentary books to review and journals that have published articles i wrote, occasionally leaving to teach a class or for mass. and i hear they eat very well. i think i would have to take up smoking a pipe, though.

but i don’t think that’s where we’re going. theology is not a thing for religious and button-shirted professors. it’s debatable if it’s something even for pastors, at least in the old sense of the word. now it needs to come up from the streets, from living rooms and cheap places where you can get a coffee or a beer. it’s growing up in shantytowns and the projects. if our feet aren’t cold and wet, if our stomachs aren’t a little hungry, if we’re too clean cut and too recently showered, we’re not doing theology.

this isn’t to say that we need to give up smoking pipes or being on familiar terms with dead theologians. by all means, we need to read augustine (heck, even athanasius, not to mention irenaeus) and thomas and luther and barth and rahner more than ever. and we need to know our bibles to the extent that we actually don’t need the leatherbound pages anymore because the live in our hearts and on our tongues. and we need to grapple with what they all mean. but if we’re not doing that in a place that makes us uncomfortable, at least frequently, then we’re might as well be reading science fiction (not the good stuff, the cheap stuff that are actually just thinly disguised romance novels that happen on mars).