I’ve been contemplating what to write for my first Scholar’s Call post here on the Emerging Scholars Blog. You see, I’m in something of a different position than some of the other writers here. When I contemplate the question(s) how does Christian theology and/or spirituality shape my understanding of my academic discipline and how my discipline in turn deepens my theological perspective I do so as a theologian. So the question can look like this for me, “How does Christian theology and/or spirituality shape my understanding of theology and how does theology in turn deepen my theological perspective?” It can seem a little tautological, or at least it should. It is true, however, that today, and for perhaps the last 60-100 years, the academic discipline of theology has been divorced from Christian praxis. Such people as atheist theologians and a-theologians exist. So perhaps these questions posed by the Scholar’s Call prompt are particularly apposite. Too many theologians of late have seen their work as having little relationship to the Church or the glorification of God. This is something that must be rectified. But how? I suggest that an intentional Christian ascesis based in spiritual disciplines (both corporate and private) and in observing the liturgy and the sacraments (however they are defined by one’s tradition) is the proper way for a theologian in the academy not to lose sense of the purpose of their discipline. This is, of course, too broad of a topic for just one post, so I will limit myself to one of the most foundational aspects of Christian praxis: prayer.
Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth century theologian of sometimes infamous repute, says in his Treatise on Prayer, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” Whatever shape or sub-discipline an academic theologian’s theology may take, this statement must be foundational in their understanding of themselves as a theologian. A professor of mine once told me never to trust a theologian who doesn’t pray. I think this is excellent advice, so long as we don’t define it too narrowly. A theologian may not want to pray before a meal, but this does not mean that she has not an active prayer life.
There are, of course, many kinds of prayer. There are those spontaneous moments of prayer when we are struck by events in our life that force us to pray. There are those times where our spirit just groans within us and no words can be found and so the Spirit groans to the Lord for us. The kind of prayer I tend to rely on the most, however, is more formalized. I go back and forth between using Common Worship, from the Church of England, or the Book of Common Prayer. When I’m doing well, I say Morning Prayer in, well, in the morning and Evening Prayer in, well you get the idea. I find profound comfort and enlightenment in praying words and Scripture, especially when centered on the Church Calendar. On more than one occasion has something in my life providentially aligned with where we are in the Church Calendar. This rhythm of praying through the liturgical seasons grounds me in the Church, since I know that Christians around the world are praying if not the same words, similar ones, to those I’m praying. By structuring my time around these times of prayer, it also grounds the rest of my work in prayer. It is difficult to move from prayer to reading or writing about theology and not connect the two. After all, if one situates one’s work in between times spent intentionally in the presence of the Almighty how could it not affect one’s academic research about him, his Church, or his Creation (in truth this is not special to theology and theologians but can apply to all academics)?
Along with trying, and I should note that I often fail, to organize my day around set times of prayer, I also try to pray Aquinas’ “Prayer for before study” and the Rosary at least once during the course of the day. While I will always turn to those spontaneous moments of prayer, praying these set prayers provides me with a foundation from which to do my work that is not based solely in me or my ideas about God and prayer but in those of people much wiser and holier than I.
Whether you who are reading this are an academic theologian, an academic in another field, or a non-academic I want to leave you with this. If you pray, you are a theologian. Conversing with the Holy Trinity is all it takes to make you a theologian. Faithfulness in prayer, whether of the more ascetic kind that I try to practice or not, will affect how you live and think and work. Other things are equally important and necessary, but prayer is the starting point.
Image Credit: St. Gatien’s Cathedral, Tours, by Parsifall at Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Gothic_rose_windows_in_France#/media/File:Tours_(54).JPG