Søren Kierkegaard once claimed that the “fundamental idea” he explored was “what it means to be a Christian.” He wrote, “Even if I never managed to become a Christian, I would before God employ all my time and all my diligence at least to get it made clear what Christianity is.”
Everyone who teaches Christian theology shares this same basic task. It is not possible to teach the Christian faith seriously, responsibly, or professionally without attempting to clarify what Christianity is. And one of the most subtle and tenacious obstacles to clarifying the meaning of the Christian faith is the tendency—in teachers and students alike—to lose sight of the difference between knowing theology and knowing God.
As students encounter the capacious world of Christian theology, as they become familiar with its shape and contours, they easily conflate cognitive agreement with Christian faith. They confuse believing in God with believing ideas about God. Furthermore, many do not realize this is happening, which makes the problem even worse. Sometimes this pathology mirrors one that exists in their teachers, and even when this is not the case, our instruction contributes to the problem whenever we teach without an abiding awareness of the difference between knowing God and knowing about God.
Kierkegaard famously launched a blistering attack against teachers who gave the false impression that living as a Christian can be reduced to thinking the right thoughts about God. According to the New Testament, Jesus wants followers, not admirers. Since he is both the truth and the way, to know him you have to commit yourself to him.
Kierkegaard mercilessly derides teachers who lose sight of this. He sketches a “preposterous comedy” in which “the apostle Paul is tested in theology by a theology professor,” only to fail because “an apostle wouldn’t know how to answer many of the questions from the catechism.” He compares the scholarly world of theology to a horse race in which riders “rush past one another, yell and shout, laugh and make fools of one another, [and] drive their horses to death.” Personally, I cannot get passages like this out of my head.
Kierkegaard’s fight was not with Christian doctrine per se but with the misuse of doctrine to support an intellectualized Christianity that evades the demands of discipleship. It is not a mark of academic seriousness to sever contemplation from action, reason from affections, or thinking from living. Yet it seems to me that many of us who teach Christian theology are more comfortable helping students understand theological ideas than helping them see the difference they make for life.
Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2019. Used by permission of the publisher. www.bakerpublishinggroup.com
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