Friday, January 11, 2013

That's Amore!

The scene etched in my mind comes from the 1980 film A Christmas Without Snow, starring Michael Learned and John Houseman. In the film, Houseman plays Ephraim Adams, a strict choirmaster striving to inspire and coach a rag-tag church choir in inner-city San Francisco into rendering a tolerably decent performance of Handel's Messiah.

One choir member is the high-strung Mrs. Burns, a professionally trained opera singer, who is overconfident that she, with her eminent qualifications, would easily land the soprano solo parts in the oratorio. To Mrs. Burn's evident pique, Adams taps the modest, sweet-voiced Mrs. Kim as the soloist. Mrs. Burns storms out in a huff, dissing the choir as a "bunch of amateurs."

Then comes the choirmaster pep talk:

Mrs. Burns is right, of course; you are amateurs, unlike certain pseudo-professionals like myself who insist on slave wages. Your voluntary and steadfast attendance at these rehearsals fully qualifies you for any definition of the word "amateur". What Mrs. Burns and many others are wrong about is the meaning of the word, which has to do with motivation, not quality. Remember "amo, amat, amas", the Latin verb "to love". The meaning of "amateur" is "he or she who does a thing for the love of it". There is no higher reason for singing than the love of doing it. In that respect, you do qualify as amateurs. And I salute you for it.
(I'm not meaning to diss professional musicians, by the way.)

A little cloying, to be sure. But today I'm in a (slightly) less cynical mood than normal, and the scene captures something about why I -- try as I might to extricate myself -- still find myself loving and studying theology. I'm coming more and more to see my relationship with theology as, well, a relationship -- and one that bears the status "it's complicated."

To help frame this, I've tried to create an ideal, personified image of theology, just like Boethius does with philosophy. Inevitably, though, all my mind can conjure up is the portrait of some wrinkly white male divine, such as Bultmann or one of the Niebuhrs -- an image that puts the kibosh on any kind of Eros for theology.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of my serious interest in modern theology, an interest that was sparked and then fanned into flame while I was an undergraduate studying journalism. All this has given more grist for my reflections on the question: Why do I do pursue this stuff, anyway? The answer just is: I can't help it.

In the opening pages of his Protestant Theology in the 19th Century, Karl Barth argues that historical theology must be treated as a theological project, whereby the researcher enters the living stream of an ongoing conversation rather than merely day-tripping through a museum of antiquated thought systems. In other words, the serious student of 19th century theology must share a kind of existential commitment to the theological enterprise to really understand what her theological forbears were trying to accomplish.

All that's required, Barth is suggesting, is a passion for the subject matter, not any kind of specific positive beliefs or intellectual commitments. Thus, even a skeptic such as Feuerbach belongs in the story of 19th century theology: Even if his own theological conclusions were expressed in largely negative terms, he was still existentially related to theology and it's problem. The stance of objective outside observer was simply an impossible one.

Paul Tillich, I think, is expressing the same matter -- albeit a bit more abstractly -- when he writes about the thinker who remains within the "theological circle" despite (or perhaps because of?) entertaining the most withering intellectual doubts about the contents of the faith.

That's exactly right.

So now I find myself, at the start of this 20th anniversary year, "coming out" as an "independent scholar." I do so without any disrespect for my friends and mentors who are employed as full-time academic theologians. But I do so, especially, in solidarity with other folk out there:

  • Pastors, religious education workers and other church-employed folks who read and write books, articles and blogs and attend theology conferences with very little support (or even comprehension) for these pursuits from their colleagues, denominational leaders or members of their parishes.
  • Confessional theologians who have to wear the hat of the "religious studies" scholars to make a living, including those driven to teach the Analects of Confucius (not that there's anything wrong with it!) in order to feed their families and pay their student loans.
  • Curious "laypeople" who probe ever deeper to find out just what the faith is all about and who pester their pastors with all those questions nobody really seems able to answer.
  • Independent scholars (like me) who are just stuck, who just own too many books and are just too damn invested to get unstuck, even though we earn our bread by tent making outside both the church and the academy.

  • Here I stand. I can do no other.

    All you need is love.


    1. I’ve been very curious over the past several years about how the words ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ have settled into the language, have suspected there’s something a bit wobbly going on, at least with the use or connotations of the words. The subject has come up in some discussions and talks I’ve been in over the past few years, especially the notion of a ‘professional’ doing something for love, and whether this has been lost in conventional institutional settings where 'professionals' are supposed to be trained. Scott treats the flip side of this, however, which I also really appreciate. Worthy of much more rumination.
      Thanks, Scott!
      ~ Gary M ~

    2. Hey, the Analects are lots of fun to teach!

    3. Ha! I thought that comment might get a rise out of you, Travis. I once taught a class session on Confucius, too, and remember thinking: "At last, something practical!"