Studying theology, doing theology

St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian. Carlo Crivelli, 15th cent. Via Wikipedia.

St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian. Carlo Crivelli, 15th cent. Via Wikipedia.

Jorge Juan Rodriguez V, a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, has a Dec. 24 article at Religion Dispatches entitled: “‘This is What Theology Looks Like’: Disrupting a Crucifying System.”

Rodriguez writes about the wave of national protest that has erupted following the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Protesters seek to “disrupt a system which perpetually declares black and brown lives less than human—a system that thrives on Wall Street, in congress, in institutions of higher education, and even in churches.”

Marchers chant phrases like “Black lives matter,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Faith leaders who have joined them often chant: “This is what theology looks like.” Rodriguez observes: “From Ferguson to New York City this phrase has been invoked.” 

He continues: “In marching in solidarity with those communities directly affected by police brutality and systemic racism—including the very communities of many faith leaders marching—this chant draws attention to a physical disruption. Moving away from an academic or interpersonal discourse, these leaders declare that the theological enterprise—the study, understanding, and enactment of God—does not only happen while we sit in a classroom or in the pews of a congregation….To do theology is to disrupt the system by organizing, tweeting, marching, and protesting.”

I take Rodriguez’s words to heart, because I aspire to be where he is. He is a master’s student in theology. I am applying to a graduate program in the same.

Divinity school is a natural next step. I have a bachelor’s in theology. My brain has operated as a kind of Catholic Wiki since I was twelve years old. And my aspirations, when I am at my clearest and most honest, have always been about something much bigger than–even independent of–my personal and material fortunes.

But I also know–again when I am at my clearest and most honest–that a “natural step” is not, in and of itself, a “good step.” To borrow an expression from Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I: “There is some coincidence but we cannot make a perfect equation.”

Justin at his most “natural” would depart into L’Archivio Segreto Vaticano, the Vatican’s secret archives. He would shut its creaky doors behind him forever, for he is an introvert of introverts. Then he would spend the rest of his days at some table laden with folios, perhaps perusing the records of Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition, or maybe Leo X’s condemnation of Luther, while aging away under the vacant gaze of busts of dead popes. God would weep. But Justin, off in la-la land, would never know.

I am, and will always be, the sort of person who needs reminding that God is not a noun but a verb. I need reminding that the only usefulness of theology–and it is indeed useful–is just that, its usefulness. I have no right to study theology unless I also do theology. Unless I, as Rodriguez puts it, enact God. This doing, this enacting, is what has happened in the streets of Ferguson and in the squares of New York.

To which I might add a corollary: I have no right to do theology unless I do it at home. I have no need to go anywhere. I know my town. I know my greater metropolitan area. I know Chicago. I do not have to ride to Ferguson. I do not need to fly to New York. Everything is, I shudder to say, right here in my backyard.

And that includes God, who awaits my enactment, my physical disruption in communion with others.

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