Theological mercenaries

9 11 2009


Henry Karlson has written an essay entitled, Academic Theology for the website Inside Catholic, in which he criticizes the attitude of treating theology as one modern academic discipline among others. As a student of theology in a contemporary Catholic school, he complains that there is a great deal of pressure to write “something unique” rather than uphold and defend what has always been believed:

Theologians, because they are tied to universities, are required to write according to the dictates and expectations of academia. This can be problematic, as academia loves novelty, while theology should be about preserving the faith and avoiding empty novelty.

The academic exercise of theology must also be tied into a vibrant spiritual life, and he cites such figures as Hans Urs von Balthasar as examples still being able to “engage theology today”.

For those who have been around Eastern Christianity, Mr. Karlson’s criticisms are not at all new. Indeed, he begins his essay with the idea that the true theologian speaks from what he knows about God, not what he has read of what others have said about Him. To say anything about God, one assumes a real relationship with God. This, according to the author, was the spirit of Western theology until the dawn of the scholastic period, when speculation for speculation’s sake replaced humble reservations to speak about the ineffable God.

While never having studied theology in academia myself, I have been good friends with those who have, and I think many of the observations in Mr. Karlson’s essay ring true in my indirect personal experience. Indeed, it has always been strange to me that a layperson could take out student loans and study theology, when in the past, the only people who studied theology had to “put their money where their mouth is” and actually commit to a life of chastity and obedience to do so. This was perhaps the last remnant of philosophy as a way of life in the West, as cited in the work of Pierre Hadot. Study was not just some excuse to satisfy “intellectual curiosity” and thus not have to do anything useful, but had to be accompanied by a transformation in which the person committed all of his being to the truth.

Indeed, if we take a place like the Angelicum in Rome a century ago, it was not only the case that laypeople couldn’t go there, but strict rules of behavior had to be followed just in walking down the halls. In this Dominican school, if someone spoke while walking in the cloister, it was punished by a flogging. The idea that some American coed can satisfy her “curiosity” by studying whatever suits her fancy here speaks volumes as to what is wrong with the Church. Indeed, it hearkens back to my own days in a traditionalist seminary. When I tell people I lived in Argentina for two years, I have to add that for 80% of the time, I was cloistered and couldn’t talk. It’s hard to say that you really experienced a country when you could not leave the four walls of a building.

Thus, I find the criticism that “theology must be accompanied by a vibrant spiritual life” superficially true but profoundly unhelpful. Saying that the Church will only be fixed when everyone becomes a saint is the same as saying that crime will go away once everyone becomes virtuous. The reason that the Church put such strict rules on men who would study theology in the past (notice the gender exclusion here) is that the Church was profoundly realistic about fallen human nature. It knew that the only real way to foster a spiritual life was within the context of a community in which human pride and lust for novelty were put in check. The solution was not then personalistic in the modern sense, but institutional. That is where all the inquisitions, forced silences, and floggings came into play. Without rules imposed from the outside, an “inner spiritual life” is meaningless. Perhaps the starkest example of this is von Balthasar himself, a failed Jesuit who never liked rules, and this shows in all the badly “poetic” rubbish he produced.

That is why perhaps I could never take the writings of a “lay theologian” very seriously. True enough, there will always be exceptions, but the idea that the person I look to for ideas about God also has a family, deadlines, and has to punch a clock seems to me profoundly disturbing. How is one “good at theology” when she or he has to live his/her life like anyone else? How is this person closer to God than I am when he or she has the same trials and consolations, and has made the same decisions in life? What makes him or her a “real theologian” rather than just an “academic expert” who specializes in certain religious topics? How responsible / obedient must he or she be to the being of the Church as it exists throughout time and space?

Maybe such people provide a service in a church where the number of clergy is shrinking by the year; someone arguably has to fill the vacuum. But as for me, I will heed the advice of a close friend who once counseled me to never work for the Catholic Church since it pays badly and causes cancer.

Am I being a hypocrite? Heck, you are reading an essay on theology by a guy who is not a member of a religious order (does “ex-member” count)! I would counter that I am not being paid for this or anything else I write, so caveat emptor, you get what you pay for. I am writing this right before I have to go to work at my boring office job where I spend eight hours doing what I don’t want to do. I suppose St. Paul was not keen on making tents either. I am glad at least that I am not part of the movement to transform the Church into an institution run by paid mercenaries rather than aspiring ascetics. Perhaps this is inevitable in the world we live in, but in my opinion such a transformation will only make the problems of the Church worse and not better.



18 responses

24 11 2009
Jared B.

When I got engaged to my now wife a couple years ago, I pretty much knew that I was slamming the door on my dream of becoming a real theologian, for all of the financial reasons already mentioned. My state in life obliges me to advance as best as I can in my current secular career for the sake of my family’s livelihood, and that’s that, no whining.

The only thing I really object to in this article (actually a comment) was “The post-Vatican II church can hee and haw all it wants over how everyone has a vocation and a “call to holiness”…as if it’s all a matter of rhetoric and wordplay rather than of doctrinal truth. Either God does call some laity to be theologians, or he doesn’t.

Let’s say for the sake of argument the universal call to holiness is true, and that it is also true that all theology of real value must spring from a living relationship with God. I would draw the opposite conclusion of the article: lay theologians are a necessity in the Church, and our theological tradition is only flying with one wing without them. “How is one “good at theology” when she or he has to live his/her life like anyone else?” thus answers its own question. If the universal call to holiness is true, then one is good at theology precisely by living his/her life like everyone else, and that theology will be of a different character than clerical theology (though obviously not contradicting it) because of these differing experiences of life with God. That doesn’t mean that the clerical & religious states of life aren’t objectively more perfect: they are. But if laity in themselves are a necessity in the Church (i.e. God wills that there should be laity at all) then lay theology is necessary.

Except we don’t have very much lay theology. We have that academic theology; poor spin-offs of better theology of the past. I don’t think we’ve seen very much genuine lay theology, and we won’t until we make institutional changes (to meld Vasquez & Karlson’s recomendations) that take the pressure off to “publish or perish”. If an academic theologian is spending so much time at his “career” that he’s dragged away from his family and community — in other words if he’s spending most of his time the same way as a Dominican at the same university, with the added guilt of not seeing his kids enough — then he loses the main thing that could make his insights and contributions valuable to the church.

14 11 2009
Lay theology « Castle of Nutshells

[…] to God, Roman Catholicism. trackback I’m both perplexed and impressed by a recent post by Arturo Vasquez: I could never take the writings of a “lay theologian” very seriously. True enough, there will […]

13 11 2009

If they’re serious in assessing the academic job market and their likely income-to-loan ratio, nobody who gets an advanced degree in theology even expects to be middle class at the end of it. It is exactly like (rather than unlike) giving up everything you own to follow Jesus. You have to go to bed every night reciting “consider the lilies of the field” as your mantra, believing that God would not have called you to the vocation if he isn’t going to make it possible for you to live and pay back your loans. It’s the only thing that doesn’t make it seem absolutely insane – and most of the time it STILL seems absolutely insane. You should google up as much information as you can about the academic job market.

I make more money now (hovering right over the poverty line) than I can ever expect to make at any point in my career unless I land a tenure-track job, which is unlikely enough that I might as well be playing the lottery. Nobody is making big money on this. Nobody is even under the delusion that it is possible. People defect to PARISH MINISTRY from graduate school in theology because it pays better.

12 11 2009
Arturo Vasquez

The link cited speaks of the presence of “lay theologians” in Orthodox history without actually presenting more than a couple of examples, which leads me to believe that it is like most Orthodox rhetoric of the “East/West, us vs. them” type: it has no real foundation in history, but is a rhetorical liberty taken for the sake of argument. But there is a real reason that the “lay theologian” could not be a reality just a couple of generations ago, and that is socio-economic. It is a pity that those who tend to think on religious topics, particularly those of a “conservative” mentality, seem to have an intellectual allergy to thinking of these issues historically.

The idea of “vocation”, for example, or better yet, the very modern American concept of “what I want to be when I grow up”, is a luxury of a post-World War II economy as it entered into late capitalism. Prior to that, the idea of a “liberal education” was the domain of the landed gentry or “old money”: “education” as many people see it now was deemed unnecessary and even harmful for people in most stations in life. It might be true that an average bourgeois committed to trade may have been able to read and comment on the works of Tacitus, but the average person did not have the choice of what “vocation” or station he was to have in life. That was chosen for him. Whether or not he lived to the age of thirty, or even the age of five, was a much more pressing issue.

Go back even further, into the Middle Ages, and laypeople weren’t even expected to know how to read. It just was not deemed to be necessary. The division of labor in various religious cultures and time periods was that learning and the historical memory were exclusively the property of the religious caste. Those who were not part of that caste had the task of making the money and keeping society running, which without machines or other gadgets, was no easy task. The leisure or otium needed to commit oneself to questions of a religious nature was the exclusive privilege of the few.

So when we approach the problem of the “lay theologian”, we have to do so in the context of our post-industrial, 21st century reality. For I don’t think that the people cited so far from hundreds of years ago, all of these devout laymen who outshined monastics in their holiness, had a choice as to whether they were to marry or not, or remain in the world or not. The person who decides to make his or her living out of theological gab does so in a capitalist market place and amidst professional pressures already cited. How can that person not want to produce something totally original that “sells” or gets his or her name out there? And what of the pressure of having to make the cut of the average American “middle class” lifestyle? The “lay theologian”, if married, needs to put food on the table, and his or her level of education will no doubt be accompanied by the expectation to live as he or she has become accustomed, i.e. not poor. I cannot help but see all of the problems coming into play here that led Our Lord to proclaim in the first place:

If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me. (Mat. 19: 21)

Indeed, the point of the post itself was that the problem is primarily an institutional and not a personal one. And the solution may not so much be moral, but cultural. I will continue to uphold the idea that to make money off of religion in this capitalist society is problematic, and is the result of problems that have inevitably come up (i.e. lack of clergy and religious), but the solutions may very well make these problems worse, not better.

11 11 2009
random Orthodox chick

One can just read the life of the modern saint Mother Maria of Paris for greater reflection on this issue from the Orthodox side: she was married with children, but was liberated from the marriage (while her husband was still alive) to become a nun dedicated to service. Though, she’s also kind of the “anti-nun”, in the sense that he ascetism was not traditional, more dedicated to practical service than liturgy, but the example still stands–without immediate care for spouse and children, she was able to love them in a superior way, and all the Russian poor refugees in France as well.

Yes, I know her story contains such boogeymen as “divorce”, “smoking” and “eating meat on Fridays”, but let’s not miss the forest.

11 11 2009

From Sayings of the Desert Fathers;

It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that
there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a
doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs
he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with
the angels.

11 11 2009
Henry Karlson

Just a quick response (still recovering from my drive):

Origen was originally a lay theologian until he was made a priest; the reason for this was because he was giving homilies at the request of the Bishop of Jerusalem, and he got in trouble for doing so with his own Bishop.

But the history of lay theology in the East is recognized by the Orthodox themselves. This post mentions this fact (and I’ve read it in many Orthodox books on theology). I can give many from the 20th century (like Evdokimov), or examples like Aleksey Khomyakov in the 19th century. We can go back further and further and find they are there (and some are of tremendous influence!).

The history is there if you want to look to it.

11 11 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Thank you for the thoughtful response. However, I have to also, for full disclosure, say that I am technically an Eastern Catholic, having switched over in order to become a monk in a monastery here in the United States. I am a little puzzled over your citing of a long line of “lay theologians” in Eastern Christianity, for I can concede Cabasilas, but Origen was ordained in later life, which itself caused controversy, and was probably closer to a monk than a “layman” as we would perceive it today even in his native Alexandria. If anything, the Eastern Church has been more driven by the idea of radical asceticisim as tied into theological perception, and truth be told, even married priests have not really made their impact as theologians until recently (Florovsky, who I am liking less and less; Schmemann, who I have never lived; and the Paris school, which is for the most part a scholarly train wreck.) Of course, there is Christos Yannaras, but the less said of him, the better. But to say that they have “historically always had lay theologians” is stretching it.

Modern thought has a hard time dealing with the concept of hierarchy, and how processes outside of human thought affect the shape of ideas. Ancient peoples had no problem accepting this. I speak mainly of the idea of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. The post-Vatican II church can hee and haw all it wants over how everyone has a vocation and a “call to holiness”, but the fact will always remain that the life of celibate ascetics will be OBJECTIVELY superior to that of people who are married and live in the world. Those of us who have had the rare privilege of living the clerical, monastic, and married life will know this quite well. We know what St. Paul speaks about in First Corinthians when he will that all would be like him, without a spouse and totally focused on God. If you really dig deeply into places where Catholicism has dug in its roots, it was the sacrifices of our celibate and obedient clergy and religious that gave the greatest testament to the idea that the Gospel is something not of this world. It was not the clever scrawlings of an adept writer who had the gift of religious gab.

And as for your citing of the difference between theology and philosophy, of course I have no argument with you there, which is why I think perhaps lay people shouldn’t be delving “professionally” into philosophy either. But that is the nature of the world we live in. Some people make their living waiting tables, and some, more fortunate people make their living expounding upon the texts of Wittgenstein or Heidegger. Do some of them have good ideas? Sure. But we live in an empire of opinion in which we are bombarded with words (like this blog), and what is more important is that we step back and reflect on whether those words actually mean anything. Are they, in the sense of how Pierre Hadot (another “layman” though not a Christian) writes, “transformative”? In that sense, one could live the philosophical way of life as a scientist, a lawyer, an office worker, or just waiting tables. That goes the same for the life of the Christian as well who is merely carrying out his duties of state in devotion, perseverance, and love. That life is equally precious and special in God’s eyes, but I will put away any pretensions that it make me just as qualified to speak of God as a cloistered monk or an ordained man in charge of souls.

11 11 2009

In refutation to Mr. Vasquez’s argument, I wish to point to one Catholic “lay theologian”, the late Professor Donald Nicholl. I was fortunate to have had him as my professor in World Civ. in my first year at U.C.S.C. I can state, without hesitation, that he was the only real “teacher”, ( in the fullest sense of the word), I have had.
Mr. Nicholl, ( that is how I remember him), taught us neophytes how to think and reflect on history, religion, politics, etc;, in other words, on life. He did so without denigration, insults, or any of the other faults which most bright people express when confronted by stupidity.
He taught quite a bit on Dostoyevsky and the Russian spirit, on spirituality, on seeking God.
He wrote a number of works. His best, “Holiness”, is a very deep inquiry on how to find holiness in everyday living.
He was a true theologian.

Here’s a link that describes his last days, ( he died of cancer at age 75);

I feel quite fortunate in having met this man who truly exemplified what Evagrius of Ponticus once stated; One who prays is a theologian, a theologian is one who prays”.

10 11 2009
C. Brandon

Mr. Karlson,

I take your point. My point, however, was that the most edifying (and scholarly sound) material is coming from historians of the Church. These scholars are much less interested in re-examining doctrinal stances than in understanding how these stances came about to begin with. In this sense, there are some really good lay historical theologians. Not to generalize, but I’m intrigued that so many contemporary theologians who are engaging with things like postmodern thought, continental philosophy, gender issues, etc. come from Protestant backgrounds. This is not to say, I hasten to add, that there are not Catholic/Orthodox thinkers doing the same thing. It just seems that by and large the best Catholic/Orthodox scholars are historians by trade, not theologians.

10 11 2009
Henry Karlson

C. Brandon

Many of your examples are all lay theologians. Take it as you will.

10 11 2009
Henry Karlson


Thanks for pointing our your post (I was out of town until today; just got back from driving 11 hours — so I will only make some brief comments).

First, as you probably know, I am Eastern Catholic, and so I always bring in the Eastern spiritual dimension to everything I write. Even if you think it is “superficial” that raises the question — why? The East has a history of lay theologians which goes back to the earliest theologians (like Origen!) and continues through history (like Cabasilas). The clerical approach to theology in the West only happened because of the West’s degradation so that it was mostly the clerics had university education when universities started (with few exceptions).

You raise the idea that lay theologians would have to be some sort of mercenary but a priest or monastic does not is completely absurd: all who engage have deadlines, money to deal with (either for their order, or, for the secular priest, for their own livelihood). The history of theology has always been side by side with “mercenary activities” even by saints (study on the circle around St Jerome, or St Cyril of Alexandria, etc). The argument you make could be used against the whole Church when it also “demands money” to continue to thrive and survive. It is rather an unhelpful observation.

As is the issue of philosophy vs theology. Indeed, from the East, the division is not so clear as it became in the West, and it certainly wasn’t clear in the classical world or its heirs (like Ficino – Platonic Theology indeed!). The criticism you have of theologians could therefore follow with philosophers as well; why should those who love the truth in any guise have the problems of everyday life?

The answer is very clear: because we are not gnostic! This is why God calls people, even laity, to the vocation of theologian. The lay theologian indeed brings in many qualifications which are needed for a comprehensive, holistic integration of the world with the spiritual life, so that it will not end up gnostic.

Anyway — those are my brief comments, not as courteous as I would have it (sorry about that) due to the drive, nor as comprehensive as your post deserves (for it raises good points beyond my criticism).


10 11 2009
Arturo Vasquez

This is gonna sound kinda mean, but I really don’t feel sorry for that women described in the essay, or any other person in a similar situation for that matter. This is mainly because I was in the exact same situation, and I didn’t complain about it, but I worked, and worked hard. I didn’t even finish my degree at Berkeley, and I was about $10,000 in debt. I sold everything I owned, went off to seminary, and still was about $7,000 in debt. I was going to be a priest at that point without a vow of poverty, and since it was a government loan, I could put it in forbearance for a few years until I figured out that I needed to give the monastic life a try. Well, at that point, I had to pay it off. I ended up going home, living in my grandparents’ garage, and taking the worst, Americorps-style, minimum wage job I could find to pay it off. I lugged haybales, made trails, and dug holes in the rain, and to tell the truth, I learned more at that job than I did at the messed-up monastery I ended up joining for a couple of years. In the end, I lived on practically nothing and paid it off in a year thanks to an Americorps scholarship, every penny of which I felt I earned. So no, I really don’t feel sorry for people like this.

But a lot of this is the Catholic Church’s own fault. If a young woman decided that she wanted to join a religious community straight out of high school, she would be told that she needs to go to college first and study. This is also mandated by canon law for anyone who wants to go into the priesthood. In the Society of St. Pius X, they will take you straight out of high school, and many of the seminarians in my seminary had done just that. Many like me didn’t make it, but it is better to have to start over again at twenty or twenty-two than have to try to pay off a $100,000 loan at twenty four for an education that you aren’t even going to use. And if we still had minor seminaries, this would be even more the case. I will grant that such practices bring the danger of “emotional immaturity”, but we live in an age when many people have the emotional maturity of teenagers well into middle age. It’s to the point that in the Catholic Church, we barely think that people in their late twenties can really marry anymore, so when they come to the Church for a divorce… I mean, an “annulment”, they are patted on the head and told that they didn’t know what they were doing when they pronounced vows before God’s altar (or in most places, just a table).

The other side of all this is the “professionalization” of the clergy, but I think I have ranted enough for one morning. I will briefly say that the clergy are expected to be less men of prayer than “experts” in administration, psychological counseling, or “churchy” facts. In seminary, we were told that the formula that governed our studies was “pietas cum scientia”: faithfulness with knowledge. That is, what you really need devotion, and just enough knowledge to get by. If we were, say, Dominicans, that would be different, but most priests are not. But if the clergy is starting to forget this, what chance do aspiring “lay theologians” have?

10 11 2009
C. Brandon

Mr. Vasquez,

Absolutely excellent post. I’ve been prevented from pursuing graduate study in theology precisely because of similar reservations. I am reminded of an interview with Jean-Luc Marion in which, when asked if he was letting his Catholicism encroach upon his work as a philosopher, declared that only a bishop can engage in theology. A Catholic lay thinker in a secular world, Marion insists, must do philosophy, which is the misbegotten child of theology. In this sense, the philosopher points indirectly to theology, the purview of the Church. A review of recent monographs and journal articles on theology reveals that we are witnessing the democratization of theology (which is also consistent with the buffet-style format of the corporate university). What is ultimately more distressing to me is that a grad student or a new PhD (which is often a glorified grad student) seems to think that a seminar on Gadamer/Foucault/Zizek is sufficient grounds for overturning (aka reinterpreting) Christian history to accommodate modern moralistic stances. Moreover, in an attempt to think outside the box, young would-be theologians fall into what has come to be known as the A-Fallacy (presupposing that the whole of Christian theology is reflected in Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas). In my opinion, the very best theological work of late has been conducted by patristics scholars coming from a Catholic/Orthodox background (e.g. Pelikan, Wilken, Louth, Ayres). Modern theologians would do well to saturate their minds with the first 500 years of Christian philosophy, before attempting to mediate differences between postmodern thought and Christian “discourse.”

9 11 2009
Anglicans, Romans, and Second Thoughts « The Lonely Goth’s Guide to Independent Catholicism

[…] an outsider looking into an alien world, mistrusted by its long-term inhabitants. (Case in point: Arturo Vasquez writing on academic theologians, whom he labels “theological mercenaries”). I seem to be most attracted (spiritually […]

9 11 2009

PS: sorry about the uncorrected typo in the foregoing.

9 11 2009

Found the story. Mine is a little like this too, only starting before I was 18 (I double-majored in philosophy and religion starting with no family support at age16 and have never been able to get a non-academic, secular job to pay down loans, even when the unemployment rate in my town was under 2%). Given the unwillingness of families to contribute to higher education, the rising costs thereof, and the need most people feel to get a B.A. to qualify them for any job at all in today’s economy, probably a lot of people get themselves commit themselves irreversibly to secular life before they even begin to perceive a call. (Or in some cases their sense of a call commits them irreversibly to secular life: people with callings are the most likely to seek education in areas like philosophy/theology which open up zero non-theological job opportunities).

9 11 2009

I suppose I have a lot of sympathy with most of this, but it seems a bit classist too. There are a lot of people out there who have never in their adult life had the financial resources to join an unpaid priesthood or religious order (witness the recent newspaper article about the woman who had to run a marathon to get anywhere close to the amount of money she needed to clear out here student loan debts before she could join an order; a not uncommon problem and something that has surely contributed to the vocations crisis). It’s nice to insist that people who speak for the Church shouldn’t be mercenaries but in many cases, you have to be rather economically well-off before you have the luxury of taking a vow of poverty.

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