I am blessed, yet cursed, to be married to someone much smarter than I, to attend a church with two preachers (one of whom is my wife) much more learned than I, and to otherwise be interested in and dabble in topics that are slightly to significantly beyond my range of expertise. This is a problem, because I’m smart enough to know that there is much I do not know. Yet this wealth of unknown knowledge paralyzes me, at times. What if I say something in a sermon this is not orthodox? What if I teach something that might echo an obscure early church heresy? What if I write or suggest something that is just, well, unfounded, unsophisticated, or dangerously simplistic? There are always more books to read, more ideas to engage, more concepts to learn . . .
Truth be told, I’m not paralyzed to the point of muting my voice – not at all (ye who read this blog know this). But I feel like the therapist’s patient who falls into the trap of constantly interpreting the cigar for something more sinister – when can a cigar just be a cigar without meriting endless analysis? At what point can I preach Jesus or espouse a political philosophy or have a stinking idea without footnotes or cross-references or graduate degrees ad nauseum?
This is not to say that I cannot and should not take responsibility for what I say, preach, teach, or write. Of course not. I owe it to myself and whatever audience I might have to be careful about what I write. And in the case of a recent blog post that was slammed by a Christian Century contributor, I was probably less careful than I should have been.
And yet I know that this argument, taken to its logical (or extreme) end, results in a dangerous and uncritical anti-intellectualism. But this argument also echoes the experience of many in the pews, who no longer pick up the Bible because interpreting it "correctly" has become so difficult. Lamenting the loss of lay Biblical readership, Deborah Hunsinger writes:
The clericalism that of the Middle Ages that Luther deplored has been replaced by "professionalism." Only "professional" Christians, those set apart by education, training, and ordination, are now the "real" Christians. Ordinary believers lack the mystique of such a caste. Only professionals can interpret the Bible or pray in any given situation. The dignity of the faithful is lost . . . .
With the advent of the historical-critical study of the Bible, many came to believe that interpreting their lives in light of the biblical witness was a specialized skill that only experts could tackle. As something essentially beyond their ken, the Bible was no longer perceived as a book through which God’s Spirit spoke to ordinary people.
Pray Without Ceasing: Revitalizing Pastoral Care, Eerdmans, 2006, pages 16, 19
So then, what can we say? How do the rest of us proceed? Humbly, perhaps, yet boldly, confident that learning always continues, that grace always abounds, and that God is bigger than our stinking theologies, anyway . . .