Studying for the Life of the World
By Nathan Jowers
My name is Nathan Jowers. I’m a student of theology, studying Bible at Abilene Christian University. During the school year, I attend services at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Abilene. At the start of the summer I was near miraculously offered an internship that would have me flipping back and forth between work at a church and theological research at Yale Divinity School. I’ve been here six weeks.
When I walk through the low arches of Yale Divinity School, I am reminded of Luther and the theologians of old plodding through the halls of their respective monasteries with no more sense of the future than I have now. Arguments which must seem arcane to us were to them the objects of as much brooding as I give my own quibbles. As for those thoughts which still seem to shake the world, well, they existed side by side with wondering what’s for lunch.
I don’t mean to compare myself to Luther or any other great theologian—I am just a 19-year-old intern who’s read more Dr. Seuss than Karl Barth—I only mean to comment on the odd combination of abstract ideas, which seem to come to us either from an unnameable past or an eternal whenever, and the intense sense of time and location in which those ideas were formed. I have experienced here hard issues of violence, suffering, and the reconciliation of the world worked out over friendly lunches. Then the love between colleagues was as thick in the air as their swarm of struggling words.
I have seen people working from the seemingly singular call of God’s love on their life decide to hammer through the numbing and proliferate demands of organizing a conference in obedience to that love. Theology here, at least insofar as it’s been good theology, has been theology that’s loved the whole, fractured world in the same way that God loved it. However abstract the ideas have sounded, they have arisen from and turned to serve the world in which the theologians have lived.
The church I attend while here (Elm City Vineyard) is a mid-sized hodge-podge of crossed boundaries. It’s a multi-ethnic Evangelical-Pentecostal church that shares the building (and some of the congregation) with Methodists, in which both Yale professors and people who never finished high school sit side by side before a God they find equally ineffable. As a church that exists right in the heart of a secularized town, most meetings include believers, unbelievers, and those on the fence.
Deep in the heart of its Christian convictions—its theological convictions—about the God incarnate, crucified, risen, and drawing the world into Himself, is a seed of unity that allows all these people to come together to share a meal. That seed is the life of Jesus, the strange and still present claim his life makes on ours. While not everyone here shares the belief in Him that makes this call for unity intelligible, I have seen people nonetheless experience and respond to His invitation to new life—to life together—in a way that embraced the whole of their being; their ethnic identity, their suffering, the works of their hands, and their intellect.
Alternatively, there’s a great tragedy at the heart of theological institutions today that, though they identify clearly that one of Paul’s guiding concerns is the unity of the Church, they form their “life of the mind” in a way that is esoteric, unapplied, and fundamentally divorced from the lived faith they are studying. Either that, or they give up on all doctrinal faith for the sake of sociology using God-language.
This is the gap Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture, and my internship, are attempting to bridge. Elm City Vineyard was established and formed by students who deeply believed that theology was for the life of the world. This does not mean that theology has to throw away “impractical” or abstract questions about God, but rather that beliefs and questions about the life of the loving Triune God—the Creator God who’d give it all for the sake of the beloved creation—are married with considerations of how we live our lives.
As God in Christ embraced a world that wanted nothing to do with Him, so their church seeks to exist as an open whisper in a post-Christian world, saying “come, you who are weary in body, in mind, and in spirit. Come and encounter the Giver of life.”
In contrast to a theology that retreats from the world, or from one that retreats from God into ill-defined practicality, theirs is a model that listens to God’s words for their life and embodies those words for the sake of the world. It’s a theology that doesn’t retreat to the ivory towers, but works with the church to heal the sick, to establish justice, to bind up broken unity. Theirs is a theology that earnestly labors with all the power of the mind to hear the call to discipleship, and then to follow it in their own, stumbling way.
This is the purpose of an internship which mixes ministry with research. As God loves the particular world, so the study of God must join with the Church to love that world in all its detail. The temptation of my life, of the life of anyone engaged in academic work—student or teacher—is going to be to retreat into ideas as if they were the whole world that God loves. But we must realize that while wisdom is the first of God’s creations (Proverbs 8), every blooming nettle, every bold and unshaken hill, yes, every low arch hanging in the long hallway to lunch, “is charged with the grandeur of God,” as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it. Even where reality is suffering, God sends forth a concrete call to love.
I don’t know if my incursions into ancient plant botany (for the sake of understanding why, see 1 Corinthians 15:35-44) will turn up any fruit. It’s not directly empathetic work, and it’s a struggle sometimes to know in academic study what will benefit the life of the world. But I have a hunch. Walking down these halls dedicated to thought given for the sake of God’s creation, how can I help but see a green plant growing and smile a little brighter? One way or another, God’s truth will blossom in the summer air.