Its hard to find a more scandalizing bunch of people than theologians, and not in the good way. One would think that among a guild of professionals dedicated to getting to know God as well as possible you’d see less infidelity, churlishness, affluence, and apathy towards injustice than in other professions. However this hardly seems to be the case. As I look at my own shelves of favorite theologians, I see at least a few adulterers, more than a couple of which were rather predatory towards the women they pursued. Likewise I’m hard pressed to find very many theologians who took the intentional practice of the Christian faith with much seriousness. Indeed, even going to church seems too much to ask from many theologians. Here a story comes to mind about how Jürgen Moltmann lies in a hammock every Sunday and thinks about ecclesiology — I don’t know if its true or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
I won’t even touch the degree to which most theologians do everything they can to avoid contact with, exposure to, or even having to see the poor.
Anyways, the question sometimes comes up — and Dan has pressed this question very well — as to how we can take this sorry lot seriously when they try to tell us about God. Somehow, pondering this question led me back to this particular story from the gospel of John which details the beginnings of the Jewish clerisy’s plot against Jesus:
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. (John 11:47-53)
It would be hard to imagine a person more opposed to the gospel of Jesus than Caiaphas and those plotting to put him to death. But what we see here is a sort of ironic twist in that the speech of Caiaphas ends up bearing witness to some aspect of the truth of Jesus’s mission.
This, I think, is what happens all the time in the work of theologians. Rebellious, untruthful, flawed, and even malicious people are seized by the Spirit in ways that bear witness to the truth of who God is. Certainly we should not resign ourselves to this state of affairs, but at the very least we may benefit from such a hermeneutic for reading theological works. Like Caiaphas, many theologians, including ourselves, often end up “not speaking on our own” when we say something true about God.
Another biblical account that seems to illustrate this may be the story of Baalam and his ass.