My first priest used to call the academy the “cheap seats.” Before your head explodes, know that he is also a life-long academic, a published historian tenured first at Southern Cal, then at the University of Denver and Wheaton College. Now, in his late 70’s, he teaches at a seminary while also serving his parish.
I’m incredibly thankful for academics. Some of the fondest days of my life not in the labor & delivery room were spent in the classroom. I read academic books almost exclusively. Some of my best friends and favorite parishioners have been academics. But what my pastor (and professor) meant was that academics can often view the church from a safe distance in the realm of ideas, assuming new and/or better ideas are fundamental to getting the work of the church done – or done right. Academics, by nature, stand on the stump of analysis and criticism, but that’s not the problem. The problem is when that is all they do. Academics are certainly helpful, but their resources are inadequate to the larger balance of what it means for the Church to care for souls. And to be helpful, their posture toward the Church should reflect that reality.
Being pastors puts us in the position of shepherding, after all, in an almost unmanageable diversity of experiences and knowledge (unless the pastor is so unfortunate as to lead a congregation that fosters a veneer of “having it all together” and, alas, is so content in being unbothered him/herself as to leave the prosthetic culture unchallenged).
In my experience, most people without the stunting luxury of said veneer do not interact with Christianity based on its plausibility, but on its practical implications for their lives. Does it buoy them when they feel they are drowning in difficulty? Does it keep them humble and generous in their successes? Does it encourage them to make their words and their world better? Does it comfort them when they are burying their youngest child after a tree has inexplicably fallen on him in the back yard? (Yes, it happened.) When it’s all said and done, will it “work?”
In over a decade of ministry, I have not seen new and better ideas, even the most profound theological ones, have near the impact that massive crises or even mild challenges produce, especially when they’ve been accompanied by a witness of the goodness and sovereignty of God at work beyond all explanation. I have rarely seen my words, rooted in solid ideas, have the impact of just being there at 2am when a teenager’s cutting has become life-threatening. Most people simply don’t live in the world of ideas most of the time. They live in the world of what works. Good marriage. Contentment at a less than ideal job. Wisdom with resources, in parenting and through conflict. Peace.
So many people are not in “the classroom of life.” They are in the crucible of life.
And this is where academics can often create difficulty for pastors. The vocations are just so far apart because of context (classroom), duration (until graduation) and the aforementioned distance. The academic crisis is often one of knowing, not enduring. The pulpit is not simply a lectern. It’s a beacon, ideally, of hope. More than that, the altar, from which the body and blood of Christ are distributed, speaks a far better word than any of us. That should humble both pastors and academics enough to imagine how we can live, teach and care in concert with the mystery of the Eucharist and the ability of our liturgies to shape more than our ideology. To shape our souls beyond what we can qualify.
Called to ministry, I wanted to study exegesis. The good Dr. and Father suggested I add some spiritual formation to my academic track. I’m glad he did and that I did. My right eyelashes fell out my first year of ministry because of the stress.
Occasionally, in a hard moment, my mind returns to what lingers there from a particular course entitled History and Theology of the Care of Souls. I have buried first-born, still-born babies. I have cried out to God in search of comfortable words for the funeral of my best friend’s wife. I have sat with the mentally ill and had nothing but tears and prayer as my resources. The list goes on. But prayerfully peering into that history of caring for hurting people, and its biblical basis, helps me greatly. So, I’m thankful for my academic priest.
The primary gift any academic can offer a pastor is help wrapped in humility. Because help, in the end, is the life’s work of a pastor. That’s our calling. Sometimes it feels like an impossible task. The medievals called it the “cure of souls,” but there is no curing the soul this side of Christ’s return. There is only caring for it. And if academics and pastors can link arms to care amid the diversity of crises, in the crucible of life so many of us hope to somehow escape, then I believe we can converse with great fruitfulness.
I love ideas and want more of them. I love well-written theses. People need them and people need to teach and write them, because they can point us to what’s good, beautiful and true. They can help us sort through what isn’t. And in the context of the church, humility around such things will locate us all in our primary, shared vocation as a priesthood of all believers.
What has been your experience, as a pastor or academic, in partnering (or attempting to partner) in the care of souls in the church context? What have been the challenges?