While we were waiting for the fireworks to start, a friend asked me, “Are you an intellectual?” Which, if you think about it, is a funny sort of question. I’m a PhD student, after all. Most people, I imagine, assume I’m an intellectual who likes to intellectualize. Indeed, I’m pretty used to people, upon hearing I’m a PhD student, saying, “Oh you must be so smart” or introducing with “He’s much smarter than me.” Which rarely is true, but I’ve stopped trying to push back against it. They’re being nice, after all, and being told one is smart, or smarter, is a complement, so I just take it for what it is and know in my heart it’s not really true. There are smart people in PhD programs, but PhD work is mostly about, well, work rather than smarts. The sorts of people who like other people to think they’re smart by insisting on being called “Dr.” or putting those variously capitalized letters after their name want you to assume that having, or working on, a doctorate means you’re very smart and know what you’re talking about (even on issues not related to your study). People have believed these sorts of people and correlate having a PhD with being a really bright person.
That’s why it was a funny question. It’s the sort of question people don’t ask, because they assume an answer. Only in this case, the answer is not what they would expect. No, I don’t consider myself an intellectual. I’m not in a PhD program (in theology of all things!) because I like to intellectualize. If I had to categorize myself (and I don’t know why I would have to), I’d call myself a contemplative.
I contemplate. I don’t intellectualize.
Since I promised sex and violence in this post, you’re probably quite disappointed so far, and probably have no idea why I brought up my 4th of July conversation. It all fits together. Hold on and we’ll get to the sex and violence soon.
I’m in a theology program because I realized in my own personal faith and in the faiths I saw expressed in and by the church, there’s a lot of difficulties that aren’t quite worked out. The more I pushed and asked and contemplated, the more I saw these difficulties weren’t just surface level problems, as if we can boil down issues of unbelief by blaming consumerism, or power hungry pastors, or lack of commitment, or feeling hurt by someone’s inadvertent slight and blaming God.
What I saw, and what I experienced, was more like an onion. Peel away a layer, and there’s a layer underneath. Theology, for me, is how I’m getting to the heart of the matters.
When it comes to issues of marriage and singleness, the issue isn’t finding ten steps to a more fulfilling marriage, or starting a good singles group in a church, thus facilitating getting singles to meet each other, date, and then become real Christians in a explicable and comfortable relationship.
The issues in the passage I quoted below are much, much deeper, bringing us to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a person. Like I said below, it’s an issue of identity.
Not what we identify as, which box we get to check when we’re filling out a survey. Rather, it’s about what gives us identity. Where we find our meaning and what we see as our defining reality.
This is where theology comes in, for me at least. Theology as an intellectual endeavor tries to build an increasingly complex system of facts and figures and definitions and rules. That’s what most people think when they hear the phrase ‘systematic theology’. That’s not my interest. Theology as a contemplative endeavor tries to make sense out of seemingly contradictory themes, trying to discover how apparent paradoxes can be integrated together, looking at the whole context of Scripture, history, philosophy, and personal experience in order to determine how what seems to be revealed relates to the overall topic, and more importantly, how it relates to my life and the lives of those around me.
I contemplate. I try to fit things together because if we’re honest our lives don’t exactly fit together all that well. I ponder on the mysteries because these mysteries which have been revealed don’t come in a neat little package. These mysteries come to us in people, in events, in parables that actually took place and parables which did not happen but do illustrate deeper truths.
In my contemplatizing, I’ve realized that the issues of marriage and singleness are at the core of our understanding of identity, who we think ourselves to be, how we define ourselves to others, how we choose to build ourselves as individuals and as a community. And at the core of the issue of identity is the issue of sin. Indeed, I’d say that the issue of sin is the issue of identity.
For far too many, for far too long, the topic of sin as been a topic of the law. Sin is that which is illegal, to God even if not to our society. This gets it all mixed up, because then when society approves or rejects something, the perception of sin changes in theology. There’s a bigger problem. Sometimes sins are still understood as sin but for all the wrong reasons, reasons of law rather than identity.
Yeah… that sure sounds intellectual. So, let me bring it back to contemplation.
Take sex, for instance. Sexual sin was, for a long time, considered sin because of an assumption that flesh was evil, that which was physical was animal, with only the soul/spirit being the residence of our higher self. This assumption started pretty early on in the church, with very important theologians combating their own temptations by intellectualizing their issues, and introducing alternative philosophies into the Christian church. The idea that the body, the flesh, is evil is not a Christian concept.
The incarnation of Christ is definitive proof. He who is God, could take on Flesh, suggesting these are not only capable of integration but indeed celebrate the integration. The body of Jesus tosses out any notion of flesh or physical as inherently tainted.
We all know this now, but it’s pretty new stuff all things considered. Which is why there’s so much interest and excitement about celebrating the joys of sex in sermons and books and such. Ah, but the law still creeps in. Not all sex, we know, is equally celebratory. You have to be married. You have to be married to the right sort of person. There are rules and boundaries and lists to be checked off.
So married people get to have this lovely experience they celebrate as being altogether wonderful, and tell everyone else they don’t get to experience this. Which sounds entirely unfair to everyone else, especially when these rules and rules about other topics seem almost entirely arbitrary.
But, this post too is getting too long, so I’m going to save the rest of my thoughts for another time. I know, I know, I did get a little bit to the sex in this post, but there’s no violence at all. I promise the next one will have both sex and violence, and maybe lucrative stock tips.