The Gift Of You: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I love books. My house is filled with them. There is not a room in the house without books. While I use the internet for quick reference, I turn to books for context, narrative and ideas that have stood the test of time. This is especially true when it comes to theology. While huge amounts can be found on the internet, with more being added every second, there is something about spreading the books out on a desk, letting writers present their arguments and examining their sources as you turn the pages. In the nineteenth century, you did not “study” to take your degree from a university, you “read” for your degree. Moreover, the purpose of your reading was not merely to “learn’ your subject, but one was “to learn how to learn”.
While that definition now seems very old fashioned, I think it still has value, especially with regard to the study of theology. While my chosen field is the study of the writers of the Early Church, I found that I could not limit myself to the writers of that period or their more modern interpreters. To understand them fully, I needed to understand their context. That led to a study of late antiquity. I also needed to see how their writings influenced those believers who came after them. That led to a study of the Medieval Church. Then, of course, the Reformation Era was built on a return to the Apostolic writers and the Early Church Fathers who interpreted them. So, now I had to study Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Cranmer and Zwingli. Yet, I also could not ignore the “unbroken” tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, so I was compelled to look into the rich and vibrant theologians that arose out of the Byzantine and Russian tradition.
All of this, however, doe not even touch upon the modern era or the growth and decline of my own tradition of Anglicanism. So books came through the door bearing the names of the Caroline Divines, of Newman, Pusey and Keble, of Gore, Temple and Ramsey. Added to these would be those modern theologians outside of Anglicanism, such as Bonhoeffer, Tillich and Barth. All these added to my understanding of this astounding world of Christian theology.
As I said, I love books.
Yet, I am constantly reminded that when Christ established the Church, he did not come among us to create a library, but a living entity. As such, the Church was to encompass the entire person, not just the intellect. Through the years, I’ve come to understand that Christian theology was lived first and only written about afterwards. Those whom Paul and the other apostles addressed in their letters were already practicing theology in the lives that they lived and the churches which they formed. Reading through the epistles, we can see that there were problems, misunderstandings and numerous pastoral issues in these churches. In context, it is understandable. They possessed very little written material and likely relied a great deal on an oral tradition. Nevertheless, they lived their theology, day by day and week by week. They lived it by gathering, caring for one another, listening to what was said and asking questions.
While we look for intellectual assent to a series of theological propositions, they looked for the evidence of faith in lives lived and their common worship.
It is why when I go to church, I do as little reading as possible in the service. Instead, I concentrate on other senses. I listen to the Scripture being read. I kneel to pray and stand to sing, reminding myself that my body is a part of this time of worship. In singing, I use my voice with others. I use my eyes to note the stained glass, the colors of the day on the altar or the stoles worn by the clergy. When we share the peace, I clasp the hand of my neighbor in the pew. We do not use incense (more is the pity!) but I catch the smell of the beeswax of the candles. I walk to the altar rail and cross my hands to receive communion, tasting the bread and the wine, returning to my place to once again kneel in prayer.
By engaging more than my mind, I am reminded that at its heart, Christianity is not a faith of mere intellectual assent. I am reminded that you can have your library, define your doctrine perfectly, have all your proof texts lined up… and still not get it. Now, don’t get me wrong, the theological work of these past centuries is a remarkable gift – a gift to be cherished. Yet, what do we say of the gift that we give to God, daily…weekly? Yes, our intellect may be a part of that gift, but it is certainly not the whole of it. The real gift that God desires is you, not merely your mind, or your supposed abilities, but you… all of you. When we worship together we can offer that gift to God in a unique manner – by our seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting – engaging all our senses for at least a moment in time and all directed to God.
Yes, I love books.
I think, however, that the gift God desires is more than my research or writing.
He wants me…all of me.