File Cabinet: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
One thing leads to another. Having finished sorting and shelving my Patristics and Church History library, I turned my attention to my books on Worship and Liturgy. Thankfully (or not, as the case might be) I only have about twenty running feet of such volumes, so I was able to expedite the process. What remained, however, was a four drawer file cabinet that contained all the materials, correspondence, final drafts and hard copies of my own published work over the last forty-five years. The temptation was to do nothing with the files, to simply leave them for someone else to deal with once I am no longer on the scene. My nature, however, is that of the obsessive compulsive variety. Moreover, summoning up the remnants of a Protestant work ethic, I concluded that it was my responsibility to go through the files.
Like my life, my writing and publishing has been ecumenical and varied. I have written for everyone from Christianity Today to the Greek Orthodox Theological Review and pretty much everything in between. The publishers of my books have ranged from the evangelical Baker Book House and Zondervan to the Roman Catholic Notre Dame Press. There have been “popular” books and articles in addition to “scholarly” works and the story of them all was contained in this one file cabinet.
So, I called my friend, Michael, to get his advice on what I should do with all of this paper. He said to “keep it all”. When I explained that I couldn’t do that, he said, “scan it all”. After thanking him for his advice, I returned to stare at the looming presence of the file cabinet.
First I cleared the photocopies of secondary sources… a fifty gallon trash bag full. I then decided to retain only two hard copies of each of my articles which I transferred to two smaller archival boxes. All the manuscript drafts went into another fifty gallon trash bag. That left all the copies of correspondence with editors, co-authors and research collaborators. I took the time to read all of the letters for, in the course of our work together, these people became friends. Moreover, many, if not most of them are now gone. There were a few pieces I decided to keep in hard copy for sentimental reasons, while others were scanned before being shredded. It was a very long and, I must say, emotionally exhausting day.
After finishing up, I made myself a drink and reflected upon what I had read that day. Firstly, I had an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude and thankfulness for the opportunity that I had been afforded to work with so many gifted individuals. Moreover, they came from across the width and breadth of the Christian tradition. They were Orthodox of varied nationalities, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Copts and Charismatics, Evangelicals, Quakers and Congregationalists, Baptists, Reformed and Lutheran. They were theological liberals and conservatives. They were British and American, Egyptian and Russian, French and German. One journal editor was Ethiopian. Yet, despite all the differences, they all had one thing in common. They reveled in scholarship and they loved theology.
They loved theology. In hundreds of letters and printed emails, I found not a single reference to politics, unless one counts the politics of fourth century Constantinople! Additionally, I found not a single remark concerning “culture war” issues. Indeed, I could not find a single instance of an attempt to weaponize a theological construct for use in a contemporary setting. Instead, what I found in these hundreds of letters was what Jean Leclercq called, “a love of learning and a desire for God”. While Leclercq used this phrase to describe monastic culture, I would suggest that it describes, at least in my mind, what theology is in its essence. I also think it is something we have forgotten.
As someone who writes regularly, I know that if I want to get a “response”, all I have to do is mention politics, or a culture war issue, or, indeed, the latest scandal among evangelicals… or Roman Catholics… or a CCM musician… or a bishop… the list goes on and on. Meanwhile the whole range of theology – including systematics, church history, ethics, and so much more – is merely given a furtive nod, or ignored, as we wait for something more “exciting” to come along.
Right now, with the current state of the Church, the “love of learning and the desire for God” seems, at the very least, a better option. I’m glad I cleaned my file cabinet.