Your Ecclesial Function

as a Theologian

(or any church ministry)

The 2013 CTS meeting raised the question of the role of theologians
in the transmission of faith.

Doing Asian theology

If you practice the theological craft in a population that is less than 7% Christian and less than 3% Catholic after more than fifteen centuries of missions,  what would be your main concerns? If you believe that as a theologian you have an ecclesial vocation, how would you live it?  A possible answer could be to devote your energy to help increase the number of Christians and Catholics and direct your reflections to in-house church issues that are of interest only to Asian Christians and Catholics. This answer may sound reasonable for those who think that "ecclesial" means serving the church's interests and "mission" means converting non-Christians to the church to increase its growth.

Such however is not the common understanding of Asian theologians. They believe that to serve the church as theologians is to serve the kingdom of God. Whether as a result more people will join the church is not something they will worry about.  Nor will they spend much time devising ways to understand better the intra-Trinitarian processions or the Immaculate Conception or papal infallibility  or to forge better arguments to convince people that the use of condoms is a moral evil.  Their concern is how to make justice, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, love, and the integrity of creation available to everyone. Thus to do theology as an ecclesial vocation is paradoxically not to do theology for the church, much less in the name of the church with a mandatum or canonical mission, but to do theology for and with people outside the church but who are already in the kingdom of God.

Peter Phan
Catholic University of America


From emergy room to academic theology

I became a theologian in the context of my initial career as an urban emergency room nurse followed by over a decade of work on an American Indian reservation. As I intellectually and spiritually plumbed the depths of faith impelling me to respond to these very pastoral needs, my conscious understanding began a series of significant changes. This cognitive shift created a cascade effect on my being, essentially transforming my whole orientation. Commitment to my faith, while deepened in measure, sequentially expanded to embrace an ever greater vision. In time, the horizon opened its invitational depth, calling me well beyond the familiar regions of the service and pastoral ministry I knew and loved. In a surprising turn of awareness, I realized the greatest compassionate service I could offer the world would be to teach academic theology.

A catalyst of profound change, theology empowers my vocation to serve others’ transformation. Where that transformation leads need not be under my control, for there is far more at stake than I know.

Neville Ann Kelly, 
Mount Marty College, Yankton, SD 57078


In ministry at 80

My family was not very religious, and my father abandoned my mother when she was 8 months pregnant. I never went to school, but the Lord, through his Spirit... I asked a teacher who taught me for five months, and from her I learned to read a little. With that help, I have read many books in spirituality.

I am part of small community that meets every week for prayer and sharing. We all are involved in some kind of ministry. I am a Eucharistic minister to the sick. Many people we visit may not know God, and sometimes they are afraid to see a priest which would mean to them they are going to die. We talk to them, asking them how they feel about the church, etc... And then I say, “Come, come, let us all pray.” My husband supported me. He preached and I gave the communion or vice versa. He died six years ago. He said to me, “If I die, what will you do?” And I asked him back, “What will you do if I die?” And he said, "Don’t worry, I want to die first." So the Lord called him home six years ago. And here I am, going to be 80 years old.

The most important aspect of my parish is evangelization to bring people to God.
Interview from Guatemala



1. All of us are the church.

I would not like to think that we theologians should leave the development of faith in children and adults only to the hierarchical church; all of us are the church, so it is the duty of all of us to think about and seek to enrich our own faith and then to share our reflections with others.

I have long been concerned about RCIA in the parishes. Like "religion" classes for the children, these fundamentally important tasks are often left to volunteers who are ill-prepared. Ideally, these parishioners would be prepared by at least two semesters of theology, not just by reading guide books or "winging" it. If I could, I would like to teach these teachers of the faith how exciting their task can be when it goes beyond the Catechism, or when it fleshes out the catechism by providing historical and theological depth. As all members of CTSA are encouraged to do, I have offered my services to my bishop; he smiles indulgently but it goes no further.
Jill Raitt,

2. Scattering seeds

One of the key elements we should begin with, in our function as theologians, is the realization that we are not responsible for the success of the gospel. Rather we are called to trust, to faith. One of my favorite pericopes about the kingdom of God is in Mark 4:26-29 [This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground...] This fellow is not a farmer; he scatters seed. He goes to sleep. He is not really sure how things work. Yet stuff grows. And he is called to harvest it.

One of the joys of middle age is realizing more and more that I can live with the world being messy. Scattering seeds and harvesting even, but I am not in control of the gospel.
Daniel J Finucane

3. What is faith?

According to Erikson and attachment theory, “basic trust” is a pre-linguistic attitude that develops during the first year of life; it must be developed through the various stages of life. It is not transmitted through language. It is often conveyed by the tone of voice or a facial expression; it can also be expressed through shared symbols. Theologically faith is a theological virtue. It cannot be taught like knowledge or a skill. It is pre-linguistic. It must be practiced, not just once but repeatedly. Thus, patience or self-control take years to develop, like "basic trust."

I my interviews in Guatemala I have found scores of examples of strong faith in small communities. They meet once or twice a week; they often read the bible daily, and can sing and pray for an hour without hymnal.
Pierre Hegy,

4. We all live by faith

Tillich’s work on faith, like much of his work, is rational and abstract and grounded in existential analysis. It is the grounding in existential analysis that appeals to me. It can then be made to make sense to secular thinkers as well. Although they wouldn't begin from a position of believer's faith (or answer your questions with religious faith), they could see that they, too, live by faith. I'm still at one with our medieval foreparents who seemed to think that whatever we can ground in human experience and reason should be.

We all live by faith, in the spirit of the letter of James where he gets quite specific regarding how we treat others and even how we use our mouths, among other things; i.e., that our faith is made manifest in our lives. Otherwise, it doesn't make any sense to claim to have faith.
Anton Jacobs,

5. From Tillich to Tilley

Tillich had a certain kind of existential notion of faith, an involvement of a person in concern for what is Ultimate. I think Terry Tilley has surpassed Tillich in the fuller psychological as well as social and moral dimensions of faith in his small book, Faith: What It Is and What It Isn't. (Orbis, 2010). He does what Rudolph Otto struggled to do, to describe and account for religious feelings as well as thinking, but much more succinctly and, I think, less vaguely than Otto. Tilley lays out nicely a whole range of what "faith" can mean, and equally importantly, what the word does not have to stand for. I have used it in class. Undergrads need to have much of it unpacked for them, but they respond to it well.
Michael Barnes,

6. From heteronomous to autonomous faith

In line with the use of Tillich and Erikson, we are reading Fowler in my class and discussing "faith as belief/beliefs" vs. "faith as existential stance," as openness to reality, as basic trust, as ultimate concern, and so on. I keep coming back to Kohlberg and Fowler's assertion that most people never get past a conventional level of morality or faith development - Fowler seems to suggest that organized churches prefer to leave people at a conventional faith - "this is what you believe because we say so," etc.

The move from heteronomy to autonomy can feel like an act of unfaith when you have been taught your whole life to follow what the leaders say, to submit to God (in a way that does not leave room for deconstruction of Biblical or other theological God-talk). I think what I mostly do in "passing on the faith" is create a free and open space for students to fall off a cliff safely - to walk with them through the death of old models of faith and "midwife" freedom: the freedom to imagine new formulations of self and world and other and God.
Patrick Cousins,

7. The importance of the context of faith

This week, in my Theological Reflection course, I asked my students to read Shaping Catholic Parishes, a collection of 20+ stories of ministry in today's parishes from a variety of perspectives. They were then asked to choose one of the stories, compare it to their own parish experience, and write a theological reflection paper on it. Almost to a person they choose one of two stories. The first is about a thriving young adult parish in Seattle and the other about multicultural diversity in Orlando.

Does this tell you about how I pass along the faith? No. But it does strike me that context is important, and my 30 students have shown me where their context is hurting right now. Young adults are hungry for acceptance and a sense of home, as are immigrants and their children.
Marti R. Jewell,

8. Articulating more clearly whatever vision I have

I ask my students in Western Thought and Eastern Thought courses to write a credo paper (their philosophy of life) at the beginning and another at the end after they've spent a semester encountering those intellectual heritages. I've found my students typically in recent years are in that rational critical stage almost from the beginning. In my secular context, I cannot pitch any particular vision for their development except that they become better informed, more thoughtful, and existentially engaged with the material. These exchanges have me wondering whether I shouldn't articulate more clearly whatever vision I have--not a religious one, of course, but some humanistic and religiously neutral counterpart.

I am familiar with Tillich’s distinction between heteronomy, autonomy, and theonomy, the last of which, if I understand it, is comparable to the "ethical-mystical" adult's way mentioned by Ken. I would confess I myself have always been more comfortable with the concept of autonomy over Tillich's theonomy
Anton Jacobs,

9. Community, Suffering, Contemplation

I am working these days on the uses of the symbol of "Prometheus" in theology to articulate this movement from heteronomy to autonomy, but I wonder if that symbol has the resources to move beyond simple opposition: Prometheus vs Zeus, Rebel vs Tyrant, Thief vs. Lawgiver - obviously more antitheistic/misotheistic than atheistic per se, and as von Balthasar, de Lubac and others have noted, does dethroning the tyrant OTHER simply enthrone the tyrant SELF? I imagine that moving beyond stage 4 demands not only deconstruction of the "Big Other," but also deconstruction of the "I" - autonomy is not simply glorification of "my" thoughts, may even be the obverse of such a thing.

What else can make that possible but suffering and contemplation and community? How do religious organizations do with navigating those three?

1. Community: I imagine that community is more likely to be a small group - a circle of trusted intimates - than a packed congregation of fellow-spectators who share geography, and nothing more, for an hour a week. Need for more Christian Life Communities, book clubs, sanghas, etc...
2. Suffering: Religious organizations provide plenty of this (!), but do they help people walk through it?
3. Contemplation: See #1.
Patrick Cousins,

10. From autonomy to theonomy, community, tradition, and the saints...

The problem as I see it is that our autonomous, subjective spirituality and reasoning can be flawed. Ego too often gets in the way, becomes the arbiter of all things. The journey through the stages of faith development requires some grounding in an ongoing wisdom Tradition—not a Tradition that keeps one in a state of spiritual childhood (conventional faith), but that tempers and orients one’s spiritual experience of the divine, keeping it from running rampant or becoming a purely individualistic religion (remember “Sheilaism” in Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart?) .

So, Scripture, tradition, the writings of the saints and great theologians and mystical writings that have been handed down, must inform and form our experience of the divine. And, in a healthy Church, the magisterium should have a role, too, not to suppress the passage through the stages of faith, but to encourage and help guide ones journey.

Tradition is like a map of the territory as we travel through it. There are landmarks to orient us (Scripture, spiritual writings, doctrines, liturgy, etc). These landmarks are guide-markers, so to speak. We can stay on the straight and narrow path, or we can wander and explore. But no matter how far we wander, it is prudent to keep the map in mind.
Kenneth Garcia,

11. Passing on the faith by an awful teacher who was a holy man.

In 1977 I took a biblical hermeneutics course. The professor was an awful lecturer. He essentially read his lecture each day in a monotone voice and very quietly, so much so that you had to strain to hear him. The only saving grace of his teaching style was that at the end of each lecture he would distribute copies of his lecture, which students could then insert into their binder. At the end of the course we had a collection of pages amounting to a little over three hundred pages.

I never once heard any student complain. In fact, they talked not about the dullness of his lectures but about his holiness. “He’s a God-awful teacher, but a holy man.” I like many others felt privileged to have sat in his class. I still have his notes and refer to them periodically.

I had the opportunity to have a private conversation with him after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I took the opportunity to apologize to him for my having been such a pompous and opinionated ass, but with simple words he set me on a way of life that included compassion and mercy; he invited me to go further on the journey with the Gospel, the Gospel to which he had devoted his entire teaching life.

Over the years I have become much more convinced of the priority of the ‘who’ over the ‘what’. Less about morality, more about redemption. About being met by a God who is madly in love with me, even when I am less than all I can be. Along this path I have experienced hope even in the midst of the darkest night. For me, the way of the personal is the way of passing on the Gospel.
Michael Dallaire,