In this occasional series, we ask church ministers to look back and reflect on their time in training. What has hindsight made them especially grateful for? What tips would they pass on?
Going to theological college for me was, in many ways, a child let loose in a sweet shop scenario. Here was the chance to really get into theology, rather than sneaking it out of the odds and ends of days. Acres of time devoted to study. And the books, oh the books: thousands of them. It was one giant theological playground with no hometime.
So I ranged far and wide over the centuries and disciplines. A tome of Augustine here; a bit of sociology of religion there; dashing off for a detailed study of Radical Orthodoxy; rushing back for the Elizabethan puritans; Karl Barth and Ephrem the Syrian and spaceships in the book of Ezekiel. I winkled out obscurities, hammered into debates, leapt over knotty problems. It was a wide and far ranging exploration of all the variety of theology through the ages, and of course in all that I barely scratched the surface.
However, several years into ordained ministry I’ve had second thoughts about such a wildly eclectic approach. Yes there was incredible breadth, but was there depth? In covering so much, I’d held back from committing to any one theological perspective and this this meant it became hard to develop anything like a coherent spirituality. To be sustained through my ministry, I need that depth that comes from finding and making a home theologically. I am increasingly seeing the wisdom of inhabiting a theological tradition in its entirety, and being shaped by it, rather than picking elements as I choose as I range about. It’s the difference between being a tourist travelling many countries and setting up a life in a foreign land. You just can’t get the feel for a city and find your place in it with a flying visit, never settling in place.
Now of course I’m not saying that we should try to avoid coming into contact with anything different or unfamiliar. Being open-minded can enrich us greatly. The challenge of coming up against diverging views is very useful in helping us be clear on why we believe what we believe. Still less am I saying that we should just stick at college to the particular spirituality we arrive with. One of the great things about college is the opportunity to re-examine some of the assumptions that we have made. It’s important to search out what is right and true, not just what we are comfortable with. And we do head into new directions because of game-changing moments. What I am saying is that if we are constantly heading in new directions, never finding our feet, in the long run it ends up disorientating.
I love Indian food, Thai food and Chinese food. So when I heard of a restaurant that sold all three I thought, perfect, this is what I’ve been waiting for. Now I don’t have to close down my options and miss out. But the experience was disappointing. The different flavours didn’t sit well against each other. What seemed to be a breadth, in reality lacked an integrity.
I wish I had known before college the value of inhabiting a rich theological tradition, rather than the buffet approach to theology. For me it would be Reformation Christianity, looking at the sources, shape and development of what emerged in the 1500s. If I did it again I would choose depth, rather than breadth.