If, to a hammer, all the world’s a nail, to a theologian, every event, every relationship, every encounter are fodder for theological reflection. Theologians know that one’s understanding of God, God’s own self-revelation, and God’s abiding presence within creation cannot be compartmentalized; instead, we find God everywhere God seeks us, in all the different venues in which God comes to us, in every nook and cranny of our daily lives. This is true, of course, for all Christians, but theologians are the ones who make their living championing it.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that one of the best features the theological journal Dialog ran for a series of years was called “Theological Autobiography,” and, as the name suggests, it offered prominent theologians the opportunity to narrate the story of their lives and work through a theological lens. Not only did the theologians appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight and/or explain changes of heart or shifts of opinons, the readers appreciated the opportunity to see the different ways in which these brilliant Christian thinkers synthesized their lives and integrated all the different pieces: work, travel, public events, and personal relationships.
Inspired by that series, a new book has just come out titled Theologians in Their Own Words, edited by Derek Nelson, Joshua Moritz, and Ted Peters. Derek wrote the introduction, and it begins with the following words: “Who are you, dear reader? How would you tell a stranger the story of your life and your life’s work? And how would you put together the pieces that are invariable strewn about our fragmented lives? Families, jobs, communities—including worshiping communities—historical events that cannot be ignored. …All these and many other pieces, all of which are already complicated in their own right, would have to be weighed and, if the narrative were to have any coherence, fit together” .
I had all this in mind while I was perusing the chapters, looking at all the different metaphors the authors used to describe their lives. In this regard, even the titles are instructive. Letty Russell sees her life as “Moving to the Margin.” Huston Smith describes his as “Bubble Blown and Lived In.” Ted Peters is “Still Becoming,” and Hans Schwarz is “Planting Trees.” Wolfhart Pannenberg describes his life as “An Intellectual Pilgrimage” and Ronald Thiemann relies on the well-known phrase “Faith Seeking Understanding.” Interested yet? You should be.
In my view, one of the best things about this volume is not only reading about these interesting theologians and the influences on their work and ideas (and, incidentally, discovering which aspects of their lives warrant mention, or not—like, who mentions spouse and children, who focuses only on academics and scholarship, who admits mistakes, who is still carrying a grudge, etc), but even more the way in which these reflections spur the reader to reflect on her own life, and ask after the theological meaning in the ups and downs, ins and outs that have brought her to where she is today: the failures and the successes, moves, marriages and divorces, opportunities passed up and seized, life and death. How would I tell the story of my life to a stranger? And perhaps even more, how do I tell the story to myself and my loved ones? And most pointedly, where is God in that story?
The fact is, of course, that for all of us now, the story is still in progress—the ending unknown, and the thus the meaning still somewhat unclear. Yet, we can’t simply hold off until the final moment—life beckons now, and calls for engagement, interpretation, and passion. So, “dear reader,” what’s your story? And how would you title it?