I shared with him my distressing discovery that some members of the pastor nominating committee on which I serve said they had never even heard of this Paul Tillich fellow whom a candidate was quoting at length in his resume.
So I suggested to the pastor that our church should devote some adult education time to teaching us a little about some of the more important Christian theologians.
Now I don’t expect everyone in the pews to be able to offer a lucid explanation of Tillich’s idea of God as the ground of all being or of Jurgen Moltmann’s thoughts about eschatology, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that Christians at least would have heard of some of the most prominent theologians of our era.
And yet, why should we care? What difference would it make if we had some idea about what Karl Rahner, Rudolph Bultmann, or Leonardo Boff had to say about our faith? Or, more foundationally, why should we have at least minimal familiarity with the ideas of Martin Luther and John Calvin?
I agree that we need not know any of that to be a child of God and that if we’ve never read a word of Karl Barth we are not eternally doomed.
But we impoverish ourselves by not having at least a little sense of the richness of thinking that has marked our theologians starting with such church fathers as Origen and Irenaeus. We are in danger of living a faith in which we imagine that any insight we have about God is brand new with us if we aren’t aware of the centuries of theological exploration that have preceded us.
This is especially true when we think of the scholars who have been at work in the last 150 or so years using form criticism and other modern hermeneutical Bible study tools to prepare us for this period of postmodernism in which trust in the meta-narratives of our faith and culture has been so seriously challenged.
We might be able better to defend the hope that is in us if we have some grasp of the towering work of a Raymond E. Brown and how it differs from the less-lofty but nonetheless popular work of the Jesus Seminar.
It would even help us share our faith with more credibility and clarity if we were familiar with the thinkers and writers who have not produced stunning new insights of their own but have offered a clear-eyed vision of what the historic faith has meant to them and to the whole Christian community — people like C.S. Lewis, Daniel Migliore, Donald G. Bloesch, Shirley Guthrie, and Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright.
I know that baseball fans can love the game without ever having read a word from statistics guru Bill James. And I know I need not read the theater, movie, music, book, and television critics in my local newspaper to enjoy various offerings in the popular culture.
But when I ignore such sources, my experience is necessarily diminished and I’m likely to miss even some of the essence of what I’m paying to see, hear, and read.
So it is with Christian theologians. My relationship with Jesus doesn’t depend on anything they say. Knowing what Wolfhart Pannenberg writes about the historicity of the resurrection won’t make me a citizen of heaven.
But surely some familiarity with the people who think most deeply about what it means to be Christian can only help me when I want to grasp it myself or — more to the point — share it with my children, grandchildren, and others.
How is it possible for me to be serious about my faith if I don’t take advantage of the chance to understand it with help from people who have devoted their lives to the task — even if they come to conclusions I find boneheaded?
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog at (billtammeus. typepad.com). E-mail him at ([email protected]).