Be Un-Professional
January 30, 2019

My recommendation to theologians: Be un-professional.

That, I suspect, requires some clarification. I don’t mean, “Be sloppy” or “Be rude” or “Be vulgar.” I mean that theologians must resist the deadening pressures of professionalization.

Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds examines these pressures, and the conformists that these pressures produce. Professionalization rewards the complacent and unimaginative. Graduate school “systematically grinds down the student’s spirit and ultimately produces obedient thinkers.” Firms favor employees who keep “their concerns about the big picture nicely under control, always in a position of secondary importance relative to the assigned work at hand.” Professionalization “turns potentially independent thinkers into politically subordinate clones.”

Schmidt’s subtitle says it all: “A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives.”

Perhaps Schmidt is overly cynical, but, apart from the “salaried” bit, theologians will recognize the scene. Doctoral students devote years to microscopic examination of a single leaf at the far end of a very skinny branch. They’re trained to fit in, to talk the jargon, embrace the oral tradition, admire who’s in and scoff at who’s out. To get a job, the theologian will keep his more controversial opinions to himself; to keep a job long enough to earn tenure, he’ll buckle himself into his safe zone.

This is no way to live. It’s no way to carry on the thrilling vocation of theology. Professional theology is triply wrong-headed.

For starters, professional theologians meekly color within the disciplinary lines drawn by an academy that is hostile to theology. Secularism tolerates theology so long as it confines itself to a marginal zone of private subjectivity and gives up the right to speak to physics, cosmology, history, or social science. If theologians have the gall to trundle their quaint doxai into the terrain of episteme, there’s bound to be a border war.

Un-professional theology doesn’t recognize these limits. If God is God, He speaks with authority to the whole of His creation; nothing human, or super-human, is outside theology’s portfolio. Un-professional theologians attend to the political scope of our discipline, confident that we have the life-giving word the world is desperate to hear. We must repent of what John Milbank calls our “false humility,” the “pathos of modern theology.” Theologians should be starting border wars.

Second, professionals are self-protective. They keep their heads down and trim their sails to retain their low-paying jobs. Un-professional theology, by contrast, is a form of discipleship, and a theologian who follows the risen Christ must be daring, fearless, willing to tip over the tables of the time-servers. Theologians are witnesses, and that must include risking the martyrdom of losing a job or missing a chance at tenure.

Third, professionals prepare lectures to present at professional conferences to other professionals, write books for review in professional journals. They speak in the echo chamber of an Inner Ring, and so mistake their true audience. Un-professionals research rigorously and write carefully, but they recognize that the telos of theological work isn’t the article, book, or lecture. The telos is to elucidate the word of God spoken in the liturgical assembly.

Commit when you’re young, and stick with it: Ask big questions. Don’t duck controversy. Don’t play it safe. Disrupt. Be a disciple. Be a martyr. Be un-professional.

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