School of Thought

Schools of Thought, Ultimate Concern & Intellectual Snobbery

Amazingly enough, Kansas State basketball is looking up under our new coach. That’s fun because K-State is my school. We actually have a legitimate shot at the NCAA tournament, which has not been even a remote possibility for the past decade. It probably won’t happen but…Go Cats!

I was enjoying their win this weekend and thinking how folks who went to college generally have great affection for their school. I love K-State and have fond associations with the school and for the city of Manhattan. One time my family members counted and among the six people in my family and our spouses there are like 13 degrees from K-State, so the allegiance runs deep with my family as well. Here’s the thing every true K-State fan knows: you are not allowed to be a KU fan at the same time. In fact you are required to resist the urge to cheer for them at all times. The saying goes, “I cheer for K-State and whoever is playing KU.” Rivals, right?

Why do we care? Seriously, college sports fans are rabid; why do we care? Why did we pick the school we did anyway? Most of us picked a school because our parents like that school or they went there. Maybe it was close by or maybe it was cheap. Sometimes we pick because the school has a good program for whatever we want to study. But seriously, most of us made this choice when we were teenagers. Maybe we cheer for our school so much because we need to validate our choice. Is that it? If K-State wins the Big 12 in football, is my Biology degree legit? I don’t know if that is really true, but I know that I made the choice on what team I’d cheer for (for the rest of my life) when I was 17.

Fast forward almost 20 years. Since Christmas I’ve been reading a ton of 20th Century theologians. It’s been really great to just dig in to this period. I took a class where I had to read three books by Karl Barth, and one each by Tillich, Troeltsch, Bultmann, Brunner, Rahner, Niebuhr (Reinhold), and Walter Rauschenbusch. We wrote papers on them and discussed each author for hours at a time. It was incredible. In my interactions with other pastors and friends “post-class” I sometimes talk about what I’ve been learning. But it’s been sort of peculiar to judge the reactions that I’ve been getting.

In one conversation I was sharing about how Paul Tillich’s conception of faith as “ultimate concern” has really impacted the way I think about faith. Basically Tillich just means that whatever we treat as our “ultimate concern” is what we have faith in. Our ultimate concern will overtake all other rival concerns. In other words, if we are ultimately concerned with money and affluence, then our faith lies in money and affluence. That’s oversimplified but you get the gist.

The person I was chatting with just went off about Tillich’s moral failings (Tillich was a total philanderer and sort of a letch). He also went off about how all of the “liberals” of the past century loved him and it has caused such problems for their church. In our conversation he was unable to conceive of any positive contribution which Tillich might have made. The same thing followed for Bultmann. But when we got to Karl Barth, it was game on and we could talk about all of the great contributions he made and the ways in which Barth impacted our theology. This guy loved Barth so he embraced his teaching and shunned the teaching of his rival scholars.

All of this brings me to this tension which is the purpose of this entry. I get that Tillich was sort of a jerk, but I love his conception of faith as ultimate concern. It speaks to me and I think it can be helpful for introspection and self-analysis, even the way we talk about faith. I get that people freak out about Bultmann’s demythologizing the scripture, but can’t we applaud that he was a sincere believer trying to reconcile the tension between the mythological worldview of the bible and the scientific worldview of his day?

But, if I’ve learned anything in the past couple months of reading each of these guys it’s this: theologians, pastors, philosophers, etc… we love to root for their school. Either one lines up with the Yale school and Karl Barth, or you are stuck back in the liberal era. (Or worse yet, you are a fundamentalist in the worst sense of that word – theological bottom feeders to the academics).

I’m not immune to it either. I was looking through some bible study materials for our community groups at my church yesterday and I saw that a bunch of the authors were from Dallas Theological Seminary and in my mind that was it – I didn’t want to be exposed to it. Some people can’t mention Emergent and Brian McLaren without spitting twice on the ground and crossing themselves. It’s crazy, but we all do it.

The long and the short of it is this. I’ve long thought that I would have made more of college if I would have waited a few more years before I went. I might have picked a smaller school and I would surely have studied something besides Biology. Who knows, maybe I could cheer for both K-State and KU if that were the case? But the point is I have sometimes caught some heat on this blog for being open to new ideas which are deemed “dangerous.” (see Bill B. & U-571) And now that I’m studying theology, I’m starting to feel some pressure to pick a school. I feel like Lloyd Dobbler (John Cusack) talking with his guidance counselor (Bebe Neuwirth) in “Say Anything.” She wants him to declare his intentions for his future because she needs to put something down in his file. Lloyd refuses because the truth is he doesn’t know where he’s going to end up – he refuses to pick a school because he knows he doesn’t have all of the information yet. He’s just not ready.

I feel that way about theology and the different schools of thought. I’m not ready to pick a school either. Even though I feel pressure from lots of different places, friends, family, pastors, teachers, etc., most of them picked a school long ago and they’ve long since stopped recognizing the merits of other schools in any significant way. I don’t want to be that way when it comes to theology and my faith. I want to leave room for the divine to break through no matter who I’m reading. I’m not picking a school until I know a lot more than I know now and I’ll never gain that knowledge by closing off huge sections of thought. Sometimes sacred things break through from the most profane sources. The truth is that I think picking a school is dangerous, because then you pick several rival schools and the mind starts to think of ways to close off.

I know that makes lots of people uncomfortable, their theology is held tightly and is seldom open for adjustment or advancement. They’ve picked their school and that’s fine for them, but I’m not picking…not yet.

So I’m going to try and stop being a KU hater…I’m going back to trying to embrace the rival and find the good in them. I’m going to defy the norm and cheer for my school and the rival of my school, we’ll see how it works.
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  • Tim,

    I started looking into going back to school recently. Some years ago I did my graduate work in economics and was totally focused on University of Chicago. This has been and still is the premier school for Econ. Some of the brightest minds have circulated in and out of that school and the thought of studying there really appealed to me. Well pragmatism took hold and I ended up at Wisconsin, still a great school.
    My interest now has been on Bethel University. I’m in a strange place in life where as I own two companies but don’t find satisfaction in either profession. Bethel has a great InMinistry program and I’ve been thinking about getting my Masters in Christian Thought. My concern is whose Christian Thought are they teaching. I don’t mean this in a negative since, it’s just something I have to be aware of. By the way what do you have against DTS. Is it there focus on Dispensationalism or the product they have produced over the years (Evans, Swindoll, Wilkinson, etc.). I think it is both for me.


  • Hey Scott,

    It’s great to hear you are thinking about school again. You won’t be sorry. Nothing like school to really mess with your belief system!

    It sounds like you are asking the right questions. I always tell people to worry more about who you are taking classes from rather than which classes you are taking. What I mean is, the people you study under matter more than the name of the class, does that make sense? A class called “New Testament Theology” will be extremely different depending on who teaches the class and at what school.

    Most graduate schools have a place in their library or online where you can look through a class syllabus before you enroll. I think that is the best way to know what you are getting into. If you are looking toward a degree program in Christian Thought, I’d call up a recruiter for the school and request that they send you 4-5 syllabi for some of the classes in that degree program. They’ll usually do it for you & they can probably just email them to you. Or else find out who teaches the class and just contact that professor directly. My experience is that teachers are more than willing to let you know where they are coming from. They want you to get the most out of the money you are spending on your education.

    On the DTS ( )subject – I really don’t know much about them other than that the pastors of my church where I grew up all went there. The dispensationalist thing is a real issue for me – they are clearly the headwater of “Left Behind-ism” in America which I think is really dangerous. I think their approach to biblical inerrancy is a little naïve as well. When I look through their faculty, I can’t find anyone that I’d really love to study under. I know their PhD. program has 100% acceptance percentage, meaning there doesn’t seem to be any competition to get in there. I don’t take it as a good sign as to what kind of school they are.

  • gr

    I couldn’t agree more with your post, Tim. This discussion about theological pluralism/tolerance raises an interesting question, one that I constantly struggle with: when do theological differences become grounds for spiritual divorce? When should we (or should we ever?) decide that we simply cannot worship together with other Christians because we find their theology misguided?

    Ideally, in a world in which there is one, unified body of Christ, this shouldn’t occur. I would like to be able to sincerely worship with Christians whose theology is different from mine. In fact, I think faith really becomes meaningful when it allows us to transcend the social and political boundaries that normally sow conflict. And yet, I have to confess that my tolerance has limits: could I sincerely worship with Pat Robertson? Probably not, because I’d feel like I’d actually be contributing to undermining the gospel (not to mention my own integrity). And, of course, the history of the Church is rife with schism, and will continue to be, as we’re seeing today with conservative Anglicans deciding to split from the US Episcopal church.

    By the way, thanks for your invitation to visit Heartland k10. I actually have ended up visiting the h.k10 plant in Lawrence (which is more convenient for me). I’ve been to several services, and I like the folks I’ve met there and generally find the sincerity/commitment of that group inspiring. And I also find myself disagreeing with certain messages that I hear there (too much substitutionary atonement theology for my liking; and I find the whole “churched/unchurched” dichotomy troubling because I think it breeds moral smugness among the “churched”). Then again, I’m not necessarily expecting 100% theological agreement either.

  • Thanks for the post, gr. I’m glad you’ve made your way to Vintage Church. I have great appreciation for that community and nothing but high hopes for Seth.

    You illustrate a real sore spot for me. I’m quick to demand tolerance from others for my views, but I’m so terrible at offering the same sort of grace. It’s a serious issue you raise and one that I’m very personally convicted about. I usually justify my criticisms of certain strains of Christian thought by saying similar things to what you said: “I’d feel like I’d actually be contributing to undermining the gospel,” if I support them, etc. And when I look at it from their viewpoint, I’m sure they’d say the exact thing about me…it’s a quandary. How do we take seriously the call to unity and the call to be subject to one another in the face of such stark differences?

    There is always an ongoing dialogue about what it means to live out our faith. It was the same in the Old Testament as God tried to form a people of his own who could be a blessing to the world. The world Jesus was born into was having the conversation as well. In his day the Jewish people were asking “what does it mean to live as God’s chosen people here and now, under Roman Occupation.” The early church had this conversation and it comprises our New Testament. The Muslims today are having this conversation, their question is “will it be radical Islam or a more secular (Turkish) or something in between which defines what it means to live as a devout Muslim in this world.”

    We’re having the conversation about what it means to live life as a Christian in America today. We’re doing it on this blog and in our churches and communities all over the country. The Fundamentalists, the Liberals, the conservatives, the Emergent Crowd, the Catholics, evangelicals, mainline denominations, all of the different strains of our faith have their own views on what that should be. I think the key seems to be to focus on solidarity during the conversation. We need to allow a free dialogue and focus energy toward listening and understanding. Get exposure for ideas and bring as much of the truth out into the light as possible. Then we trust the work of the Spirit and pray that God will guide God’s people to see the way that is true, right, good, and loving. Trusting the Spirit means that God will lead God’s people and we must trust that this is so.

    Taking an approach which holds that every one should get to voice their views seems like the best approach. Those who wish to break fellowship with the greater group injure the group by their absence, and injure themselves by their lack of imagination. Those who wish to deny anyone else a voice or a part in the conversation must only do so with the consent of the group at large and only in extreme circumstances. Those who wish to cover their ears will not benefit from the vastness of the Kingdom of God. But those who listen and seek to understand will find that this is God’s desire for us.

    Community is the key – the conversation must occur with friends and neighbors. If I’m overly harsh, the group will correct me. If I’ve got a point, the group will assimilate the critique and learn from it. So I’ve always felt like I could criticize some evangelical Christians because I’ve thought of myself along that strain. Now I’m beginning to see that my allegiance may lie more with the group as a whole – not just evangelicals but Catholics, Anglicans, etc. Lately, I’ve been wondering if the word “evangelical” is really that helpful of a word? In this instance I think the body of Christ must be defined inclusively.

  • Dear Tim,
    I just wanted to send a quick note of encouragement. I have an 11 year old daughter Anna who loves your music so it must be playing on the stereo going to and coming from school. She has special needs so Satellite Soul music has been a blessing!!!
    Thanks, John