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.