I recently had the privilege of having Dr. Matthew Levering, of the University of Dayton, stop by my doctoral carrel in the basement of Regis College. He was in town to do a presentation at Wycliffe College, one of our partner schools at the Toronto School of Theology. Dr. Levering is friends with one of my professors, Father Gilles Mongeau, S.J., who thought that, given our common interests, particularly ecumenism with evangelicals, we would like to meet.
I boldly gave Dr. Levering copies of both my books, the one about purgatory and ecumenism because of his work with Evangelicals, and the one about dating and sexuality because he has two boys approaching their teen years. Since then we have exchanged a few e-mails and I again grew bold. Would Dr. Levering be interested in sharing a bit of his thoughts on the vocation of the theologian with our readers here at Vox Nova? Always gracious, Dr. Levering happily agreed.
Below are the first 5 questions of the interview. They are more personal in nature, so as to introduce Dr. Levering to our readers. The next 5 questions (and a couple follow-ups) will appear in Part II. They are more professional and deal with more controversial issues in the life and work of a theologian. I want to publicly thank Dr. Levering for agreeing to this. Enjoy!
Brett: Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be a theologian? When did you first become aware of it as a vocational possibility for you? Are there any incidents that made it clear to you that this was the work you were called to?
Dr. Levering: I grew up hungry for knowledge about God and the meaning of life. Death, in particular, was a mystery to me. I wondered whether others had thought about what we were doing here, what our destiny is, and how all the things around us exist. Growing up as a Quaker, we had silent worship where people spoke out of the silence. We did not have Scripture, sacraments, preaching, or theology. During high school and college, I turned to the one source that I knew of for wisdom about the pressing questions, namely literature. I have always enjoyed novels, and in the writings of Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and many others I saw that others were asking the same questions that I was asking. They pointed me in the direction of Jesus.
After college, I tried to engage these pressing questions by becoming a novelist. I spent a year at this. I was not good at telling stories. But during the course of writing a “novel”, I suddenly came face-to-face with the void in a way that I hadn’t before. Did God exist, I asked myself? If not, then the world would be simply a shell, a facade or veneer thinly covering the incredible horror of utter annihilation for myself, my loved ones, and all human culture and work. For three days, I lived with a sense of this facade. I thirsted for God, however, and so I decided to go to Duke Divinity School library to see if I could learn what people had said about God. There, I discovered an ongoing, rich conversation – from C. S. Lewis and Chesterton, to Augustine, Hans Urs von Balthasar, N. T. Wright, and Pope John Paul II. Scripture was opened up for me, and I found myself deeply struck by the writings of St. Paul and of the entire Scriptures, which I read. I found myself drawn to learn more and more, but not only to learn – I wanted to be in the closest possible contact with Jesus. My wife and I (her story is for her to tell) entered RCIA at the local Catholic parish. I hungered for contact with Jesus not just through reading and hearing about him, but through the Eucharist and through the apostolic unity of the Church.
At that time, too, I entered the MTS program at Duke Divinity School. My wife was studying Public Policy at Duke. I didn’t have any particular career plan other than trying to learn about God. Theology has never seemed to me to be a career. At Duke I took courses with Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanley Hauerwas, and Susan Keefe. Dr. Keefe introduced me to the Fathers and to the women mystical theologians, and I owe her a great debt. Stanley Hauerwas introduced me to Aquinas, and Dr. Wainwright gave me a strong sense of what it means for theology to be ecclesial. I went to Boston College in order to learn more; I wanted to get in touch with the sources of the Catholic tradition, with the entire “conversation” about the revelation of God. The goal was to come closer to God as revealed in Israel and Christ Jesus. At Boston College my courses were largely on Aquinas, Augustine, Athanasius and so forth; I owe the greatest debt to Fr. Romanus Cessario OP, who showed me that these theologians are not historical monuments but rather are our guides today. I owe gratitude to many others, including Steve Brown, Fr. Matthew Lamb, Fr. Louis Roy OP, Khaled Anatolios, and Fr. Robert Imbelli. They impressed me with the truth that theology is done for the Church, in the service of the Church’s proclamation and under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.
Dr. Levering: At Dayton, I have taught the following undergraduate courses: The Significance of Jesus, Women Mystics, C. S. Lewis & G. K. Chesterton, and Christian Tradition of Prayer. At the MA level I have taught a course on God the Trinity, and at the PhD level I have taught courses on the theology of Thomas Aquinas and on Sacraments in the Christian West. These classes have all been very enjoyable to me.
Brett: What does an average work day look like teaching theology at a Catholic college? Are there any average days?
Dr. Levering: My work days are spent very differently. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons are usually when my classes meet. On Wednesday, there are often afternoon meetings. I then devote time to writing, editing Nova et Vetera with Reinhard Huetter, working on the Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue projects with Hans Boersma, and working on the Academy of Catholic Theology.
Brett: What advice would you give to a young person who was considering a vocation as a theologian?
Dr. Levering: I would not recommend it as a career; it should not be done for career purposes. I would advise finding mentors as soon as possible, rather than conceiving of theology as an individual project. In seeking to join the theological conversation, one can begin by learning Scripture and devoting oneself to mastering the thought of one or more of the patristic and medieval theologians. Theology should be done under the direction of the Magisterium, because the subject matter of theology is revelation; we must first receive our theological principles in order to do more than religious studies. Theology is not the construction of a private religious edifice, but rather it is the contemplation of what God has revealed in Scripture and tradition, as mediated by the Church.
Brett: I often joke that, since starting grad school, I have better come to appreciate the vow of chastity. It seems obvious to me why most of the great theologians in our tradition were celibate. I have two kids, and trying to be a parent while writing a Master’s thesis and, now, a doctoral dissertation is not easy. You are a married person and a parent, yet you manage to publish profusely. Can you talk a bit about balancing academic and family life? How many children do you have? What have you learned about yourself as a theologian from family life? How have you been able to write so much in such a short time while raising a large family?
Dr. Levering: Theologians, in their work days, spend a lot of time teaching and writing (and going to meetings!). Depending on what fits for the individual theologian, time will be distributed in diverse ways; it seems to me that teaching and writing are both of utmost importance for the Church, and theologians will naturally find the right balance for them. Not all theologians need to write. I feel that I need to write, because I learn by writing and I hope that I have something to contribute to others in this way. I write at home in the living room, and so I can be present with my family, while also working on writing. I take Sundays off. Lay theologians will fulfill their vocation in following the path of marital holiness, by the grace of the sacrament. The first task for the theologian is holiness; or, since we all fail so often to do and say the right thing, it might be said that the first task for the theologian is following Jesus in the path of holiness that he has marked out for us, and asking him for the help to continue. My family is the most exciting part of my life. I have six children and my wife works very hard as a stay-at-home mother, and we ask God to help us keep things going. It is a lot of fun.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.