In his Memoirs, the French political thinker Raymond Aron recounts a significant episode that occurred when he was a precocious young graduate of France's preeminent École Normale Supérieure. Deeply interested in foreign affairs, Aron, the phenomenon of his generation, obtained an interview with an undersecretary in the Foreign Office of the French government. Invited to express his views to the undersecretary, he offered a brilliant précis of the state of world affairs. The undersecretary, not without sympathy, then asked him a simple question: all this is wonderful, he said, "but if you were in the ministers position, what would you do?"1
This question stopped Aron in his tracks. It also set his thought on the course it would take for the rest of his life. It underscored for him something not taught in the training for the Agrégation: namely, that learning is for living, that the erudition of scholarship cannot be simply, solely for academics, that it must inform the way we inhabit the world, and that part of the responsibility of the intellectual is to help us all understand how to take that wisdom in, so that it transforms our fives and makes them better.
Such recognition seems sadly lacking in much theology and ethics today, at least in the United States. Among us, our conversations are overwhelmingly intramurally scholastic, cosseted within the halls of academe, and few if any respected academic theologians have any kind of audience outside those halls. This is especially damaging to theology, for it has not only the general public to which it owes its insights, but also the more specific precincts of the churches deserve illumination from theologians' learning. Certainly there is a great deal of know-nothing contempt directed toward academics today; but the proper response to that is not a blithe (or worse) indifference, but rather a reinvigorated commitment to informing one another, and those who, if they knew aright, would expect from us some insight and guidance for the adventure of living a faithful Christian life.
The academization of theology is lamentable, and has been not infrequently lamented, but hardly anyone ever seems to get beyond lamentation, to ask why it has happened and what we can do about it. Yet those among us who would speak to audiences beyond faculties of theology today typically recoil from this scholasticism into a condition fundamentally opposed to it, which makes it no better: a condition of desperate immediate "relevance" to some moral struggle, presented as so urgent as to bespeak no hesitation in our commitment to some moral revolution. This is an old maneuver: it hearkens back to Walter Rauschenbusch's call for the churches to attend to "the social crisis." Such a crisis permits no middle ground, no compromise, no moderation; one must be for something, or else one is effectively against it. Theology so constrained is no longer faith seeking understanding: it is faith seeking some - inevitably - partial, finite justice.
Though such crises do exist, we are not always in a state of emergency, and we owe it to our constituencies, and to ourselves, to offer guidance for the mundane everyday - for ordinary time, as it were. Theology must surely escape its Babylonian captivity to an academic context whose criteria for success - preeminently difficulty, obscurity, and in-group self-awareness - are not organically rooted in values that Christians ought to promote. But it cannot escape that to find itself nothing more than a tool of whatever moral crusade some group of people find idolatrously exclusively interesting. It must be both relevant and reflective, committed and contemplative, aware of the world we inhabit but also with a foot in another world, another time - now and not yet, as it were.
Amidst these ruins, perhaps there remains a place for a form of theology that makes the most of the leisure afforded those of us given the time for extended reflection, without succumbing to the tempting idea that our theological sophistication is measured by its ultimate in-utility to everyday life. …