The Work is Everything

By Paul Koch

During my years of formal education, I learned early on that the habit of theologians is to divide the study of the queen of sciences into four categories. They are not necessarily clearly distinct categories in that the material definitely bleeds over from one to the next, but they are a framework in which we organize the material of theology. There is the field of practical theology (preaching, teaching, counseling, etc.), historical theology (pretty much what it sounds like), exegetical theology (biblical interpretation, languages, and the like), and systematic theology (the formulation of a rational account of the doctrine of the Church).

A student of theology will move through these disciplines, often finding they have a greater aptitude for one or another of the categories and then gravitate toward it. It’s not uncommon to hear theologians say things like, “I’m no exegete, but…” or “Go ask the counselor. I’m more of a systematics guy.” In other words, theologians tend to identify themselves by their field of discipline in a very academic way. They understand themselves and their contribution to the conversation by the acquiring of knowledge in a particular area. This is often done for its own sake or for the edification of the theologian and apart from the lives of anyone else. And while this certainly isn’t bad, faulty, or without precedent, there is an inherent danger when theology remains in the theoretical realm.

For instance, in the theoretical, we can create the most elaborate and delightful slippery slope arguments. Divorced from the lives of other people, a theologian can ponder without end about how one move here will set off a chain reaction of necessary moves and conclusions that leads to heresy and the corruption of the one true faith. In theory, we can take that heretical label and pull it back in time and apply it at the first move, thus heroically saving everyone from obvious (to us) error.

I fear that theology engaged only theoretically will always end in some sort of witch hunt, someone claiming, “I am more orthodox than you,” and then adding with great compassion, “It’s okay because I’m here to help.”

Cormac McCarthy’s play The Stonemason tells a powerful story of about four generations of an African American family of stonemasons. The centerpiece of the story is the close relationship between Ben and his Grandfather Papaw. Act 3 opens to a scene in which Ben thumbles through his grandfather’s old, worn leather Bible. After reading the account of God’s deliverance of his people from the hands of the Egyptians, he says,

“According to the old charges of the Masonic order the children of Israel learned masonry in Egypt. Which I was astonished to read, having heard it from him, and he knows nothing of freemasonry. He says all honors are empty and none more that honorary masonry. Because there is nothing that will separate from the work itself. The work is everything, and whatever is learned is learned in the doing. The freemason were right in their suspicion that in the mysteries of stonemasonry were contained other mysteries. Speculatives, the were called. Noblemen who were made honorary masons. And if it is true that laying stone can teach you reverence of God and tolerance of your neighbor and love for your family it is also true that this knowledge is instilled in you through the work and not through any contemplation of the work.”

“The Work is everything,” he says, “and whatever is learned is learned in the doing.”

I don’t think that the work of the theologian is much different. The contemplation—the studying, pondering, and theorizing—doesn’t mean a whole lot until it impacts the life of another. I don’t mean words launched over the internet or tweeted out in the middle of the night. I mean the deliberate handing over of the gifts of Christ. Gifts that are beautifully uncovered and clarified through the disciplines of theology are then to be given to others. It is not the contemplation of the work but the doing of the work that matters.

When I was at the seminary, Dr. Kolb would exhort us, saying, “You are to be the hitmen and the midwives of God. You are to preach, teach, and administer the sacrament so that God’s Word will both kill and then bring forth new life.”

This is what I consider to be the work of a theologian. It is not located on an ivory tower but in the muck and grime of the lives of those around you.