I know it’s a bit marketing-y, but I’m quite taken with the concept of ‘core business’ (which wikipedia tells me is all about helping an organisation express its “main” or “essential” activity).
So … what’s a theologian’s ‘core business’?
In his essay ‘Beginning with the Incarnation’ (On Christian Theology, p 86), Rowan Williams shares his answer: ‘It is not a theologian’s business first and foremost to defend this or that dogmatic formula, but to keep alive the impulse that animates such formulae — the need to keep the Church attentive to the judgement it faces, and the mission committed to it’.
I can appreciate that attempting to beat back all challengers against some cherished theological term or construct runs the risk of making too big a deal out of a relative insignificance. Or of drawing too tightly the lines of demarcation between ‘them’ and ‘us’. As John Milton once put it, it’s possible to be ‘a heretic in the truth’ — to cling to the theologically-correct form while surrendering the beating heart of what it’s supposed to protect.
But I do wonder about the wisdom of driving a wedge between dogmatic formulae and the impulse that animates them. How else do you get at the impulse apart from the formulae? Or, to put it the other way around, why does anyone bother formulating anything if it’s the impulse that really matters?
We should try to resist pitting form and content against one another — even if we need to distinguish between them in order to guard against the slide into lifeless ‘orthodoxy’.
Theologians — and I take it all pastors are called to be theologians (but that’s another story) — will inevitably have to clarify things. They’ll need to expound and defend old expressions of truth. But also to search out fresh ways of articulating it. And even occasionally to trim the Church’s theological vocabulary as the cultural freight loaded onto key terms (like ‘person’ or ‘freedom’ for example) makes their use more fraught.
And so I’m wondering if a theologian’s core business may be better conceived along the lines of translation. Would that work?