Arguing about God

On planes, in bars & even in the classroom

Sitting in a room with the theologically precocious can be a discomfiting experience. On my left is a slight fellow hunched over Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. He smells of coffee and cigarettes. On my right is a young woman translating Aquinas. I think of the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly in my backpack and blush slightly, briefly consoled by the knowledge that I have a short stack of unread Commonweals waiting for me at home. Most of my fellow students busy themselves shuffling their pens and notebooks, waiting for the professors to arrive. It is the first day of class for some thirty-six of us first-year divinity-school students at the University of Chicago. My notebook and a pen rest in front of me. I, too, shuffle them.

Waiting in that classroom, my mind wanders to two weeks earlier. The memories come quickly, almost as quickly as the inverse observation: Sitting beside the theologically uninitiated can be an unnerving experience too. I am in the middle seat on an airplane and both my chatty neighbors find out I study theology.

"So, wait. Are you going to become a priest?"

"No."

"What’s the difference between the King James Bible and the one in church?"

"Stewardess!"

It happens everywhere. I’m at Blockbuster renting The Big Lebowski, the Cohen brothers’ follow-up to Fargo, and I fumble for my card. My college I.D. falls out. The cashier notices: "You go to Fordham?"

"Used to. How much will that be?"

"What was your major?"

"English and theology."

"You gonna be a priest?"

"Stewardess!"

I once had a barroom theological debate, which quickly devolved into a screaming match, about the nature of one woman’s understanding of God, whom she described as "something like Santa Claus, but stronger." God is nothing like Santa Claus and probably weaker, I rejoined, and offered a systematic exposition deploying all the right theological jargon. Her face began to contort into a look of disgust. When I had finished my monologue, she asked: "Do you go to church?" I was shaken by her question. To be honest, I was then an irregular churchgoer. I don’t have a lot of deeply meaningful moments—where suddenly I feel that my whole self is being called into question—but this was definitely one of them. I hadn’t expected to make faith claims at a bar on a Saturday night, and after stammering out a few unintelligible syllables, I realized she had me. Where, she wondered, was my commitment to worship? "Ivory-tower snob," she said flatly. Was this where I was headed?

Is this where I sit now? Between the theologically precocious and the theologically uninitiated? What is this choice I’ve made, to turn an academic eye to the content of my faith, of others’ faith, to do theology? Am I about to become party to what James Cone has called the suffocating embrace of the academy? What am I doing here? Long story.

Here’s the short version: When my father was first diagnosed with lung cancer, I was in the sixth grade. I understood very little about the disease, what it could do, and only hazily apprehended why I felt uneasy about the fact that the whole Saint Paul of the Cross junior high would traipse over to the church for a midday Mass said solely for my dad on the day of his surgery. I was heartened, I think, in the way a sixth-grader can be, and I believed the prayers would help. They did, and the operation was a success. Two years later prayers would be needed again. Brain cancer this time, so off we went to church, and another Mass was said for my dad. Again, the operation was successful. My father’s health was excellent all through my high-school years, and so it came as a shock when a routine checkup revealed that he had cancer again, now in the other lung, and likely of a different sort. This time there was no Mass said for him. I was a sophomore at Fordham, eight hundred miles away from home, and had to do all the praying myself. The next eight months were easily his worst, and my mother’s, and mine. From the clinical psychosis—he lost his mind—that followed his surgery, to the slow withering of his body that put him in a nursing home, I stopped believing in the power of prayer and started wondering about what sort of God would allow a father to forget his son’s face. By the time he died I was almost numb. After the funeral, I began taking my theology classes (then my minor) more seriously than my English courses (then my only major). How could I, or anyone, explain this senseless suffering? Where was the loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God of tradition when my dad, deeply immersed in a mafia hallucination, accused me of trying to have him killed?

And so, I rejected the idea of that sort of God. Having first been scandalized by process theology (a way of thinking about God that posits God’s authentically temporal and social, truly related, character) that was presented to me, strangely enough, during the year of my father’s decline, I didn’t come to take it seriously until I entered divinity school. But...but that changes God (or God changes), I used to think, whenever Alfred North Whitehead’s theistic conceptions were explained during my time at Fordham. Yes, I came to think, it is a God worthy of worship that I’m after, and what does it mean for God to be omnipotent, omniscient, all good, and unchanging? How can those things be held together without contradiction?

So that’s the why of it, of my place in this classroom. I’m waiting for the how to walk through that door.

The professors are late. The ticking of my watch seems louder than usual. The class is growing restless. Pens tap with more frequency. A creaking door from the left brings all heads around. The teaching assistants (TAs) enter. You can tell they’re TAs because they are dressed better than the dean. One breaks north, the other south, and syllabi make their way across the aisles.

"Here you go." The classmate speaks. With a nod and a grin, I take a syllabus and pass the others down the row. The top of the first page reads, "Religion and the Social Sciences." It seems unlikely that there will be any Saturday-night bar-room faith claims made in this classroom for the next ten weeks. As my eyes scan the page, my anxiety subsides. It seems surprisingly manageable.

In come the professors.

Post-class processing at the graduate level is something to behold. The deftness with which graduate students can deconstruct a professor is rivaled perhaps only by their ability to pigeonhole each other. This sort of conversation isn’t the most pleasant thing I’ve ever engaged in, but it allows for a much needed release of steam, and its memory sustains me on the walk home to my efficiency apartment—they call it "efficient" as though its size were its virtue.

It is Spartan but adequate accommodation, though it provides little solace from the often brutal but necessary self-examination that occupies so much of a graduate student’s early months in a program. Just four walls, a desk, a few chairs, books, papers, computer, and I—alone in a room with myself. No roommate, no classmates down the hall who share this plight. I have met some of my neighbors, and though it may be too early to tell, I don’t anticipate attending many Wednesday-night pot-luck dinners in this building. I’ll be lucky to get a postbox conversation going once a month.

Having entered graduate school right out of college, I come to realize in these first few weeks that my acclimation may be more social than academic. I come with a habit of study that some of my older classmates are worried they’ve forgotten. My challenge is to raise that habit to another level. And then there’s that pesky question of faith.

Divinity school is one of those places that demand a kind of self-examination, often bordering on solipsism, that is both exhaustive and exhausting. Theology asks the big questions, and if you’re not up to snuff, it doesn’t merely mean that you lack the proper skill set. It means you aren’t capable of talking about what you consider to be the most meaningful thing around. Few areas of study so closely intertwine with a sense of self and identity as those encountered in divinity school. Yes, all career choices include a deeply personal and no-less-meaningful self-understanding; but what separates theological study from, say, law school, is that its topic is literally ultimate in character. There is nothing more final, more encompassing, than God.

Of course, not all of my fellow students are asking these questions for the same reason. Some hope to be ordained. Some enter with "purely academic" intentions. Others are intellectual refugees from other disciplines—like the "recovering attorneys"hoping to infuse their professional work with a boost of ethics or perhaps to jettison their former professions in favor of a new life of the mind.

I am none of these. Having entered as an M.A. student, I am signed on for an academic degree, on track for the Ph.D. I do not pretend that my interest is purely academic, but hope to inform my faith life, however anemic it has become, with more precise ideas about this God I worship, especially with respect to the theodicy question.

There is no better evidence of this academic setting than the seminar room. In theory, I am not against the exchange of ideas with my classmates. But in practice, the exchange rate isn’t great. Just keeping up with the name-dropping gives me a headache. I begin to wonder if some of my classmates have actually met Immanuel Kant. But once the alphas have finished vying for pole position, much of the posturing subsides, and conversations improve greatly. Still, the professors continue to have the most interesting and intelligent things to say—that’s what they’re paid for. I start looking forward even to my seminars. Autumn passes and I feel more comfortable. Imagining myself in divinity school next year, and the year after, becomes easier.

Although most of my classmates, myself included, often complain about the amount and difficulty of the workload, we are reminded daily, as we walk through the quads, past neogothic cathedrals of the liberal arts, that this is almost purely a life of luxury. We have been given the resources, though some are borrowed, to turn our gaze exclusively to our studies.

By the second term, the divinity school is charged with nervous energy, all fueled by each student’s concern about her or his future. Worry about applying to the doctoral program. Worry over who your adviser will be. Worry about how you’ll find what you want to study for the next five to seven years—and lay it out with enough specificity to convince the Committee on Degrees that you deserve a shot at a Ph.D. It’s no help when a letter arrives from the provost announcing that the tuition policy for twelfth-year doctoral students has changed. (Tuition’s up, of course.) And finally, the ultimate anxiety: What’s a student to do when the ideas he studies cut to, or more often through, the heart of his faith? After I pressed a professor on a question about Niebuhr’s Christology, he asked me simply, "But why does Jesus have to be divine?" As a classmate replied: "But I thought that was the kicker."

Clarifying moments are not unheard of, though, even under winter’s veil. Mine came one late afternoon in an unlikely form, a chalkboard diagram by David Tracy, eminent theologian. Tracy was speaking on Luther and his two conceptions of the hidden God. Tracy illustrated his points by writing the more important names on the blackboard: Luther in the center, Simone Weil, Sophocles, Calvin, Dionysius the Areopagite, and others, surrounding each with arrows pointing to and from Luther, each other, and the edge of the blackboard. By the time he had enumerated point seven of five (vintage Tracy), he’d covered the middle section of the blackboard with what looked to be an electrified mothball. Names were crossed through, out, encircled, and finally rendered illegible. Deciphering it was like finding shapes in passing clouds. I think I may have seen Paul Tillich’s head somewhere. It was a Rorschach test for the ages. It was my own personal cloud of unknowing.

Professor Tracy hadn’t realized how unreadable this chalky maze had become. After a break, he took questions from the class, fully expecting to be able to refer to his diagram. When one student asked about the relation between Luther’s "hiddenness one" and "hiddenness two," Tracy stood, gesturing to the blackboard, and froze. "Oh," he said, gazing at the diagram. "That was supposed to be helpful."

And in its own way it was. How oddly appropriate, I thought, that this electrified mothball appear when Ph.D. application worries abound. The diagram offered a lesson: Systematization is helpful, indeed necessary, when attempting theology. When discussing God, fuzziness will not do. But up on that board was a warning. Don’t squeeze too hard. All of those lines connecting ideas and thinkers, beginnings and endings, conversations and critiques, had obscured the object of the diagram with the very means employed to achieve its purpose. It had clarified to the point of obfuscation. It was helpful to see the epistemological danger it represents, to see finally what must be kept in check, to see shades of James Cone’s "suffocating embrace" at work.

I finished my M.A. in June 2000 and postponed beginning the Ph.D. to force myself to resolve some of these tensions. I had been in school for nearly two decades without interruption, and the time had come for me to step into "the real world." I needed something to balance me, to ground me. Mostly, though, I needed to verify that the effort to ground myself, to make sense of my persistent religious attachments in the face of seemingly overwhelming contradictions, was indeed worthwhile. As it turned out, the ivory tower wasn’t so high after all, and so my descent, as it were, to editorial work at Commonweal was a short one. Having shifted rather abruptly from a life in the academy to a life outside, I found several issues set in relief for me; the most obvious was theology’s relation to those who don’t have the wherewithal to do theology.

There is much talk these days about so-called public theology, born of an ever-widening gap between the pulpit and the academy. A small battle quietly rages on theology faculties, tenure review boards, and in the wider academic culture: What counts, or should count, as scholarship? This is especially troublesome in theology, because the lines are not so neatly drawn. When considering a junior faculty member for tenure, peers are quite happy to take into account publication in the Journal of Religion, Theological Studies, and the like, but journals like Commonweal and America typically don’t pass muster. After all, why do we do theology? Is it strictly for ourselves? For others? Is it for believers and nonbelievers alike? We know it’s not for the money.

Are we interested in speaking to the wider world beyond the academy? If so, is it time to reconsider the way in which we go about doing theology and "making" theologians? Of course there is a place for technical terminology. Like most specialties, theology has its own vocabulary, and much of it is necessary. Yet, there is a public aspect inherent in theology that has faded, or at least been relegated to the realms of theology that deal with the marginalized (liberation theology) or the poor (social-justice theory). When more public modes of discourse, like the one you’re holding in your hands right now, cease counting as real theological work, we need to start asking ourselves honestly: To whom are we speaking? (Try explaining the soteriological danger of Docetism to your pewmate this Sunday and you’ll see what I mean.)

Still, when I am engaged in a conversation about religion, or God, or both with people in the pews or in a video store, I know that there is no more public theology than that. Even when a conversation ends with the pronouncement that I am in very serious sin (How can I disagree?), I just can’t bring myself to say no to a good argument about God. So my sometimes impatient encounters—from the friendly skies to the not-so-friendly barstool—with the "theologically uninitiated" aren’t an entirely accurate reflection of my feelings. In fact, it’s oddly inspiring to find people, young and not so young, at bars, malls, even gas stations—my mechanic has described himself to me as "an armchair theologian"—actually interested in talking about God. Our culture often denigrates this sort of questioning, but people still desire it. People are thirsty. People want to talk about God. It’s weird, but it’s great. Besides, if strangers are going to approach me in public, I’d much rather talk about God with them than, say, their feelings—or mine.

My time in divinity school has not licensed me to lead prayer with any more skill than anyone else, despite what my family now thinks. (I showed them one Thanksgiving: "Dear loving, pure, genderless spirit" just doesn’t have the right ring to it.) Yes, it’s been something of a love/hate relationship, but my graduate work has not thrust me into a spiritual crisis, either, at least not one that’s surfaced. It has, however, provided me with the vocabulary, literal and figurative, to talk about this stuff. How often do we stand through the recitation of the Nicene Creed—a careful systemized theological account if ever there was one—and actually give it much thought? I now have some equipment to do that, and although acquiring such tools largely serves to highlight the need for more study, divinity school has brought me to a closer understanding of what I mean when I use the word God.

So if you find yourself sitting next to me on an airplane—you’ll know it’s me by the way I shield my reading material from view—and you’re feeling the urge to strike up a conversation with a stranger, there is one cue you might consider listening for when you’re deciding whether or not to engage your neighbor in dialogue, a mildly desperate plea:

"Stewardess!"

But if you do decide to persist, it’s unlikely that I’ll refuse. I’m a real sucker for God-talk.

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About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.