Matthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Yesterday’s post included his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Today, he shares his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Bob on Books: Much of your work consists of teaching people who are being formed for the priesthood or other roles within the church. Why do you think theology is so important in that task?
Matthew Levering: Well as far as I’m concerned the answer is this. The life of the mind springs forth from the heart. There is a cry that comes out from people to know the truth about God and about reality. So there’s a deep desire. The problem is the intellectuals, as it were, in every culture, and certainly in our culture. You often find if you read the New York Review of Books or other intelligent things, that the intellectuals don’t seem to find Christianity very credible or attractive. I’m writing for people who are going to become Christian teachers, who at least have some interest in Christian teaching of some kind, whether it’s becoming pastors, priests, or lay leaders in the community. I’m writing for teachers, essentially. It’s a little like Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The idea is that you teach the teachers. From the deep questions that arise very passionately from within, I go and seek out other teachers. I read their work and I put their work into my books and essentially hand on that way.
I’m trying to show that there’s a wonderful Christian conversation about these questions. I’m inviting young people, who are starting out with me, beginners like myself, into this conversation which is so much fun, which is so rich, really so glorious. It’s really so much more fun and beautiful and true than you might get if you just read the works of popular intellectuals. To be in Christ is such a glorious thing and the truth of it is simply stunning and rich and wonderful. But it is something that involves an intellectual labor, a labor of mind. We’re being taught by teachers and then sharing what teachers have taught us. I want to be part of that conversation in Christ with fellow Christians.
Bob on Books: I work in a ministry that tries to connect that conversation with some of the wider intellectual conversations that go on in the academy. What have been your experiences of connecting the theological conversation to the wider conversations going on about the nature of human life and human flourishing and all the things that are explored in what may be called the secular academy?
Matthew Levering: Here’s kind of the secret to the whole thing. Honestly, my experience of being a theologian has been an experience first of all my own ignorance. I’ve felt often times a strong sense that I don’t really know how to even begin an answer to a question someone will ask me. That will be an inspiration to write a book. By writing a book, you are essentially learning from a bunch of other teachers and then sharing their wisdom.
The secret, the key thing, the unfortunate thing I’ve found that theology, as a Christian discipline–and I want to include myself very much in this–theology is in tatters. Now I’m not saying this of the seminary where I work now, which is a very wonderful place! I’m not saying theology is in tatters here. I’m essentially saying that theology as a discipline, as a whole, is a discipline that is at war with itself. The war that I would describe is a war over whether God has truly spoken. It is essentially the war that has been going on for a while between classical, liberal versions of Christianity where what’s really happening is we’re gesturing toward the ineffable. Different eras try to build authentic community and liberative praxis from human resources and gesture toward the ineffable, the mystery. That would be what I call classical, liberal Christianity. That’s sort of at war with a more counter-cultural Christianity rooted in a commitment to divine revelation–a sense of God pouring out his Word, and becoming incarnate, and God’s Word dying for us.
If you want to know what I’m talking about, a great book to start with is by a scholar named Garry Wills. He has a book called Why Priests? which is an amazing example of classical liberal Christianity. He’s a very learned man. By no means am I trying to impugn him. In the book, he feels a little defensive because he doesn’t want his Christian commitment challenged. If he’s reading this, I’m not trying to impugn Garry Wills! I’m just saying that when I read the book, there are strong resonances of my own knowledge of what I would call classical, liberal Christianity.
That’s the situation right now. Among theologians around the world, the guild of intellectuals, there’s a strong questioning of whether we can defend God truly speaking, or whether in fact it has been some second temple Jews gesturing to this, or whether it is some post-exilic competing priestly clans, or some kind of Greek influence on church leaders trying to take power in fourth century Roman empire. And so different forms of gesturing, however authentic they might be, their gestures, their language, it’s all very historically conditioned. So we now have our own gestures and language in which we can use Jesus as a liberative model, a model of love. You can see the benefit of that kind of approach to Christian theology because it makes Christianity more easily defensible. To people who challenge Christianity, they say “We don’t believe that either but we’re just gesturing, we’re building authentic community and gesturing, using Jesus as a liberative model, whatever happens to be in the zeitgeist. Morally, you can just adopt that and say, “That’s what we want too.” Jesus is a model of that, he is a Liberator.
What you lose, though, is the Savior from sin and death. You lose the communion with the Holy Trinity. You lose the actual sanctification of the communion with our divine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are inviting us into their communion here and now. You lose that [experience of] actually being transformed and that power of God’s Word and that challenge–that real challenge of holiness and that challenge that confronts us as sinners who are broken; and that challenge that confronts us with real mercy built upon the cross where God has come to a broken creation that refuses to love, and God has loved for that creation at the very place where we have refused to love, which of course is our dying. We can’t accept dying so we turn our backs on God, but God has come right into that context and loved us and saved us in that very place of death — praise be to God, praise be to Jesus!.
Theology, in my view, is under great strain. I recently completed a manuscript called Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? It’s not a popular apologetics. It’s written for scholars. It’s a work that hopefully could be read by others, but the main point is that unless you can get deep into the nitty-gritty, they’ll say “You’re just on the surface here.” The work of theology understood as responding to divine revelation is a very difficult labor. You have to listen to a lot of voices to make sure that you are not making claims that are too strong. You have to be very careful in listening to and hearing as many voices as you can, as many voices of other scholars and other thinkers. Within that, there is a strong defense that can come forth of the reality that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
Theology, then, in my experience is a fragmented discipline. The answer to your question is that I focus my attention on speaking to theologians and attempting to strengthen theologians. I seek to strengthen the discipline. I’m including strengthening myself and my beloved fellow theologians and especially young theologians in training and therefore also pastors and priests–to strengthen them to know that the fullness of divine revelation and the full life of the critical mind can go together. That’s the key point that I’ve been trying to say.
Bob on Books: I speak often about my own work with grad students as connecting the love of God and the love of learning.
Matthew Levering: Yes, beautiful. Remember, when I’m talking about the love of learning, I’m talking about the critical kind where you ask difficult questions that can seem corrosive. I think all those questions have to be asked, to be gotten to the bottom of. We need to hear the voices of the many teachers who can teach us if we are willing to ask those deep questions. The point is that we don’t want to underestimate the discipline of theology. There are so many wonderful resources, even though I think at the current moment in some circles there is something of a crisis of confidence, and therefore the discipline itself needs a certain strengthening. I haven’t devoted myself to speaking outside of the discipline. I haven’t done that but would love to do it though!
Bob on Books: I might figure out a way to take you up on that!
Books by Matthew Levering reviewed at Bob on Books:
Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation (review)
Engaging the Doctrine of Creation (review)
Dying and the Virtues (review)