The Academy and the Poor (Part 2 of 3)
by Eric Daryl Meyer
3. The study and teaching of theology, of all disciplines, is perhaps most likely to turn out to the benefit of the poor. This assertion has never been truer than it is in the present. The hegemonic economic and political structures that bind people in poverty (or encourage them to bind themselves) are based on myths about humanity and humanity’s role on the planet. The beginnings of justice are found in the telling of a better story; the trajectory that leads to real justice culminates in worship. The operant myth behind the thick curtain is that human beings are essentially (naturally, rationally, pragmatically—pick your adverb) in charge, in control, and self-directed. Some people lose, and some people win, but the game is all about who gets the most choices. And far too many of us are eager to participate in the eschatological promise of “Progress”: perpetual growth through cycles of innovation, consumption, and commodification that opening ever new vistas of “liberation” enabling us to increasingly self-determine the reality we recieve (from family size to facial structure, from the temperature of our desk chairs to the “branding” of our own personalities).
Thus, the interminable conversation about who should bear the blame for poverty—in caricature, either the lazy, good-for-nothing, mooching addicts or the self-interested powermongers perpetuating the oppressive system that locks people out—is interminable because both options are sub-plots of the same story. Mutual service, genuine friendship, or really anything beyond the hollow pretense of politeness are not possible where the human ideal is buffered autonomy. Puffed up in our own knowledge of good and evil (our pretense to sovereignty), we die. As we die, we kill. Who can tell a story that excises this curse? The old myth (the old lie, really) needs to die, and theology patiently but adamantly proclaims the truths that choke this dragon. Human beings are for worship and for service; human beings are for the delight of their Creator; human beings are for the good of the whole planet. Liberation is found in the community reconciled to one another, to God, and to all creation.
Where is this story told? Foremost, it ought to be the hallmark of every church on every street corner. Yet all too often, churches have assimilated (and subsequently promulgate) aspects of the old lie. Theologians are charged with two tasks in this regard: 1) helping (polemically, if necessary) the church to express more clearly in words and action her central commitments, 2) exposing the dangers and deviations, through careful and rigorous analysis, of false stories about gods, humans and creation. Those tasks involve long conversations with people on all sides—those who are members of the church, and many who are not. Theologians, at their best, help to keep the church faithful to the poor. In part, they do so by calling to account the people and systems that benefit from exploitation.
4. Really learning theology (which only means thinking deeply about the whole gospel) always drives people toward the poor because this particular good news is about the God who favors the poor and dwells with them. There are few truly original ideas under the sun (none, according to Qoheleth), so the theologian’s task is not necessarily to formulate a host of new ideas, but to find ways of expressing the gospel that lead people to action. The ideal mode of theology is a conversation rather than a book—an interaction between people (perhaps even in a classroom) that moves toward action. The writing of books is a requisite part of this endeavor, but theological texts can only be understood properly within cycles of conversation that incorporate concrete practice. The impartial or disinterested theologian is a most perverse creature because theology is necessarily modeled as much as it is taught, insofar as it is expressed in the church’s preaching and prayer (neither of which make any sense without active service).