That theology is a useful pursuit is rarely questioned by serious minded believers. Even church agencies committed to regulating theological speculation do not question the value of theology as such, only theology perceived as too venturesome or irresponsible. Those preparing for Church ministry are expected–and rightly so–to study the science and art of theology lest they convey their own prejudices rather than the Christian tradition. But where is theology “done” today? I have identified four principal settings.
Theology occurs, obviously, in the classrooms at seminary, divinity school, or graduate and undergraduate programs at the university. Not that everything in theology classes is theology pure and simple. Sometimes it is rather remedial exposition of Christian doctrine and culture. Teachers theologize in these academic settings and discern how best to communicate their research, their exploratory syntheses. Often, because of time constraints and departmentalization, theologians do not continue discussions outside of the classroom. Theology’s original home was not the university but monasteries. And monks at Taiz, at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, at Maria Laach, to name only several places, still maintain this tradition. Retreat houses and church halls used to be settings for continuing education workshops for clergy and pastoral coordinators. But these updatings for professional re-certification seem to have faded, and nowadays are rarely required by bishops, provincials, or other employers.
Theology takes place also by publication in journals such as Theological Studies, now in its sixtieth year, and a rich variety of periodicals with different readerships and interests. Publishing is a multi-faceted activity. At first writers oscillate back and forth between their own experiences and those of the faith community. Individuals read, reflect, outline ideas during hours of isolation in tier study or library. As the writing continues and re-writing follows, drawing upon experiences of community, persons typically interact with family, friends, or colleagues, talking out sticky points. Then comes the finished product inviting interaction between submitter and editor, aided by suggestions and evaluations of a journal’s referees. Eventually the published text is read and absorbed within a variety of ecclesial and national settings. Many are still committed to reading theology, and some even read not just what their friends or ideological soulmates write, but what others from opposite cultural poles are saying.
Theology is also done before, during, and after annual conventions, meetings of learned theological societies. In North America, for instance at annual conventions of the College Theology Society, the Catholic Theological Society of America, and other meetings, theology is formulated and explored in ballrooms, seminar rooms, at liturgies, over lunch and evening receptions. Typically during the convention’s several days participants do theology in plenary addresses, workshops, even breakfast meetings of interest groups such as the Karl Rahner Society or the Hans Urs von Balthasar Society. Rarely do more than two or three bishops attend these yearly meetings, although on the first evening the local bishop will traditionally deliver a message of welcome for the opening ceremonies. During these days theologians interact with publishers there to display new publications and to hunt for potential authors. These conventions are largely confessional, but are complimented by interfaith and ecumenical gatherings of larger associations such as the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, or the Society of Christian Ethics.
Besides in the classroom, in publications, at conventions, theological explorations are sometimes–though less frequently today–sponsored by the hierarchy. From time to time bishops invite priests and laity to discuss a proposed pastoral, or to consider the working draft for a forthcoming international synod. Ironically, one of the preeminent settings for doing theology sponsored by bishops takes place at official ecumenical consultations–Orthodox/Catholic, Anglican/Catholic, or Lutheran/Catholic for instance. Otherwise, theological dialogue between bishops and theologians is less frequent today than it was thirty-five years ago during Vatican II. Recently I reread a passage from chapter 8 of Lumen gentium where the Council Fathers are outlining what they feel justified in stating about the role of Mary, the Mother of God, in relationship to the mystery of Christ and the Church. With a wry smile I read (because the context is so different today) that the bishops had decided not to state certain affirmations about Mary. We do not intend wrote the Bishops “to put forward a complete doctrine of Mary or to settle questions that have not yet been brought fully to light through the work of theologians” (no. 54). This sentence assumes a level of cooperation that is rarer today, a degree of interaction between theologians and bishops that, for a variety of reasons, is no longer the case.
Hopefully too, at least first-level theology is being done in parish Bible study groups, in charismatic prayer groups, in committees addressing the needs of the poor and disadvantaged minorities, as well as in classes preparing adults or children for baptism, first communion, confirmation, catechism classes, and marriage.
If theology occurs in fewer settings and if fewer ponder Scripture and the life of the Church in light of today’s challenges, we are all losers. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins” (Luke 5:37-38).