A Second Naiveté – Theological Education and Becoming Child-like Again

Posted: September 11, 2014 in Book and Article Reviews

Theological education, in my opinion, is an important and necessary thing for ministers, pastors and missionaries.  Life demands that we wrestle with the difficulties of the world in thoughtful ways.  Our faith demands that we struggle with the scriptures and allow “faith to seek understanding.”  Our parishioners desire, whether they articulate this or not, that their pastors are not simply willing to offer trite, over-simplified answers to the deep questions that we all face.  The Church needs theologically informed leaders capable of discerning “the Word of the Lord” in the midst of those unsettling waters that appear overwhelmingly chaotic.  Theological education, which is typically formalized in some manner (which isn’t all bad), helps equip leaders with tools for entering those waters, bearing the presence of God in the midst of God’s people, offering a word of hope, comfort, or judgment.

Seminaries and universities provide a wonderful service to the Church by training, equipping, and making disciples of our ministers.  However, one of the temptations that I find myself wrestling with, and I dare to think I’m not alone, is placing myself in the role of expert.  I’ve been taught to dissect the scriptures, Church dogma and doctrine, exegete the culture, lead an organization, cultivate discipleship, and arrange worship in aesthetically and theologically appropriate ways.  Such an education gives you access to a vast array of knowledge, insight, and wisdom of the ages.  It’s difficult to comprehend ministry without such tools.  But, at the same time, these tools can become the very means by which we negate the working of the Spirit.  All tools are capable of corruption or misuse at the hand of the one who wields the tool.

Pastoral ministry quickly teaches you (if you pay attention) how little you actually know.  Seminary did not prepare you for every situation.  Theological education likely did not provide you with every tool necessary… I’m inclined to say that’s not its purpose anyway!  (If you can master theology in a lifetime, much less eight years of theological training, your God is too small and your ecclesiology isn’t messy enough).  Without quickly recognizing our need for help, both from God and from the Body, we either burn out or become tyrants holding the Church hostage.  The Scriptures become a tool for gaining “principles” for this or that part of life rather than an encounter with the Living Word.  Prayer is reduced to making God or personal genie to heal our latest bruise or smite our enemies rather than being shaped by God’s presence and call.  Worship is substituted for self-realization, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment rather than the kenotic self-emptying to which Christ calls us.  Servanthood is utilized as a means for gaining glory for ourselves rather than simply seeking the glory of God and the good of others.  And, pastoral ministry is reduced to some kind of business organization where the right tactics will surely make the church “succeed.”  (I vaguely remember Simon the Magician thinking that the Gospel would be a good way to make money.  Some things don’t change.).  In other words, when our theological education (whatever that may look like) is understood as a means to mastery of the Christian life rather than coming under the mastery of the Risen Lord, we have twisted the Church’s gift to us and made it a weapon against the Church and Christ.

Jesus is out and about with his disciples.  People are crowding him.  The disciples take it to be their duty to body-guard Jesus.  We all know how dangerous children are (sarcasm, if that wasn’t obvious).  The disciples were not going to be caught unaware of these children’s ulterior motives.  Jesus reprimands them, saying, “Let the little children come unto me.”  He goes further to say that the Kingdom of Heaven is given to those who are like little children and that we must become little children again.  One of the greatest gifts that children posses is a naiveté.  It is a wonder of the world’s grandeur.  It is a receptivity that is not about mastering the world, but a receptivity that manifests itself in awe.  And, the ones that Jesus welcomes are the children in the scene.  Children willing to sit in the presence of Jesus and learn from the Master.

It seems to me that pastors, ministers, missionaries, professors and those who are going through theological education must exercise a “second naiveté.”  It’s a return from being experts to being disciples.  It is a movement from mastery to being mastered by the One true God.  You can’t necessarily go back and you shouldn’t dismiss the gift of education.  That is why it is necessarily a secondary naiveté.  But, it calls for a radically different position in our approach to the things of the spiritual life.  It calls for humility.  It calls for listening.  It calls for obedience.

The question for me has become how can I return to such a state?  What means are available to aid in this journey?  Historically and scripturally, I think there are several pieces that have always been important for the Church’s spiritual life and renewal.  First, it requires a work of God’s grace in our life.  It begins there.  We can cultivate that grace through the spiritual disciplines, through the Sacraments, through discipling and being discipled, works of mercy and charity, and through communal worship.  It is important that we remember, however, that all of these activities are not merely duties incumbent upon the Christian life.  Instead, it is the faithful response to God’s active speaking already at work in our lives and in the larger world.  In other words, a “second naiveté” is primarily about an encounter with the Living God, being transformed in God’s presence, and keeping our theological tools in perspective – as gifts which God has given us so that we might know God intimately as Abba.

Theological education is important and vital for the life of the Church.  I don’t in any way want to diminish how important it is.  Ministers have done real harm in many situations because they have lacked those tools that can be so helpful.  But, in the same breath, we must realize that those tools are also subject to misuse and abuse.  Ultimately, theological education should be understood as a means of entering into prayer, serving God and the Church, and seeking to be made like a child again.


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