COLUMNS

Volume 17 - Issue 1

Theology at the front line

by Tim A. Dearborn

At the beginning of another academic year, it is good to put the whole theological task under scrutiny. Is it not just escapism from the battlefields of real life? Tim Dearborn, who lectures in Aberdeen and in Vaux-sur-Seine, France, gave this lecture to faculty and students in Aberdeen at the beginning of the 1990–91 academic year. We are pleased to print it here as a guest editorial.


Over fifty years ago C.S. Lewis preached a sermon in St Mary’s Chapel, Oxford, entitled ‘Learning in War-Time’, in which he posed the following question: ‘How can we continue to take an interest in these placid occupations (of studying literature or art, mathematics or biology) when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?’1 He continued by demanding, ‘Every Christian must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities.’2

It is appropriate that we too ask ourselves whether our studies of theology are an imprisonment in theological cloisters, a deviation into pious walled towers in which we are avoiding the real world, or in any sense of the word, are they relevant to the world? We might rephrase the question for our own context by saying: is it audaciously diverting to spend our days studying religion and theology when our world is falling apart, when wars are exploding around us with globe-threatening destructivity, and while the church placidly slumbers in irrelevant oblivion during the entire conflagration? Instead of acquiring more information and mastering more theories, shouldn’t we race to the front lines—possibly the military battlefields, and at least the ecclesial ones? War always erects a question mark at the end of the sentence of our activities. Why are we doing this? Is our life making any significant contribution? During the Second World War, on many trains and buses (so I’m told) the sign was erected, ‘Is this journey really necessary?’ That is our question today. Is this journey necessary (other than as a way of getting necessary credentials so that we might do something else)? We must chart a course through these questions and into a world which defiantly doubts the value of what we do in our theological studies.

The myth of the ivory tower

In our theological studies, we are not enclosed within an ivory tower, a sacred cloister which is fundamentally different from ‘real life’ or ‘the real world’. Whether we like it or not, we’re standing today at the Front, on the front line of the Battle. Everywhere God’s people take a stand for the kingdom of God against the forces of the kingdom of darkness, one finds a front. A battle rages around us right now, in our classrooms, even in the soporific silence of our libraries. The question is, are we aware of it, participating in it, claiming the victory which our Lord has already won; or are we blithely stumbling along in pursuit of good grades and an academic degree?

We all live in the fracas of a battle between two invisible kingdoms: the kingdom of light which leads to wholeness, justice and peace, and the kingdom of darkness founded on destruction, exploitation and force. Everywhere, every time we are participating in the coming of one or the other of these kingdoms. The Front is never far from us. The disguise of darkness may be subtle in our hallowed halls, but like the rest of God’s people, we too are on the front line. Rather than our walls being those of an ivory tower, let us envision them more as a watch tower. To us has been entrusted the holy gift of time to study, reflect and observe, in order to be more fully God’s people, and in order to lead God’s people more effectively into the world. This sacred trust of time together is to be devoted to the joyous task of knowing more fully the wonders of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. We’ve been charged with the calling to gain further equipment with which we might lead others into the liberty of the Light of Life.

The challenges on the Front

In order to clarify this, and describe the nature of the front line upon which we stand (or more accurately, sit), it is valuable to describe several qualities of the Front. These characteristics exist on all front lines, but are especially, and extremely subtly, present here, in theological academia.

  1. The tension between theory and practice

There is the danger during war-time of thinking only pragmatically—how will this affect our victory on the Front? We tend to let war dominate our values and control our vision. With such an orientation, people become mere tools in the accomplishment of other objectives, while ideas and words degenerate into weapons. We dare not let the pragmatic mentality dominate here, or else we will be ill-prepared to lead the church. Our dominant question must not be ‘What difference will this make in the pulpit and pew?’, but rather ‘Who is God and how do we know more fully his truth?’ Pragmatic questions must then take a subordinate place. This liberates us from the egotistic trap of placing ourselves rather than God at the centre of our life and our actions. This frees us to perceive how we can participate in the life of the triune God, and in his manifestation of his kingdom. If the pragmatic questions dominate our view, we will run the risk of placing too much stress on our own efforts and fruitfulness, and lose sight that we are but participants in a larger drama.

However, the pragmatic question must still be asked. We do not have the luxury of wallowing in theories without assessing their relevance in practice. The world does not need more ‘armchair generals’, who merely give advice to soldiers about how they should fight. Rather, the world needs people who have thoroughly mastered the theories, comprehensively assessed the strategies, and now can be active participants in the victory of the kingdom of God on the Front.

  1. The temptation of false goals

The constant fear of all generals is that they will be so preoccupied with winning their current battle that they will overlook larger objectives and end up losing the entire war. Here too we run that risk. Academia is well-padded with its own system of rewards and incentives, punishments and deterrents. One can easily allow academia to determine one’s priorities, objectives, and even sense of worth. One’s effort can quickly be subverted into the folly of studying to please professors, produce papers and pass exams, rather than grow into the truth and be equipped for helping others live the truth.

This is not just an academic problem. It is a fundamental front line of human existence. Jesus spoke all too clearly of moths and rust, Marys and Marthas, the greatest and the least, the first and the last. It is all too easy to be side-tracked in life, running very successfully down dead-ends, diligently devoting our energies to what is good only to miss out on what’s best. We have countless examples in our contemporary societies of people who have gained the whole academic or ecclesial world and lost their own soul, or at least their spouse, children, friends or health.

  1. The turmoil of time

On the Front, we never feel like we have enough time. The requisite tasks always seem to demand more minutes than those which are available. Not only are there the demands of studies, but also of family, friendships, finances, and the future. This obviously requires the careful formulation of priorities. We must do that which is most important and leave undone that which is secondary.

In the effort to master our time, rather than be mastered by it, we must be reminded that we are not merely dealing with temporal, but with eternally urgent issues. We are in the process of becoming now, that which we will one day be in the future. Furthermore, we have the privilege of manifesting now, that which will one day be the world’s future. We are simultaneously preparing for the future, and the presence of the future. This is not only eternally significant. It also impacts our capacity to be content temporally.

The life of a student poses unique opportunities, for it is explicitly a period of preparation. It is all too plain that here, we are studying in order to be ready for something which is yet to come, just as soldiers during lulls in the combat seek to clean and polish and get prepared for whatever tomorrow may bring. However, even on a military front, one cannot postpone living until tomorrow. One never lives in the future. Thus, we must seize the present and allow God to flood it with eternally joyous significance. To turn to C.S. Lewis, he reminds us that we might as well leave the future in God’s hands, ‘for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man [person] who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord”.… The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.’3

  1. The trauma of our own finitude

There are yet other gifts which come to us when we realize we are living on the Front. One is forced to recognize the inescapable truth that there are undoubtedly things which one cannot do, places one cannot go, victories which one cannot control. Every day we see this, as we encounter people who know more than we do, express themselves more eloquently, engage in conversation more spontaneously, etc. Here we are given the gift, or rather, forced to admit, that we are finite. The Front is filled with many other warriors, and is filled with a myriad of mundane moments. Time is not always earthshaking and monumental. In fact, if monuments are ever made, they are carved by countless seemingly insignificant chisel blows.

We have here ideal schools for learning this, schools wearing the puzzling disguises of Greek verb charts, Hebrew vocabulary lists, patristic theological treatises, endless biblical commentaries, and seemingly infinite piles of texts. Learn here the ministry of the mundane, and we are all the more equipped for life on the other Fronts we will encounter outside of the classroom.

Participating in Christ’s victory

This leads us to a final fact which we must affirm in assessing our life on the Front. We are participants on this and every front line in the victory of Christ and his kingdom. The failure to describe this would nullify the value of most of what I have already said. When we recognize that we are indeed on the front line of the battle of God’s kingdom, we also reaffirm that we are but participants in the already established triumph of his kingdom. If one phrase can become more fully painted upon the canvas of our lives during our studies together, may it unquestionably be: ‘God is trustworthy!’ Through our studies may we grow to understand more fully the reasons for our hope. On the Front, people are constantly coping with discouragement, and relentlessly searching for signs of hope. May we work hard together to develop a solid theology of hope, and to formulate a theologically consistent methodology of hope by which God’s people can be equipped for life in turbulent times.

Our life on the Front resembles the reading of the history of an ancient battle. We have already read the last chapter. We know how it all will end. Thus, we can relax a little and not take ourselves quite so seriously. We are but participants in a cosmic drama, the outcome of which we already know! Neither need we take our spiritual opponents so seriously, for we and they know that they are already defeated. If our theology is indeed true, then we can live with the relief of knowing that our enemies are disarmed. They still carouse around, hurling about deceitful accusations. They still puff themselves up trying to convince us that our lives can really be threatened. They hungrily prowl, seeking to devour whatever lies in their path. Nevertheless, we know that because of Christ their power is limited and the damage they can inflict is only temporary, for Christ’s triumph is sure.

Proclaiming the goodness of God to a grieving creation

We do not study theology merely to revel in the wonders of the truth, but to learn the most effective ways to manifest the message: the war has been won. Christ is victor! We have been entrusted by God’s people with this time for the construction of those armaments which the church desperately requires for its daily confrontations on the Front. We are the ‘Research and Development Team’ of the Body of Christ, charged with the responsibility of building the urgently needed tools for the further disarmament of darkness and the manifestation of light. Otherwise we leave the church unequipped for its life on these fronts. In order to illustrate the significance of our studies, I would like to address one of the harshest issues facing the church today. We long to proclaim to the world the goodness of God. Yet just as our theological studies seem to some to be an audacious disregard for the harsh realities of life, so our proclamation of God’s goodness seems, in the ears of some, to be callously insensitive and blithely oblivious to the grief that currently grips the creation.

There is no need to recite the current chronicle of crises. A recent editorial in Time magazine succinctly voices the complaint which millions of Bengalis, Kurds, Ethiopians, Sudanese, and even parental victims of pit bull terriers hurl at the world and indeed at the heavens: ‘Why doesn’t someone do something?… The complaint is really more fundamental, one that only modern civilization could raise. It amounts to resentment against the idea that chaos can reach out without warning and wipe the slate of existence clean. How can a world that has stamped out smallpox and explored outer space be subject to such an indignity?’4 The disaster relief coordinator for the UN, Hamed Essafi, laments, ‘How can you be satisfied when you are doing your best and still the best is not good enough?’ The editorialist’s conclusion is that ‘The best way to deal with calamities is to accept they will be awful and proceed from there … only religions and insurance companies try to understand [them]’.

What do we have to say to our grief-stricken creation, in our effort to understand the seemingly endless inevitability of global tragedies? Dare we continue to proclaim the goodness of God? Our capacity to respond is probably one of the more pertinent issues we face in the exam of life.

In Ephesians 2 we find an outline of a response. The wonder of God’s goodness in Jesus Christ is that the question is reversed. It is no longer the presence of death which poses a threat to life, calling into question its meaning (and the goodness of life’s Lord). Rather, the Lord of life has so acted as to pose a threat to the presence of death. For the harsh truth is that we are all already dead.

The second chapter of Ephesians opens with the scandalous words, ‘You were dead.…’ Rather than dwelling on the omnipresent signs of our own and our globe’s deadness, let’s turn to the equally scandalous statement that life poses a threat to death. We see this expressed in the glorious, monosyllabic adversative of verse 4, ‘But God …’. In the midst of the tragic deadness of life, God has intervened because he is ‘rich in mercy’ and he loves us with a great love. In our merciless world which is starving for expressions of goodness, we proclaim the death-defying mercy of God. To Bengalis, Kurds, and all disaster victims; to cancer patients, single parents, and doubt-filled students, the gospel cries out the merciful words: But God!

I wish to describe three expressions of God’s aggressive attack on life’s deadness which shows us ways in which we participate in the proclamation of God’s goodness:

In our world death reigns, but God in Christ gives life.

In our world life meanders in meaninglessness, but God in Christ gives purpose.

In our world human lives and societies fracture through hostility and greed into millions of pieces, but God in Christ gives community.

Our studies must succeed in equipping us to manifest this life, purpose and community. If not, they are indeed piously irrelevant.

  1. Life irrepressible

‘Even when we were dead, God made us alive together with Christ … in order to show the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you nave been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God’ (Eph. 2:5–8). Life is not a tenuous possession, threatened by every ravaging storm of nature or greed, and thus something we defend through bombs, barricades and insurance policies. Life is a gift, and through Christ, life has been taken through the terrors of death and we are now ‘raised up with Christ and in Christ we are seated with him in heaven’ (v. 6). This is the abundant life which Jesus promised to give: life pressed down and running over—irrepressible, uncontainable. The limits of our years and the boundary of our breath can’t contain it. The violence of our neighbours and the vicissitudes of nature can’t threaten it. We’ve been given in Christ, because of the ‘surpassing riches of God’s grace in kindness towards us’, life irrepressible.

We are given the gift in Christ of being at peace regarding our salvation and our future.

So how do we proclaim God’s kindness? St. Augustine said that hope has two children: anger and courage. Because of the confident assurance we have in our salvation in Christ, because our hope is secure, we look at the deadness of our grieving globe and are angered. We echo God’s ‘no’ to all that robs people of life and dignity. Because we know that our lives are irrepressible, that nothing can ultimately threaten us and thus we have nothing to lose, we are set free to act with courage to proclaim and manifest the life-giving kindness of God. Lech Welesa expressed this during a recent interview on the BBC. When asked how he continued hoping during the dark days of the Solidarity movement when his cause seemed hopeless and all seemed lost, Welesa replied: ‘There is one thing you must know about me. I am a believing Christian, and therefore I know that if I am standing for what is right and good, then even if I am killed, I cannot be defeated.’

  1. Purpose irreplaceable

‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (Eph. 2:10). To our ego-harassing doubts about our own purpose, and our contentment-crushing questions about life’s meaningfulness, God gives us in Christ an irreplaceably valuable purpose. In fact, we find in Christ that for which all people hunger: the reason why they exist. We were created in Christ for good works which God has prepared for us beforehand. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing you’re doing what you were made to do. Hassles, pressures, problems and opposition pale in power compared to the dynamism released in knowing that what we’re doing has meaning. These good works aren’t of our own creation. Rather, as the Scripture says, we merely ‘walk in them’. This isn’t the strenuous climb to surmount hurdles of thwarted ambition and combat constant threats to our success. Rather we persevere with joyous purposefulness in the manifestation of why we’re here.

We are given the gift in Christ of being at peace regarding our service and significance.

A successful businessman in Buenos Aires has devoted his spare time over the past few years to providing new housing in the poverty-plagued barrios of that great city. Recently, the residents tried to encourage him to run for mayor. He refused, saying, ‘I have greater ambitions than that.’ Their suggestions of governor or even President of Argentina were greeted with the same reply, ‘I have greater ambitions than that.’ ‘But what could be greater than being President of our country?’ ‘My ambition is to be a servant of my Lord Jesus Christ.’

  1. Community indivisible

‘Remember that you were … separate from Christ, excluded … strangers … having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall’ (Eph. 2:12–14). Yugoslavia is splintering into two and possibly six nations. The Soviet Union is no longer a union. A Tamil separatist kills Prime Minister Gandhi, and car bombs continue to blast apart Belfast. Our world hungers for, but cannot create, community. Walls are knocked down only to reveal ethnic nationalism and fascist prejudices that have replaced the cold war with dozens of heated hostilities. To this, the gospel proclaims: but now in Christ we who were alienated have been brought near through his blood, and not just near but made one. He is our peace.

We are given the gift in Christ of being at peace regarding our relations and community.

Therefore, we cannot content ourselves with community-less Christianity or with the chasms that divide God’s creation. God has acted in Christ to make us one, and we have the privilege of manifesting and proclaiming to all peoples: we need no longer live like we’re strangers and aliens. Christ is the glue which binds the fractured communities of creation together. Manifesting this peace will often cause conflict. On 15 April of this year a Serbian Protestant pastor was dragged out of his home and beaten by an angry mob because in his congregation he dared to have Serbs and Croats together eating from one loaf and drinking from one cup at the Lord’s Table. We forget that prior to Tito, it was illegal for anyone other than a Serb to live in Serbia, and it was illegal for a Serb to be anything other than Eastern Orthodox. This pastor relentlessly proclaimed that in Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek. The dividing walls of our enmity have been removed.

But God … out of his surpassing kindness, has given to his creation in Christ life irrepressible, a purpose which is irreplaceable, and a community which is indivisible. Our studies are anything but a ‘placid occupation’, for insofar as God wills to use us in the manifestation of his kingdom, ‘the lives of our friends and the liberties of the world’ are impacted by the quality of what we gain through our life as students. To Lewis’ rephrased query, ‘How is it possible to spend any fraction of the little time allowed us in this world on such comparative trivialities as our theological studies, while there are creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or hell’, we respond: our studies are not merely preparation for the battle, they are the battle. For here we stand for and with the One who is the Way, Truth and Life, and in so standing, we become better equipped to enable others to discover and live his life, purpose, and community, and to proclaim this before a creation that is indeed in grievous need of knowing the goodness of God.


1 C.S. Lewis, ‘Learning in War-time’, in Fern-Seed and other Essays (London: Fontana, 1975), p. 26.

2 Ibid., p. 27.

3 Ibid., p. 37.

4 James Walsh, ‘Stumbling in Chaos’, Time magazine, 20 May 1991, p. 72.

Tim A. Dearborn

Aberdeen