The following is a Q&A I put together for some friends recently as part of a longer discussion on personal theological development. I had made the point that one of the things you must do is to choose a sensei to guide your development, and followed it up with this Q&A.
Q: I have no idea where to begin.
A: Ask someone who can give you guidance and, chances are, you have a book on your shelf now. Learn to glance over foot/endnotes and bibliographies. Do not lose sight of your question. Senseis are asking their own questions. They may overlap with yours, and sometimes yours is swallowed up into theirs, but, eventually and in the end, it is always your question.
Q: What if I choose a sensei I cannot understand?
A: This is not uncommon. To some degree, the best senseis are bewildering and frustrating long before they become enlightening. Nevertheless, if you are really in over your head, know your limits and choose a lesser light or a book or article or video or talk guided toward a popular audience. Sometimes senseis are intentionally obtuse for various reasons. An example is the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who teaches at the U of Notre Dame. Plantinga started his career by intentionally skewing as difficult as possible. He would give talks that no one would understand . . . and he did that for years. Eventually he earned the fearful respect of the philosophical community. And only after that did he begin to speak understandably.
A quick word about vocabulary. Runners have their time. Stocks have their performance against the market. Ideas have vocabulary. You know you are making progress when your vocabulary grows. If what you are reading etc. never challenges your vocabulary, then you are not in the presence of a sensei. Also, there are times you just skip the vocabulary. You can’t know everything. You are the one asking the question, after all, and they serve your ends, not the other way around.
Q: I’m afraid of finding a sensei. After all, I don’t know enough to judge whether they are orthodox or not. What if they lead me into bad ideas? (or the variant, “My tradition hates this person and has taught me to avoid them for the sake of keeping my salvation.”)
A: This is quite right. You should be afraid. The best senseis think so far ahead of you that you have agreed to their assumptions long before you are ever aware they have made any. And often your frustration with them and the bewilderment you are feeling is only proof that you are a novice and undeveloped in a topic (goodbye pride!). Most are not like that. But a strategy of beginning with a sensei who is anathema to your tradition has its merits. Again, a personal example, I am reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics right now, and already the line between what I think and what he thinks has blurred beyond the point of knowing for sure which is which. But I’ve spent a long time preparing for this, so I’m not wholly afraid of never coming out on the other side.
Q: Why take this trouble?
A: I apologize if this sounds like some kind of occult art. It isn’t. It flows quite naturally from asking your question. If it is a question you really care about, then you want to hear an answer. If you don’t care enough to follow through, then I might ask if you are really asking your question at all. You should go back and ask why you are afraid of your question. Maybe you have never really asked a question before in your life. Just because someone can use a question mark at the end of a sentence doesn’t mean they can ask a question. Positively, though, there are moments where things fall together. There are moments where what was impenetrable before this time falls open as easily as a storybook tale. There are moments where you see past your assumptions, the bedrock cracks, and you see you were standing on something more connected than before. There is nothing like that experience. It is so affirming, so empowering, so humbling, and so exciting.
Q: I’m not a reader / I don’t really like academic stuff.
A: These are really two questions, but they are so close that I’ll address them together. Some people are not readers. There are learning styles. Thankfully, in our day, there are videos and MP3s, and sometimes you can go meet a sensei. Nevertheless, here’s the truth: leaders read. Our culture still exalts reading as the primary vehicle of intellectual exploration and growth. Often you will find that a sensei has long-form and short-form pieces. I’ve often wondered, for example, why people don’t read sermons. There are usually books of, say, Wesley’s sermons or von Balthasar or Bonhoeffer or St. Gregory of Naziansus or Van Til or Hauerwas or Barth or Augustine etc. People also write journal articles. These short-form pieces are often better ways of getting at an idea than the long-form books (which often contain unnecessary linguistic, citational, or other forms of what amounts to showing off).
As for not really liking academic stuff. I totally get that. We Westerners have so exalted the university system that it has become its own nation of priests and Levites. And, theology too has been unnaturally split between “church theology” and “academic theology” so that pastors are now taught counseling techniques while biblical and scholarly languages and the philosophical challenges of our traditions and our age are left as the inconsequential playthings of egg headed ivory-tower brainy types.
That is a complete and utter lie. Doesn’t every Christian have the Holy Spirit? And if so, isn’t that Christian beloved of the father and enveloped in the life of the Trinity? That is the very foundation of theology, is it not? One’s question(s), then, are the real beginning of theology for you, and this is spiritual discipline, not the accumulation of an academic degree or indulging in a proclivity for libraries.
Stop thinking of books and such as academic stuff. Some is. You can ignore that stuff, but don’t ignore what speaks to your question. That isn’t academic, it is about you. And, where it speaks to your question, it is the most relevant and practical dialogue on the planet.
Q: Is there any other way of dividing up senseis?
A: Yes. Do it not just by subject but historically. Every Christian, IMHO, should know three things. (a) the Bible (b) the creeds (by which is a meant having some clue of basic dogma) (c) church history. If you know nothing about church history, then you should get yourself an accessible survey like Church History in Plain Language or Gonzales’s accessible surveys and learn the story of the family. Do a little genealogy. We are all the newest members of the church triumphant spread out over time and space.
Q: How long should I stay with a sensei?
A: Until that sensei has taught you his or her five-point exploding heart technique. Sensei’s are normally classified by one or more signature moves. The more important the sensei, the greater the number of signature moves. But the real mastery comes when the many collapses into the one, and you can see the unity of intent that makes your sensei unique. When that happens, you can anticipate their moves and choreograph their catalog. Your own unity will strengthen and you will know that it is time to seek a new sensei. With practice, you will be able to sense the unifying force underneath senseis you have only just met, and you will see that it is the quality of that unity which separates skilled warriors from the heroes of legend. (Please note that this question presumes your faithfulness to your own question. Not that you can’t learn from anyone. You can. But few of us have the luxury of time or patience to learn at the feet of someone whose teachings do not speak to our needs.)
I’m sorry this went too long. And perhaps I have been too extreme or unnecessary. Perhaps, too, a caveat should be made that says that none of this is necessary for salvation or for an admirable life of witness, service, and devotion. But, in saying that, please don’t think I’m saying that it is okay to shirk responsibility. As the quotes says, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” And again, “The mind, once expanded, never returns again to its original shape.” (That latter one is a pilgrim’s prayer and a good saying against hard times.)