Books on a Shelf: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I’ve started a new bookshelf above my desk. As I’ve been going through my library, I’ve been extracting the books given to me as gifts by their authors and placing them aside. Almost all of these books are by friends and colleagues. Some mark times when we were at a conference together. Others were gifts when they stayed in my home and still others simply marked the publication of the volume and the desire of the friend to share the event. A very few were given as thanks for my assistance in research or editing. One section of the bookshelf holds pride of place as it contains a signed copy of every book written by +Michael Ramsey, including a first edition of ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’, duly inscribed to me and dated.
As I look at the totality of the shelf, I am amazed at the diversity of the authors. There are all the patristic works by my dear friend, Charles Kannengiesser, a Roman Catholic. Other Catholic friends from Notre Dame are also represented in ‘The Book of Rules of Tyconius’ by Pamela Bright and ‘De Gratia’ by Tom Smith. Frances Young, a Methodist, is there in her groundbreaking work, ‘From Nicaea to Chalcedon’. Survey volumes on Islam by C. George Fry stand near to “Spirit and Martyrdom’ by William Wienrich, both LCMS professors at Concordia. Close at hand is ‘Getting Into the Theology of Concord’ by Robert Preus, which he signed, tongue in cheek, under the inscription, “To the outsider…” Then there is the Orthodox shelf. After a lecture at the Fellowship of St. Sergius and St. Alban, London, Kallistos Ware presented me with a signed copy of ‘The Orthodox Way’. There is George Dragas on Apollinarianism and, of course, John Meyendorff’s ‘Byzantine Theology’, given to me by Fr. John at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York at the conclusion of a visit.
Anglicans, of course, are well represented. There are signed copies of all the works on Luther written by James Atkinson and a wonderful biography of Bishop Henry de Candole by Peter Jagger. A visit from Hugh Wybrew, Dean of St. George’s, Jerusalem, is commemorated in the gift of a book on Orthodox liturgy, as are the several times Robert Webber was a guest in our home and would leave signed books under his pillow to be discovered after he had departed. Stephen Sykes, James G. Dunn, Gerald Bonner, C.F.D. Moule, O.C Edwards and Enoch Powell are all there, with each book recalling a time or place. Two books of sermons by my old rector, John G.B Andrew – both with hilarious inscriptions – sit alongside a volume by my Jewish friend, Norman Cantor, who rushed down from NYU to give me a copy of his new book before I left for the UK.
Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Orthodox, Anglicans, Jews, Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, Reformed, Liberals and Conservatives… they were (and are) all teachers and friends. Each one has enriched me and, at times, challenged me… as they should. Now, does this mean that I agree with everything in the books that these men and women have written? Most certainly not. There is much that I would disagree with and, on occasion, the gift of a book has been followed up by extensive questions and discussions, either in person or by letter. Those questions and discussions, however, have always been tempered with respect for the writer and the desire to learn. Note that I say, “the desire to learn”, for this does not mean that I will ultimately agree with what has been written, but, hopefully, I will learn the process, research and thought that led to the conclusions that we are discussing. Learning does not take place in an echo chamber of given certainties. When we lower discussion to a zero-sum game, not only are there no “winners”, but, even worse, no one really learns. Indeed, the zero-sum game and the echo chamber may produce heat, but no light. It does not result in an increase of knowledge, wonder, or even the due consideration that is required for learning. This is especially true when it comes to theology.
We often get caught up in the game of labeling theology, even before we’ve read it, much less discussed it. It is Roman theology. It is liberal theology. It is conservative theology. It is new theology. The labels are applied first… and often without knowledge. I recently wrote that it is not a matter of old theology or new theology, but rather of good theology and bad theology. This applies to the whole range of the theological enterprise. For instance, we may dispute the meaning of a verse of Scripture, but first we have to look at the text itself, the words that are used, the context, the grammar, even the structure of the original language. Now we may “want” the verse to say something different as we’ve already applied an interpretive label, but our “wanting” does not alter the text itself. We may want to assert a different view of Church history, but we cannot change or ignore the events of Church history to our own liking and/or our own narrative ignoring the evidence of written records, recorded events and all the rest. Otherwise, this becomes a matter of partisan indoctrination rather than due consideration of the topic resulting in understanding. Indeed, this applies to most areas of learning. In his very unpopular defense of the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre of 1770, John Adams made the following statement, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
“Facts are stubborn things…”
Learning is sometimes hard. All the answers are not always at our fingertips and sometimes the answers are not what we want to hear. Sometimes there are no answers and we are left to imagine or speculate or, on occasion, simply to trust… but that is part of learning as well. Yet as I consider all of this, I’m reminded of Kallistos Ware who wrote the following,
“…It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
I think this is why I value my diverse friends who now occupy the shelf above my desk. Through reading them, discussing with them and learning from them, they have made me progressively aware of the mystery of faith. They haven’t just increased my knowledge… they’ve increased my wonder.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD