Something I Miss: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I’ve spent part of this time of reduced activity that has been imposed by the pandemic organizing my papers and lecture notes. In going through my teaching notes, I found a set from the late 1980s when I was offering a post-graduate course in Patristics at the University of Detroit, a Jesuit institution. On the back of the lecture notes for the first class, I had jotted down the names of the 21 students taking the course. Eight of the students were clergy. Next to each of the clergy names, I indicated their affiliation. There was Roger (LCMS) Mike (Latin Rite Ukrainian) Dave (Chaldean) Andrew (Episcopalian) Basil (Russian Orthodox) Jack (Roman Catholic) Frank (Assemblies of God) and George (Greek Orthodox). While the remainder of the students were taking the course as a requirement for the Master of Theology, the clergy were either using it for a continuing education credit or were simply there owing to their interest in the subject. The point being, they did not have to take the course as a requirement, it was a choice made out of genuine interest in the subject.
The class was held early evening and went for three hours, with a fifteen minute break in the middle. As a result, there was a good deal of social interaction. I always arrived early, as did most of the clergy having driven from various parts of the city. So, there was always time to talk before the class, as well as during the coffee break and after class as we were packing up.
Now, this was the era of Reagan and Thatcher. Iran-Contra was in the headlines. The Soviet Union was beginning to decline. Northern Ireland was a combat zone. Apartheid reigned in South Africa. A US election was going to be held in the autumn… and, apart from perhaps a passing reference to some bit of news in the headlines, we talked about theology. Now, I’m sure that all of the clergy held some sort of political opinions, but I couldn’t tell you what they were or how strongly those opinions were held. All of the clergy in that class were far more interested in theology, church history, ethics and, surprisingly, in each others traditions. They wanted to discuss and to learn… and they wanted to talk about what they were learning with each other. I miss that sort of theological discourse and free exchange.
As the class moved on through the semester, I began to notice things happening. Frank, from the Assemblies of God, clearly felt a bit out of place as the other clergy came from liturgical traditions. Out of place, that is, until our Russian Orthodox priest, Basil, gave him a book on St. Symeon the New Theologian and his writings in the 10th century concerning charismatic gifts and the direct work of the Holy Spirit. By the end of the course they were friends, meeting for lunch once a week. Frank, by the way, did his final essay on the Anaphora (Eucharistic Prayer) of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Jack, the Episcopalian, and Roger (LCMS) chose to do a joint essay on Cranmer and Luther and the ways in which they were influenced by the Church Fathers. Dave, the Chaldean, obviously the most “exotic” of the clergy portion of the class, invited the entire group to his church. Missing were the rancorous debates with sum zero conclusions of “I’m right and you’re wrong”. As I lectured and we discussed the Church Fathers over the course of that semester our love and enthusiasm for the living work of theology somehow bound us together with common purpose and a common delight in that work.
It is something I miss in our current state.
Currently, I see numerous clergy who, it seems, are obsessed with secular identity politics. Over the course of the last four or five years, I have simply marked it down to a desire for power. While I believe that to be true in many cases, I think there is something far more troubling taking place. It is that politics, whether of the Right or the Left, has taken the place of theological thought and expression in the mind and conduct of many clergy. Their delight is no longer in the work of theology and the sharing of that work with others. Instead, their delight is in the divisive secular politics of the moment.
When I first began to study theology, it was not because it was a job or a career. I first studied theology because I loved it and I wanted to know more. I have to believe that this is the case with other clergy as well. Our task is not to be politicians. If one wishes to do that, fine and good. Step down from the pulpit, raise the needed money and run for office. Make your political pronouncements and then let the voters decide. If, however, your calling is the cure of souls, the task at hand is not political, it is theological. I think it is time, and past time, to remember our first love.