Dishing out Theology

The Table Conversation as Editor and Advisor: Toward Gentle Godly Speech

By Justin Hagerman  |  Photos by David Rehor

At the table, you’ll hear a variety of voices.

These voices communicate expertise in Biblical, comparative, historical, moral, and systematic theologies.

And of course there are some graduate students, who are attempting to master one (or more) of these areas of thought.

What grounds these sub-disciplines of theology together are unique personalities, rooted in the grace and peace of Christ. When Loyola’s theology professors and Master of Theological Studies students gather for daily lunch, the topics at the table are heavy and light. And the dialogue is balanced with questions and statements, which, at their best, further knowledge, of God and of neighbor.

The range of topics is incredible, from genres such as tragic moral dilemma to theological joke. For example: What if two children were drowning at opposite ends of a large lake? What would you do? Which would you save first?

These questions follow Alasdair MacIntyre, who suggested “that by our nature we desire to know and understand, that we cannot but reflect upon the meaning of our lives, upon suffering, and upon death, and in so doing attempt to pursue our good, making our own the tasks of rational enquiry and the achievement of truth.”

Much lighter, what if Paul was drinking (too much) wine while planning his letter to the Church in Corinth? For Paul exclaims, “I think I too have the spirit!”

And even more creative, does the resurrected body have hair? It is no wonder the disciples could not recognize Jesus on account of his new baldness.

A critic might find these jokes are distractions from theology. But I’d prefer to recall that “the common good requires, and hence the natural law requires, the making of jokes and the staging and enjoyment of entertainment.”  Put simply, at the table, theology has the permission to have a sense of humor. And these conversation topics help to learn how to use words in a particular way.

There are constant sets of decisions to make while at the table, such as “Which sentence should come first?” “Should I laugh or not laugh?” “How loudly should I speak?” (I’d like to think that Wittgenstein would be impressed with the tone of voice at the table.) In the midst of this constant set of questions, there is also a consistent hermeneutic of generosity at the table. That is to say that the interpretation of words is also based on the character of the speaker.

One Christian theologian who sometimes comes up in the conversation is Stanley Hauerwas, who once remarked that when he teaches theology, he is teaching speech. The sacramental meal in the Loyola theology department is one long course in the use of gentle Godly words. And these words, well, “them’s not fightin’ words.” That is to say that there is the freedom to speak whatever “thou mayest” in order to bring greater glory to God (AMDG).

In the medieval narrative, Piers Plowman, William Langland makes an obscure point, that the theologian may long for the day when he knew only the words, “Lord, I believe.” And so this clearly causes a graduate student in-training to reflect on what could happen during theological education, that is, to learn so much that one abandons the knowledge of God.

Then comes the question, “What is the potential danger of studying theology constantly?” At the lunch table, F. Bauerschmidt, professor of theology, responding to this danger, puts the Gospel front and center: “You might fall into the hands of God.” That possibility, of falling into the hands of God, indeed makes studying theology the potential to be the best (and most difficult) task we’ve ever had to do.

As such, the conversation at the lunch table is a constant editor and advisor. The table edits misguided thoughts, such as judging a book based on its index, and also advises us what, who, and how we should be reading.

At the table, I’ve heard of authors, books, and articles that I would not have otherwise wished to study passionately. Brought to the table are Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Camus, MacIntyre, Bonhoeffer, Arendt, Dostoyevsky, Frei, Barth, Anscombe, and so on.

Although we often bring our own food, to use a figure of speech, this sacramental meal is an entrée of fresh ideas and a constant call to hear the Word wisely in order to practice acting intelligibly, by trial and by error, living into the events of a particular narrative called the Christian life.

The table is the place where confession is richer than before we began. And a location where even silence is considered an interesting voice because of its hope to know Christ and the power of His resurrection.

Justin Hagerman is a student in Loyola’s Master of Theological Studies program.

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