Richard B. Steele: From a moral to a theocentric stance on a life's work

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A theological educator’s perspective has slowly changed, and he has reframed his career as God’s work on him, in him and through him. He implores other seminary professors to do the same.

Editor’s note: This is an edited transcript of a talk Steele presented April 7, 2018, at The Association of Theological Schools’ Roundtable Seminar for Midcareer Faculty.

There is a scene in Isak Dinesen’s wonderful novella “Babette’s Feast” in which a distinguished Norwegian military officer, General Lorens Loewenhielm, has a face-to-face confrontation with his younger self. Thirty years earlier, Loewenhielm, then a harum-scarum lieutenant, had fallen in love with one of the two daughters of “the Dean,” a famous Lutheran Pietist minister. But, as Dinesen writes, young Lorens had “felt himself to be a shy and sorry figure in the house of the Dean, and … in the end had shaken its dust off his riding boots.” Discouraged by his failure in love, and ashamed of the youthful indiscretions that had made him feel unworthy of the daughter’s hand, he had subsequently turned himself into a model officer and had had a brilliant military career.

“But,” Dinesen continues, “an absurd thing had lately been happening to General Loewenhielm: he would find himself worrying about his immortal soul. Did he have any reason for doing so? He was a moral person, loyal to his king, his wife and his friends, an example to everybody. But there were moments when it seemed to him that the world was not a moral, but a mystic, concern. He looked into the mirror, examined the row of decorations on his breast and sighed to himself: ‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!’”

I will address you today as if I were the person I was when I was at midcareer -- though I should probably add that my first full-time, tenure-track academic appointment only occurred when I was already at midcareer, that is, when I was 43 years old and had been serving as a parish minister for 17 years. I want to share with you three vocationally definitive lessons I have come to over the years.

These three lessons represent different aspects of a gradual shift in perspective that has been taking place in me since I started out. At first, I too looked upon the world from a “moral” point of view, one emphasizing human activity. That translated into an approach to my profession that focused on the successful performance of my job-related responsibilities but sometimes provoked the gloomy thought that “all is vanity.” But I have been moving toward a “mystic” -- or what I should prefer to call a “theocentric” -- point of view, one emphasizing divine action in human affairs. I have been trying to reframe my life’s work as a sacred calling, requiring faithfulness on my part, and sustained by the grace and mercy of God.

Lesson No. 1: The gospel is the treasure in the earthen vessel of the church. As theological educators, we must caution our students against fixating so much on the cracks in the vessel that they forget the treasure inside.

When I was appointed to the SPU faculty in 1995, the Department of Religion faculty consisted of five Bible scholars, two professors of Christian education, a part-time missiologist … and one “utility infielder” -- yours truly -- who was assigned to teach Christian doctrine, Christian ethics and church history. Wondering how to approach my sprawling teaching load, I contacted some of our department’s recent graduates and asked them what they perceived to be gaps in their undergraduate education. I intended to design my courses to fill in those gaps.

One respondent wrote: “SPU equipped me with all the skills needed to critique the Christian tradition, but never showed me how to appreciate it.” As a teacher, I’ve spent the better part of my career urging students to contemplate the gospel “treasure” inside the “earthen vessel” of the church. I have tried to be honest about the many large cracks in that vessel, yet I have insisted that my students study the Christian tradition with a hermeneutic of charity and appropriate what is best in it as a resource for ministry today.

But a subtle change has taken place in my students over the years, and I am struggling to respond appropriately.

In the past, their basic problem was ignorance of their heritage, and my pedagogical task was to find interesting ways to help them understand texts that were written in literary styles that seemed dull or impenetrable to them and that reflected historical and social contexts of which they knew little. Today’s students are equally ignorant of their heritage -- but despite their ignorance, they are very skeptical of it. So in addition to having to find interesting ways to introduce them to unfamiliar texts and contexts, I have to find plausible ways to convince them that their heritage is worth knowing deeply at all. And I have to do so in a way that does not imply that I’m an apologist for the evils of which they suppose that heritage almost exclusively consists.

It’s not that the earthen vessel of historic Christianity doesn’t have its share of cracks: of course it does! Or that the study of our heritage shouldn’t acknowledge those cracks: of course it should! It’s that today’s students seem more interested in scrutinizing the vessel for every microfracture than in contemplating the treasure inside. I believe that helping students to understand their heritage and to cherish it, warts and all, is one of the central tasks of theological education in our time.

Lesson No. 2: Ministry is more than helping people solve their problems. It is also helping people face their difficulties. As theological educators, we must alert our students to the difference between “problems” and “difficulties,” and to the fact that these two kinds of trouble require different kinds of response from ministers of the gospel.

In the introduction to his moving book “The Patient’s Ordeal,” William F. May tells of an occasion on which T.S. Eliot was delivering a lecture on some serious issue in American life:

At the close of [the] lecture …, an undergraduate arose to ask him urgently, “Mr. Eliot, what are we going to do about the problem you have discussed?” Eliot replied, in effect, “You have asked the wrong question. You must understand that we face two types of [troubles] in life. One kind of [trouble] provokes the question, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ The other kind poses the subtler question, ‘How do we behave towards it?’ The first type of [trouble] demands relatively technical, pragmatic, and tactical responses that will eliminate the [trouble]; the second poses deeper challenges which no specific policy, strategy, or behavior can dissolve. The [trouble] will persist. It requires behavior that sensitively, decorously, and appropriately fits the perduring challenge.”

I have come to believe that helping our students to distinguish problems (the first type) from difficulties (the second) and to craft the very different responses that they call for is a crucial feature of faithful and effective theological education -- but a fatally neglected one. In my experience, many students today are like the one who queried T.S. Eliot: they construe all human troubles as “problems” demanding a solution.

Some students focus on the systemic social problems of our time -- problems such as sexism, racism, classism, ageism and ableism. These students understand ministry largely as advocacy for social change. Other students focus on the impact of those larger social problems on the lives of individuals and families or on the personal and interpersonal problems that people create for themselves and each other. On this view, ministry is the craft of amelioration: restoring broken relationships, helping people recover from addictions or overcome their hang-ups, and so forth.

Both approaches to ministry are noble, and both are urgently needed. But students in both cases share the assumption that effective ministry is effective problem solving, and they want their seminary education to furnish them with the knowledge base and skill set needed to solve the particular problems on which they are focused.

Neither approach, however, seems to give much thought to the insoluble difficulties that plague human life, how ministry might proceed in the face of those difficulties or how to cultivate the virtues necessary to face and endure them. As theological educators, we must teach our students how to minister in situations where there are no “fixes,” where neither prophetic social critique nor practical individual coaching is suitable.

Once, as a young minister, I was called to the home of one of my parishioners, who had just found the body of her husband in their woodshed. He had committed suicide -- but for no reason that anyone could understand. Their marriage was happy, their health was good, and their finances were secure.

Ministering to the family that day, and to the entire congregation in the weeks that followed, I came to realize that I was not facing a “problem” that had any solution but a “difficulty” of staggering magnitude that required much deeper spiritual resources than I had gleaned in seminary.

Lesson No. 3: Professional success can dangerously inflate the ego -- and professional failure can dangerously deflate it -- unless vocational fidelity nourishes the soul. As theological educators, we must beware the trap of careerism and teach our students to do so too.

When I applied for tenure at SPU, I asked Stanley Hauerwas [the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University] for a letter of recommendation. Here’s one of his juicier lines: “In letters of this kind, we are often asked to compare the candidate with others in the field at similar stages in their careers. I confess not to like such comparisons, not because I think they are always without use but because I hate the idea of theologians having careers.”

But like it or not, we theologians do have careers, and we find it hard not to measure our worth by the same standards as other academics -- namely, by reference to our teaching excellence, our scholarly productivity and our service to school and guild. The wide array of courses I have had to teach has prevented me from attaining true expertise in any theological field, and my 17 years in academic administration and faculty governance have given me precious little time for sustained research and writing. So when I look back over my life, I sometimes worry that I will retire without having lived up to my potential, producing a coherent body of work or earning a reputation in the guild.

Now, I do realize that this self-derogatory worm eating is ridiculous. I’ve had my fair share of professional accolades and accomplishments, and I know that looking for self-validation by comparing oneself with others is a fool’s game. But what finally taught me to temper my lust for professional success and clarified my true calling was a poignant remark made by one of my students.

One fall, two students stopped by to pick up their final exams. I asked them about their summers and heard about their jobs and family vacations. Then I asked them, “And how is it with your souls?”

After they answered, one student turned the question to me. I was a bit taken aback, but also deeply touched. So I told them that I had had a productive summer and that a colleague and I had recently turned in the manuscript of a book we had co-authored. This was a big deal for me, I said, partly because this book had been in the works for a long time, and partly because I haven’t written as many books and articles as I thought I would write.

“My life took a direction different from what I expected,” I told them. “I do more counseling with students and academic administration, and less research and writing. And although I enjoy that work, I sometimes feel ashamed of myself when my learned colleagues show off their weighty tomes.” They were quiet for a moment. Then my student said, “But Dr. Steele, we are your tomes.”

These were some of the most healing words anyone has ever spoken to me.

Their power comes from my student’s attesting to the significance of our relationship as teacher and student, as brother and sister in Christ. And such relationships are sorely needed in higher education today, particularly in the theological academy.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Surely we do not need … letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:1b-3 NRSV). My student was saying something of the same sort.

What are the usual markers of professional excellence? Diplomas and plaques on the wall. Teaching awards. Acceptance letters by editors. Sabbatical approvals. Load releases. Successful grant applications. Appointments to endowed chairs. I am by no means discounting the value of such things or denying that I myself have taken satisfaction in them when they have come my way. But not one of them has brought tears to my eyes like being told by a bright young student that she regarded herself as my “tome.”

By way of concluding this imaginary showdown with my younger self, let me recall General Loewenhielm’s predicament -- that the world was “not a moral, but a mystic, concern.” This is my predicament, too, and the three lessons I have shared with you are but different aspects of my shifting perspective.

I’m prone to look at the church from a moral point of view, and when I do, I see only the cracks in the pot. But when I look at it from a mystic point of view, I see the glowing treasure within. I’m apt to view society moralistically, and when I do, all I can see is a welter of problems demanding solution. But when I look at it mystically, I see people caught in tragic, insoluble difficulties, people crying out for divine redemption and human compassion. I’m naturally inclined to evaluate my own professional career according to the moralizing calculus of success and failure, and when I do, I feel ashamed by the gap between my ambitions and my accomplishments. But when I contemplate my career theocentrically, as a matter of God’s work on me, in me and even through me, I am filled with joy and gratitude over the many lives I have been privileged to touch and that have touched my own.

I commend this shift of perspective to your consideration, too, and I firmly believe that seminary students of the rising generation will be blessed to study with those of us who make it.

Dr. Deborah H. Gin, the director of research and faculty development at The Association of Theological Schools, contributed to this text.