Pope Francis addressed recently an ever-present challenge for local church leaders – the disconnect between the academy (seminaries, religion departments, divinity schools) and the local church.
The theme of a papal address at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina was “church doctrine must never be isolated from a practical pastoral context.”
“Not infrequently an opposition between theology and pastoral ministry emerges, as if they were two opposite, separate realities that had nothing to do with each other,” the pope asserted.
“The questions our people pose, their anguish, their quarrels, their dreams, their struggles, their concerns” must be an essential aspect of theological reflection, he added later.
In leading an introduction to theology study at a local church several years ago, I recognized that doctrinal concepts freely and enthusiastically discussed in the classroom were perceived as confusing, irrelevant, even troubling to some congregants.
I addressed this issue in an earlier EthicsDaily.com column, citing Reinhold Niebuhr’s emphasis on the line between “pedagogical caution” and dishonesty, offering suggestions for navigating the divide.
To some extent I “put the cart before the horse” by suggesting ways to communicate new concepts while failing to address the necessity of making theology and doctrine relevant, applicable to everyday life.
Adapting Matthew 16:26, the essential question for both theologians and ministers is: “What does it profit a Christian to understand orthodoxy fully and accurately, yet not be taught its relevance to daily life?”
Baptist historian Walter Rauschenbusch raised and sought to address this issue in “A Theology for the Social Gospel” in 1917.
“Whoever wants to hold audiences of working people must establish some connection between religion and their social feelings and experiences,” Rauschenbusch wrote.
He later added, “Audiences who are estranged from the church and who would listen to theological terminology with frank scorn, will listen with absorbed interest to religious thought when it is linked with their own social problems.”
“Theology ought not to pare down its thought to the rudimentary ideas of untrained people. But every influence which compels it to simplify its terms and to deal with actual life is a blessing to theology,” Rauschenbusch emphasized.
He wrote these words while serving as a seminary professor, but they were the fruit of 11 years of pastoral ministry.
I’ve read most of Rauschenbusch’s published works at least once. I appreciate his emphasis on both personal piety and social justice, while recognizing flaws in his sometimes overly optimistic views of human progress and his emphasis on “Christianizing the Social Order.”
Whatever one’s perspectives on specifics within Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel,” his published works offer a needed reminder and adaptable model for ensuring that weekly sermons, Bible studies and prayers do not set forth abstract doctrines or clichÃ©d platitudes disconnected from and unhelpful to congregants’ daily lives.
His weekly preaching is exemplified in “Dare We Be Christians?” (1914). This published sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 offers one of the best interpretations and applications of a text read so often at weddings that we’ve forgotten that its call to love is broader than sentimental emotions shared between spouses.
In “The Social Principles of Jesus” (1916), a 12-week Bible study, Rauschenbusch set forth daily Scripture readings with brief commentary and questions for reflection. Ministers can find here a model to connect concretely biblical teachings and Christian doctrine to daily life.
General prayers for morning and evening, prayers addressed to social groups, and prayers engaging social issues are available in “Prayers of the Social Awakening” (1910).
These illustrate how public prayers can shift from obligatory elements of weekly services into substantive petitions connecting biblical teachings to daily life.
The New Testament reveals that Christian faith grew not because its philosophical framework was more refined or sophisticated than other systems of thoughts (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), but because its intellectual framework was translated into tangible action.
The concept of “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28), for example, was compelling not because it was a refined doctrine set forth with eloquent prose, but because it was lived out in tangible ways.
The assertion that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6) initially didn’t convince folks to become Christians because of apologetic arguments set forth in intellectual treatises.
Rather, it was compelling because ordinary folks align their lives with the way Jesus modeled the truth he taught, the life he lived.
Uniting Christian teaching with Christian living is what made (and makes) the faith attractive and relevant.
“The great religious thinkers who created theology,” Rauschenbusch reminded us, “were always leaders who were shaping ideas to meet actual needs.”
“People and their specific conflicts, their peripheries, are not optional, but rather necessary for a better understanding of faith,” Pope Francis emphasized. “Therefore, it is important to ask whom we are thinking of when we engage in theology.”
To ensure a vibrant Christian witness, academic theologians and congregational ministers must continually work together to bridge the gap between doctrine and daily life.
Both Rauschenbusch and Pope Francis are helpful guides.