Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

January 8, 2015

One of the bittersweet tasks of a seminary professor is to furnish students with spiritual insights and theological distinctions whose significance they will not understand until long after they have graduated. For example, one of my own favorite seminary professors, Dr. Paul L. Holmer, used to emphasize the difference between the language of faith and the language about faith. The language of faith, he argued, is the language believers naturally use to express or cultivate their relationship to God or to help others cultivate a relationship to God. The language of faith, also known as “first-order discourse,” includes prayers, hymns, sermons, testimonies and exhortations. In contrast, the language about faith – or “second-order discourse” – is the language that scholars use either to explain and perhaps defend their own religious beliefs and practices (systematic theology) or to describe the religious beliefs and practices of other people (comparative religion).

In practice, religious speakers will often blend these two kinds of discourse. For example, an inspiring Sunday sermon might include elements of instruction, and an erudite theology lecture might move a class to deeper devotion or braver action. So there is no sharp line of demarcation between the of-mode and the about-mode of religious language. But the distinction is important, as any congregation which is repeatedly lectured to, or any seminary class that gets more edification than education from its professor, will grumpily attest.

I heard Dr. Holmer draw this distinction several times, but somehow its significance didn’t sink in until my second year in the parish ministry. I was serving two small, rural churches in southern Wisconsin, and I wanted to make that year’s celebration of the Advent season something special. So I worked out a series of sermons, each based on a suitable theme. And I chose “hope” as the theme of the second week of my grand campaign.

I got up early the day before I was to deliver my sermon, marched into my office, pulled all the books about hope off the shelves, and stacked them neatly on my desk – Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, William Lynch’s Images of Hope, Gabriel Marcel’s Homo Viator, and several others. I intended to wade through these volumes in a few hours and produce my own synthesis – a well-researched, carefully organized little dissertation on the topic. I was operating entirely in the about-mode, completely oblivious to the repeated warnings of my beloved professor. Then the phone rang.

It was the police dispatcher for the town where one of my churches was located. She informed me that Arnold Fisher, a member of my congregation had just been found dead by his wife, Iris, in the woodshed behind their house, and asked me to come to the scene. I ran to my car and drove the four miles between my parsonage and their home, wondering what on earth could have happened.

The situation was unimaginably horrible. Arnold woke up early that morning, carefully placed his eyeglasses and dentures on the kitchen counter, walked out to the shed, and blew his brains out with a .12-gauge shotgun. Iris got up some time later, was puzzled to find that her husband apparently left the house without his false teeth and spectacles, saw that the car was still in the driveway, looked high and low around the property, and eventually found his body. Arnold’s suicide was a complete mystery. He and Iris were both healthy. Their marriage was strong. He had a good job in the service department of the local Chevrolet dealership. Their two kids were also both happily married, had healthy kids of their own, and lived nearby. But something had apparently “snapped” in Arnold’s mind. Without any warning and without leaving a suicide note, he violently ended his life – leaving his family in a state of devastated bewilderment. I stayed at the house for several hours, offering what care and consolation I could. But eventually I had to leave, for I still had a sermon to write for the next morning.

When I got home, I walked wearily into my study, went straight to my desk, picked up the stack of sermon resources I had assembled and carefully put them, one by one, back in their places on the shelf. Quite aside from the fact that I had no time left to consult them, I knew instinctively that the stunned congregation who would be assembling the next morning would not care in the least what I might say about hope. What they would need was a word of hope in a dark time. And I wasn’t going to find that in the pages of Moltmann, Lynch or Marcel. I was going to find it, if at all, in the depths of my own heart.

The point of this reflection is not to deny or downplay the importance of second-order discourse in theological education. Nor is it to belittle the role of careful scholarship and thoughtful reflection in the preparation of sermons and in the day to day work of ministry. Biblical commentaries, dogmatic treatises, social-scientific analyses and professional training manuals all have their place. But spiritual wisdom consists in knowing when to use these resources – and when to put them away. It is perilously easy to use our scholarship as a way to keep ourselves at a safe distance from the severe judgments and tender mercies of God, and from the sins and sorrows of our fellow human beings. The native language of faith is direct address, “I-Thou” conversation, first-order discourse – the language of adoration and confession, of thanksgiving and supplication, of proclamation and testimony.

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