Benedictine Oblates treasure a commitment to community, even as the form community takes for us varies a great deal, depending on our circumstances. In the past months I’ve become aware of my own vision for an ideal community for theologians. It’s an ideal that will never become a reality, but it settles me out to have recognized what I would like, even if it does not exist.
When I think about the kind of school at which I’d like to work, it’s one that has some qualities of a monastery for those who seek lifelong theological practice. There is no tenure; no one has to worry about losing their job except in cases of major ethical violations. Everyone is expected to contribute two hours of physical or administrative labor every day, to help sustain the community as a whole. (I’ve always wished that some of my paid job could involve two hours of physical labor a day.) There is time for communal prayer and spiritual formation, and time for leisure and rest.
This imaginary school is graduate level, but those who have the facility to enter the community may participate for their whole lives if they like. There are classes only on subjects which someone wants to teach and for which a handful or more of students want to participate. There are no grades, only an expectation that everyone will have at least a few people who will read and respond to their work in small group settings. Those who wanted to study for a short time, or just attend a public lecture, could do so. Academic presses would have a peer-review process (and good editing), and would publish books on demand based on their quality rather than on profit margins. Footnotes would be welcomed; books would not all have to be written for a popular audience. Theological depth and intricacy of thought could be nurtured.
This ideal school is also interreligious, especially when the surrounding region has lived religious communities of various sorts (be they old or newly emerging). Theologians who want to do comparative work can meet regularly with members of other religious traditions. The same holds true for diversity internal to a given religion. There would be a space for Catholic, Orthodox, and sundry Protestant Christians. Among the last, those with views of scripture as inerrant could meet with others who shared their view of scripture, and those with more traditionally complex views of scriptural authority (mediated through ecclesial traditions and interpretations)—they too could meet together (and meet with their theological opponents too, if so drawn). Each community would have building space in which to meet for prayer, worship, or other ritual life.
There is so much presupposed for such a community to exist. Funding would have to be secured. This in turn presupposes that people more broadly could survive easily without belonging to such a community — with access to food, meaningful work, and health care. In other words, the stability of a theological institution would be part of a wider stable socio-economic network in which work, security of survival, and leisure are available to everyone.
There will likely never be such a school, nor such a society. Monasteries functioned somewhat like such a school during the collapse of the Roman Empire and through the birth and survival of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as through the Byzantine Empire and into the centuries of Muslim imperial rule, when Baghdad may have been a city with something like what I envision by way of opportunity for interreligious dialogue.
Despite its real-world impossibility, though, I’m comforted by this vision of an ideal theological school, for two reasons, First, when I think about whether to apply for one of the few jobs that might open up somewhere, I’m reminded that another position may not be so radically different from the one I currently have. Why uproot unless the grass really is greener somewhere else? It may be, but how much? Second, by being reminded of a sustaining vision of what I’d like to see, I feel more patient with the messiness and fragility of the actual institutions (ecclesial and university) to which I belong. I can do what I can to foster elements of this larger vision. In Sue Flansburg’s words, I can “keep alert for possibilities.”
The relationship of an ideal theological community to an actual university today is rather like the relationship of the Kingdom of God to actual churches. We participate in Christian life out of a sense of vision that we express in art, music, ritual, words, actions towards social justice, even as we know that the fullness of God’s realm is still to come into being.
When you think about the communities to which you belong, or would like to belong, what ideal form of them do you imagine?