Some ideas never go away. They just circle around and attack from a new direction. One of those is the idea that theology is only for the specialists, the academics, those privileged few who have enough leisure time that they can sit around drinking coffee all day arguing about things that don’t really matter. Everyone else is too busy doing the real work of ministry to bother with such arcane issues. Focused on the pressing realities of everyday life, they don’t have time to hide behind a book.
On this view, ministry is a little like surgery. There’s a person dying on the table, and you have to get to work quickly if you’re going to save a life. Are you really going to go out for coffee with your surgeon friends and discuss the philosophical intricacies of various models of medical practice while that person’s life bleeds out? Of course not. That’s what you do during your leisure time, if you ever get any. Right now, real work demands your attention.
According to Karl Barth, that’s a disastrous way of thinking. When Christians view ministry and theology like this, they make the mistake of thinking that any Christian can live “untheologically” as they focus on more urgent tasks. For Barth nothing is more urgent that the task of theology. Not because theology is more important than ministry, but because ministry needs theology to remain faithful. Every important task of the church requires theological reflection if we are to make sure that we are doing it well–i.e. centered on Christ and not on some other set of motivations, principles, or ideals.
On this view, ministry is still like surgery. People are dying all around, and we have to act swiftly and decisively to save lives. But, as Christians, how, why, and most importantly, for whom we act matters. And those are theological questions that require careful reflection.
Here is Barth in his own words:
“How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretext, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life….Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living ‘quite untheologically’ for the demands of the day (‘love’)….Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find to time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any mmore urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency.” (CD I/1, 76-77)