God-Talk & the Good Place: How Not to be a Theology Nerd
I am a theology nerd. There is no avoiding it. The whole project of Awkward Asian Theologian depends on being a theology nerd. However, I am trying to be a different theology nerd, a theology nerd that is human. What do I mean?
Here I would like to recommend the book entitled The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, written in the 1920s by the Dominican friar and intellectual, Antonin Gilbert Sertillanges. While a little dated in some parts it remains a highly practical and pertinent book in many areas for those who see the intellectual life as the fulfillment of one’s vocation.
Sertillanges seems very aware of a brand of intellectual who is so good at documenting bodies of knowledge and stall when it comes to getting it out of one’s head and living it out in one’s embodies life.
Consider, for instance, Chidi Anagonye in the Netflix show, The Good Place. Chidi is a brilliant ethics professor. He teaches the main protagonist and all round misfit, Eleanor Shellstrop, various forms of ethical reasoning in order to make her worthy of living in the Good Place.
The trouble is that ethics is as much a lived art as it is an intellectual formula. This is what forms the core of Chidi’s drama in the series, for Chidi struggles to actually decide on things, especially when it comes to things that effect other people. His face puts on display his mental poring over every conceivable ethical formula as he tries to decide on what to do in any given situation.
Only the act of deciding never comes. The academic rule, rather than becoming an aid in living, ended up becoming an obstacle.
There are other kinds of Chidis out there, but what unites these Chidis is the obsession with getting the academic rules right - methodology, metaphysics, versions of metaphysicians - before any consideration of a case study even begins. Important though they may be, Sertillanges also seems aware of the capacity for this obsession with what constitutes right thought to, oddly, impair the capacity to think. In one part of the Intellectual Life, Sertillanges writes:
Flee those minds that can never rise above their academic rules, that are the salves of their work instead of doing it in the fulness of light. It is a mark of inferiority plainly in contradiction with an intellectual vocation to allow oneself to be tied down by narrow prescriptions and to have ones mind benumbed into bookish forms. Helots or eternal children: such are those pretended workers who are out of their element in any higher region…and who would like to reduce others to their narrow elementary school orthodoxy.
Apart from the Chidis, there are also the “Janets”. I use the quotation marks because in the show, Janet actually knows everything. What I refer to when I say “Janet” are those who having isolated their area of inquiry and become an expert in it, feel they have also become experts in areas outside their field. Sertillanges seems to have come across a “Janet” or two back in the 1920s when he writes about:
Those who think that they understand everything prove by that alone that they have grasped nothing…the man of petty mind imagines that he possesses the cosmos and what it contains; carrying a pail in his hand with a gallon of shimmering water he says “Look, I have got hold of the ocean and the stars”.
So, while I want to be a theology nerd in the course of unfolding this project, I also want to be your theology nerd, which means trying to avoid the extremes of becoming a Chidi on the one hand, and a “Janet” on the other. That said, I can never be a pre-theoretical Chidi that just decides without a frame of reference, nor can I be a real Janet. I can only be your theology nerd, nudging his way through life like everyone else, whilst offering a suggestion or two from the wisdom that he found on his shelf.