Thinking back on the events of the past week, I’m thankful that I was able to attend the Exegetical Symposium at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’s the first time in about five years or so that I’ve been able to get away to attend what is really two symposia—an exegetical symposium followed by a systematic symposium—offered over the course of four days. Although, having now returned, I remembered three reasons why I don’t make more of an effort to attend.
The first is that I never really feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. I mean that in a good way. There’s so much offered across the expanse of the two-part event. But as it would go, I can usually only afford to get away for a day or two. This time around, my inability to stay for the whole thing stung a little more than in the past because one of my favorite professors, Rev. Dr. David Scaer, invited me (and Bishop Hardy) to sit beside him at the event’s concluding banquet. Unfortunately, I was already back in Hartland, Michigan, when I received the invitation. Still, what I did get to experience while I was there was incredibly enriching. I thoroughly appreciated the papers given by the professors who beamed everything I remember appreciating about them while a student.
The second reason is as I just hinted. When I’m on campus, I miss the tutelage of insightful professors, and the collegiality of fellow seminarians, many of whom would become brothers in the trenches of a warfare that unfolded in ways few of us expected. When I see these friends again, it is a homecoming of sorts.
I’ll explain the third reason this way.
I learned something rather important about myself within the past ten days, some of those days spent traveling to and from events in Vermont, and the others, as I already mentioned, spent at the Symposium. Well, maybe a little more accurately, I didn’t necessarily discover something new about myself, but rather, I found myself finally willing to admit something I already suspected may be true.
Okay, maybe I’m not anti-social in the clinical sense. Instead, perhaps the devout craving for solitude that almost always washes over me in a crowd is, at a minimum, suggesting I’m far more introverted than I ever truly realized.
I took a moment to look up the typical behavioral patterns of introverts, and for the most part, it seems I fit the bill. I prefer quiet in order to concentrate, which means I’m more than comfortable being alone. I’m not a fan of group work, but much prefer to do things myself. I’m often exhausted after being in a crowd, which explains why I’m in desperate need of a nap after Sunday morning’s usual activities. I dig into and use my imagination more so than my intellect both to solve problems and to relieve stress. Finally, I prefer to write rather than speak. But, having claimed all these individualities, I would not say I lack confidence in a crowd. I can’t remember a time when I was afraid to assume the pulpit. I can’t recall ever being afraid to take the lead in a public conversation when asked to do so. I’m also pretty sure I use more than just my imagination to unpack any given topic at hand. Still, the truth is, in these situations, I’m most comfortable settling in and sitting quietly while someone else dominates the conversation.
I say these things more so in relation to the Symposium, which, again, was a series of events infused with the kind of brilliance God doles out to a select few among us, with one of the Lord’s divine goals being that those wellsprings of information would shine the bright beams of their wisdom upon the rest of us. And yet, in between the Symposium’s scheduled speakers and the papers they presented, I also experienced coffee and conversation on occasion with various fellows whose only apparent goal was to, no matter the audience, prove their intellectual prowess to all within earshot.
Now, I don’t want to complain too much about this, mainly because if there was ever a time and place for vibrantly deep and tangential theological thought leading to discussion, it’s at such a Symposium. Still, you know the kind of person I’m talking about.
It’s easy to tell when someone is intelligent. It’s even easier to tell when someone wants you to think they are intelligent. This is one aspect of such contexts that must be endured rather than enjoyed, namely, the high probability of being cornered by someone you may or may not know intent on proving his cleverness. In my opinion, pocket flasks were made for such moments.
For the record, no, I don’t carry a flask. Although, I do own two.
I’ll add it’s also highly probable that what’s being peacocked in those moments seems, more often than not, to be of very little value to the Church. When that’s true, I may look like I’m listening, but in reality, I’m praying that God would smile on me by rewinding the clock to give back to me the hour I just wasted. And considering the vigor with which some of these conversations unfold, I almost feel guilty for not caring. An example of this involved listening to someone insist that Luther, influenced by Saint Jerome, considered belief in Semper Virgo (the perpetual virginity of Mary) as fundamental to salvation. Firstly, let me take a quick sip. Secondly, just know that mentally I begin to wander off into the weeds when the foundation of any theological argument appears to lessen the import of the Bible’s perspective, choosing to rest solely on non-biblical sources, instead. Thirdly, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth—the fact that the Son of God was born of the “clauso utero” (closed womb) of a virgin—is fundamental to the Christian Faith. It matters in more ways than we’ll ever be able to comprehend in this life. But Semper Virgo is not fundamental. And while Luther may have believed Mary was forever a virgin, he never imposed it on salvation’s equation. A Christian can believe Mary was forever a virgin if he or she wants to. Or not. It doesn’t matter. And our own Lutheran dogmaticians have long affirmed this, saying things like, “If the Christology of a theologian is orthodox in all other respects, he is not to be regarded as a heretic for holding that Mary bore other children in the natural manner after she had given birth to the Son of God” (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Volume II, p. 308). This is a reasonable analysis, especially since biblical texts such as John 2:12, Matthew 1:25, Matthew 12:46, and Matthew 13:55-56 appear to suggest by their contexts something other than Semper Virgo. But again, because the Greek words used in these texts (ἀδελφοὶ, most often used of male siblings; and ἀδελφαὶ, typically used for female siblings) have been used in other contexts to describe fellow believers, neighbors, and countrymen, the exegesis is open and inconclusive, giving folks the freedom to take whichever position they prefer. Personally, I think the texts and their contexts aren’t that complicated. But that’s just me.
Taking another quick sip, although this time from the practical opinion of a husband, I’m guessing the only person Semper Virgo would have really mattered to was Mary’s spouse, Joseph. If Semper Virgo is truly a thing, then we should be spending more time heralding the durability of the poor guy, and we should probably at least consider that there’s more to the reason he’s one of the select few the Bible grants the descriptor of “righteous” (Matthew 1:19). I’m guessing it was not only because he had a merciful heart, but because he endured never having the opportunity to enjoy the God-given delight granted to marriage for making babies. Even more, maybe Semper Virgo actually is true, and another of its proofs is Joseph’s disappearance early on in the Gospel narratives. His absence is a hint to his death at an early age. I can imagine a man married to a woman with a strict “hands off” policy dying well before his time.
In a prattling world of nonsensical chatter—even as it meets with theological things—I sometimes wish more people could discover and embrace the superpowers of their inner introvert, because for as counter-intuitive to its clinical definition as it might seem, introversion is one particular personality type naturally equipped for listening, observing, and then learning.
I think that may be where this morning’s meandering is finally carrying me.
When it comes to basic conversation, taking turns at listening is not only helpful, it’s also polite. A person who monopolizes the conversation is rude. The rude behavior blossoms into offensiveness when the monopoly is one of bloviating grandeur that becomes the imparting of wisdom no one really cares to receive. It’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said, “The louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” On the other hand, both contributing and listening—namely, listening, and the subsequent learning that occurs naturally from it—are key aspects of the Christian faith. The Bible is not silent in this regard (Proverbs 19:20; Romans 10:17; Ecclesiastes 5:1-3; and the like). Even the Lord Himself regularly emphasized listening and learning as crucial to the salvific exchange (Matthew 11:15). This is true not only because the message of the Gospel to be heard and learned is God’s chosen power source for salvation (Romans 1:16), but because the critical aspects of listening and learning flank what I already mentioned: observing. Together, the listening and learning of faith become the fabled sixth sense that calibrates the other five senses for rightly engaging with the world around us.
When we listen and learn through the lens of the Gospel for faith, we see things as they really are.
Having said all this, I suppose I’ll end by sharing a portion of something from Luther’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535) that my friend, Terry E. Hoese, posted on Facebook last week. At its core, I think it speaks to what I’ve shared here. By the way, I was blessed to see Terry at the Symposium, and was able to spend time in a wonderful conversation with him!
“Never should we think that we are so holy, so well instructed, and confident that we have learned it all. Because the more confident we are, just as much, we can err and fall, placing ourselves and others at great danger and risk” (p. 92).
Finally, I don’t know if any of this was helpful to you or not. Whether it was or wasn’t, I hope I didn’t sound too negative. I appreciated my time at the Symposium. As I said, I was enriched, and this is because there’s always so much to be mined from everything it offers—even by way of the sometimes maddening side-conversations. But as I said, no matter if a conversation is enjoyable or annoying, every interaction will be for a Christian a time of learning. They’re all opportunities for clarity. Through the lens of the Gospel for faith, all human dealings are opportunities for observing and then navigating this world in faithfulness to Christ. Even better, they’re times for communicating that same Gospel, that is, if you can get a word in edgewise.