Theology vs. Theology: Bookshelves and Icons

For the past two mornings, as I’ve tried to start my day sitting in silence and contemplation in my study, I’ve noticed a disturbing contrast.  To my left, on the desk, are icons and a candle.  To my right are bookshelves.  On the left, I see an image of Christ on the cross, an image Mary holding Jesus, and an image of St. Michael the Archangel.  They’re illumined by a small candle.  The scene invites prayer and reflection. And in the stillness of the early morning, I feel like I should be able to focus prayerfully.

But my eyes are drawn instead toward the books.  The shelves overflow with more books than I have time to read.  I look at them an instantly start thinking of the books I want to read or should read or need to re-read.  Most of these books are “theological” in one sense or another.  They’re books that I read in seminary, or that are relevant to my work as a pastor and church-planter.  They’re books that should cultivate the knowledge of God.  But on these mornings they’ve served instead as a distraction from the even more immediate knowledge of God to be gained through prayer. This troubles me.

The overflowing, disordered bookshelves on one side of the room are an icon of the modern academic approach to theology.  My bookshelves and the academy say that if you are a theologian, you publish books which systematically expound upon doctrines and dogmas.  I look at the bookshelves and become anxious, thinking of all the books I want to read or feel I should read.  There is a never-ending buffet of literature out there to be consumed.  As Ecclesiastes says, “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (12:12b).  These bookshelves cultivate tiredness more than prayer.

The icons on the other side of the room are, well, icons – windows to another reality and a different kind of theology. I look at them and sense a call to stillness, the sort of stillness where God can speak for Himself.  Experience of the never-ending reality of God inspires awe and worship, not anxiety.  Books still certainly have a place in this kind of theology, but they’re different and are read differently, more slowly.  The point isn’t the making or reading of many books. The point is growth into the likeness of Christ, which is infinitely more valuable.  These books and icons and candles echo the words of Evagrios the Solitary, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly you are a theologian.”   My eyes are still naturally drawn toward the bookshelves, but I want the latter kind of theology, prayer.

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